The Creation Mandate: Our responsibility and our bridge

Photo by Serhat Beyazkaya on Unsplash

For once, Christians and non-Christians can make common cause together for the good of everyone. In today’s polarized society, when we have such an opportunity, we must make the most of it to build bridges of understanding between our communities.

God has an exciting trajectory for humanity that leads from a world populated by two people with nothing of human design in it to a highly populated society designed and built by humans. Jews and Christians know this trajectory as the Creation Mandate, which was given to all humanity in Genesis 1:26-28. Everyone else is on the same trajectory but thinks of it as simply human progress. Either way, all well-intentioned people have the same objective: to build a good world that will sustain and support a thriving humanity. This shared goal gives Christians a great way to build bridges into all other communities.

However, it may be that some Christians are not making the most of this opportunity to reach out to our neighbours because the Creation Mandate is often sidelined in favour of the Great Commission. We could all benefit from a fresh review of the Creation Mandate and our response to it because the mandate is vitally important to God and his plan for both creation and humanity.

The Creation Mandate

I find it remarkable, but in line with God’s generous character, that he gave humanity the responsibility of co-creating the world that will support our growing population. In giving the Creation Mandate, God charged Adam and Eve (and through them, all humanity) to subdue the earth and to rule over all living creatures.

Subdue

Since Genesis 1 is all about how God created order out of chaos, the best of the different meanings of subdue in this context is “to control for the purpose of establishing order.” Today, we call this creation care.

Genesis 2:15 helps us understand how to care for creation as God’s stewards in a way that pleases him: “Then the Lord God took the man and put him into the Garden of Eden to cultivate it and keep it.” The crucial words are cultivate and keep. Here’s a good explanation of what God wanted Adam to do:

[Cultivate] can be translated as work, nurture, sustain, and husband; [keep] means to safeguard, preserve, care for, and protect. These are active verbs that convey God’s intention that human beings both develop and cherish the world in ways that meet human needs and bring glory and honor to him. . . . Human beings are, by divine intent and their very nature, world-makers.1

God expects us to bring order to the natural world and then cultivate and care for it so that it continues to provide sustenance and enjoyment to humanity. Without idolizing creation, we are to cherish it as the treasure it is.

Rule

The best of the available meanings of rule in the context of Genesis 1 is “to have charge of.”  We have charge over all living things, and the way we rule must align with the way God rules. That means we must rule with the goal of ‘justice‘ because God created humanity in a condition of justice (shalom), where each person had his or her due share of God’s creation. And it means our rule must be characterized the same way as Psalm 145 characterizes God’s rule. He rules by wisdom, power, goodness, grace, compassion, faithfulness, generosity, provision, protection, justice, and love.

Our responsibility

Since the Creation Mandate was given before the fall and has never been rescinded, it continues to apply to everyone, Christian and non-Christian alike. Theologian N. T. Wright is careful to distinguish between the Creation Mandate to build our world and God’s work of building his kingdom, and he makes it clear that fulfilling the Creation Mandate is not optional:  

God builds God’s kingdom. But God ordered his world in such a way that his own work within that world takes place not least through the human beings who reflect his image. . . . He has enlisted us to act as his stewards in the project of creation. . . . Through the work of Jesus and the power of the Spirit, he equips humans to help. . . . The objection about us trying to build God’s kingdom by our own efforts, though it seems humble and pious, can actually be a way of hiding from responsibility, of keeping one’s head well down when the boss is looking for volunteers.2 

Another theologian makes the same point about the obligation of fulfilling the Creation Mandate. Doing so as God’s representative “is the basic purpose for which God created humanity. We are responsible to God to manage and develop and care for creation.”3

The necessity of the Creation Mandate

Continuing to build our world helps it provide for our growing needs. As the population increased beyond Adam and Eve, there was a need to construct social institutions to help us relate to one another and coordinate our activities. We needed economic systems for trade and investment so we could diversify and specialize our work so some people produce what we need for survival and others work in science, medicine, or the arts. We could also pool resources to do projects that no single individual could do. As populations became denser, we developed technology to provide more bountiful food supplies and to distribute food and goods across longer distances. We built an educational system to support discovery of new knowledge and to pass it on to others. Today we still need to learn how to use the world’s resources wisely, particularly for energy, and create ways to sustain life on an increasingly densely populated planet.

These are all issues that Christians ought to care about and be involved in, so we should not withdraw from politics, banking, the arts, or any of the other things that evangelicals have tended to shy away from. Christians need to be active in all aspects of world-making to fight against the effects of sin (including our own) and keep all human-designed systems working for the good of all humanity.

What Creation Care looks like

Not properly stewarding God’s physical creation has dire consequences, according to the authors of Caring for Creation (Mitch Hescox and Paul Douglas). They say that disregarding God’s instructions to tend and care for the earth results in the earth’s failure to provide the necessities for sustaining life. While I haven’t done my own research, they cite research showing, for example, that there is a strong link between petrochemicals and fossil fuel energy and conditions such as asthma, autism, ADHD, and allergies. Breast cancer has risen from a lifetime risk of 5% to 12.5% since the 1960s, and research is increasingly showing that plastics and chemicals that act like hormones in our bodies are the likely culprits.4 Environmental stewardship is crucial to our future! As Christians, we should be at the forefront of environmental activism.

Caring for Creation is an excellent book for anyone wondering about how real the environmental issues are or anyone wanting to start caring more for God’s creation. The authors provide plenty of research, some theological reflection, and ideas for what individuals and churches can do.

N. T. Wright describes a different aspect of creation care: adding beauty to our world:

Part of the role of the church in the past was – and could and should be again – to foster and sustain lives of beauty and aesthetic meaning at every level, from music making in the village pub to drama in the local primary school, from artists’ and photographers’ workshops to still-life painting classes, from symphony concerts . . . to driftwood sculptures. The church, because it is the family that believes in hope for new creation, should be the place in every town and village where new creativity bursts forth for the whole community, pointing to the hope that, like all beauty, always comes as a surprise.5

Beauty is not superfluous. It was important enough to God that he did not make a utilitarian world. He wasn’t concerned only with functionality. Because beauty is important to him, he demonstrated great creativity and artistry in creating a world that delights, amazes, and stimulates wonder. He gave us our senses to enjoy beauty. He gave us minds that can appreciate beauty. If beauty is important to God, it should be important to us too.

Creation care is about much more than environmental stewardship; it is about caring for the complete environment in which humans exist — social, intellectual, emotional, and so on.

What Justice looks like

Here’s one vision for what ruling with justice looks like:

Part of the task of the church must be to take up that sense of injustice, to bring it to speech, to help people articulate it and, when they are ready to do so, to turn it into prayer. And the task then continues with the church’s work with the whole local community, to foster programs for better housing, schools, and community facilities, to encourage new job opportunities, to campaign and cajole and work with local government and councils, and, in short, to foster hope at any and every level.6

Greg Paul’s book Resurrecting Religion: Finding Our Way Back to the Good News puts a human face to the suffering caused by injustices right here in Canada. The book is challenging because readers will come to realize that we can’t ignore our role, whether active or passive, in sustaining these injustices that are part of our own society. Paul writes:

Imagine if the church in this world, and the individuals who make it up, actually looked and acted like Jesus. Instead of spending most of our time and resources on a razzle-dazzle Sunday morning service, together we’d heal the sick, feed the hungry, embrace the unwelcome, set prisoners free, restore the dignity of people who have been humiliated, flip the tables of oppressive economics, offer forgiveness instead of seeking vengeance, sacrifice rather than protect ourselves, and much, much more. We’d vote for governments that promised to do those things . . . we’d be content with having enough, we’d share our excess with those who don’t have enough. We’d do all this as well as announcing the Good News of salvation for the individual soul — in fact, we’d do all this as a means of announcing it. Because that is what Jesus did.7

Ensuring all humanity experiences God’s justice (shalom) is the basic rationale for all compassion ministry.

We can’t go back

Because some people have romantic ideas about returning the world to what they consider is some earlier idyllic time when everything seemed to be just right, it must be noted that God’s trajectory does not include a return to the past. The trajectory is not a circle, but a line that takes human history in only one direction: from God’s creative work in the past to God’s ideal future for humanity.

And we should also watch out for another error: dualism. That happens when we think that a pure, pristine, 100% natural world is the goal. In that thinking, nature is good and human development (such as cities) is bad. But God’s ideal future for us includes nation states, economies, and political governance (see Revelation 21:24), and those structures will be the continuation of what we have built by fulfilling our responsibilities under the Creation Mandate.

This last point needs to be emphasized. The work we do today to create a better world has eternal consequences. Our work isn’t going to be undone by God at the end of time. Instead, God will perfect it! N. T. Wright has a great explanation of how what we do today will carry over into God’s ideal future:

The final coming together of heaven and earth is, of course, God’s supreme act of new creation. . . . He alone will make the “new heavens and new earth.”. . . But what we can and must do in the present, if we are obedient to the gospel, if we are following Jesus, and if we are indwelt, energized, and directed by the Spirit, is to build for the kingdom. . . . You are accomplishing something that will become in due course part of God’s new world. Every act of love, gratitude, and kindness; every work of art or music inspired by the love of God and delight in the beauty of his creation; every minute spent teaching a severely handicapped child to read or to walk; every act of care and nurture, of comfort and support, for one’s fellow human beings and for that matter one’s fellow nonhuman creatures; and of course every prayer, all Spirit-led teaching, every deed that spreads the gospel, builds up the church, embraces and embodies holiness rather than corruption, and makes the name of Jesus honored in the world – all of this will find its way, through the resurrecting power of God, into the new creation that God will one day make. That is the logic of the mission of God.8

Our goal is not to stay put at some comfortable place we find along the way, or to return to an earlier point, but to keep pressing on toward God’s ideal future.

Engaging with the Creation Mandate

As Christians, our knowledge of God and his ways will help us decide at each step along the trajectory what is good and what is not. These are matters that the church can and should address. Christians should be at the forefront of caring for and ruling over creation. While we certainly shouldn’t browbeat people with biblical verses to support this or that Christian view, we can use Scripture and theology to form a godly position and then because creation follows natural laws laid down by God, find good research to support our position and convince non-Christians of the goodness of it.

There are two reasons why Christians must engage in the Creation Mandate:

  1. It is our responsibility: If we leave the responsibility for God’s creation to only those who do not know God, we would be irresponsible stewards. We have perspectives that might not otherwise be heard. Although non-Christians can manage reasonably well using human wisdom founded on natural revelation and their God-given capacity for reasoning, they won’t have the benefit of the knowledge of God and his ways as Christians do. And we should be working beside them anyway. It would be to our shame if the non-Christian world took better care of God’s world than we did.
  2. It builds a bridge: Working on the Creation Mandate builds a bridge from the Christian community to all other communities because we both want the natural world to be in the very best condition for humanity to thrive. Doors may open for the Gospel message to be conveyed and accepted when we work together in common cause.

Download discussion guide

How churches can fulfill the Creation Mandate

The discussion guide attached to this post will help your church get started on identifying the role it could play in helping Christians fulfill the Creation Mandate. Here are some high-level ideas to prepare for that discussion:

  • Deliver a sermon series on the theme of justice throughout the Bible. A great resource for preaching about justice is Let Justice Roll Down by Bruce Birch. Alternatively, find a Bible study or write one for small group or personal study.
  • Teach the biblical principles that should guide how Christians should think about any of the issues in our society so they can do their own analysis and develop a position. How does God want us to think? What should our priorities and values be? What are the parameters of a good position?
  • Prepare your congregational members to be great stewards of the Creation Mandate by ensuring they have been transformed by Christ to rule with the characteristics of God’s rule as listed above. As N. T. Wright says, “If the gospel isn’t transforming you, how do you know that it will transform anyone else?”9

Key Thought: Christians must engage with the Creation Mandate as part of God’s plan for humanity.

“The books, Caring for Creation: The Evangelical Guide to Climate Change and a Healthy Environment and Resurrecting Religion have been provided courtesy of Graf-Martin Communications, Inc. Available now at your favourite bookseller.”

  1.  James Davison Hunter. To Change the World, p 3.
  2. N. T. Wright. Surprised By Hope. P 207.
  3. Bruce Waltke, Genesis: A Commentary. P 66.
  4. Caring for Creation: The Evangelical’s Guide to Climate Change and a Healthy Environment. pp 40-41.
  5. N. T. Wright. Surprised By Hope. P 231-32.
  6. N. T. Wright. Surprised by Hope. P 231.
  7. Greg Paul. Resurrecting Religion. P 76-77.
  8. N. T. Wright. Surprised By Hope. P 208.
  9. N. T. Wright. Surprised By Hope. P 270.
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