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A Theology (Not Ideology) of Creation Care

Dr. James Emery White | Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary | Monday, November 14, 2022

A Theology (Not Ideology) of Creation Care

We have been charged to care for God’s creation. To be stewards of all that God has made and entrusted to us. Since the Industrial Revolution, we have been able to do more care for creation than ever before, as well as more harm.

That harm has ramifications that border on the nightmarish, and no one is more affected than the poorest of the poor. No matter what you may think is behind it all – natural causes, human causes, or both – that creation is suffering in unprecedented ways is without dispute.

Extreme heat.
Drought.
Mudslides.
The rise of intense storms and hurricanes.
Melting of glaciers.
Rising animal extinctions.
Rising plant extinctions.
The freakish amount and scope of wildfires.

This should matter to any follower of Christ.

UNICEF just released a report that by 2050, virtually every child on the planet – more than 2 billion children – will experience frequent heat waves as part of their life. Pediatricians say that young children and infants are more susceptible to heat-related illnesses, in part because their bodies cannot regulate temperature as effectively as adults. Children also lose fluid more quickly and are at a greater risk of heat stroke because they lack the judgment and maturity needed to taper their physical exertion or know to rehydrate. Extreme heat is also known to trigger symptoms in people with asthma, which affects about 6 million children in the U.S. alone.

So why aren’t more Christians engaged?

It’s because we have approached creation care ideologically instead of theologically.

Politicization has invaded our thinking to such a degree that when it comes to environmental concerns and challenges, responsibilities and commitments, we think about our political moorings before we look to what the Bible actually says. Or more to the point, instead of what the Bible actually says. We carry our political views like they are religious views, and we often make those political views our true religion.

As Sandra Richter observes in her book Stewards of Eden,

“... in the United States, if you are an environmentalist, it is assumed that you are a Democrat.... If you are a Republican, it is assumed that you cannot also be pro-environment. In other words, somehow environmental advocacy has been pigeonholed into a particular political profile and has become guilty by association.” 

She then adds these words: “But of course, Christians are first the citizens of heaven, and therefore our alliances and our value systems are not defined by American politics.”

So how do we think Christianly about creation care? What would a beginning theology entail?

The first and most foundational thing to understand about creation is that it doesn’t belong to us. It isn’t ours to simply do with as we please. It belongs to God. As we read in the 24th psalm, “The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it. The world and all its people belong to him” (Psalm 24:1, NLT). You find that very same declaration made throughout Scripture (e.g., Psalm 50:10-11, Colossians 1:15-16).

Second, we have been charged to care for creation. The nature of that stewardship, as outlined in Genesis 1 and 2, is very clear: we are to reflect the image of God toward creation through governing and reigning, tending and watching over. This is dominion, not domination. The directive was truly creation care. As Dorothy Boorse writes in Loving the Least of These: Addressing a Changing Environment: “We don’t worship creation. We worship God by caring for creation.”

Third, this charge didn’t end with the Garden of Eden and the fall of humanity into sin and the world into brokenness. Just as God seeks to redeem us from our sin, and those of us who have been redeemed seek to share that redemptive work with others, God intends to redeem all of creation, and thus we are to continue to take our care of creation seriously. As Paul wrote,

“Against its will, all creation was subjected to God’s curse. But with eager hope, the creation looks forward to the day when it will join God’s children in glorious freedom from death and decay. For we know that all creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time.” (Romans 8:20-22, NLT)             

Finally, a theology of creation care extends that care in a holistic manner to the land and plants (Ex. 23:10-11; Lev. 25:4-5), both domestic and wild animals (Gen. 9:8-11, Ex. 23:12, Deut. 5:14-15, 22:6-7, 25:4), eco-systems (Job 39:5-8, Ps. 104:10-12, 16-18) and environment (Deut. 20:19-20). Many of the laws given to the people of Israel were fulfilled in Christ and not meant to be specifically applied today (e.g., dietary laws). But what is present in each and every one of the environmental directives is the heart of God in the matter. It was uniformly related to the care and ongoing sustainability of creation.

So here is the foundational theology behind creation care:

  1. Creation belongs to God.
  2. We have been charged, as Image bearers, to care for creation.
  3. Creation is included in God’s redemptive plan.
  4. That care involves responsible stewardship.

But theology is meant to be applied. Here’s how Wendell Berry, in his book What Are People For, made the application:

“The ecological teaching of the Bible is simply inescapable: God made the world because He wanted it made. He thinks the world is good, and He loves it. It is His world; He has never relinquished title to it. And He has never revoked the conditions, bearing on His gift to us of the use of it, that oblige us to take excellent care of it. If God loves the world, then how might any person of faith be excused for not loving it or justified in destroying it.”

Yes. 

And I pray to God that the people of God would begin applying it before it is too late.

James Emery White

Sources

Kelly Kasulis Cho, “‘Virtually Every Child’ to Face Frequent Heat Waves By 2050, UNICEF Says,” The Washington Post, October 26, 2022, read online.

Sandra L. Richter, Stewards of Eden: What Scripture Says About the Environment and Why It Matters (InterVarsity Press, 2020), p. 2.

“Loving the Least of These: Addressing a Changing Environment,” published by the National Association of Evangelicals, Revised Edition (2022), p. 16.

Wendell Berry, What Are People For? (New York: North Point, 1990), p. 98.

About the Author

James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and a former professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His latest book After “I Believe” is now available on Amazon or your favorite bookseller. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church & Culture blog, visit churchandculture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive, read the latest church and culture news from around the world, and listen to the Church & Culture Podcast. Follow Dr. White on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram at @JamesEmeryWhite.

James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and a former professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. 

His latest book, After “I Believe,” is now available on Amazon or your favorite bookseller. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church & Culture blog, visit churchandculture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive, read the latest church and culture news from around the world, and listen to the Church & Culture Podcast. 

Follow Dr. White on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram at @JamesEmeryWhite.