Not long ago I spoke at a conference of several thousand evangelical college students. Most were from Bible-believing churches like my own.
My message concerned the promise of a New Earth and the biblical principle of continuity. From Scripture, I pointed out that just as our old bodies will be destroyed, then made new in the resurrection, so the old earth will be destroyed, and then made into a New Earth.
I cited Genesis 1 concerning God’s original job description for human beings living on this planet. I’ll break right into the message here, quoting directly from the audio transcript, so you know exactly what I said (it’s important to the story):
"…and God saw that it was good. And then God said, 'Let us make man in our image, in our likeness; and let them rule over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth.'"
This was God’s purpose: that we rule the earth as His image-bearers to His glory; that we would care for the animals, and do the other things that we do in the development of culture.
So God created man in His own image, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number (not just the two of you; it’s going to be a world full of people). Fill the earth and subdue it.”
This word “subdue” is not a negative word. It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be concerned for the environment. And by the way, of all people, as stewards, don’t you think we ought to have reasonable concern for our environment and try to take care of it?
I hadn’t planned to ask that question, but I did. Then it happened. Suddenly somebody applauded.
Now, at conferences, if you ask a question to a crowd and there’s widespread agreement, often enthusiastic applause erupts as a way of saying “yes.” If there’s moderate agreement, there’s moderate applause. But even if relatively few agree, there’s an unspoken etiquette whereby some give token applause, if nothing else to rescue the lone clapper! But that day something remarkable happened. Nobody else clapped! Not a single person in an auditorium with over three thousand Christians. The solitary clapper suddenly stopped, as if to say “Oops…never mind.” (Ever had that feeling when you realize, in a crowd of people, you’re the only one laughing?)
As I continued speaking, I joked about the awkward moment, saying, “Wow! Someone started to applaud!” I was alluding to the fact that it was surprising that anyone would applaud a pro-environment statement at a conservative evangelical gathering. (By the way, I am thoroughly evangelical and in a number of political issues conservative.)
Now, trust me, it didn’t hurt my feelings that no one else applauded. Those attending this conference were very warm and responsive to my messages. No problem there.
But here’s my point: these people were serious Christians attending a Christ-exalting, Bible-believing and Bible-teaching conference. (A wonderful conference, one of the best I've ever been at.) Yet even the peer pressure exerted by that one individual clapping failed to elicit applause from so much as one other person. Why?
I think the answer is that the great majority of those present were not only theologically conservative, but socially and politically conservative. And concern for the environment is generally regarded as part of the liberal agenda. What sounds socially liberal sounds theologically liberal. And, understandably, biblical conservatives don’t want to sound liberal.
I’m morally/politically conservative on issues such as abortion, in which lives are at stake. But I am also concerned about the welfare of the environment God has entrusted to our care (in which, by the way, human lives are also at stake; consider, for instance, how many people die from contaminated water). I see absolutely no contradiction between the two positions. In fact, they are a perfect fit. How can you be prolife and not care about environmental conditions that either foster life or harm it?
I believe that even if concern for the environment makes us “sound liberal” to some, we should be willing to express it because God says we are the caretakers of His creation. That is our biblical job description, our divine calling from the beginning. It shouldn’t matter whether caring for the poor or caring for the environment is considered conservative or liberal. Who cares? We should seek to be biblical and Christ-centered, loving God and our neighbor, and not worrying about labels and who else does or doesn’t agree with us on a given issue.
I trust there were many young people in that audience concerned about caring for the environment. Many of them might have joined the applause had someone made the comment on their college campus. But I believe their conservative evangelical conditioning did not allow them freedom to affirm that conviction. Even though I made my comment about the environment based on Scripture, it did not seem safe or appropriate to join the applause.
Had I spoken in defense of the unborn, which I have on many occasions, if one person had applauded that day, I guarantee others would have followed (unlike the deafening silence you’d hear on most secular college campuses).
Let me just say it: care for the environment is not something that can be comfortably applauded in many Bible-believing church contexts. It is not a popular subject. Expressing concern about the environment makes many Christians around you think you are a tree-hugging wacko brainwashed by Al Gore.
I believe this needs to change. We need to be part of cultivating a new biblical peer pressure that is pro-creation. Mike Abbatte’s book Gardening Eden, release date March 17, can be part of that change. I wrote the foreword to this book. Mike is an evangelical Christian and the director of planning services for my home city of Gresham, Oregon (which was small when I grew up here, but is now the fourth largest city in the state).
You don't have to agree with everything in the book. For instance, I know many people are hotly divided on global warming and its causes. I myself have signed on to a statement encouraging people not to exaggerate or distort this issue as some do, for their own political ends. But there are plenty of pro-creation steps that can and should be taken regardless of what you think about global warming!
Since Mike's book is being released today, I thought this was a good time to address this issue. I'm going to follow with two other blogs this week related to stewarding God's world and appropriate environmental concerns. (See part two and part three.)