“What is the price of two sparrows—one copper coin? But not a single sparrow can fall to the ground without your Father knowing it. And the very hairs on your head are all numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are more valuable to God than a whole flock of sparrows.” ~Matthew 10:29-31, New Living Translation (NLT).
The topics of sustainability and environmental stewardship are appearing with increasing frequency in personal, national, and international discussions. As the intersections of government, politics, civil rights, and activism towards environmentalism grow more complex every day, I have noticed that Christians (with the exception of a few) do not appear to be leading the charge to protect the environment. Even worse, scholars, such as Lynn White Jr., claim that Christianity is “the most anthropocentric religion the world has ever seen” and one that permits humans to exploit nature under the guise of God’s will. As such a prevalent issue, what is a Christian perspective on climate change and the value of environmental stewardship? Consider the Bible verse above: it declares that the Creator of the universe, who Christians believe God is, knows when even one bird falls. Matthew 6:26 similarly describes how God feeds and cares for the sparrows as an example of how He will likewise feed and provide for His people. However, these verses also appear to state that humans are more valuable than sparrows to the God who created us both. When situations arise where animals and plants and other forms of life are competing with humans for natural resources, do humans have license to utilize these resources freely, even to the point of abuse? What is a Christian perspective on utilizing or caring for the Earth’s natural resources and beauty? As both a Christian and a long-time lover of nature, this article will seek to present why Christians should promote environmental stewardship.
To understand Christian attitudes towards environmental stewardship, it is first necessary to understand why some, such as White Jr., view Christianity as being in conflict with environmentalism. According to a 2015 study done by the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication, American evangelical Christians are less likely to believe that climate change is happening than the total American population. A 2016 study completed by the same organization also found that while 11% of Americans agree with the statement that “the end times are coming, therefore we don’t need to worry about global warming”, the percentage is over twice as high—26%—for self-identified Evangelicals and Born- Again Christians. These statistics suggest that the viewpoint, “Since this planet has an expiration date it is not worth trying to protect”, not only exists, but is also not uncommon, specifically among evangelical Christians. If, as Christians believe, God is going to create a new heaven and a new earth anyway, then, if this is true, why should it matter what happens to this imperfect one?
However, this outlook conflicts with fundamental Christian doctrines. First of all, if we follow this line of thinking—that the world will end anyway so it does not matter what happens to it—it could be applied to our physical bodies. Christian orthodoxy states that, along with a new heaven and new earth, we will also receive new bodies, yet we do not just give up on our earthly bodies even though they are temporary. Instead, the Bible states that our bodies are His temples, and thus should be treated with respect. Why should this not apply to our physical environment as well?
Secondly, Christians are called repeatedly throughout the Bible to follow the character of Jesus, who Himself said that the two greatest commandments are to love God and to love one’s neighbors as one’s self. Katharine Hayhoe, a prominent climate scientist as well as an outspoken evangelical, does not view this idea of giving up on the earth as very Christ-like or neighborly. She cites 2nd Thessalonians as an example of why Christians should not give up on the problems of this world and leave them to non-Christian friends. She also claims that caring for the environment is a way to carry out God’s mandate to Christians to care for the poor.
This perspective is shared by Pope Francis. He went so far as to label human contamination of the “earth’s waters, its land, its air, and its life” as “sins”. He also stated, “The world’s poor, though least responsible for climate change, are most vulnerable and already suffering its impact.” Studies agree that the negative effects of climate change, such as rising sea levels, drought, and extreme weather, disproportionately affect developing nations, and the disruption of food and water supplies will hit hardest those who already struggle to find adequate food and water. Pope Francis argues that climate change mitigation would benefit the world’s neediest, whom Christians are repeatedly called to serve throughout the Bible. A way to love the poor is to reduce climate change’s effects. That being said, some Christians might claim that the salvation of people’s souls matter more than the environment; however, the Bible discourages simply telling people about Jesus while failing to address their physical needs. Simply put, a way to care for people is to care for the environment in which they live and breathe and eat.
Additionally, the effects of climate change and our over-consumption of natural resources can be traced in part to human greed, and thus conflicts with fundamental Christian beliefs. Jesus warns to “[b]eware! Guard against every kind of greed. Life is not measured by how much you own.” Out of convenience, we use a plastic fork or bag only once, and we continue to do this because we selfishly believe “we can always get another” without regard to the environmental impacts of manufacturing and disposing of this item. Our current materialistic “throw-away” culture can be described as gluttonous, and the Bible provides the moral framework for why this is sinful.
A discussion on Christian perspectives on the environment would not be complete, however, without examining Genesis 1:28–otherwise known as the “Dominion Mandate”. In it, God commands the first humans, Adam and Eve, to “[b]e fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground”. Does this permit the human race to consume the earth’s resources unlimitedly?
Dr. Francis Schaeffer, a Christian theologian and pastor, promotes a more careful examination of the Dominion Mandate. He states in his book, Pollution and the Death of Man: The Christian View of Ecology (1970), that the context of Genesis 1:28 must also be considered. Schaeffer argues,“Man was given dominion over creation…But since the Fall man has exercised this dominion wrongly. He is a rebel who set himself at the center of the universe…. he exploits created things as though they were nothing in themselves”. The Dominion Mandate was given before the Fall, before imperfection entered the world, when people could start acting on their own selfish impulses separated from a perfect God. Just like rulers, who sometimes act in their own interests instead of what is best for their subjects, people sometimes selfishly exercise their dominion over nature in the wrong ways.
Schaeffer goes on to say that Christians must respect their dominion because our appointment over it is a privilege from God. He states, “When we have dominion over nature, it is not ours, either. It belongs to God, and we are to exercise our dominion over these things not as though entitled to exploit them, but as things borrowed or held in trust”. A similar analogy is found in Matthew 25:15-30. Jesus tells a parable of a king who entrusts to three of his servants a certain amount of money while away on a long trip. The servants know the money is not theirs, but rather the king’s, which they are to steward in his absence. Two of the servants invest the king’s money wisely, but the third is met with the King’s wrath when he finds that the servant hid the money and did nothing with it. What would this king say to a servant who actively exploited and squandered his money instead? Christians should acknowledge that our rule over nature was not self-imposed, but rather, was divinely appointed. Stewardship for His creation is respect for the Creator.
A last question to consider—one that many may find to be barring from viewing Christianity as supporting environmental stewardship—is whether Christianity places humans above the rest of God’s creation. A foundational tenet of Christianity is that men and women were created in God’s image. Schaeffer addresses this in his book, describing how “[m]an is separated, as personal, from nature because he is made in the image of God…as such he is unique in the creation, but he is united to all other creatures as being created”. He goes on to say that although humanity is uniquely separated from the rest of creation in that we are made in His image, we are still on the same level as the rest of creation. When Matthew 10:31 states that humans are “worth more than many sparrows”, it means that we are uniquely situated among creation in that we alone are modeled after God’s own image. However, we are simultaneously equal to the rest of creation in that we were all created. As Schaeffer states, “we can care for the animal, the tree…for we know it to be a fellow creature with ourselves, both made by the same God”. Matthew 10:30 describes how God knows when “a single sparrow falls”—clearly, He notices and cares about every type of His creations, not just human beings. As those created in the image of a God who notices and cares about even a single sparrow, Christians should care about all of nature.
A Christian faith and a desire for sustainability are not contradictory or mutually exclusive; rather, Christian doctrine promotes environmental stewardship because it is based off of extreme love and reverence for the Creator Himself. Just as love for God can be expressed through simple acts of kindness towards others, so can environmental stewardship be expressed through simple, seemingly small acts. Carrying reusable bottles and bags, recycling, carpooling, and using your purchasing power to support sustainable products are all practical, little steps that add up. If God truly knows each sparrow, the least we can do is consider them too.
- White, Lynn. (1967). The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis. Science, 155(3767), 1203-1207. dx.doi.org/10.1126/science.155.3767.1203.
- Leiserowitz, A., Maibach, E., Roser-Renouf, C., Feinberg, G., & Rosenthal, S. (2015) Climate change in the American Christian mind: March, 2015. Yale University and George Mason University. New Haven, CT: Yale Project on Climate Change Communication. climatecommunication.yale.edu/publications/climate-change-in-the-american-christian-mind/.
- Roser-Renouf, C., Maibach, E., Leiserowitz, A., & Rosenthal, S. (2016). Global Warming, God, and the “End Times”. Yale University and George Mason University. New Haven, CT: Yale Program on Climate Change Communication. www.climatecommunication.yale.edu/publications/global-warming-god-end-times/.
- 1 Corinthians 6:19
- Matthew 22:36-40
- Mooney, Chris. (2014). Why Should Evangelical Christians Care About Climate Change?. Slate Magazine. Retrieved 3 June 2017, from www.slate.com/articles/ health_and_science/climate_desk/2014/05/conservative_christians_and_climate_ change_five_arguments_for_why_one_should.html
- McKenna, Josephine. (2016). Pope Francis says destroying the environment is a sin. the Guardian. Retrieved 9 May 2017, from www.theguardian.com/world/2016/ sep/01/pope-francis-calls-on-christians-to-embrace-green-agenda
- Goldenberg, S. (2017). Climate change: the poor will suffer most. the Guardian. Retrieved 7 August 2017, from www.theguardian.com/environment/2014/mar/31/ climate-change-poor-suffer-most-un-report
- James 2:14-17
- Luke 12:15, New Living Translation
- New International Version (NIV)
- Schaeffer, Francis A. (1970). Pollution and the Death of Man: The Christian View of Ecology (p. 71). Wheaton, Ill.: Tyndale House Pubs.
- Schaeffer, Francis A. (1970). Pollution and the Death of Man: The Christian View of Ecology (p. 70). Wheaton, Ill.: Tyndale House Pubs.
- Genesis 1:27; Genesis 5:1-2; James 3:9
- Schaeffer p. 50
- Schaeffer p. 77
Marta Galambos (‘19) is currently majoring in General Engineering with a minor in Ethics, Public Policy, Science and
Technology (yes, it’s a mouthful). Born and raised in Aspen, Colorado, she loves exploring the great outdoors in any