How Green is the Church?
Why climate change is a church issue, not just an environmental one.
Is it ok for Christians to support climate change? What’s the biblical view of caring for our environment?
A few months ago, I was caught in a major traffic jam in one of Australia’s capital cities. I learned later that a small number of people had glued themselves to the pavement of the city’s busiest intersection. They were doing what they thought was right to save the planet. As I thought about the people on the road, I realised that Christians are not really a “gluing-oneself-to-the-pavement” type of movement. But surely there are things we are doing. After a bit of research, I was pleased to find that many Christians and congregations were active in their support of the environment. Yet others seemed to see the issue as a matter that did not concern Christians. And a few even saw environmental action as something we should oppose. So I wondered just how green is the church? And just how green is the Bible?
As it turns out numerous biblical passages celebrate the beauty and diversity of creation, but two texts stand out. First, the account of creation and fall in Genesis 1-3. And second, the account of the suffering of creation in Romans 8:19-23.
Origins of the natural world
The first text is about the origins of the natural world. We learn in Genesis 1-3 that God has created our world and everything in it (Genesis 1:1-25). As such, respect for the world is also respect for the creator. Second, we learn humans are a part of this creation (Genesis 1:26-27; 2:7), and when we fall, creation also suffers (Genesis 3:17-19). And third, humans have responsibility toward the world of plants and animals (Genesis 1:28-29; 2:19-20). But this last point is often either lost or misunderstand by the words ‘have dominion over’. The Hebrew text literally says we are to ‘rule’ over the creation. This was understood in the same sense as an ancient oriental monarch might rule over their subjects.
A good sovereign does not exploit the people but provides for and protects them.
The story of the relationship between human beings and the natural world takes a dark turn when our actions also bring pain to the natural world (Genesis 3:17-19). The Genesis text takes us from the origin story of the natural world to its present state, which has been tarnished by human action.
The story of the natural world
The second key text picks up the story of the natural world in its present state of co-suffering with humans. And it points toward the future with both await together.
The New Testament celebrates creation and points to Christ’s redemption of it (Col 1:15-20). But the most striking text in the New Testament concerning the non-human creation is (Romans 8:19-23). In this text we learn that all of creation is groans and waits eagerly for the salvation of humanity. It is a reminder of the pain of creation first pointed to in Genesis 3. But now we see something of the full extent of the suffering of creation. This suffering and its alleviation are bound to human action as well as to our own human future.
When we fail, creation suffers. When we are renewed by Christ, creation is also renewed.
The Bible is unmistakable. Human beings are a part of creation. Our fate and that of the non-human creation are bound together. God cares not only about humans and our suffering, but also about the suffering of all creation.
A Christian community reflecting and acting on these texts cannot help but be pro-active concerning care for the natural world. We may be unlikely to glue ourselves to major intersections, but there are many actions that we as individuals and congregations can take that will make a difference – actions that reflect our bonds to the fate of the rest of creation. One example is Christian organisation ACR (Australian Christian Resources) who are actively trying to make a difference with the release of a biodegradable communion cup.
So how green is the church? If we lived out our foundational biblical teachings, we would be among the greenest of faiths. But all too often our actions do not line up with our biblical foundations. We act as if Earth, its resources, its fauna and flora, were disposable. But the new heavens and new Earth for which we hope are nothing other than our present heavens and Earth redeemed and renewed (Isaiah 65:17-25; Romans 8:19-20). Together with the natural world, we are God’s creation. And together, we share a common future.
Academic Dean, Melbourne School of Theology Frontier School of Mission
Pastor, St Peter’s Lutheran Church, Port Macquarie, NSW