Jonathan Merritt is author of A Faith of Our Own and Green Like God. He has published more than 350 articles in outlets such as USA Today, The Atlantic, National Journal, and CNN.com. He holds an M.Div. from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and a Th.M. from Emory University. Connect with Jonathan on Twitter.
People often ask me for a reason why I believe Christians should care for the environment. They are often taken aback when I respond, “Because of the Gospel.” While these two might not immediately strike one as connected, I’ve come to believe they are inextricably so. Let me explain.
Creation care is a launching pad for the Gospel. I continue to get correspondence from missionaries around the world who are relieved to find American Christians championing “creation care.” In many foreign countries, missionaries don’t begin with Jesus, who is unknown. Rather they begin with the creation and Creator, who is clearly evident to all (Rom 1).
Creation care strengthens our Gospel witness. In Western countries like ours, where there is a growing sensitivity to environmental problems, people see environmental stewardship as the mark of a “good” person. When people see Christians selflessly caring for this planet and advocating for those who depend on Earth’s resources, our message becomes convincing. That’s why church planters across the U.S. are beginning to incorporate stewardship practices into their congregation’s DNA.
Furthermore, foreign peoples carefully observe the historically Christian West, and based on our lifestyles and witnesses, they form opinions about our faith. Take paper consumption, for example. America comprises only 5% of the world’s population, yet we consume over a third of Earth’s paper products. How does this effect the Gospel in countries like Nicaragua, Honduras, and Ecuador, where deforestation causes so much injustice?
Living out the Gospel includes caring for creation. It is inappropriate to claim that creation care — or any social issue — comprises the foundation of the Gospel. But we must accept that the Gospel calls us to a radically sacrificial, compassionate lifestyle. Even the Great Commission commands us both to “make disciples of all nations” and to teach others to “obey everything I have commanded you.” This includes the commands to love our global neighbors, care for “least of these” and uphold the creation care mandates replete throughout Scripture.
Ignoring environmental problems heaps shame on the Gospel. Part of missional living is truth-telling. That means we must be honest about our world’s problems. When we blindly follow Christian lobbying groups and “alliances” that ignore global injustices, the Gospel suffers. St. Augustine cautions against this in The Literal Meaning of Genesis:
It is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, while presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking nonsense. We should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show up vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn . . . If they find a Christian mistaken in a field, which they themselves know well, and hear him maintain his foolish opinions about the Scriptures, how then are they going to believe those Scriptures in matters concerning the resurrection of the dead, the hope of eternal life, and the kingdom of heaven?
I could offer a number of reasons why Christians should care about creation: Because the “earth is the Lord’s” (Psalm 24), because it reveals the attributes of God (Psalm 19; Rom 1), because God asked us to care for it (Genesis 2:15), and because Christ’s death began a process of cosmic redemption in which we are called to participate (Col 1; Rev 11). But more than any of those, we must care about creation because we want the Kingdom of God to reign on earth and the Gospel of Jesus Christ to take root among all people.
A version of this article first appeared in Christianity Today.