The Church’s Call to Environmental Stewardship

By the Rev. Dr. Gilson A. C. Waldkoening, February 13, 2011

By Gilson A.C. Waldkoening

What does the gospel and the ministry of the church offer to a world concerned about its natural environment?

Many people throughout the church – farmers, business people, parents, pastors, workers of all sorts – are concerned about ecological issues. The health and well-being of our planet affects everyone. What does the gospel of Jesus Christ, and the ministry of his church, have to offer a world concerned about its natural environment? This article shows the biblical and theological basis for ecological stewardship.

Why not involve your congregation in caring for the earth? You may hear the gospel in a fresh way in relationship to God’s abiding care for his whole creation.

God is active in the world! Although we often overlook the fact, each and every moment of each and every day is precisely the time and place that God Almighty is present. God constantly engages our lives, and the life of all creation. The Good News of Jesus Christ is that God has acted decisively for the salvation of all: Christ obediently suffered for us, and then God raised him triumphantly! God’s continued activity in, with and for the sake of the world is consistent with that decisive act of salvation in Jesus Christ.

God Loves the World
God loves the world! Even while God pursues his wonderful mission among humankind, God’s presence and activity affect the entire world. God created the world, according to the scriptures. That creation was not a one-time, over-and-gone event. God’s creation of the world continues each day. Martin Luther so often taught this, and he encouraged us to live lives of creative responsibility that would be in harmony with God’s continual care of his creation.

The Holy Scriptures testify to God’s creative and redemptive work in all things. For example, Paul taught the Christians in Rome: the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we were saved (Romans 8:21-24a).

All people have a renewed call to the role of steward or caretaker of creation
Paul’s faith in Christ was a mighty faith; his sense of the power of God’s work in Christ knew no bounds. Paul saw that the work of God in Christ would complete God’s work of creation, that redemption would be the most creative act of all.

If Paul is correct in his vision of the implications of Christ’s work (and we believe he is!), then Christians and all people have a renewed call and renewed motivation in the role of “steward” or caretaker of creation. This role was given to humankind when “the Lord God took the man (Adam) and put him in the garden of Eden to till and keep it.” Work and service in the world are not punishment for humankind. God gave work to Adam as a gift in the Garden before Adam fell into sin. It was later that “toil” was added to work, and a “curse” was extended toward the earth because of human rebellion against God. When Christ comes and saves, humans are restored to their rightful and joyful role of stewards, tillers and keepers, and released from the burden of toil in their work.

When people do the work that God has given them, they join God in his mission to care for the whole world. Meanwhile, Christ draws all believers into the fellowship of the church, and it is through that community, too, that Christians are empowered by God to join him in care for creation.

Another great community surrounds and often meets the church as it goes forth in its mission. All creation is called to be a community and is united under God’s care, as Paul’s teaching indicated. Signs of the great community of creation appear around us, even though many signs of strife rend the intended community of creation. The leading sign of the community of all creation is the church itself, with Christ’s reconciling work at its center. From that center flows God’s care for both the natural world and humankind.

Ecological Crisis
In recent years most people have become more aware of the ecological crises, the dangers that threaten the health and stability of God’s natural world. There is much debate over the extent of this danger, and over the degree to which we must respond with remedial action. No matter what the extent of ecological crisis — or even if there were no crisis at all! — it is clear from the biblical witness that Christians and all people are called to be responsible stewards of the earth, as well as each other.

The biblical call to stewardship will lead us to foster quality of life. The quality of life that is measured only by material goods and economic factors is incomplete. Total quality of life must include the health and stability of the natural world, relative justice and peace for people, and the free and true worship of God Almighty. It is on this basis, on this biblical vision, that Christians are motivated to respond to ecological crises. It is on the basis of belief in the power of the gospel, and confidence in its ultimate triumph, that Christians dare to do as Christ did, to reach out in responsible love toward a world in need.

To have the opportunity “to till and keep” the earth is an arena in which we can proclaim anew the powerful redemption of God’s work in Christ. To care for the earth, just as to care for one’s neighbor, is an opportunity to witness to Christ and to practice the church’s mission. When the church and Christians are reaching out in service, they are most alight with the radiance of God’s powerful gospel. This is why your pastor might ask your congregation to care for creation by some specific ecological project. It is why a seminary should include in its education the church’s vibrant opportunity to serve Christ by tending God’s own creation.

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For nearly a century, Lutheran Laity Movement for Stewardship assisted, inspired and trained congregations in important ways. LLM ceased operations on May 31, 2003, but the Stewardship of Life Institute is proud to continue its work by making its web resources available to a new generation of stewards.

© Copyright 1996,  Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.
This essay first appeared in Faith in Action, the publication of the Lutheran Laity Movement for Stewardship. Articles in Faith in Action may be reproduced for use in ELCA and ELCIC congregations provided each copy carries the note:
© Copyright 1996, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author

Gilson A.C. Waldkoenig Professor of Church in Society, B.B. Maurer Chair for Town and Country Church Ministry and Director of the Town and Country Church Institute at Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg. He is also director of the Town and Country Church Institute at Gettysburg Seminary.See the Rev. Dr. Gilson A. C. Waldkoening's website.

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