The dominion mandate
Humans as God’s stewards of creation
Today, secular activists are very concerned about climate change. Ethicists are toying around with human/animal hybrids. Issues concerning the value of extremely disabled and sick babies or old people cause people to wonder if their lives are worth prolonging. These issues and more can confuse Christians; what biblical principles help us navigate these tough issues? We should not be surprised that we find the answer in Genesis.
Who owns the world?
The Bible is clear: God is the owner of the world. He created it (Genesis 1), and He retains the right to control it. He says, “For every beast of the forest is mine, the cattle on a thousand hills” (Psalm 50:10). Even though those cattle presumably are part of herds that have a human owner, God claims the ultimate right to them, because He created them.
Not only does God own the world, but He has exhaustive knowledge of and authority over the world and everything that goes on in it. Jesus said, “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father” (Matthew 10:29).
God also takes ultimate responsibility for caring for the creatures. He provides creatures with food and shelter.
God’s ownership of the world also means that He has authority to delegate ownership/stewardship to whomever He chooses. Paul says that God determined the boundaries of the dwelling place of the nations (Acts 17:26).
Humans: stewards of God’s world
To understand the unique role God created humans to play, we have to go back to Genesis. During Creation Week, God created the world and filled it with living things. By part-way through Day 6, there were fully functioning ecosystems, the foundations for symbiotic relationships between living things, and many beautiful and wonderfully designed creatures. What was missing was a physical inhabitant of the world who could commune with God and in some ways act as God’s representative on Earth.
Humans are created in God’s image. We know that God is a spirit with no physical body, so it doesn’t mean that we physically look like God. Rather, it means that we are like Him in certain ways. For instance, we can think and reason, we have relationships with each other and God, and we are morally aware. This resemblance to the Creator would have been much greater before the Fall, before humans were ruined by sin.
Because humans are created in God’s image, we are uniquely ‘qualified’ to act as God’s stewards on the earth. When He created mankind, He said, “And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth” (Genesis 1:26). While both humans and the earth itself are affected by Adam’s fall into sin, this dominion mandate was never revoked.
What does it mean to have dominion? Simply put, it means that we ‘rule over’ creation. Any action we take that affects the rest of creation is an expression of this dominion. When someone farms produce, kills an animal for food, landscapes a garden, or digs an oil well, these are all various expressions of the dominion mandate.
Does this mean that we can do anything we want to creation? No, because God still retains ownership of it all. We are only stewards with delegated authority, so we have to exercise this dominion within the bounds that God has set. How do we determine these bounds?
If we look at the expression of God’s ownership, while it all belongs to Him and brings Him glory, He governs creation for its good; He gets glory from creation thriving and functioning in the way He created it to function. Even after the Fall, He didn’t abandon it to ruin, but set in motion a plan of restoration. We see in Revelation that the ultimate goal of this restoration is a glorious restored Earth where God dwells with man on the earth in the New Jerusalem.
So if we extrapolate, human stewardship of God’s creation should be in line with these goals. Where we can ‘undo’ the effects of the Fall, such as healing disease, we should do so. And while we are given explicit permission to use creation for our good, such as eating plants and animals, we should not wantonly destroy creation in pursuing our own goals.
Limits of human stewardship
There are important limits to human stewardship. First, humanity’s control over the earth is not absolute like God’s. We see this in God’s description of the creature Leviathan, and God’s statements about how it defies all human attempts to subdue it (Job 41:1–10).
Second, the dominion mandate does not extend to humanity. While God elsewhere establishes human government, nowhere does God give ownership of humans to other humans. Murder is a sin punishable by death, because humans are created in God’s image (Genesis 9:6).
The dominion mandate twisted
People who identify as environmentalists instinctively feel the call to be stewards of God’s creation because they are image-bearers who have the built-in instinct to take care of God’s creation. However, when this is twisted by humanity’s sinful nature and divorced from the knowledge that God is the ultimate owner of creation, environmentalists can end up making some mistakes.
First, people end up elevating animals to the level of humans, granting them rights and equal value alongside humans. While it is biblical to care about animals and not to needlessly kill or inflict suffering on them, we are explicitly given permission to own and eat animals.
Second, people end up devaluing human life, demoting humans to the level of animals. We are explicitly not given permission to exercise dominion over human life. So any action that kills an innocent1 human being, whether pre-born, sick, disabled, or elderly, is forbidden, as well as any eugenic program.
Finally, some environmentalists place more importance on the environment than on people. Some of the most radical even want to dramatically slash the human population, because this will supposedly be ‘good for the planet’! (For some reason, they never lead by example by volunteering their own elimination.)
Taking care of God’s Earth for God’s glory
There are many complicated elements to consider when thinking about the dominion mandate, stewardship, and environmentalism, and a short article could never comprehensively cover all these topics. However, we should always approach these topics with a Bible-first, Christ-centred hermeneutic. And our applications should always be with a view to glorifying God first.
References and notes
- The word ‘innocent’ comes from Latin innocens = ‘not harming’. It is used here not to mean ‘sinless’ but ‘not having committed a crime that carries the death penalty’. Return to text.