Bible/Theology, Environment

Why we are not stewards of the environment

January 18, 2021

People are often surprised to hear that I don’t like the language of stewardship: ‘You’ve been calling people to look after the environment for years’, they say to me, ‘so surely you should be pleased that our role as stewards of creation is now so widely accepted in the church’?

They’re right in some respects – it really is encouraging that so many Christians now see taking care of the wider natural world as an important part of their faith and of what the good news (the gospel) of Jesus is about. And I fully recognise that the concept of stewardship has played a positive role in helping people grasp that we need to be looking after the whole creation, and not only the human part of that creation. So, I am respectful of that language and grateful for the part it has played.

But, it has some problems attached to it; problems that aren’t just nit-picking but that go to the heart of how we read the Bible and understand our relationship with the wider creation:

1. At a basic level, it’ s not biblical!

Nowhere does the Bible use the language of stewardship to describe our role in relation to the world. It goes back to the seventeenth century English lawyer, Matthew Hale, who used legal language to talk about us looking after the world like an estate manager[1], and it has got muddled up in our minds with the parables about stewardship in Luke 12 and 16. But it’s not a term that is found in the Bible, so I struggle to understand why we are so attached to using it.

2. We steward things that are inanimate, not living

When we think of stewardship (as in Jesus’ parables) we think of things that are inanimate: we steward money or wine or time. We don’t steward living things: I don’t steward my children or my friends; I look after them, nurture them, seek to protect them, honour and respect them.

Buried in the language of stewardship is the often-unconscious notion that ‘creation’ is a ‘thing’. Like ‘the environment’, it’s an object to be done-to. How far removed from the amazing world that God has created with all its diversity and brilliance; a world that is ‘teeming with life’ and full of interconnected relationships. How utterly disrespectful that this complex, throbbing, living, humming, vibrating reality is simply something that we steward!

3. Stewardship implies hierarchy

One of the key problems with the notion of stewardship is that there is an inherent separation from the steward and that which is stewarded: as stewards we are separate from ‘the creation’, and in a way that implies our superiority. When we look at the terrible problems facing the wider natural world, we know they have come about because we have failed to see ourselves as part of that world. We have believed ourselves to be separate and superior, with ‘the environment’ an inanimate object that exists only to serve us.

In one way, biblically speaking, we are separate, as the only species to have been made ‘in God’s image’, and there does seem to be a voice within Scripture that highlights that (Psalm 8 is the obvious referent). But overall, the Bible is clear that the human creature is exactly that – a creature; part of creation, interwoven into the natural processes of life, and one voice in the orchestra of creation that exists to worship Creator God. We are made in God’s image not to lord it over the wider creation but that we might have the qualities we need in order to care for the rest of the creation most effectively.

 (Please note, there is nuancing needed here that I can’t give in a blog of this length, so please read chapter six of my Saying Yes to Life for a fuller reflection.)

4. Stewardship leaves no space for wilderness (thank you to Richard Bauckham for this point)

With its roots in estate management, the concept of stewardship has within it the idea of a country park, the entirety of which needs to be overseen and managed. It comes from the enlightenment view that nature needs to be tamed and controlled, and links with the above point about superiority: nature needs us. It leaves no space for the concept of wilderness; that there is something inherently precious about there being places and creatures that are untouched by humans.

So where do we go from here?

If we leave behind the language of stewardship, what can we replace it with? Other concepts have been proposed: guardianship, priesthood, earthkeeping…  I don’t think any of them are adequate and I want to ask, why do we feel the need to find one word or concept that sums up our relationship with the wider creation? Scripture doesn’t, so I’m content not to either. Instead, I prefer to vary my language: caring for, looking after, respecting, protecting, joining… other creatures, the wider natural world, the whole creation, the environment, nature, God’s world…

Language is inadequate. We simply don’t have the words to describe this reality that God has created, nor the incredible wonder and privilege of being a part of it. But one thing we can say for certain: let’s cherish it together.

[1] R. Bauckham, ‘Being Human in the Community of Creation – a biblical perspective’, in, K. Jorgenson and A. Padgett (eds.), Ecotheology: A Christian conversation (Eerdmans, 2020).

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  • Reply George Reiss January 18, 2021 at 9:51 pm

    Very glad to have such an eloquent summary that puts this problem into words. Stewardship is a word that smacks too much of. control. We are seeing all too clearly that we don’t control nature…

    • Reply Ruth January 19, 2021 at 9:20 am

      Thanks George, glad you found this helpful. All the best

  • Reply Guy Rowland January 19, 2021 at 2:37 pm

    A friend of mine describes our present situation as a climate and ecological crisis. The best term I have found is a crisis of climate and environmental degradation. But they both contain a notion of stewarding the inanimate. What term would you use, I wonder?

    • Reply Ruth January 19, 2021 at 6:12 pm

      I think those terms are okay…. we are facing a climate and ecological crisis indeed. And we respond to that as God’s image bearers, with a unique calling to look after his whole creation, recognising that we are part of that crisis both in the sense that we have caused it and that we don’t stand separate from it.

  • Reply Bob Sluka January 19, 2021 at 3:06 pm

    Just passed this on to a group in a big Christian agency moving into Creation Care ministry. Appreciate the thoughts.

    • Reply Ruth January 19, 2021 at 6:12 pm

      Great! Thanks, glad they’ve been helpful 🙂

  • Reply David Rhodes January 19, 2021 at 6:04 pm

    That’s one cracking good article, Ruth. Thank you! My take on it is simply that we are called to love our neighbor – and our nearest neighbor is the planet. So we need to love it and respect it: aka seek its well-being and, as regards our fellow creatures, its flora and fauna, its fulfillment . To do that in this time of climate crisis we need to work together with people of other faiths, and people of no faith, to demand urgent radical action from politicians.

    • Reply Ruth January 19, 2021 at 6:13 pm

      Amen David – thank you!

  • Reply Jo Chamberlain January 20, 2021 at 11:32 am

    I’m still getting my head round the long long period of God’s creation that existed before humans came along, when it seemed to manage pretty well without us. I find this quite humbling. We need the world more than the world needs us. We need to find our proper place within it, making sure, now that we are here, that our presence means the earth continues to flourish rather than be damaged.

    • Reply Ruth January 20, 2021 at 11:55 am

      Yes – humility is such an important attitude for us to bring to how we relate to the whole creation. Thank yo Jo.

  • Reply Peter Weight January 27, 2021 at 10:44 am

    I think part of our problem with the environment is that we believe we are made in God’s image, but who can say what God’s image is truly like. Jesus took on human image to be amongst us, but that means He was making Himself fir our preconceptions. In actuality we cannot know what God’s image is, it could be a sheep, or a tree for all we really know. Perhaps if we accept that we are not truly in God’s image we might start to think less of ourselves as Demi Gods, and accept that all creation is God’s image.

    • Reply Ruth January 29, 2021 at 9:13 am

      Thank you Peter. Chapter 6 in my Saying Yes to Life explores more around being made in the image of God, so do pick up a copy of that – I hope you’ll find it helpful.

  • Reply Staffan Engstrom January 27, 2021 at 12:28 pm

    Please help me on this. I wonder whether in calling out the use of stewardship as a bad term, we are following a misconception?
    The word ‘stewardship’ is defined as ‘the job of supervising or taking care of something’. With all the industrial might that we have developed (and which is now out of control) we must surely have the responsibility to essentially take care of creation? And isn’t supervision the process of actually taking control of our industrial might?
    Surely the key issue is not the word stewardship, but that stewardship is NOT the same as ownership. We cannot despoil Creation for our own greed, as owners, but must protect and nurture it for the good of all, as the Creator and ultimate Owner would wish?
    If we have no stewardship responsibility, does that mean that we can do what we like? Of course not, we must take care and we must control our excesses. That doesn’t make us better than Creation, we are still part of it, but stewardship precludes exploitation.

    • Reply Ruth January 29, 2021 at 9:11 am

      Hi Staffan, thank you. Yes I very much agree with all you’re saying in terms of protecting and nurturing, and nothing in what I say implies that we don’t have responsibility. I just think stewardship language has too many other negative assumptions in it that we don’t recognise and that there are better ways to express our multi-faceted relationship with the wider natural world and the other creatures that live in it with us.

  • Reply Euan McPhee January 27, 2021 at 3:35 pm

    Thank you for this Ruth – it chimes with what I have thought for years! When it comes to our responsibility for what is happening to God’s Creation, ie the climate and ecological cirses, it seems to me that the sense of separation from nature is at the root of the problem. If we genuinely viewed ourselves as being part of creation, then what we are doing to creation at present could be described as self-harming. If we see the issue in that intimate way, perahps we will wake up and take our responsibilities seriously!

    • Reply Ruth January 29, 2021 at 9:07 am

      Thank you Euan, yes I very much agree!

  • Reply Rachel Bathurst January 28, 2021 at 1:23 pm

    Hi Ruth. So glad and relieved to read your thoughts on the term stewardship – I came to the same conclusion in my recent PhD thesis. I’m also not keen on ‘care for creation’, although better than stewardship. But care can be a passive term, and what I want to get over when I communicte this is that humans have an active role to play for the flourishing of all of life… I use the term ‘nurture’ to portray this, and make the point that we humans are integral with the rest of life on Earth. It is our role to nurture all of life, and in so doing we allow the ‘other’ to flourish – human and non-human. It is active and outward looking, and for me describes the gospel’s message for all of our work. Hope that’s helpful…!

    • Reply Ruth January 29, 2021 at 9:06 am

      Hi Rachel, great to see you here and congratulations on finishing your PhD! I’m glad you liked the post and yes I really agree with what you’re saying. I don’t mind the word ‘care’ so much as I think that can be an active word too, but I dislike the way we say ‘creation’ as if that means everything apart from human beings, like we’re not part of creation, so I always talk about ‘caring for the whole creation’. But yes, I also use nurture and cherish and look after etc…. as I said in the post, I like to vary what I say rather than try to capture it all in one word or term. Flourishing is a good word!

  • Reply David McKelvey June 30, 2022 at 8:00 am

    Thanks, but right now I am struggling even with words of care and nurturing. I feel it still implies we know best. Does it honour the panentheism of God in all, the Universal Christ? Does it open the door to humility and learning? What about words like respect, reciprocity, gratitude, learning? I wonder if they invite us into a more open love space?

    • Reply Ruth September 13, 2022 at 3:52 pm

      I’m so sorry David, I’ve been off my website and only just seen your reply. I do apologise.
      Yes I also like those words too. I think there are many we can use and doing so helps us explore the breadth of our relationship with the rest of creation rather than trying to capture it all neatly.
      Every blessing to you.

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