A group of 86 prominent evangelical leaders stirred up controversy earlier this year when it backed a major initiative for environmental stewardship called "Climate Change: An Evangelical Call to Action." Signatories included pastors, educators and denominational officials from a broad swath of evangelical, charismatic and Pentecostal traditions, including pastor and author Rick Warren, International Church of the Foursquare Gospel president Jack Hayford and Wheaton College president Duane Litfin.
Soon after the document's release, 22 high-profile evangelicals sent a letter to the National Association of Evangelicals, urging the body not to issue any statement on global warming or to allow its officers or staff members to take a position, arguing that, "global warming is not a consensus issue."
Signatories of this counter-document included Prison Fellowship Founder Charles Colson, Focus on the Family's James Dobson and Richard Land, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention.
Recently, Ministry Today sat down with Joel C. Hunter, pastor of Northland, A Church Distributed, in Longwood, Fla., to discuss this new brand of evangelical environmentalism. Hunter signed the original document and also appeared as a spokesperson for TV commercials promoting the initiative's agenda. Hunter notes that the initiative has been largely welcomed—especially among younger evangelicals.
"There's a part of emerging Christianity who've been waiting for leadership in this area," he says. "There will always be some who will be scared, but that's not the majority of what we're hearing."
While he recognizes that some who are against the initiative may object to the partnerships with more liberal groups that such a stand may bring, Hunter contends that biblical obedience must trump political concerns. We asked him to respond to some of the concerns of opponents of evangelical environmentalism:
Ministry Today: Some would say there are more pressing, "eternal" issues at stake. In other words, why focus on creation care when millions still need to hear the gospel?
Joel Hunter: This is not a focus. This is part of a full and comprehensive spreading of the gospel. In the future, I believe service and social witness are going to be the main venue for evangelism. We will be able to do more to spread the gospel by addressing some of the practical issues of people's needs than if we had just gone in there and started preaching the Word. We'll build up credibility as being a people who care about more than just spreading their own religion.
Ministry Today: Don't government-enforced environmental regulations ultimately hurt poor people by raising the cost of goods and services?
Hunter: We think the poor can be hurt more by the devastation that may be caused in part by global warming than by any government-imposed sanctions. There can be a remedy to this by a business-generated, economically-suitable cure for the problem, rather than simply imposing a top-down solution. There are ways to build both jobs and economic incentives to solve the problem, rather than mandate certain limits. Government needs to partner in this. It's more than an NGO [non-government organization] can cure.
Ministry Today: Although there are scientific indications that global warming is occurring, how do we know that it's humanly-generated?
Hunter: I have in front of me the executive summary for the National Academy of Sciences document on climate change science. Its first sentence starts out like this: "Greenhouse gasses are accumulating in the earth's atmosphere as a result of human activity." You can go from "We are a major cause" to "We are a minimum cause." Either way, we are still a cause.
Ministry Today: Doesn't an emphasis on environmental concerns distract the church from more pressing political and social issues like abortion, same-sex marriage and poverty?
Hunter: I think it's just the opposite. There will always be a few Christian leaders who focus on one or two or three issues, because that's their heart—that's their passion. But I think that the more Christians are involved in addressing the problems of society, it is going to give us greater credibility for the issues that we are concerned about. In other words, as we get more involved in society in multiple ways, we'll be seen as a force to reckoned with. We'll have a momentum that enhances our impact on certain issues, rather than takes away from. It's not an either/or issue, it's both/and.
Ministry Today: How do signers of this initiative avoid supporting a pantheistic worldview that is often at the heart of environmentalism?
Hunter: Here's what Christians have to do: We have to continue to frame the issue as one of biblical obedience, appreciating the Creator by taking care of His creation. Simply put, Christians are doing this out of reverence for God, out of respect for his gifts, rather than out of any devotion to the gift. The earth is the Lord's, and that's why we're doing this.
Ministry Today: Doesn't "dominion" over the earth imply that we would eventually use—or even exhaust the resources—we've been given?
Hunter: That has been grossly misinterpreted. Dominion is defined in Genesis 2:15 when God puts the man in the garden to cultivate it and to keep it. In those two words we have the definition of dominion. The first is abad—"to make use of." The second is shamar—"to protect and safeguard." So, we can't exploit the gift of creation and use it up. We have to develop it in a way that respects it and protects it. We have to be sure that we don't use the old cultural definition of dominion. The biblical definition has everything to do with protecting and serving.
Ministry Today: The signs of the times indicate we may be nearing the return of Christ. So, why focus on this right now?
Hunter: First, if Christ comes back right away, wouldn't it be nice to have him find us doing what we're supposed to do? It's very important that we don't protect the earth for utilitarian purposes. Our focus is obedience. Obedience is right whether it's utilitarian or not. We want to obey God no matter how long or how short Christ is in His return. Plus, we're going to be judged for our works. If we don't care for the earth, we're going to be asked, "What did you do with what I gave you?" We don't want to answer, "We trashed it."
Ministry Today: It doesn't seem this debate has been settled among scientists—let alone church leaders. So shouldn't we avoid it altogether rather than make ourselves look foolish?
Hunter: The reason we're doing this is not because of the science. Since when do Christians need scientific confirmation to do what God tells them to do? What will really make Christians look foolish is talking about religion as though it's something inside a church, without our faith blessing all the families of the earth, which is really why God called a people unto himself in Genesis 12:3. If we want to look foolish, sit inside our churches and do things that don't matter to the world. That's what will look foolish.