This article is reprinted by permission from a post on the website of The Creation Care Coalition. The website is currently a work in progress, but you can visit it for more information at www.creationcarecoalition.com. Thanks also to Ann-Marie and Jonathan Keller (full disclosure—daughter-in-law and son) for bringing this article to my attention. John Stott has been a hero and mentor of mine since my earliest days as a believer, and I am grateful that he tackled the problem of “selective discipleship” in his last years of life. – Tim Keller
On a fine summer morning last July the mail carrier brought me my copy of John Stott’s valedictory work, The Radical Disciple: Some Neglected Aspects of our Calling. Within hours of receiving it, I heard the news that Stott had died.
We knew, followed and cherished John Stott for many reasons. Londoners knew him as the beloved rector of All Souls Church. Around the world, he taught Christians and seekers with his writings: more than 50 books in many languages, including Basic Christianity, The Cross of Christ and The Living Church. He was the chief architect of The Lausanne Covenant, a document that has come to define evangelical theology and practice throughout the modern world.
And his voice was heard far beyond the Christian church. In 2004, The New York Times wrote: “If evangelicals could elect a pope, Stott is the person they would likely choose.” The following year, Time Magazine ranked Stott among the 100 most influential people in the world.
But in the last years of his life, Stott grew concerned about “selective discipleship” among his contemporaries—“choosing those areas in which commitment suits us and staying away from those areas in which it will be costly” is how he described it. “But because Jesus is Lord, we have no right to pick and choose the areas in which we will submit to his authority.”
And so at age 88, he penned his final work, by hand, focusing on eight areas that Christians often neglect as a way of avoiding costly—or radical—discipleship. They range from “Christlikeness” to “Simplicity” and even to “Death.” But they include one that gets almost no airtime in contemporary American evangelical dialogue: “Creation Care.”
For Stott, care for the creation has nothing to do with deification of nature. On the other hand, it entirely rejects exploitation of the earth. Rather, it focuses on cooperation with God in conserving and nurturing the creation. “[God] has deliberately humbled himself to make a divine-human partnership necessary,” he wrote. “He planted a garden, but then put Adam in it ‘to work it and take care of it’ (Genesis 2:15).”
And what are the key areas today for those who follow Christ to cooperate with God in tending his creation? Stott listed four crucial trends that must be addressed:
• Accelerating world population growth, threatening mass starvation for humanity at a time “when approximately one-fifth of them lack the basic necessities for survival.”
• Depletion of the earth’s resources, from wanton deforestation and habitat destruction to degradation of oceans and exploitation of fossil fuels.
• Excessive waste disposal, from thoughtless packaging and mindless consumerism, causing the average Briton to “throw out his or her body weight in rubbish every three months.”
• Climate change, the accumulation of greenhouse gases that threatens all the world’s ecosystems with “the specter of global warming, which may have disastrous consequences on the configuration of the world’s geography and weather patterns.”
This last item—climate change—deserves special attention in Stott’s call to discipleship. “Of all the global threats that face our planet, this is the most serious,” he wrotes. “One cannot help but see that our whole planet is in jeopardy. Crisis is not too dramatic a word to use.”
What should Christians do?
Stott offered a short list: Support Christian environmental advocates and ministries; use sustainable forms of energy; switch off unneeded appliances; purchase necessities from companies with ethically-sound environmental policies; join local conservation societies; avoid overconsumption; and recycle as much as possible.
But more important than any list of do’s-and-don’ts is Stott’s sense that creation care is essential to discipleship, however rarely this is acknowledged in the modern American religious landscape. He quoted his colleague Chris Wrightin calling Christians to repentance:
“It seems quite inexplicable to me that there are some Christians who claim to love and worship God, to be disciples of Jesus, and yet have no concern for the earth that bears his stamp of ownership. They do not care about the abuse of the earth and indeed, by their wasteful and over-consumptive lifestyles, they contribute to it.”
Christians who want to follow Stott in “radical discipleship” will do well to remember who it is that owns this planet that we call home. The world as it is reflects and praises God—He who created it. To sully the world is to sully this reflection. To harm the natural world is to disable its ability to praise and reflect God. Therefore, the natural world has enormous significance and value. So the changes and alterations we make to it—and make them we must—must be done with the utmost respect and care for our environment. “To the Lord your God belong the heavens, the earth and everything in it.” (Deuteronomy 10:14)
John Elwood is an advocate for gospel justice and creation care. He serves as a director of Evangelical Environmental Network, works with the Presbyterian-reformed Creation Care Coalition, and publishes the environmental Clothesline Report blog. He is a ruling elder in the Presbyterian Church in America. John and his wife Barbara live in Andover, NJ, where they founded Good Hand Farm, an organic produce co-op serving more than 500 members.