31st May 2012 | Dave Bookless | 18 comments

Mission: Saving souls or saving seals?

A friend emailed me this week: “The Great Commission is clearly about making disciples, and not about ecology or creation care. It’s alright that churches get involved in taking care of the planet, but as a secondary project – evangelism and discipleship come first. So, it’s not that we don’t save seals, but we do so after we’ve saved souls.”

Hawaiian Monk seal (Monachus schauinslandi) © N3kt0n/Kent Backman

The email touched a nerve. Although I’ve been committed to creation care for 20 years, a deep reflex still makes me question the priority of what I’m doing. That’s healthy… if it takes me back to what the Bible actually says. So what pointers does Scripture give? Is creation care really a distraction from ‘our core business’ of evangelism? There’s so much to say, and in a brief blog I can only answer in bullet points… but please join the discussion!

  1. Jesus’ Great Commission in Matthew 28:19-20 never mentions ‘saving souls’ or evangelism! It says ‘make disciples’ which includes but goes far beyond making converts. It also includes teaching people “to obey everything I have commanded you”… summed up in ‘Love God and love your neighbour’… both of which mean caring for creation – which God loves and sustains, and without which our neighbour starves.
  2. The ‘Great Commission’ reads slightly differently in each Gospel. In Mark 16:15 Jesus says: ‘Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation.’ The Gospel is good news not just for souls, not just for people, but for all creation. How do we ‘preach’ to mountains and forests and animals? St Francis allegedly said ‘Preach the gospel always; use words when necessary.’
  3. Don’t forget the first commission! The New Testament builds on the Old, and the foundational command God gives to all humanity (Genesis 1:26-28, 2:15) is to reflect God’s image (his just and gentle character) in how we rule over creation.
  4. Did Jesus just preach and ‘save souls’? No! He proclaimed and demonstrated the whole of God’s good news – for the sick, the poor, and in calming nature’s storms. In his parables, teaching and lifestyle he modelled an attentive listening to the rhythms of creation.
  5. The gospel Jesus preached was never about getting saved from this world. It was good news of the Kingdom of God – which we pray for and seek to bring about, ‘on earth as in heaven’. Earthing heaven is Kingdom work!
  6. Nature is God’s best evangelist. Paul says this in Romans 1:20 – God’s power and character are ‘clearly seen’ through ‘what has been made’. When we fail to care for creation our evangelism is less effective. However, as evangelist Rob Frost said, ‘When Christians take the earth seriously, people take the gospel seriously.’

Biblical mission has evangelism at its heart but goes far wider. The Lausanne Covenant defines it as ‘using the whole church to bring the whole gospel to the whole world.’ It includes evangelism, discipleship, mercy, justice and earthkeeping – these ‘Five Marks of Mission’ are like five fingers on a hand, or the five senses. To separate them or rely on one without the others is to diminish the gospel – the full good news of God’s Kingdom. It’s not just about saving souls, it’s about ‘saving wholes’ – whole people in a whole creation. And if Jesus isn’t Lord of all, then he’s not Lord at all.

Categories: Questions
About Dave Bookless

Dave has worked with A Rocha since 1997, first as an International Trustee, then from 2001 with A Rocha UK as co-founder (with his wife Anne), National Director, and then Director for Theology, Churches & Sustainable Communities. He joined the A Rocha International team in September 2011. His role as Advisor for Theology and Churches includes providing advice and resources for ARI’s Trustees, Team and national A Rocha organisations, and coordinating liaison with international theological and mission networks and organisations. He is also studying for a part-time PhD at Cambridge University on biblical theology and biodiversity conservation.

View all posts by Dave Bookless

18 responses to “Mission: Saving souls or saving seals?”

  1. Chavoux says:

    Amen! As somebody with a heart for evangelism, but who also first came close to God because of creation, I want to thank you for this biblical perspective on our mission.

  2. Judith says:

    Once again, I’m not just encouraged but even vindicated in my discipleship by a fellowship further afield. Looking forward to listening to Martin Charlesworth, David Hughes and Katie Harrison at the Jubilee Centre in Sheffield. Here in Wales, amongst sincere and lovely brothers and leaders who tell me I’m wrong about earth also having a share in the saving work of Jesus, I am really driven back to search my heart and asking Holy Spirit to as I search the Bible. I am sure this is good for us to do because it is crucial to know we are not being deceived or sidetracked and as this is a hard battle in some ways, I think that’s because the enemy wants us not to reveal one of his more recently gained by stealth footholds in God’s world.

  3. The first petition in the Lord’s Prayer is ‘Your Kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven’. We can’t pray that prayer with integrity if we’re not prepared to care for all creation including all the people for whom Christ died. God’s salvation is much bigger than individual ‘soul-saving’.

  4. Don Ruhl says:

    While the “Great Commission,” as we have termed it, takes a high place among the things that Christians should do, yet, it does not contradict anything else the Lord has commanded us.

    For example, the Great Commission says nothing of loving God, but everyone would agree that evangelism and love for God go hand-in-hand, and anyone who tries to make it an issue where we have to choose one or the other, clearly does not understand the things of God.

    Truly, Genesis 2.15 has not been abrogated in anyway in either Testament, but what the Creator told Adam and Eve, He expects all their children to continue to keep, “Then the LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to tend and keep it.”

    What He wanted them to do in the Garden of Eden, should be seen by all of us as something He intended for them and their descendants to do throughout all the Earth, for He told them to fill the Earth (Gen 1.28).

    Therefore, even as people will want to hear us when we do them good works, which is what Jesus and the apostles did first when they entered a new town, so people will want to hear us when we do good for our temporary home, the Earth.

    Enjoyed your post very much!

    • Júlio Reis says:

      Interesting comment. My first thoughts on this subject were that the Great Commission should be read in context – as everything else. Jesus was talking to his disciples, who were Jews – they had the Old Testament, they knew about the only God who was the creator and sustainer of life, master over everything. Perhaps Jesus isn’t giving the disciples the whole blueprint, just telling them the things they needed to hear at that moment: ‘1) you will build my church; 2) my church will be truly international and multicultural; 3) I will remain with you even as I go away.’ So, the Great Commission is not a summary of everything Jesus said (I think).

  5. Matt Currey says:

    Thanks for a very comprehensive blog delivered in a concise and very readable way. Profound. I like the idea of encountering things, people, writing etc that cause us to think, assess, evaluate and explore and make us question our perspectives.

    I really agree with what you have written and found it helpful. What is great is that it is profoundly biblical and also wholistic and both of these aspects are crucial and so interlinked. It seems that so often a ‘biblical’ case is made for evangelism and people who make that case alone almost create the myth that any wider perspective is not really biblical, when in reality you have shown that a wholistic approach is biblical.

    I’m aware that in focusing on care of creation, poverty alleviation and social justice there can be a danger in sucking the human and relational dimensions out of these and instead to just focus on a cause. But poverty, justice and care of creation is a really relational, person focused thing.

    What we do and how we live as whole life disciples, in evangelism, social action and lots more besides all matters as you have brilliantly articulated.

  6. Linaso Ongyu says:

    Save the seals! God is a man made concept. No theory involved at all.

    Look after the planet, and leave the world’s population free from evangelisers.

  7. Grace says:

    I’ve always believed that God reveals Himself through nature so it’s been wonderful to discover A Rocha which has affirmed and strengthened this understanding. Christians in general need this message about earthkeeping and I believe it is long overdue. Thank you for so clearly enunciating for me my firm conviction.

  8. Dalibor Warburton says:

    I think this also relates closely to the sacred/secular divide that is so embedded in many Christian cultures, see some of the excellent resources produced by LICC http://www.licc.org.uk focusing on whole life discipleship and work…

  9. Robert Marshall says:

    Just today wondering about what I do as a gardener and outside area teaching assistant. Also where my faith fits in. I thought need to get back to the theology, what God says. Thank you David. I read and wept this is my passion too. Gives me courage to not give up.

    The bit about St Francis bothers me at the moment, I don’t use words often to say why I do what I do.

  10. Robert Marshall says:

    Also let’s not forget The Great Commandment. love the lord your God with all your heart, soul mind and strength and your neighbour as yourself, human or otherwise. Or did someone mention that already?!

  11. Ken says:

    Just saving souls seems to be the rich man’s luxury. I’ll put forward a real example from Sarawak, Malaysia. Most of the forest-based people are Christians because they have been evangelised for more than a century. There are churches everywhere in the jungles where indigenous people groups are. Furthermore most of these interior churches are linked to town and city churches where political sway is held. But since the 1970s, it would seem that the church has remained quiet about state-directed logging, which impacts on the forest peoples’ ability to feed themselves. Today, most indigenous communities have to resort to cash cropping to survive, yet they keep their forests intact wherever logging hasn’t reached. Now, work has been authorised on a major series of over 50 hydroelectric dams, some mega-sized, that have displaced and dispossessed more than 10,000 people according to some estimates, leaving them unable to grow sufficient food nor survive in the cash economy. Still it seems the church remains silent.
    It may be easy for rich folks to imagine adaptation in their own system of “living on resources extracted elsewhere”, but for the Sarawak forest communities, and many other peoples whose livelihoods and survival depend on the immediate land and environment around them, the gospel is as important as the next meal.

    • Dave Bookless says:

      Thanks for sharing this – it’s a good example of how failing to believe and live the whole gospel – the good news of Christ for people and for all creation – leads to an irrelevant church, preaching an other-worldly message. The good news of the Kingdom of God must mean good news for forest communities threatened by unsustainable ‘development’ as well as for rich communities suffocated by addiction to over-consumption. The transformation the Gospel brings must ripple outwards from ‘souls’, to whole people, to whole communities, to the whole creation. Anything less belittles what Jesus has done through his birth, life, death, resurrection and ascension.

  12. […] conservation. We care for creation simply because God loves this world and tells us to care for it, as I’ve argued elsewhere. However, believing that the beauty and biodiversity of this planet, and our contributions towards […]

  13. […] Postado em 31 de maio de 2012 em http://blog.arocha.org/post/mission-saving-souls-or-saving-seals/ […]

  14. Great post – very insightful. I have actually just written a blog about Christianity’s need to step in and take responsibility for creation.

    “We Came in Like a Wrecking Ball”

    http://creationday.com/?page_id=40

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