Earth Day: The Southern Baptist Edition
Southern Baptist Environment & Climate Initiative
On March 10, 2008, a group of Southern Baptists issued a pro-environmental stewardship statement called “A Southern Baptist Environment and Climate Initiative.” Spearheaded by seminarian Jonathan Merritt, son of former SBC president James Merritt, the group featured a number of prominent pastors and agency heads including then SBC president Frank Page and Danny Akin, president of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. This Southern Baptist statement lamented the fact that the SBC’s previous engagement with environmental stewardship had been “too timid, failing to produce a unified voice.” The statement concluded, “Our cautious response to these issues in the face of mounting evidence may be seen by the world as uncaring, reckless and ill-informed. We can do better.”
Two years after this statement was released, I initiated contact with a number of the lesser-known early signatories to this stewardship statement. I was curious to learn how those pastors and their churches had addressed environmental issues. While many ignored my e-mail inquiry, the responses I did receive were interesting.
All of the pastors who responded affirmed that Christians have a responsibility to care for God’s creation. Several of the pastors who replied offered specific examples of their engagement with environmental issues. The pastor of a rural church detailed his efforts to preach conservation and preservation (habitat management). Another pastor wrote about his attempts to challenge anti-environment dispensationalist attitudes by emphasizing a more holistic view of salvation.
The majority of pastors that I surveyed, who publicly supported the Southern Baptist environment statement, acknowledged that they had done little to promote “Creation Care.” One pastor replied, “Yes, I did sign the SBC Declaration on the Environment…but that’s about the extent of my involvement.” A different pastor blamed his lack of attention to environmental stewardship on the “fanaticism” of environmentalists. Many noted that, as expository preachers, they cannot address our “God given responsibility” to be good stewards if the Bible does not explicitly mention this responsibility.
Southern Baptists of Texas Convention
After contacting a few dozen supporters of the Southern Baptist Environment & Climate Initiative (SBECI), I decided to survey pastors of churches affiliated with the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention. I contacted approximately 150 pastors. The response rate was the lowest of all the groups I informally surveyed. While just over thirty pastors responded, their replies – often hostile or humorous (sometimes both) are worth noting.
The vast majority of pastors admitted that they had never addressed environmental stewardship from the pulpit. Stewardship of the earth was clearly not on any list of priorities or commitments. Some did express their commitment to stewardship and a handful offered up their congregation’s recycling program as one example of that commitment. These pastors were in the minority, however. One anti-recycling pastor explained that he “finds the environmental pushings of the media wrong, intrusive, and most of the time obnoxious.”
A different pastor wrote, “The consensus is among our people that while using up all of our earth’s resources and man-made pollution are problems, man-made global warming is foolishness.” Declaring global warming a hoax, the pastor offered that the “biggest danger…is thermo-nuclear war which 2 Peter and Matthew 24 and Revelation indicate will shortly destroy all life in the ocean, pollute all the rivers and streams, destroy all the trees, and kill 3.5 billion people, drastically raising the temperature of the earth while blotting out the sun.”
While my informal survey certainly does not claim to be scientific, I think these findings provide a helpful glimpse at the relationship of today’s Southern Baptists with the ethic of environmental stewardship. As the long-list of signatories to Jonathan Merritt’s SBECI declaration reveal, there are Southern Baptists who recognize that more needs to be done to fulfill the biblical responsibility to care for God’s creation. Yet, many of these pastors have not been able to make the words of the Southern Baptist statement meaningful through concrete action.
Unfortunately, the SBC does nothing to cultivate an applied stewardship ethic. As Christians across the nation are celebrating Earth Week or “Creation Week,” Baptist Press has published yet another op-ed from Calvin Beisiner, the leading evangelical anti-environmentalist. With friends like Beisner, it seems unlikely that the SBC will shed its “uneasy ecological conscience” anytime in the foreseeable future despite the passionate pleas of Jonathan Merritt and Dr. Russell Moore.
A future column will detail the my findings from surveying pastors of churches affiliated with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship and the Alliance of Baptists.