Are Churches Replacing Theology with Ecology?

Are too many churches these days more concerned about saving the earth than saving souls?

A British sociologist and a prominent American theologian are among those who might say so.

Frank Furedi, who teaches at the University of Kent in the United Kingdom, suggested that churches have replaced theology with ecology, using ecological virtues as a platform to assert their authority in society.

"In recent years, some in the church have sought to gain the public's ear through the greening of traditional doctrines, and Christ the Savior is fast becoming Christ the environmental activist," wrote Furedi in a recent article that appeared in the independent online publication Spiked.

"Western society is continually in search of rituals and symbols through which moral probity can be affirmed," he continued. "It appears that, for many church leaders, the project of saving the planet offers more opportunities for reconstituting rituals and symbols than the saving of souls."

As an example, Furedi pointed to the Church of England which launched an "eco-crusade" entitled Shrinking the Footprint in 2006.

The head of the Church of England, Archbishop of Canterbury Dr. Rowan Williams, had complained that "early modern religion contributed to the idea that the fate of nature is for it to be bossed around by a detached sovereign will, whether divine or human."

In response, Furedi suggested the possibility that those "misguided early modern religionists" had received that idea from the Book of Genesis, which gives the account of when God gave mankind dominion over all the Earth and every "creeping thing that creepth upon the earth."

He also criticized Williams for protesting "about nature being 'bossed around' not only by Man but by God."

Dr. R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, agrees that ecological concerns appear to act as a replacement for "abandoned doctrines" and "outdated concerns" – such as evangelism.

"Furedi's argument is both insightful and troubling," wrote Mohler in his blog after reading the British sociologists' comments. "There can be no doubt that his argument is true with respect to many churches and denominations."

As Mohler observed, creation care and climate change has increasingly become an important as well as divisive issue for Christians and churches in America.

Although nearly all Christian leaders affirm the need to protect God's creation, many split when it comes to the reality of global warming and prioritizing environmental concerns among other moral issues.

During a U.S. senate committee hearing in June, a panel of evangelical, mainline and Catholic leaders debated the reality of global warming with both sides referencing the Bible for support.

The Most Rev. Dr. Katharine Jefferts Schori, the head of The Episcopal Church and a former oceanographer, said she believed global warming is real and mainly caused by humans. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Rev. Jim Ball of the Evangelical Climate Initiative (ECI) also sided with Schori's positions.

Yet others at the hearing, including a Southern Baptist representative, resisted from confirming the reality of global warming and criticized the use of the Bible to back environmental positions.

"The SBC and other like-minded evangelical groups are not opposed to environmental protection," said Dr. Russell Moore, dean of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary's school of theology and senior vice president for academic administration. "We are, however, concerned about the ways in which religious arguments are used in this debate, possibly with harmful consequences both for public policy and for the mission of the church."

The Southern Baptist Convention is the nation's largest protestant denomination with 16 million members and 42,000 churches.

Moore affirmed that Southern Baptists do care about global warming "because the creation reveals the glory of God," but that science does not absolutely support humans being the main cause for global warming and that cutting carbon emissions will be in the best interest for the majority of the world's population.

In another incident, high-profile evangelical leaders voiced concern over the priority of global warming among other social issues.

Earlier this year, dozens of prominent evangelical leaders criticized the National Association of Evangelicals' vice president, the Rev. Richard Cizik, for his global warming activism.

These leaders, which included conservative ministry leaders Dr. James Dobson and Gary Bauer, criticized Cizik's green activism for stealing the spotlight from what they deemed as more important issues – such as abortion and same-sex "marriage." In a letter to the NAE board, the leaders called the board to either stop Cizik from speaking about global warming or for his forced resignation.

In the end, the NAE board sided with Cizik and even adopted an official stance on climate change.

"Christians do bear a responsibility to be good stewards of the earth," acknowledged Mohler. "This is not an easy responsibility to bear in the confusing context of modern ecological debates."

However, he emphasized, "[t]he church of Jesus Christ bears the responsibility to be the steward of the Gospel above all other concerns."

Both Furedi and Mohler warned that although creation care is a biblical responsibility, a church that makes saving the earth its core mission will ultimately lose authority because scientists will always be regarded as the expert in this field.

"We should take note when a sociologist like Frank Furedi sees the picture so clearly. Why does he see what so many other miss?" questioned Mohler.

"When a church forfeits its God-given mission, no other mission matters," he concluded.

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