The Believer’s Three Callings, Part 3
Dominion in Proper Context
In the previous articles in this series, I discussed the Great Commandment and the Great Commission and argued that these were two of the three things God has called us to do. The Great Commandment, with a focus on loving our neighbor, means seeking our neighbors’ highest good. This finds its expression in the Great Commission, since our neighbors’ eternal fate depends on their response to Jesus. Our third calling—the Cultural Mandate—is also an expression of love of neighbor but applied directly to our life in this world.
The Cultural Mandate is not a topic that is discussed much except in some Reformed circles. The idea goes back to the very creation of humanity in Genesis 1:
Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.”
So God created man in his own image,
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them.
And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” (Gen. 1:26-28)
In the ancient Near East, saying someone was the image of a god meant that the person was claiming divine authority to rule as that god’s regent on earth. That this was the intention in Genesis is shown by the fact that immediately after saying we would be made in God’s image is the statement that we were to be given dominion over the earth and everything in it. Dominion is expressed by being fruitful and multiplying, and filling and subduing the earth.
It is important to recognize the trajectory of the account in Genesis 1 if we are to appreciate fully what dominion means. The chapter begins with a formless earth that is gradually built into a series of habitats that are then filled with inhabitants, with humanity as the crown of this process. We are then given dominion and told to fill the earth and subdue it. The point is that in a very real sense, God is handing off the responsibility to develop the world to humanity. He began the process, gave us the raw materials, and set us free to make use of those resources to build and develop culture.
That is what theologians refer to as the cultural mandate, and Genesis tells us it is the essence of who we are before God, the source of our dignity and distinctiveness over everything else in the physical world, and the very purpose of our creation.
At the same time, dominion is not the same as domination. Scripture is clear that the earth is the Lord’s, not ours, and though he lends us authority over it, it is the authority of a steward, not an owner. We will answer to God for what we do with the world he has placed in our charge.
With the Fall in Genesis 3, our dominion was not removed but was made more painful—the same word is used for “pain in childbearing” and pain in producing the fruit of the ground (Gen. 3:16-17). So our work is made more difficult, but our mandate to have dominion over the earth is never taken away. This is reinforced in Genesis 9, where God tells us that even after the Fall we retain his image (Gen. 9:6).
With redemption in Christ, the effects of the Fall have been reversed: our relationship with God is restored, our relationships with ourselves and with each other begin to heal, and so we should also expect the effects of the Fall on our relationship with nature and on our work to begin to heal as well. In other words, in Christ we should expect to find a growing ability to fulfill the purpose of our Creation in this world, not just in the next.
What does this mean for us?
First, we need to recover a biblical view of vocation. The word vocation comes from the Latin vocatio, meaning “calling.” A vocation is a calling from God on a person’s life. In Catholicism, having a vocation means a call to the clergy. Protestants recognized that all occupations could be callings from God, leading to our modern usage of the word to mean something like “profession.” We will return to that concept in our next article. Here, though, we need to recognize that we all have multiple callings that extend far beyond our work. I am called to be a husband, a father, a college professor, a worldview teacher, a writer, a Sunday school teacher, a member of my church and my community, and probably several other things as well. My responsibility to fulfill the Cultural Mandate is connected to all of those vocations.
The Essential Role of Family
In Genesis, the Cultural Mandate is intimately tied to the family. The dominion given to humanity begins with being fruitful and multiplying, and developing the earth was likewise a joint task for the two of them together. The effect of the Fall was not only to make the two halves of the mandate more difficult to achieve but to set Adam and Eve against each other, striking at the very heart of their dominion over the world and distorting the image of God that they carried together. But in Christ, that division is to be healed.
For Christians, then, the first essential element of living out the cultural mandate today is to rebuild family life. That means reaffirming the permanence of marriage, the importance of both fathers and mothers for children, the primary responsibility of parents for their children’s education and spiritual formation, and all of the other things that are components of the conjugal conception of marriage taught in Scripture. It is absolutely incumbent on us as Christians to recover and to do everything we can to promote this understanding of marriage in the church, to get our own house in order, and then to advocate these ideas in the public square.
This will be an unpopular stand in America today as the country is increasingly turning away from the conjugal vision of marriage. We will be challenged about “imposing our views” on others, or accused of being bigots and homophobes. There are answers for both of these accusations, but this is not the place to go into them. The question we need to ask is why we must take this stand.
The answer is simple: we are doing so to fulfill the Great Commandment.
The culture tells us that if we really loved homosexuals, we would want them to marry and be happy like heterosexuals can. But biblically, love is seeking our neighbor’s highest good. So the question is whether we believe that God knew what was best for us when he gave us instruction in Scripture, and whether he genuinely had our best interests at heart. If he did, if we agree that God’s ways are the best for us, then if we love our neighbor we must do what we can to promote biblical norms and values in society. And that includes marriage. The alternative—encouraging our neighbor to pursue something that will ultimately not be for their highest good—is anything but loving.
There will undoubtedly be a price we will have to pay to take this stand, but in the long run, and especially from the perspective of eternity, the price for not taking the stand will be far higher and will be marked by lives ruined by the increasingly dysfunctional and irrational family structures that are being put in place even today.
Family is only the beginning, however. The cultural mandate extends to our communities and our churches as well. Historically, Christians have always been at the forefront of fights for true social justice, and we need to continue to play that role in society. We need to be agents of reconciliation between people of different races, ethnicities, cultures, and socio-economic status. The Gospel is the only power that can unite people across any and all divisions in the world, and yet our churches are still largely segregated by race. This should not be, and we need to take active steps to try to break down those divisions. We need to be agents of reconciliation in this and other areas of division.
And above all, we need to be those agents for those who are broken and hurting, for the prisoners, the handicapped, the unwanted, and yes, even for those in the LGBTQ community. We must treat everyone with dignity and respect, especially with those with whose lifestyle or past we disagree. The Gospel tells us we are all sinners, and we must remember our own sin so that when we have to take a stand for truth against others’ sins it is done in genuine humility and love. This too is part of building culture.
The Believer’s Three Callings, Part 3
This content on the reliability of the Bible was originally printed in Decision Magazine. False Impressions “I don’t want to take a bath—I’m clean enough!” My impassioned protests as a six-year-old at bedtime were quickly rebuffed by this powerful tool from my parents’ arsenal of guilt-inducing mottoes: “The Bible says that cleanliness is next to godliness!” […]