The cultural mandate: Living as divine image-bearersWritten by Subby Szterszky
What's inside this article
To many Christians, the cultural mandate may sound more like a United Nations resolution than a teaching of Scripture. But in fact, it’s the first instruction God gave to the original human couple. Also called the creation mandate, it’s in the opening chapter of Genesis:
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” (Genesis 1:27-28).
This primordial truth unfolds across the rest of Scripture and extends into every area of life. But for all that, it often gets distorted or ignored by large swaths of the faith community, to say nothing of those outside it. And yet when properly grasped, the cultural mandate casts an inspiring, joyful vision for human flourishing within God’s created order.
A few misconceptions addressed
One of the best short summaries of the cultural mandate comes from Nancy Pearcey in her book, Total Truth:
In Genesis, God gives what we might call the first job description: “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it.” The first phrase, “be fruitful and multiply” means to develop the social world: build families, churches, schools, cities, governments, laws. The second phrase, “subdue the earth,” means to harness the natural world: plant crops, build bridges, design computers, compose music. This passage is sometimes called the Cultural Mandate because it tells us that our original purpose was to create cultures, build civilizations – nothing less.
Sadly this divine mandate has been twisted at times to justify cultural arrogance, abuse of the natural world and brutal subjugation of others, all in the belief that “God is on our side.” At the other extreme are those who feel the cultural mandate no longer applies in a fallen world. With the coming of Christ, they argue, all that matters is personal salvation. Beyond the bare minimum, cultural pursuits are irrelevant at best, dangerous at worst.
But the weight of Scripture smothers these caricatures. The cultural mandate is a creation ordinance, linked to our identity as beings made in God’s image. Despite sin and the fall, it applies to all people at all times, Christian and otherwise. It doesn’t permit humans to act like God’s spoiled trust-fund kids, but calls for humble, responsible care of what he has entrusted to us. And since God is redeeming his whole creation, the Great Commission doesn’t negate the cultural mandate, but fulfills it.
Male and female image-bearers
The most foundational truth of human existence is that we’re made by God in his image to be his representatives in his created world. This is what gives us our unique humanness, along with the intrinsic dignity and value of every human life. As God’s image-bearers, we reflect his attributes of personhood: self-awareness, relational capacity, creativity, intellect, emotions, volition, moral agency. As God’s representatives, we’re to use those attributes to fill, develop and oversee his creation to his glory.
According to the creation account, humanity’s status as divine imagers and representatives is shared by women and men alike. But in many societies and the church itself, this balance has been tilted away from women, their role in the cultural mandate restricted to the part about being fruitful and multiplying.
And yet, the pages of Scripture are filled with stories of women – Miriam, Deborah, Sheerah, Abigail, Huldah, Esther, Mary, Joanna, Lydia, Damaris, Phoebe, Priscilla and many more – who led nations, counselled kings, built cities, wrote songs and poetry, ran businesses, engaged in scholarly debate, taught disciples and financed missions. In God’s world, both women and men play multifaceted roles in the work of human flourishing.
Order from chaos
In the beginning, God’s creation was formless, empty and dark before he said, “Let there be light.” In other words, God chose to create the universe by bringing order out of chaos. In essence, all human creative activity mirrors this process. Designing a new building, arranging a room for beauty and comfort, developing a medicine, writing a computer program, painting a picture – all of it involves bringing structure and order to “chaotic” elements for human benefit and enjoyment.
Unlike God, humans don’t create ex nihilo, out of nothing. Instead, we use the knowledge and talents he’s given us to rearrange the materials he’s provided. Nevertheless, the principle remains the same: order from chaos.
Kind, compassionate authority
For modern Christians, the cultural mandate’s language of subduing and having dominion doesn’t always sit well. This is understandable, given our track record of careless, heavy-handed abuse. The preferred terms these days are stewardship and accountability which, while helpful, carry the baggage of being buzzwords in politics and commerce. Not only are they overused to the point of cliché, but they create an impression of humanity as soulless middle managers, coldly crunching numbers and moving resources around.
As God’s ambassadors, humans are indeed stewards accountable to him for how we use his creation. But we also have a genuine warrant to exercise benevolent authority – dominion in the best sense – over that creation. Beyond both principles, however, we’re to reflect the heart of our Maker in showing compassionate care and appreciation for the good things he has made. Respect for the environment, cultivation of the land, love of nature, the kind and humane treatment of animals, all stem from a proper scriptural awareness of our role as caretakers of God’s good world.
Exploring and harnessing creation
Because God’s world is good, it’s also worth exploring and harnessing. Indeed, by God’s own command, it’s humanity’s privilege and pleasure to do so. This guiding truth was responsible for the birth of modern science and technology, as we understand them. Men and women of faith wondered at the mysteries of the universe and probed its secrets, or else they studied the complexities of the human body, fearfully and wonderfully made. Building on those discoveries, they devised new ways to cure illnesses, alleviate suffering and improve the quality of life.
Even today, when many people of science reject God, they still marvel at the wonders of his creation as they enjoy the benefits that come from a better understanding of it. Some of them argue that the more we know, the less we see mystery or the need for a Creator. But those with eyes to see recognize that it’s the other way around. The heavens continue to declare the glory of God, in ways the ancients could never have dreamed.
Creating and enjoying beauty
It can be argued, as Dorothy Sayers did in The Mind of the Maker, that creativity is the chief attribute of God on display in the first chapter of Genesis, and thus the chief sense in which humans are made in his image. God declared all of his creation good, and the existence of aesthetic beauty, along with our ability to appreciate it, is powerful evidence that he exists and that he has designed us to reflect his likeness. Our own impulse to create and enjoy beautiful things further reinforces this divine connection.
Strangely enough, the church has at times sought to stifle this creative, aesthetic impulse as worldly or dangerous. At other times, it has reduced artistic activity to a pragmatic function, useful only for expressing overt religious messages.
But the Scriptures know nothing of this “taste not, touch not, handle not” mentality. They’re brimming with imagery that appeals to the senses and the imagination: vineyards, fig trees and olive groves; lions and serpents; the night sky splashed with countless stars; valiant warriors and beautiful women; multi-winged creatures flying through the heavens; the richest food and best wine, served at the marriage feast of the Lamb. In our own experience, we have gourmet meals and great music and brilliant movies and solar eclipses to remind us that God has lavished on us every good thing that we create or enjoy.
The pursuit of excellence
The ancient Greeks had a word, arete, translated as excellence or virtue, to express the idea that all people and all things should rise to their best potential. The New Testament authors adopted this term to describe ethical, cultural and intellectual virtue, and to urge believers to ponder and pursue things that are excellent.
This plays out in every avenue of life, but especially in the area of work and calling. In light of the cultural mandate, there is no real distinction between sacred and secular vocations. Doctors, teachers, homemakers, artists and construction workers are all doing the work God has assigned them, no less than pastors and missionaries. As such, each is to pursue their calling not obsessively, but with a view to performing it with excellence.
The welfare of the city
One of the primary ways the cultural mandate echoes the character of God is in its outward focus, its orientation of doing good to others and to the world at large. God calls people to seek the welfare of the city, or in other words, the society where he has placed them. He does this himself, as when he sends Jonah to preach to Nineveh, so that he might show mercy to “that great city, in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle.”
This injunction will take different forms for different people at different times. In many societies past and present, average citizens have no political voice, while in others, they are able to work for substantial social change. Through their work and other activities, they can contribute to the economic welfare and cultural enrichment of their society. In all cases, whether in big or small ways, they can advocate the cause of the marginalized and the oppressed, and promote peace and justice in the land where they live.
All truth is God’s truth
During the early centuries of the church, there was a dispute between Tertullian, who felt that pagan philosophy had nothing useful to offer, and Justin Martyr, who believed that all truth was God’s truth, regardless of its source. But with the cultural mandate in view – not to mention Paul the Apostle quoting some of those pagan philosophers in his sermons and letters – it would appear Justin Martyr was the one who got it right.
God sends his sun and his rain on both the righteous and the unrighteous. He grants talents and wisdom to those who don’t know him. He gives the capacity to do good, show kindness and create beauty, even to those who reject him. This is what theologians call common grace. Whether knowingly or not, all people participate in God’s work of bringing order and benefit to his creation.
The Great Commission
According to God’s eternal plan, his Son was slain from before the foundation of the world, in order to save his people from their sins. But the plan encompasses far more than that. Through Christ, God is in the process of redeeming his whole creation, to the praise and glory of his name. This plan is playing out as a cosmic drama, a grand narrative of creation, fall, redemption and restoration.
In the mind of some Christians, however, the first and last acts of the narrative get chopped off, leaving a truncated middle section of fall and redemption. This leads to the distorted view that individual salvation is the only relevant concern for believers. Best to just retreat from the world and let it go its own way. Anything else is a waste of time and a dangerous flirtation with worldliness.
But the full redemption narrative doesn’t allow for this option. From the beginning, humanity was mandated to represent God, build culture and bring shalom to his world. Although compromised by the fall, the mandate remains in place and is fulfilled in Christ, the true God and true man who will ultimately restore his creation.
Via the Great Commission, Jesus told his disciples to teach everything he had commanded them. At the heart of this teaching is the Gospel message of Jesus’ death and resurrection on behalf of sinners. But it also includes everything else in Scripture, including God’s first instructions to the original human couple. All of it finds its shape and flows from the Gospel, bearing the authority of Jesus. And so the cultural mandate continues to be a means of flourishing for all people, and most especially for those who know the Lord.
Sources and further reading
D.A. Carson, Christ and Culture Revisited, Eerdmans, 2008.
Joe Carter, “Be fruitful. Multiply. We may be creating a harmful misperception of the true meaning of the cultural mandate,” Cardus Comment, November 5, 2010.
Joe Carter, “How God makes a pencil,” The Gospel Coalition, February 3, 2015.
Charles Colson and Nancy Pearcey, How Now Shall We Live?, Tyndale, 1999.
Jonathan Dodson, “Missional discipleship: Reinterpreting the Great Commission,” Boundless, February 12, 2008.
David T. Koyzis, “What the cultural mandate is not,” First Things, November 30, 2011.
Art Lindsley, “Creation, fall, redemption,” C.S. Lewis Institute: Knowing and Doing, Winter 2009.
Art Lindsley, “The call to creativity,” Institute for Faith, Work and Economics, October 7, 2013.
Gabe Lyons, “Cultural influence: An opportunity for the church,” Cardus Comment, March 1, 2008.
Dustin Messer, “The cultural mandate: Being God’s servants in God’s world,” Kuyperian Commentary, May 27, 2015.
Nancy Pearcey, Total Truth: Liberating Christianity from its Cultural Captivity, Crossway, 2004.
John Piper, “How to engage culture and swim against it,” Desiring God, September 11, 2015.
Irene Smith, “What’s missing from the American dream for women? Look to the cultural mandate,” Institute for Faith, Work and Economics, April 7, 2016.
Hugh Whelchel, “Carrying out the cultural mandate is essential for biblical flourishing,” Institute for Faith, Work and Economics, May 18, 2015.
Andrew Wilson, “Four views on Christians and culture,” Think Theology, February 25, 2013.
Andrew Wilson, “Christians and culture: A proposal,” Think Theology, February 27, 2013.
Subby Szterszky is the managing editor of Focus on Faith and Culture, an e-newsletter produced by Focus on the Family Canada.
© 2017 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.
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