Summary: God enables his people to impact the world through the changes his grace works into us.
The word “dominion” connotes bad feelings for many. We are sensitive to the dominion of the tyrant oppressing for self-centered gain, or the husband cowering wife and children for his own pleasure, or the dominion of a religious fanatic who enjoys feeling god-like, or even the abuse of our environment in the name of dominion over creation. The hope of a benevolent dictator still appears in movies and fairy tales, but few of us imagine that such exists here and now. The sinful nature especially appears in relationships where one is in authority over another, so that the old saying proves true, “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
So you may be surprised that God gives Adam and Eve what Bible students call a “dominion mandate,” a calling to subdue as rulers in God’s stead.
But as Dr. Donald Gowan writes in his book, From Eden to Babel, 30: “The truth is that the real earth must be subdued if people are to survive. The weather, hostile animals, and infertile soil threaten life and must be struggled against, something the present triumphs of technology may lead us to forget. We live in a world that technology has subdued with such devastating effects, in some cases, that we now find the words of v. 28 to be somewhat of an embarrassment. Some have blamed all of our current environmental ills on these words; but that is surely a historical mistake, for people’s real motives for ecological irresponsibility have seldom been the desire to take Scripture seriously. Some have appealed to Genesis 1.28 when challenged, but such arguments tend to be after the fact. If we can imagine what it was like to live in the pretechnological world, where frail human beings were vulnerable to a terrifying array of natural forces, we may see that for people of that time ‘subdue’ was not too strong a term.”
Today we study God’s calling to rule over creation, especially in light of our sin and God’s grace. We have three texts; the first is the calling of the dominion mandate in Genesis 1, then the two New Testament texts that call for us to be recreated in the image of God through faith in Jesus Christ.
[Read Genesis 1.26-2.1: Colossians 3.9b-10: “You have put off the old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator.” Ephesians 4.22-24: “Put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.”
One of great Christian thinkers of the 20th century was Francis Schaeffer. He wrote about living out the Christian faith in a morally failing world. The title of one of his books was an especially appropriate question: How Should We Then Live? Schaeffer seeks answers to questions like, “What is the relation between a Christian and the culture? What are Christians to do in and to this world? Does the call to take dominion remain as it was given Adam?”
It seems that Christians offer two very different but equally incorrect answers.
One proposal is to hide our light, to retreat from the world, to keep religion to ourselves. Named, “Pietism,” this perspective suggests that faith should be personal and private, creating what has been called “The Naked Public Square,” a society without the light and truth of supernatural, revealed religion to guide its passions.
Someone once asked Jesus when the kingdom of God would come. He answered, “The kingdom of God is not coming with signs to be observed, nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There!’ for behold, the kingdom of God is in the midst of you [or it could be translated, ‘the kingdom of God is within you’]” (Luke 17.20-21). A pietistic view of how we should then live makes that the complete word on the subject, so the kingdom is only internal, without effect or influence.
The opposite opinion, “triumphalism,” wants Christians to force
truth on others. Seeming to ignore Jesus’ words in Luke 17, this position makes the kingdom completely external, where truth changes the world without regard to the preference of the people or even whether it has properly impacted us.
There is a third way. Yes, the kingdom is within you and its influence radiates out. Its power is not coercion of the body, but persuasion of the soul and conscience. Its rule advances by the grace of the gospel as it changes hearts and lives. Matthew Henry, “It weans from the world those who were wedded to the world, and makes those that were proud, and vain, and carnal, into those who are humble, and serious, and heavenly.”