On Service and Dominion

I would like to briefly consider the seeming paradox believers face in thinking about the relationship between being stewards of God’s creation contrasted with the palpable disinterest in worldly endeavors that seems a part of the New Testament narrative.

Specifically, I’ve been thinking about Peter’s description of Christians as "sojourners and exiles" (I Peter 2:11-12). Interestingly, immediately after this passage, Peter moves on to a discussion of civil authority and the obligations, duties and responsibilities of citizenship. So how exactly are we exiles and citizens at the same time, and what holds these two strands together?

Beyond Peter, James says that our life is like a vapor. Christ indicates that His Kingdom is not of this world. Paul says that our citizenship is not of this world, but is in heaven. We sing ditties like this:
This worlds not my home, I’m just a-passin’ through
My treasures are laid up somewhere beyond the blue
The angel beckons me from heaven’s open door
And I just can’t live at home in this world anymore.
Conversely, scripture commands the exercise dominion on God’s behalf. "Be fruitful, multiply, and subdue the earth" was the command given to Adam and Noah, and it hasn’t been revoked. We’re told to go "and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you." Jesus taught his disciples to pray, "thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on EARTH as it is in heaven." Likewise, we sing "This is Our Father’s World" and we believe that redemption extends as far as the curse is found.

How shall we reason through the paradox? How is that we exercise dominion while being exiles and sojourners?

First, we must make a distinction between being in and of the world. The word "world" is used in numerous ways throughout scripture, as it is in modern parlance. To think of the world as the created order or as a geographic area, for instance, is different from considering it as an ethical system.

Scripture affirms that God loved the world (John 3:16), the cosmos, and thus sent His Son to perish for its ultimate redemption and glorification (Rom. 8:21). Likewise, Genesis says that God created the world and that everything he saw was "good." In Col. 1 we read of the supremacy of Christ, and His role as creator: "For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities--all things were created through him and for him" (v. 16). Christ also sustains all things via His providential hand (v. 17).

Further, in the Bible men are never saved out of this world, but are recreated in Christ for the purpose of serving Him (Eph. 2:10). Christ’s prayer in John 17 is clear: "I pray not that thou shouldest take them out of the world, but that thou shouldest keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, even as I am not of the world."

So "the world" as the benevolent gift and creation of God is something that is good, something we should work to restore. But world often has another meaning, too. It is frequently used to represent an ethical system. See the thoughts of Greg Bahnsen discussing Satan as the "prince of this world":
It is quite common for the term "world" to be used, not in a geographic sense, but in an ethical sense…the immoral realm of disobedience…The “world” represents the life of man apart from God and bound to sinful impulses. Thus, when scriptural writers speak of "the world," they often mean the world in so far as it is ethically separated from God...the world is that realm which is dominated by Satan and his standards…[and] must be interpreted [in many passages] as the kingdom of darkness, the city of reprobate man.
Often in the New Testament, commands about fleeing from worldliness don't imply a retreat into monasticism or pietism, but to keep our minds and hearts from conforming to the wicked ways of "the world," meaning the ethical system characterized by Satan’s standards.

A better way to understand the passage in I Peter, however, is simply to allow scripture to interpret scripture. Many of Peter’s readers would have been familiar with the words of Jeremiah. Writing to exiles in Babylon, Jeremiah, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, penned these words:
Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare (Jer. 29:5-7)
Then in verse 10 we read God’s promise: "When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place."

There are two things happening here. First, the people could look ahead to a future promise, a future restoration in their homeland. They had great and wonderful prospects for a future deliverance from exile. Likewise, so do Christians.

At the same time, they didn‘t eschew their responsibilities in history, for it is by God‘s providential hand that they had been placed in their circumstances. The language employed by Jeremiah--"build houses," "multiply there," "seek the welfare of the city"--echoes the language of the Cultural Mandate. It is, in short, the language of dominion.

What ties these two seemingly contradictory ideas together is the Christian understanding of service--or as Peter says in verse 12, having conduct that is honorable and doing good deeds.

Such deeds, empowered by the Holy Spirit, are ultimately blessed by God, who brings a harvest of souls as a result. Christians ultimately have different ideas about dominion than those in "the world." Non-believers make the mistake of assuming that power is simply wielded indiscriminately for personal benefit. Christians, on the other hand, believe that true power and authority stem from a foundation in service.

Think about the example we are to emulate in Christ. Matthew says, "whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave— just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many" (Matt. 20:26-28). Paul says that "Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: he humbled Himself and became obedient to death." And what was the result of His servanthood? Paul continues: "Therefore god exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name" (Phil. 2:5,9).

So we are to serve. Jesus says we are to seek first the kingdom of God, and ultimately success, or dominion--represented by the visible expansion of God’s Kingdom in every aspect of life--is accomplished by service to God, which is usually accomplished by serving other men and God’s creation.

Consider missionaries headed for an overseas appointment. They are leaving their home to become sojourners and aliens in a foreign land. Their ultimate home is heaven, but they are leaving the comforts of their temporal home behind. They will be subject to the laws of a new land and will learn to speak new languages, adapt where possible to new and strange customs--basically go native, all for the purpose of doing good to others and ultimately proclaiming the excellencies of God (I Peter 2:9). Sitting in our wealthy and blessed land, we think this the height of spirituality. And yet, we are likewise aliens in similar circumstances and our goal should be to carefully think through how to apply the same principles in our day-to-day lives.


Anonymous said…
Good post. Though we aren't to "store up" treasures on earth, this doesn't mean God hasn't placed a mandate on mankind to subdue and take dominion over it. It is our Father's world and as a result we are His laborers accomplishing His purposes. Our dominion is only secondary, God is the great sovereign. It is Him we ultimately serve in our work here.
Darrell said…
There is tension all around in that we must not become attached to world and yet if we are detached from it, we become dehumanized.

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