What is the Subdue and Rule Mandate?
In short, it’s a command that explains humanity’s superior status within God’s creation.
The Bible says, “God blessed them, and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful, multiply, fill the earth, and subdue it. Rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, and every creature that crawls on the earth’” (Genesis 1:28, italics author).
Genesis 1:26 confirms the reason God created humanity – to rule the earth, “Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, according to our likeness. They will rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, the livestock, the whole earth, and the creatures that crawl on the earth.’” Yes, God created us to rule over the earth and its creatures. Later on, we’ll have a fun look at what it means to be made in God’s image.
The Subdue and Rule Mandate is a biblical truth that only some Christians know about because they’ve actually read Genesis 1. But even if they’ve read Genesis 1, they miss the Subdue and Rule Mandate because it’s a short command split between two verses. Also, since too many Christians believe Genesis is only a fanciful story, the command to subdue and rule the earth is usually given just a nod as the reader excitedly moves along to the Fall, the Flood, and other more captivating Bible “stories” (like the media says, “If it bleeds, it leads”).
However, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that we human beings are in a unique position relative to God’s creation. Contrary to the claims of radical environmentalists and rabid animal rights activists, it’s generally acknowledged that humanity stands head and shoulders above the earth and its creatures. In the hierarchy of God’s creation, we’re on top.
But while only some people acknowledge the Subdue and Rule Mandate and fewer understand it, absolutely everyone lives it 24/7/365. The Subdue and Rule Mandate reveals itself through our God-given inherent drive to bring the world around us under control and maintain that control. The Subdue and Rule Mandate drives people to establish dominion in their personal world and exert control.
So, from where did the Subdue and Rule Mandate, the dominion drive come?
The Subdue and Rule Mandate is part of God’s original creation covenant with His newly formed, two-member family in Genesis’ first two chapters. (We’ll talk about this original creation covenant later.) Genesis 1 and 2 have two perspectives of the same creation event. To understand the flow of events from the beginning, we must start in Genesis 2, not chapter 1.
Genesis’ author (Moses) was typically Hebraic in his approach in that chronology was less important to him than documenting the actual events. In Genesis 2, God first creates the earth and then creates the Man (Genesis 2:4-7). Next, God creates a perfect human habitat on the earth called Eden, into which He places the Man (Genesis 2:8). Think of Eden as a rich, finely cultivated, and well-watered farm on the edge of a vast virgin wilderness that has never seen a person. God then tasks the newly-formed Man to care for his God-designed “living space.”
But God wasn’t finished. Man needed help, so God created the Man’s perfect counterpart, the Woman, to help him in his work (Genesis 2:20-24). Not only would she provide the necessary help, but so would their soon-to-arrive offspring. Only after God created the Woman was His creative work finished and declared “very good” (Genesis 1:31). After that, God’s “work” transitioned from human creation to human development and stewardship of His creation.
Now let’s turn back to Genesis 1. The Man and the Woman stand before God within the safe and secure confines of the Garden of Eden. He gives them two positive commands, 1) have babies, “Be fruitful, multiply, fill the earth…” (Genesis 1:28a), and 2) bring the earth and its creatures under their control and ongoing management, “… and subdue it. Rule …” (Genesis 1:28b).
As the Couple cared for their personal living space, they were to extend Eden’s boundaries by subduing the wild and wooly untamed world outside of Eden’s limits and then keep it under control. They were to care for the newly conquered territory as they had been doing with their original living space. Naturally, as finite beings, there was only so much two people could handle. Therefore, God’s Reproduce Mandate (Genesis 1:28) was a necessary complement to His Subdue and Rule Mandate. Having children was not to replace a dying population, for death was unknown at that time. God intended for children to expand the “family business” of subduing and ruling the untamed world.
God’s first reason for creating the woman was for companionship and cooperative help with the Man’s Gardening and Expansion Project. God’s second reason was to expand the workforce to handle the increasing workload and responsibilities. The more territory the Couple annexed from the earthly wilderness for Eden, the more personnel would be needed to maintain Eden’s order. Pretty basic stuff, really.
However, while the Reproduce Mandate is self-explanatory, the Subdue and Rule Mandate needs clarification. What does it mean to Subdue and Rule the earth? Here is how many contemporary scholars view it. (Hold on, we’re going to get into the theological weeds a bit.)
On the surface, modern scholars generally define the Subdue and Rule mandate as either the Cultural Mandate or the Stewardship Mandate. The Cultural Mandate is explained as “God … sent his highest creature, man, out into creation, and commissioned him to rule over it. In this commission, it is implied that man is to make full use of his ability to learn about the whole creation. For by coming to understand the creation, man will be able to predict and control its actions. These activities are not optional but are part of the responsibility that goes with being God’s highest creature” (Millard Erickson, Systematic Theology).
The Cultural Mandate focuses on human activity and interaction within creation and the creation of human culture as part of God’s creation. Culture is defined as the “…arts, beliefs, customs, institutions, and other products of human work and thought considered as a unit, especially with regard to a particular time or social group” (Culture, American Heritage Dictionary). In short, culture is the byproduct of all human activity on earth (Manahan, A Reexamination of the Cultural Mandate: An Analysis and Evaluation of the Dominion Materials).
Before the Fall, it’s safe to assume that human culture was perfectly aligned with God’s moral standard. After the Fall is another matter. Post-Fall, the Cultural Mandate is seen “as a command to redeem the larger culture from the distorting effects of sin” (Koyzis, What The Cultural Mandate Is Not). The Cultural Mandate has been extended and linked to the work of transforming a sin-warped human society through the Great Commission and the need for the Gospel’s influence upon humanity’s global social order.
Amped-up forms of this view have morphed into Dominion theology (also known as Kingdom Theology), in which Christians are encouraged to actively “bring Godly change to a nation by reaching its seven spheres, or mountains, of societal influence” (The Seven Mountains of Societal Influence, Generals International, generals.org).
Extreme Dominionist teachings urge Christians to take physical control over key sectors of society to establish God’s dominion over the earth. The cultural mountains or “seven facets of society” to be brought under God’s control are “Religion, Family, Education, Government, Media, Arts and Entertainment, and Business” (ibid).
The other view of the Subdue and Rule Mandate is the Stewardship Mandate which emphasizes stewardship rather than society and culture. The Stewardship Mandate is defined as “…exercising our God-given dominion over His creation, reflecting the image of our creator God in His care, responsibility, maintenance, protection, and beautification of His creation” (R.C. Sproul, What is Biblical Stewardship?)
The Stewardship Mandate begins at the same point the Cultural Mandate does, human activity, but its focus is on managing our physical environment rather than shaping human culture. In a sense, the Cultural Mandate looks horizontally across human society. The Stewardship Mandate looks over and down at creation. That’s not bad. After all, we were created to care for the planet. In fact, all Christians should be the best, most natural, and well-balanced conservationists. But like the Cultural Mandate, the Stewardship Mandate has its extremist devotees due to prevalent environmental concerns. Sadly, this has led many well-meaning Christians into an unbalanced focus on environmental sustainability and even radical environmentalism.
While both views are part of the Subdue and Rule Mandate, they miss the fullness of what it means to subdue and rule the earth per God’s original command. Yes, God told the Couple what they are to do (explicit), but what’s overlooked is the crucial aspect of what humanity is not to do (implied).
God told the Man and the Woman to subdue the entire earthly environment and rule all creatures, but God did not tell them to subdue and rule each other. In other words, God never intended for the Subdue and Rule Mandate to be used by one person against or over another person. Ruling humanity belongs to God, and God alone as our Creator. Understanding this idea profoundly affects how we relate to God and other people. This unnoticed facet of the Subdue and Rule Mandate explains why humanity is at odds with God and each other.
Now before you run off half-informed, declaring to everyone, “God is the only One who can tell me what to do,” sit down and take a deep breath. We don’t live in the pre-Fall Edenic world. We live in a post-Fall, kicked-out-of-Eden world, making a huge difference. So relax.
When you see that God never intended for us to rule over each other and understand how it was perverted and misdirected, this revelation unlocks profound insights across the entire arc of the Bible.
This realization explains Israel’s history, the need for covenants, and the promise of the ultimate New Covenant. It illuminates why Jesus taught on specific topics, did the things He did, why He butted heads with the Jewish leadership, why Jesus was crucified and raised from the dead, and what He accomplished that changed humanity’s course.
Finally, learning the Subdue and Rule Mandate’s proper function as God designed it clarifies well-known teachings from the apostolic scriptures and unlocks a new perspective regarding God’s End-Time plan and Jesus’ return.
When you learn that we were never intended to subdue and rule each other, it will cause you to see with “new eyes” how the Subdue and Rule Mandate affects every area of your life and every arena of human interaction at every moment.
You’ll never again be able to read the news, attend a sports event, interact with politics, or function as a businessperson or member of a church congregation without seeing the Subdue and Rule Mandate’s drive for dominion in operation. If you’re married, it will affect your relationship with your spouse, and if you’re a parent, you’ll never look at parenting the same way. Yes, this foundational truth is all-encompassing because the Subdue and Rule Mandate is built into every person! My prayer is that you not only enjoy what you learn but that it will change your relationship with God and other people for all eternity.
So with that, we begin our journey as we look at several “foundation stones” to help build our understanding. Each one is crucial. We’ll start by looking at the Subdue and Rule command itself.
Pastor Jay Christianson
The Truth Barista, Frothy Thoughts