My wife and I have been listening to some teaching that continually refers to our calling to “take dominion.” The term is used in reference to influencing society in every sphere: legislation, politics, family life, education, morality. While we see some helpful biblical content in other elements of the teaching, we are also troubled by this emphasis on “taking dominion” – is this what we are called to as Christians?
The key passage seems to be Genesis 1:26-28, where we find the “dominion mandate.” These verses speak of humanity created in God’s image, and of man’s rule over creation – fish, birds, animals. Obviously at that point in history there was no culture to influence, no fallen world to fix. So the rest of the Bible must develop the dominion mandate in terms of the influence of God’s people in a fallen world? Perhaps, but the evidence suggests not.
Humanity’s dominion over creatures is taken up again in Psalm 8. In the rest of the Old Testament the dominion language is used of King Solomon, of the kingdoms of ungodly kings, of the harsh rule of enemies over Israel, of God’s coming King and of God’s righteous dominion over all (grab a concordance to chase the references if you like). In the New Testament the concept is used of the dominion of death or sin, of human power structures ruled over by Christ, and the dominion of God. But where does the Bible speak of God’s people taking dominion in a fallen society?
What did Jesus say? In response to the dominion desire of his disciples, he said,
“You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:42-45)
The Great Commission is not “take dominion,” but “make disciples.” Based on His sacrifice, the emphasis is on transformation by preaching Christ crucified and risen – influencing fallen cultures one soul at a time. Contrast the connotations of power, rule, position and authority in “taking dominion,” with the inherently relational meaning of “making disciples.” A disciple is a learner, a follower, an apprentice – one who is relationally bound to another in order to learn and grow. Jesus sent out his disciples to prioritize the relationships of humans with the Lord. How were they to do this? By introducing people into relationship with Jesus, and then by building them up through teaching in order that they might live lives according to His instruction. All of this is pursued in the context of relationships, with the body life of the church as the setting.
Interestingly, going back to the “dominion mandate” verses in Genesis 1, it seems that the emphasis on “dominion” is sometimes given to the exclusion of the other feature of these verses – the inherently relational language of being made in the image of God, diverse but united.
One of our concerns with the use of “taking dominion” language is the notion that we are achieving something worthwhile if people will obey God’s rules, even if they don’t believe in Him and become Christians. While a biblical case can be made to seek to influence society toward godliness, it is troubling to see obedience becoming a goal in its own right. We sense a troubling emphasis on influence through power, an emphasis akin to “lording it over”, an emphasis strangely bereft of Christ’s humility, or relationality, or love. To subdue sin, but not to draw hearts to Christ: does this not have the potential to propagate Pharisaism?
My wife and I are concerned and slightly troubled by the “taking dominion” theme that we have been hearing. We long to see a more biblically saturated presentation of our role in this world. We praise God for those who seek to influence immoral legislation in society, to challenge worldly assumptions in the church, and to encourage believers to live out the teaching of the Word. But we remain concerned by the unhelpful use of “taking dominion” language with the moralistic and legalistic emphasis it brings, to the detriment of a more thorough biblical relationality.
Jesus sent his followers, not to take dominion, but to make disciples. Let’s seek to change the world His way.