WASHINGTON (BP) -- The Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission has joined with evangelical Christian leaders to issue a statement on the biblically based treatment of animals.
Evangelical leaders unveiled the document -- "Every Living Thing: An Evangelical Statement on Responsible Care for Animals" -- Sept. 30 at a Washington, D.C., news conference.
The statement, which provides a set of biblical beliefs guiding consideration of the subject, calls for "compassionate care and responsible rule" of animals and for opposition to all cruelty toward them. Because God creates and sustains all animals, the document's signers resolve "to work for the protection and preservation of all the kinds of animals God has created, while prioritizing human needs."
Southern Baptists played a major role in crafting and supporting the statement in preparation for its release.
Barrett Duke, the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission's (ERLC) vice president for public policy and research, is one of the co-authors of "Every Living Thing," and ERLC President Russell Moore and policy studies director Andrew Walker signed the document before its unveiling.
Among the original signers of the statement are Southern Baptist seminary presidents Daniel Akin of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and R. Albert Mohler Jr. of Southern Seminary. Other signers include several Southern Baptist seminary and university professors, as well as David Crosby, senior pastor of the First Baptist Church in New Orleans.
Duke joined Mark Rodgers, principal of The Clapham Group, and Michael Cromartie, vice president of the Ethics and Public Policy center, as co-authors of the statement, which was reviewed by 40 theologians before its release.
The statement -- four years in the making after a discussion among the three authors -- is intended to unify evangelicals and maintain a legacy they have held on the issue, according to an "Every Living Thing" news release. Christian leaders such as John Wesley, William Wilberforce and C.S. Lewis promoted the ethical treatment of animals and saw its connection to a civil and moral society, it said.
The statement, Moore said in a written release, "is a reminder that the Gospel transforms our use and care of animals as we see all of God's glory reflected in his good creation."
"Our treatment of animals is a spiritual issue," he said. "The Bible is clear that our being created in the image of God does not lessen our responsibility to steward the physical world well, but heightens it."
In a video shown at the Sept. 30 news conference, Moore said the fact everything is created to display God's glory is "why we as Christians ought to be the most, of all people, opposed to cruelty or mistreatment of animals. We should be the people -- because we're formed and shaped by the Bible -- who call the consciences of those around us to care about responsible treatment and care for animals."
The statement and its authors seek to make clear the distinction between human beings and animals. The document specifies God "uniquely created humankind in His own image and likeness, in contrast to creatures, including animals, who are created after their own kind; that He appointed humankind to rule over all living creatures, including animals." Human beings "have greater worth than every animal," the statement says.
Duke said at the news conference, "Humans are different, not in degree but in kind from all the rest of creation. That's a foundational theological truth that we must maintain, but that doesn't mean therefore that nothing else can actually be a thinking being simply because humans are this unique, distinctive group."
He understands "some people get nervous when we talk about animal welfare," Duke said in written comments for Baptist Press.
"I don't want to give radical animal rights groups any encouragement to advance unbiblical notions about the status of animals, either," he told BP. "We are on more solid theological ground when we talk about our responsibility to animals rather than animal rights."
The Bible provides guidance on care for animals, Duke said.
"We should not shrink away from declaring this guidance out of fear that our position will be misunderstood or misused," he told BP. "Our silence can be interpreted by a watching world that we are indifferent or possibly even supportive of those who take no thought of animal welfare. We must stake out the biblical space on every matter on which the Bible speaks and defend that space from all error or abuse."
In the statement, the authors and signers say they understand the Bible to teach that animals belong to God and "have value to Him independent of human use." Their understanding of Scripture tells them human beings have the "capacity and inclination" to cause animals to suffer but the rule God has given people over animals "is to reflect His rule and character," the document says.
The endorsers of the document resolve "to examine all our practices" regarding treatment of animals that are domesticated and those that live in the wild. They also promise to confront "any and all cruelty against animals."
Christians have an opportunity to be "a witness to the world" on the care of animals, Rodgers said at the news conference. "How we steward what we've been given, how we work out our faith personally and corporately is a witness to the world, and it's an area that we've not, I think frankly, been very intentional in witnessing to the world as the church."
Other signers include Samuel Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference; Timothy George, dean of Beeson Divinity School; Richard Land, president of Southern Evangelical Seminary; Bill Hybels, senior pastor of Willow Creek Community Church in suburban Chicago; Eric Teetsel, executive director of the Manhattan Declaration; John Stonestreet, president of the Colson Center; Douglas Moo, professor at Wheaton College; and Jedd Medefind, president of the Christian Alliance for Orphans.
The statement was released on the same day LifeWay Research reported on a national survey on the issue that shows a gap between pastors' beliefs and their implementation in the church. In questioning 1,000 Protestant pastors, LifeWay found in its study, sponsored by Every Living Thing:
-- 89 percent of pastors say Christians have a responsibility to speak against cruelty to animals.
-- 94 percent of pastors say responsible care for animals is rooted in Scripture, and 95 percent say God's command for human beings to steward animals still applies.
-- Yet, 39 percent say they have never addressed care of animals in a sermon.
-- More than 80 percent say their churches do not participate in animal welfare issues in their community.
Ed Stetzer, executive director of LifeWay Research, reported on the survey's findings via video at the "Every Living Thing" news conference.
Though the Humane Society of the United States did not provide theological advice for the statement, it affirmed the document, Rodgers said. Two of the Humane Society's officers, including president Wayne Pacelle, spoke at the news conference.
The ERLC has endorsed state legislation to combat animal fighting, including a Tennessee measure enacted in May that increased penalties for attendance at an animal fight and for taking a child to such a fight.
The statement, which launches a year-long campaign, may be accessed online at everylivingthing.com.