The terms creation mandate and cultural mandate can be used in various contexts with subtly different meanings. It’s important to clearly define which of these definitions is at hand in any particular discussion.
The term creation mandate refers to the idea that God’s original intent for creation infused mankind with supreme earthly authority, along with specific responsibilities. Among these privileges are the rights to freely use all of earth’s animals, plants, and resources for the benefit of humankind. The creation mandate is expressed most directly in Genesis 1:28, “God blessed them and said to them, ‘Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.’” The Hebrew term for “rule over” (radah) implies an absolute sovereignty of man over the rest of the earth.
This creation mandate also implies responsibilities to which mankind is bound. As the God-appointed ruler, mankind is prohibited from abusing or wasting those aspects of Earth he controls; since creation ultimately belongs to God, misusing it would be an act of disrespect and irresponsibility. Likewise, God’s command includes an expectation that man will “multiply,” obligating man to adhere to God’s intended plan for human sexuality: heterosexual monogamy (Genesis 1:27; 2:24; Mark 10:5–9).
In short, the creation mandate says that man is sovereign over the rest of the earth, man is obligated to responsibly use what God has placed under his control, and man is expected to reproduce according to God’s intended design.
The term cultural mandate is far more flexible, implying a wider range of topics than the term creation mandate. There are three primary versions of the idea of a cultural mandate. The first is essentially the same as the creation mandate. The second connects God’s command in Genesis 1:28 with Christ’s Great Commission (Matthew 28:18–20), implying divine authority over all social and political matters. The third places the Great Commission within the creation mandate, requiring political and social matters to be forcibly brought under Christian control.
The first definition of the phrase cultural mandate is mostly used in references to sexuality and marriage. There, it’s just an emphasis on God’s ordained plan for procreation and male-female relationships.
The second way in which cultural mandate is used is in pairing the creation mandate with the Great Commission. In this sense, the cultural mandate implies that part of our “good stewardship” of the earth includes making an effort to influence culture and politics toward attitudes that reflect God’s will. That is, everything—including our personal lives and interactions with government and society—should be seen as part of our responsibility to enact the will of God. This view of the cultural mandate acknowledges that the “submission” implied in Genesis 1:28 is that of the earth to man—not of man to other men. This definition seems to be the most in keeping with the Bible’s perspective on government and society.
The third use of the term cultural mandate is the most controversial, and for good reason. Under this approach, the Great Commission is seen as a further explanation of the creation mandate. In other words, man has an obligation to apply Christian concepts formally and forcibly—through government and law, among other means. In this approach, government is required to mandate adherence to Christian ideals, on civil, social, and personal levels. This view of the cultural mandate implies that the “subdue” command of Genesis 1:28 includes other men, under the auspices of government. Those who take this view of the cultural mandate, such as those who hold to Kingdom Now theology, believe that laws and governments should be explicitly Christian, as a matter of necessity.
This third approach is not easily harmonized with Scripture. One reason God warned Israel about taking on a king (1 Samuel 8) was that human government is always—by definition—subject to human flaws. Even in the New Testament, Christians are called on to consider their obedience to God as something separate from—and higher than—their loyalty to earthly rulers (Acts 5:29; Matthew 22:21).
While making scriptural laws into civil laws sounds fine in theory, we find that the human beings who have to enforce those rules are not so infallible. Attempting to force people to adhere to Christian ideas when they have no personal relationship with Christ is futile (1 Corinthians 2:14). Worse, it leads to abuses and excesses that are then blamed on the Bible rather than on fallible people. History makes the reality of this problem abundantly clear.
In blunt terms, claiming that a “cultural mandate” requires civil government to be explicitly Christian is contrary to Christ’s own teaching on the nature of His kingdom, which He said is “not of this world” (John 18:36).
The phrases creation mandate and cultural mandate should be used with common sense. Of particular importance is being sure that these ideas are used in the correct context and with the right biblical perspective. The creation mandate most simply refers to man’s authority over the earth and his responsibility to follow God’s design for stewardship and sexuality. The cultural mandate, in its most biblical sense, is our personal obligation to submit all of our lives to God’s will, specifically including the way we interact with others through government and society. As the salt of the earth (Matthew 5:13), we influence the culture for good.