I remember Bruce Jackson telling the story of a man who came to be a leader in a church largely because everyone always thought that he agreed with them. He was actually an accomplished politician much like the one my Dad likes to tell about who says, “I have friends on one side of this issue and friends on the other side… and I always stand by my friends!” This guy lived by that credo. But there came an issue that needed resolution, and an emergency meeting convened. After arguments pro and con, a vote was called, “All in favor stand up!” This brother squatted uncomfortably in a half-crouch! He wanted it both ways.
The whole nation of Israel was that guy during “the days of Elijah.” Israel wanted to worship the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Queen Jezebel made the worship of God a little problematic by killing all the prophets of God she could get her hands upon, but Israel still had warm feelings for the God of their ancestors. But then there was this Phoenician fertility god named Baal who promised to make their land, their flocks and herds, and their wives, and they wanted to worship him as well. They were in a half-crouch between God and Baal; if they were uncomfortable in that awkward position, you would never know it by looking.
Well, these were the days of Elijah, and he came along to stir things up in 1 Kings 18 (our Bible reading for today). Elijah confronted Ahab with a little proposition, “Let’s have a little contest to see just who really is the true God.” So they gathered the entire nation together on Mount Carmel for the ultimate game of survivor. Elijah throws down the gauntlet in verse 21--
Elijah went before the people and said, “How long will you waver between two opinions? If the LORD is God, follow him; but if Baal is God, follow him.” But the people said nothing.
The NCV frames the question as, “How long will you not decide between two choices?” The NRSV puts it “How long will you go limping with two different opinions?” That image is helpful, I think. Israel had been crippled by their indecision; having two opinions was really lame. Elijah wants to force their hand and demand that they choose which god is truly God.
But no one said anything. No one would commit themselves one way or the other. No loudmouth in the crowd screamed, “Baal, Baal, he’s our god; if he can’t do then put us in the sod!” And no one was willing incur the wrath of Jezebel by saying, “The LORD is God; besides him there is no other” (Dt 4:35). They just stood there in a half-crouch saying nothing! A blurb in Reader’s Digest once said, “Pity the person with no opinion for they will go through life with no bumper sticker.” Well, Israel had no bumper sticker for their chariots. No one had an opinion. Or they shared both opinions. No one was saying anything. It was better to have it both ways that to make a choice either way.
Does that sound familiar at all? We live in a culture with competing and contradictory truth systems, each claiming to be valid. We live in an age when many believe at the same time that nothing is ultimately true and that everything is equally true. For many the only absolute truth is that there is no absolute truth. Christianity once enjoyed a favored status in our culture. The Bible was seen as “The Good Book” even if everyone didn’t try to live by it. Today, Christianity is seen as just one among many truth systems in a crowded marketplace of ideas. And frankly, it is easier to get along in our world if you just accept that some of your friends believe in God and other friends don’t believe in God… and then always stand by your friends. It is easier to just waver between two opinions.
In 2002, I took a graduate seminar class under John Warwick Montgomery, the noted theologian and apologist. He suggested in that class that liberal and fundamentalist churches have responded to the post-Christian, postmodern world that sees everything as equally true and nothing as objectively true in radically and entirely different ways.
- Liberal churches say, “If you can’t beat ‘em, then join ‘em.” They accept the philosophic presuppositions of the culture and dismiss the contrary parts of the Bible as myth and legend. They dress up social change and politics in religious ritual, and they differ from the secular world only in their religious vocabulary. This version of faith is so very thin that there is little to pass on the next generation.
- Fundamentalist churches tended to say, “If you can’t beat ‘em, then withdraw from them.” The secular world is such a threat to their faith that they insulate themselves from that world. Their kids go to Christian schools or are home-schooled in a “safe” environment. They socialize only with members of their church. They listen to Christian music, read Christian books and go to Christian movies. Their points of contact with the world “out there” are as limited as they can make it. They have circled the wagons to protect the faith that they live largely in a vacuum. But, Montgomery suggests, that kind of faith is usually pretty fragile and soon crumbles if it is exposed to the outside world.
Montgomery suggests that the right response (in other words, his response) is not either “If you can’t beat ‘em join ‘em” or “If you can’t beat ‘em, withdraw” but rather to just “Beat ‘em!” We are to live the truth of the gospel without compromise or apology. We are to preach the gospel as true. We are to be ready to give reasons why we believe it to be true (see 1 Peter 3:15). And we are to point to Jesus as the way, the truth and the life… and the only way, truth and life!
We can’t have it both ways. If Jesus is Lord, then he is the only Lord. If He isn’t, then we’re just wasting our time with all this church stuff. To live between these two opinions is just lame.