A Little Leeway

1 Kgs 19:14; Exod 4:1; Acts 5:38-39; Amos 9:7

On a recent rainy weekend following a particularly demanding work for both of us, my wife and I spent a significant portion of Saturday afternoon watching a “Matlock Marathon” on cable TV. I found it amusing that, quite formulaically, the moment came in every episode we saw when Matlock would stop cross-examining the witness (invariably the true perpetrator of the crime) and begin testifying himself. The prosecuting attorneys in each of these episodes soon objected regarding the “relevance” of Matlock’s “line of questioning” or the fact that Matlock was “assuming facts not in evidence.” Without fail, Matlock then begged the court’s indulgence, asking for a “little leeway” and promising that facts were forthcoming and that relevance would soon become apparent.

In this entry, I will briefly discuss four passages of scripture that may appear to be irrelevant to one another at first. Like Matlock, I beg the reader’s indulgence and I promise that their relevance will some become apparent.

The first passage I introduce in evidence, 1 Kgs 19:14-18, deals with what might be called “Elijah-syndrome.” Inexplicably, after his remarkable success in the competition with the prophets of Baal staged on Mt. Carmel, Elijah laments that, of all the prophets faithful to YHWH, “only I remain” (v 14, all translations mine). A few verses later, the Lord reminds Elijah that, in fact, some 7,000 Israelites “have not bowed the knee to Baal” (v 18).  Exhibit B, Exod 4:1, reports Moses’ third object/excuse in response to God’s commission for him to deliver Israel from Egyptian bondage: “But what if they do not believe me or list to my voice because they say, ‘YHWH did not appear to you!’?”  Next, from the New Testament and an actual courtroom scene, the Sanhedrin’s Matlock, Rabbi Gamaliel, warns the Sanhedrin against too harshly and too quickly passing judgment on the Apostles. He counseled them to rely on the test of time: “…if this plan or work is of human (device), it will be destroyed, but if it is of God, you will be unable to destroy them, lest be found fighting God” (Acts 5:38-39).  Finally, in a somewhat obscure passage in Amos (9:7), the prophet communicates God’s ironic questions concerning the nature of Israel’s unique status as the chosen people of God:  “Did I not bring up Israel from the land of Egypt, and the Philistines from Caphtor, and the Syrians from Kir?” Although these questions clearly expect affirmative answers, they raise other questions, unanswered in the context, about the nature of God’s relationships with these two other nations whom God has guided through at least a portion of their histories.

Almost weekly recently, I hear, see, or read about the decline, or even predicted demise, of the Church in the West, about the “nones,” about the “spiritual-but-not-religious,” and so forth. I teach seminary classes with enrollments only a small fraction compared to the same classes when I began my career. The demographics of local churches are aging. I assume that my reader knows the story.

Occasionally, I find myself slipping into Elijah-syndrome. Naming the condition already helps to remedy it.  Nearly three millennia ago, Elijah felt that the integrity of the people of God had been fatally damaged, that the threat posed by Baalism was too great. History demonstrates that he was wrong. Of course, Moses before him had feared similarly. After Elijah, Israel and then the Jews would survive the Philistine, the Assyrian, the Babylonian, the Seleucid, the Roman, and the Nazi threats. They would adapt and persist through the Persian occupation and centuries of Diaspora existence. The Church has faced its own danger, internal and external, over the course of 2,000 years, too. Giving up is not a prescription for recovery.

Of course, while the health of the Church depends to a degree on the behavior of its members, and, as with Moses, God works in the world, at least in part, through human hands, the survival of the Church does not depend, ultimately, on the successes of any persons or group of persons. Moses expressed concern that he might not be able to convince the Israelites, that they might not believe his testimony. Through a series of sign-wonders, God essentially reminded Moses that Moses responsibility was to convey the message; God would convince Moses’ audience to believe.

God does the convincing. This assertion brings us to the core of the matter and to Gamaliel. As a seminary professor, I highly value ‘studying to show one’s self approved.’ God works through those whom God has called into the Body of Christ. Trained hands do better work. Church leaders should examine the social dynamics of the decline of the western Church and seek remedies. Preachers should reflect on how better to communicate the old story in new times. Standard paradigms require adjustments. Nevertheless, the life of the Church does not originate in its structures, or models, or members, but in God through Jesus Christ. Faith in God’s determination to redeem the world and to complete the Body of Christ negates Elijan pessimism about the future of the Church.

Furthermore, this faith is not merely wishful thinking. I have evidence. Amos confronted Israel’s cultural myopia with the jarring suggestion that God’s relationship with Israel was unique in character, but that it did not preclude God from relationship with other nations of the world.  If the Church intends to discern evidence of the movement of God in the world and to join in God’s work, then the western church may well benefit from lifting its eyes to look around. When it does so, it will see the vibrancy of Christianity in the so-called “global South.” Western Protestants look for the fresh winds of God’s Spirit can take inspiration from Pope Francis. Even around and among American Protestants, Christianity thrives and grows in minority, especially Hispanic and Asian, populations.

I suggest that this shift in the Church’s demographic center of gravity is tantamount to a call for mainline American Protestantism to engage more fully in the life of the Church universal.

Thanks for the leeway to make this case.