Co-opting the busyness of Baal in our church.

Where has Dale Ralph Davis been my entire life? Or for the early years of my ministry, at least? His plain, incisive approach to scriptural exposition undercuts almost all perceived notions concerning the narratives of the Old Testament and is undergirded by a doggedly theocentric understanding of God’s inspired revelation throughout history. Indeed, his insights on 1 and 2 Kings have proven invaluable throughout my own studies and sermons on those books — and I’m already scouring Amazon for more of his writings. Case in point, the following excerpt comes from his examination of 1 Kings 18 and the titular contest between Elijah and the prophets of Baal at Mt. Carmel. At first, the frenzied busyness of the Baal devotees (1 Kings 18:28) appears cultish and disconnected from anything with which suburban churchgoer might be afflicted. But, not so fast, Davis says:

Christians are apt to feel detached from this text. We will protest that we don’t carry on with all that pagan hullaballu; we don’t gash ourselves; we aren’t pagan blockheads. I will grant that we may be more refined. Please note, however, the assumption on which the Baal prophets operate: God will begin to do things if only we get a flurry of passionate religious activity going. Do we not then have our own “evangelical Baalism”? Christians and churches in the west seem to believe that God will surely work if only we . . . spend longer in personal devotions and more time in private prayer; belong to a home Bible study group or form a peer accountability program; attend week-end marriage enrichment seminars or hold a singles’ retreat; start neighborhood clubs for kids or early morning men’s prayer breakfasts or provide mothers’ morning out; hold more missions conferences and increase “faith promise” giving; o add a spring Bible conference; solicit someone to direct the 5th and 6th grades choir; become involved in a parachurch ministry on a local college campus or go on a short term mission trip to Jamaica or take the youth on a ski trip to Colorado; get a church bus ministry off the ground and spearhead the start of a Christian school; and be able to dim the lights in the sanctuary to create ambiance, while spending quality time with spouses and families. All this Christian busyness is as exhausting as Baal worship, even minus the gashes. Most of these are illegitimate activities (I am not opposing, e.g. more time spent in Bible study or missions trips), but might an illegitimate rationale drive them? Are these means of grace gimmicks designed to manipulate, impress, or stir up God? You may not be a prophet of Baal, but you may think like one. If only we . . ., then God will . . .1

These words hit you like water from a fire hose, decimating all the programs with which churches are often so busy. And again, to echo Davis, it’s not that the programs themselves that are the problem. It’s what we assume those programs can do (for God and for us). That philosophy — “if we . . . then God will . . .” — is so commonplace in the evangelical church we don’t even bat an eye when such thinking is postured by pastors and ministry leaders. But, to be sure, the work of God is not an “if/then” paradigm. Indeed, God is never not working. His work in and with and through his children, and his church, is a ceaseless work. We’re only ever aware of it in brief spurts. Notwithstanding our fleeting cognizance, God’s purposes are true and good and effectual. Lord, help our unbelief!

The church’s calling isn’t to chase ministerial success through “a flurry of passionate religious activity.” It’s to steadily and faithfully and deliberately minister the Word of God to the people of God through the ordinary means of grace. That is, through preaching, praying, fellowshipping, and the “breaking of bread” (Acts 2:42). May the Lord of all give us the grace to jettison our tendencies for “evangelical Baalism.” And may he anchor our souls in the steady and “strong consolation” of the hope of his Word which never returns void (Heb. 6:18–20; Isa. 55:11).

Grace and peace.

1

Dale Ralph Davis, 1 Kings: The Wisdom and the Folly (Ross-shire, England: Christian Focus, 2020), 237–38.