What might the landscape look like if the church in the West disappeared? What would change? Would we even notice the difference? Could such a thing even happen anyway?
In his commentary on 1 and 2 Kings, Peter Leithart, notes that in 2Kings 17, when the northern tribes of Israel are finally expelled from the land, wild animals (lions), and pagans with idolatrous practices rush to fill the void.
In other words, the land reverts to what it was like before the people of God turned up there in the first place.
Well, in Exodus 23 God says to Israel that He will not drive out the pagan nations from the Promised Land too quickly, lest the wild animals overpower the Israelites. The gradual conquest is for their own safety.
The land is full of wild animals. Wild animals and idolatrous nations. And it becomes so again when Israel is dispersed among the nations for her sins.
After decades, centuries, of ungodly kings and ungodly practices in the nation of Israel, tragically everything reverts to what it once was. It’s like a sinking ship going under the cold, still water with no trace of it to be seen within a few minutes. The people of God left no positive mark.
Well, something of a positive mark.
For just as a sunken ship leaves oil stains and detritus, 2Kings 17 tells us that the nations that take over the land are cursed by God with wild animals that kill them for their refusal to worship him. God may have expelled Israel from the land, but he is still a jealous God and the land has his shadow upon it.
So what do these pagans do? They import an Israelite priest to provide them a form of true worship, but without the substance. And for pragmatic reasons: to keep the animals at bay. They mixed pagan worship with the worship of YAHWEH for the own sakes.
In effect, they continue to do what the Israelites had been doing all those declining years, practising a syncretistic religion, all with the aim of which was to get them what they wanted.
The church leaves the land, and the land doesn’t notice the difference. The space is re-occupied and everything goes on like it once had before the church got there.
What an indictment. And what a warning. As we read through 2Kings 17 we don’t read that Israel was worse than the nations surrounding them. The true problem is that they were the same!
And this occurred because the people of Israel had sinned against the Lord their God, who had brought them up out of the land of Egypt from under the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt, and had feared other gods and walked in the customs of the nations whom the Lord drove out before the people of Israel.
Now we are not to confuse our nations in the West with the nation of Israel. Israel was a theocracy. Israel is the church. To confuse our nation with that nation would be to commit the error of the Reconstructionists. We have never been a truly Christian nation.
But the church has added something to the nation over the centuries. Insofar as the Christian framework and ethic has been imbibed by the nations of the West there has been a restraining influence on sin, and a retraining influence on virtue in our nations.
But what happens when the church culture starts to ape the prevailing pagan culture? What happens when whole denominations celebrate sexual sin as the mainlines have been doing? Or independent church movements hid sexual sin, as sadly we are seeing come to the surface recently?
What happens if greed or indifference or failure to forgive defines us?
In other words, what happens when the church isn’t so much as bad, as much as just like everyone else?
Whether or not God removes the church from the land is a moot point. But once that restraining and retraining is removed, the culture can easily revert to what it once was.
Well not quite like it once was. For it will still contain the shadow of the old Christian frame, much like the pagans who re-occupied the Promised Land clung to some of the forms of YAHWEH worship.
It’s no coincidence therefore that something as deeply Christian as individual human rights has been taken and run with by the increasingly post-Christian and hard secular West.
The countries that have signed up to same sex marriage for example, are almost all exclusively post-Christian. They’ve taken the form of what it means to be a individual with value, dignity and worth, and removed it from the framework of Imago Dei.
Hence the new pagans have not reverted to the old paganism of pre-Christianity for that was a shocking, evil mess that had neither a concept of individual rights, nor any place for the idea of sexual consent, which is a thoroughly Christian idea that swept the Roman Empire’s sexual brutishness away.
So while it’s true that the Christian frame is disappearing, there are vestiges of it, memories of it lingering.
CS Lewis once observed that the landscape without Christianity will not revert to the virgin land it once was, but will, like a streetscape of old houses that has been razed, and over which the vegetation has taken hold once again, contain memories of the old ways: some bricks here, a broken toy or a fork there. It can never go back to what it was before.
This also explains why the language of saints and sinners, of right and wrong, of transgression and salvation, remain even while their reference points have changed dramatically.
I want to be careful at this point to not do a “this equals that” when it comes to using the Old Testament. We live on this side of the cross, and the church of God is the new Israel.
But it’s instructive that the same God who removes Israel from the land, is the same God, in Christ, who warns the church of Ephesus in Revelation 2:
4 But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first. 5 Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent.
Just as Israel is removed from the land, the church of Ephesus has the threat of removal hanging over her head.
For what dreadful sin? For the same sin as Israel. Abandoning their first love. Adding a whole bunch of other loves that gradually overtake the covenant fidelity she should have had with her Saviour.
It’s hard to say whether the rising temperature for the church in the West is in response to her faithfulness or her faithlessness, or because of both (the most likely scenario), but it would be dreadful for the landscape to revert to what it once was.