Does the church in the UK have a future?

In the last 35 years the number of people attending church in the UK each Sunday has halved – from over five million to less than three million, from 11 percent of the population to five percent. Last year, Lord Carey, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, claimed the Church of England was on the brink of extinction.

Does the church in the UK have a future? Maybe that makes you doubt your faith. Is God real when so many people ignore him?

The readers of the book of Kings were asking questions like that. The temple was in ruins. The people were in exile. Do God’s people have a future?

In chapters 11-12 we see the failures of Solomon and Rehoboam, failures that lead to idolatry and injustice. They embrace foreign gods and enslave the people. Then Jeroboam leads a revolution against this oppression. He looks like a new Moses – coming from Egypt, liberating God’s people, ending their slavery. It looks like he is going to be the hero of the story.

But Jeroboam spots a problem. He reigns over the ten northern tribes. But the temple is down in Jerusalem, in the area still ruled by Rehoboam. Every year the people are going to travel to worship God to the temple in Judean territory where they’ll hear Judean propaganda. We see his thinking in 12:27: ‘If these people go up to offer sacrifices at the temple of the LORD in Jerusalem, they will again give their allegiance to their lord, Rehoboam king of Judah. They will kill me and return to King Rehoboam.’

So Jeroboam builds two golden calves, one in the south and one in the north. And he says in 12:28, ‘Here are your gods, Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt.’

Where have we seen this in the story? Jeroboam is indeed repeating the story of the exodus. But he’s repeating the very worst moment of that story – the moment when Aaron and the people built a golden calf and said, ‘These are your gods, Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt.’ (Exodus 32:4) They’re exactly the same words. Jeroboam is not a new Moses. He’s a new Aaron, leading the people away from the LORD. The only difference is Jeroboam builds two golden calves.

It gets worse. Jeroboam calls his sons ‘Nadab’ (15:25) and ‘Abijah’ (14:1). So what? Those are the names of Aaron’s first two sons (Abihu, Aaron’s second son, means ‘my father is he’ while Abijah means ‘my father is Yahweh’). And those two sons were killed by the fire of the LORD because they offered unauthorised sacrifices (Leviticus 10:1-4).

Jeroboam has modelled himself on Aaron. He seems hell-bent on replicating false worship.

God had promised him that, if he obeyed God’s decrees, God would give him a dynasty as enduring as David’s (11:38). But Jeroboam throws it away.

This sets the pattern for the northern kingdom of Israel. (See, for example, 15:25-30.) We get a series of bloody coups. The new king takes power through violence and wipes out the family of the old kings so no rivals remain. But violence breeds violence and coup leads to coup. Each king, we’re told, committed the sins of Jeroboam and aroused God’s anger (15:30; 16:3, 7, 13, 19, 26, 30-31). Each time the executioner of God’s judgment hears God’s word of judgment for himself. And so they are replaced – Jeroboam, Nadab, Baasha, Elah, Zimri, Omri. And so it goes on.

Not until King Ahab do we get a proper succession. And Ahab is bad news. He builds a temple to Baal in his capital, Samaria (16:32-33). 16:30-31 says: ‘Ahab son of Omri did more evil in the eyes of the LORD than any of those before him. He not only considered it trivial to commit the sins of Jeroboam son of Nebat, but he also married Jezebel daughter of Ethbaal king of the Sidonians, and began to serve Baal and worship him.’

It’s a horrible mess. But that’s OK. We still have the southern kingdom of Judah – the home of the temple and the family of King David. Surely there things will be different. Well, look at 14:22-24:

Judah did evil in the eyes of the LORD. By the sins they committed they stirred up his jealous anger more than those who were before them had done. 23 They also set up for themselves high places, sacred stones and Asherah poles on every high hill and under every spreading tree. 24 There were even male shrine-prostitutes in the land; the people engaged in all the detestable practices of the nations the LORD had driven out before the Israelites.

One generation ago the nations had come to Jerusalem to marvel at the wisdom and glory of the nation that knew the LORD. Israel was drawing the nations to follow the ways of God. But now God’s people are following the ways of the nations. They’re engaged in the very practices that led to God driving out of the previous occupants of the land. They had seen for themselves God’s judgment against these practices. But no matter – they still plunge into the same evils. Once God’s people had been a light to the nations (10:9). Now the nations corrupt God’s people (14:24).

Once the nations had brought their glory to Jerusalem (10:10). Now the nations come to rob Jerusalem of its glory. 14:26 says the Egyptians carried off the treasures and golden shields from the temple. Rehoboam has to replace them with bronze replicas (14:27-28).

It’s a mess – a horrible mix of apostasy and defeat.

It’s not hard to make the move to our own day. Church attendance in the UK is lower now than it’s been for 200 years. The gap between the gospel and British culture is greater than ever. It’s hard to gain a hearing for truth – as you all know from your own experience. And the institutional church is riven with apostasy.

What is the future of the church? Does it have a future?

Thing are going to get worse before they get better in Israel and Judah. And they may yet get worse for the church in the UK. But the writer doesn’t want us to despair. Woven through the story are signs of hope.

We’ll see the answer the writer of Kings gives in two future posts.

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