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Heroes, Virtue Signaling, and Power: 1 Kings 18

Matt Carter

What would a hero do?

In quite a few federal agencies these days, there is a big recruitment and retention problem. Fewer and fewer Americans want to work for Uncle Sam. For technical fields especially, even agencies that are vital to our national defense are unable to marshal an adequate workforce. While there has always been a pay disparity between public service and the private sector, there have historically been enough people willing to accept lower wages in return for serving the common good. While this trend apparently began to accelerate during the Obama administration, under the Trump administration those days of relying on public service as an employment pull are definitely at an end. Whether under Obama or Trump, who wants to work for an establishment many perceive to be immoral or even illegitimate?

In 1 Kings 18 we have this same scenario. Here, we have two stories juxtaposed that are quite striking in their difference. In the first story, Elijah is called to meet Ahab, and we meet Obadiah. The second story is probably the most famous story about Elijah in the Bible. Who doesn’t love Elijah here? He’s like a spiritual superhero. He raises the dead and stops the rain. The most common way in which these stories are read has Elijah as the protagonist, King Ahab as the antagonist, and Obadiah as a sympathetic if flawed agonist. Obadiah’s literary purpose would seem to be to highlight the unwavering commitment and moral purity of Elijah. In most sermons about the first half of this chapter, Obadiah is portrayed as a compromising and lukewarm character. He is an object lesson in who not to be, apparently everything that Elijah is not. Elijah is fully committed to the LORD. King Ahab is fully committed to evil. Obadiah is, well, partially committed to the LORD. “If you find that you are more like Obadiah than like Elijah, may God give you grace to change today.” 1 Kings 18 is thus frequently read along the lines of The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly.

I want to suggest that this is a deeply flawed way of reading this story in Scripture, and that this moral lesson we often derive from Obadiah says more about our own preoccupations than about the self-revelation of God. Remember, the protagonist in 1 Kings 18 is not Elijah but the LORD. The LORD uses the characters of these narratives, whether king, prophet, or lion to reveal Himself to us. We do not read 1 Kings 18 so that we come to admire and worship Elijah. We read 1 Kings 18 to learn about the LORD. When we encounter the LORD in this text, let us be mindful of the ways in which we need to change to better conform to His image. So, let’s think about what we’re bringing to 1 Kings 18 that may be in need of adjustment.

The Evolution of Fundamentalism: Problems with reductionism

To do that, let’s ask a question that may at first appear to come out of left field. What is fundamentalism? One way to define fundamentalism is to refer to what most fundamentalists have historically said it means. In that vein, fundamentalism means agreement to five fundamental doctrines that define orthodox Christianity. Those cardinal or fundamental doctrines defining Christianity are: 1) the inspiration and inerrancy of the Bible, 2) the virgin birth of Christ, 3) the substitutionary atonement of Christ, 4) the bodily resurrection of Christ, and 5) the historicity of biblical miracles. The Northern Presbyterians came up with these in 1910 during their General Assembly in Atlantic City.

Hopefully, we can all agree on the truth of these assertions. I also hope that you recognize that these five doctrines do not really comprise a good definition of Christianity at all. It’s not that these aren’t true on their own. It’s that these are insufficient on their own as a good definition of Christianity. What are they missing? What about the Trinity? What about creation, sin, and restoration? What about the church?

So, I agree with each of these five doctrinal points, but I would not refer to myself as a fundamentalist. Why not? One reason would be that I do not think that you can distill Christianity down into these five fundamentals. If you do that, you lose too much. This is overly reductionistic. That reductionism is the primary problem with trying to define yourself in opposition to something else. These Northern Presbyterians in 1910 were trying hard to define themselves in opposition to modernists and theological liberals. Many of those theologically liberal folks would have had serious reservations about some or all of these five points. So, these five points became a convenient way of separating orthodox from non-orthodox Christians. These five points became the definition of Christian orthodoxy. They became a clear binary choice with clear moral implications.

Do you see the problem with that move, though? The primary problem with doing this if you are a defender of Christian orthodoxy is that you have just implicitly agreed with liberals and modernists that these five areas are the most relevant parts of Christianity. This is the area that is so important that this defines what Christianity means. These five points became so important that they also became the working definition of fitness or goodness for Christians. That is, these five points became the de facto moral code for orthodox Christianity. To the Northern Presbyterians who first articulated this list, agreement with these five points mattered more than evidence of the fruit of the Spirit for ordination candidates. Over time, agreement with biblical inerrancy has become a more important marker or signal of Christian virtue than actually reading the Bible itself.

To be clear, I would agree that these doctrinal points are both true and important. I would, however, disagree that they are that important. When you define yourself in opposition to something else, you tacitly agree with them about what is and is not absolutely important. The terms of the debate for fundamentalists are along the lines that theological liberals have defined. It’s like the liberals showed up, assuming that baseball is the most important game, and began asserting that they are the best at playing this ballgame. The fundamentalists then agree to play baseball to determine who is the better fit for Christianity. But, what if playing baseball is not the best or even an appropriate way of determining the best understanding of Christianity?

In looking over these five fundamentals and knowing something of their history, the crux of the battle between theological liberals and fundamentals basically revolved around a choice between submitting to the sovereignty of God or the prescience of modern science. If you truly believe that God is sovereign over all of His creation, then, of course, Scripture is without error, Jesus had a virgin birth, and other miracles can happen. Historic orthodox faith in God’s sovereignty makes these doctrinal expressions of that faith almost seem obvious. Of course, He can part the Red Sea, He’s God! On the other hand, if you believe in a modern science that says that these miraculous things can’t reasonably occur, then you will turn yourself into knots trying to affirm faith in a sovereign God who cannot perform miracles. A God who can do everything except those things ruled out by modern science. Eventually, you will tire of all this knot tying, and like most people in our society have done, just drop the faith in a sovereign God part. By now, for most in our society, God is irrelevant.

As an exercise in futile knot-tying, theological liberalism has for a long time now been losing the patience of the people in the pew. Unfortunately, the fundamentalist defenders of historic Christian orthodoxy also lost a lot by engaging in this debate on these terms. Yes, it’s true that orthodox Christianity requires a firm belief in the sovereignty of God. While it’s true that theological liberalism is largely about losing that belief in sovereignty, I do not think that sovereignty on its own adequately defines Christianity. Yes, certainly, God can do as He pleases. But what pleases Him? What displeases Him? What are the consequences of that displeasure? What has He done about it? What has He promised to do about it? Why would He do that? There is so much more to Christianity than belief in a sovereign God. But all of that non-sovereignty stuff took a backseat so that theological liberalism could be fought on its own terms. In operating this way, by reducing the definition of orthodox Christianity down into these five doctrinal points, fundamentalists de-emphasized vital facets of Christianity like love, forgiveness, and restoration that are at least as important as sovereignty. You can really get a sense of these things that are missing from the fundamentalist definition of Christianity by comparing these five fundamentals with something like the Nicene Creed or Apostles Creed.

Moralism as a Warped Lens: Continuing to play the reductionism game

I am not belaboring this point to beat up on fundamentalists. I am belaboring it, because we today repeat this same flawed process with ourselves and with each other an awful lot. We allow others to define the baseline we operate from, and often that baseline gives us a very distorted picture of ourselves, God, and community. All too often the baselines that we operate from are ones that we, like the fundamentalists, inherit from people at odds with Christian faith. The most pervasive of these non-Christian baselines is moralism, which seeks to reduce Christianity to a mere morality.

For example, these days most references in our media, whether self-identified as Christian media or anything else, implicitly define orthodox Christianity in terms of sexuality and marriage. In these media references and indeed in many books by Christians offering social commentary, orthodox Christianity seems to be defined solely with reference to sexual morality. Notice that it isn’t agnostics getting refused wedding cakes by Christian bakers, nor is it Christian beliefs in the Trinity or the Resurrection that are to blame for governmental persecution of Christians. It is sexual morality. This is so pervasive that if I were to sample people without any background in the church for the one word that pops into their mind when I say Christian, words like “sex” and “marriage” would be at or near the top of that list.

J. Gresham Machen, who founded Westminster Seminary in the late 1920s and the Orthodox Presbyterian Church denomination in the early 1930s as staunch oppositions to modernism and liberalism, had essentially nothing to say about marriage or sex in his two most famous books What is Faith? and Christianity and Liberalism. These were very popular and culturally relevant books at the time. Has orthodox Christianity changed in the past 90 years? Is that why Machen never broaches same-sex marriage or sex outside of marriage? Of course, orthodox Christianity has not changed, but our shared culture certainly has. Since the sexual revolution of the 1960s, our culture has been increasingly obsessed with sexual morality.

Certainly, the Bible and orthodox Christianity certainly have plenty to say about sex, marriage, and morally good behavior. Further, we Christians should affirm and defend orthodox Christianity, but we should not do so while swallowing our culture’s faulty understanding of what Christianity is.

Social power and virtue signaling

Even more than its obsession with sex, our culture is obsessed with morality. Virtue signaling is our national pastime. Our society’s great shared fear is that we will be judged unvirtuous and morally bankrupt by our ever-evolving moral code. Armed with the weapons of social media, our friends and neighbors have become a lurking moral police force. As a result, we share honestly and openly less and less with each other, while agreeing with and liking the same things more and more. Within this rigidly binary system, there is essentially no space left for what used to be called virtue formation or the sanctification process, just as there is little space left for humility, nuance, or subtlety.

Within this rigidly binary virtue system, we judge the wielders of power through this prism of moralism. Power, within our culture’s system of understanding, is a good in its own right. It is a thing widely desired, worth fighting for, and understood to be used for advancing an agenda. Do those with power use their power to align everything they can with our culture’s moral code?

For those operating within the social media world, all of our actions are now public acts. Thus, everything from mundane acts like eating food to life-changing decisions like vocational choice is viewed as a public test of virtue. Where I work and what I ate for breakfast have become ways for me to signal my virtue, my alignment with our culture’s moral code. I have absorbed this moral code so well that I know that there would be a negative moral judgment on me were I to go public with my preference for a generic unhealthy sugary cereal from Wal-Mart at breakfast instead of a pure organic oatmeal and fruit name-brand concoction. Within this rigidly binary system, there is also no space left for compromise and advancing a common good. We either have the power to align with our culture’s moral code, or we are victims without power while advocating for more power. In our culture, we want those who have signaled moral purity to possess social power and to have power removed from those deemed morally impure.

Who was Obadiah really?

We inherit our culture’s bias for moralism when we agree with their defining of Christianity as a morality. That underlying assumption can profoundly affect everything from our self-perceptions to how we understand biblical stories. Let’s consider our reaction to the story of Obadiah in 1 Kings 18:1-16 and compare that to the story of Elijah in 1 Kings 18:17-40. Who in their right mind would prefer Obadiah to Elijah? Most of the sermons about Obadiah tell us that he had too little faith. He was compromising in his faith to the LORD, just as he had compromised himself by working for wicked Ahab. Yet, if we try to read this story about Obadiah without thinking about how we should admire Elijah, we actually see that Obadiah was a stout believer in the LORD (v3) from his youth (v12) who had been hiding and supporting 100 prophets in a cave (v4). Let’s acknowledge that if we don’t consider Elijah as the hero of this story, that Obadiah really seems like a great believer. How many of our own church leaders could claim the same faith-based leadership as Obadiah? It really is our perception that Elijah is the hero that colors our understanding of Obadiah. On his own, Obadiah sure seems like a faithful follower of the LORD, except, of course, for his being the Chief of Staff to evil King Ahab.

Famous commentators on this story like FB Meyer have pointed out that Obadiah was compromised by his position in the employ of evil King Ahab. There is no denying that Ahab did what was evil in the sight of the LORD. Does that make working for Ahab evil? Should Obadiah have been more like Elijah, living outside of civil society in the wilderness? More generally, can good people work for morally compromised or even evil people or organizations?

In our modern age, there are a whole lot of Christians who would tell other Christians that being in the employ of Ahab is not fit service for a Christian. In their moralistic calculus, there are only good, bad, and ugly categories for people to fit in. Don’t be ugly like Obadiah. At least, have the courage of your convictions. Yet, doesn’t this passage from Scripture actually tell us that Obadiah did have the courage of his convictions? He was no coward surely. He risked life and limb to hide and provide for 100 prophets. Think about what that must have been like for him a minute. He would have had to support and nurture 100 people. He would have personally sacrificed plenty to provide for that many people. That would have been an enormous burden. It’s hard for me to even imagine the personal and familial sacrifices that would be necessary to be the primary provider for 100 other people.

On top of the economic sacrifice was the very real risk to his own life. If he were discovered, he would certainly be killed. Obadiah was no coward. He was a godly man with living faith and expectant hope in the promises of the LORD. What would have become of those 100 prophets had Obadiah not been in a position to help and support them? We don’t know for sure, but we do know that Jezebel was on an active seek and destroy prophets mission. Probably they would have been killed.

Nevertheless, we judge him to be a morally circumspect compromiser who should have refused employ with Ahab. We understand Obadiah as in between the polar opposites of Elijah the good and Ahab the evil. For Obadiah to fit into our construction, he must be, at best, only partly good. Power, in our culture’s understanding, is to be used to signal virtue. Obadiah could have signaled his virtue to us by not associating himself with Ahab and keeping himself pure. That is a moralistic reading of Obadiah.

What if Obadiah kept himself pure by working for Ahab? What if the LORD is the hero of this story? What if the LORD uses the faithful but limited abilities and powers of people like Obadiah to be vectors of grace in this world? If we stop reading this story with Elijah as the central hero and instead see the LORD as the primary character, then we can see Obadiah for the man that he was. He was a godly man who did the best that he could to be faithful to the LORD in a hard and difficult situation. He did not do anything wrong by serving Ahab well. Instead, he did everything right be serving evil King Ahab well. That is what enabled him to rescue and support 100 prophets in a cave. That is what enabled him to help Elijah. That is what let him serve the common good in Israel so long ago. In their desperate and hurting world, every bit helped. Is our world today really any different?

What if the real important difference between Obadiah and Elijah was not their faithfulness to the LORD but their social power? Obadiah did not have the power of either King Ahab or Elijah. He could not turn Israelite society and culture around. He did not command armies or cause droughts. His sphere of influence was comparatively modest, although it would have been bigger than that of an ordinary man. He was no superhero. He could not faithfully choose either to shun Ahab and dwell in the wilderness like Elijah or to have the high places torn down and the idols destroyed like Ahab. His power, and therefore his choices, were much more limited than that.

So, what did he choose? He chose to serve Ahab well. You cannot rise to head of a king’s household if you do not do your job well. So, he must have worked as excellently as he could. In so doing, he also faithfully served the LORD and bore witness to Him. He probably did not openly make a public show of this faith at work, because that would have deeply antagonized Ahab and Jezebel. Instead, he let his conduct speak for him. I know a believer who, with seven children to support, has lost at least half a dozen jobs, because he insists on taking time out of his work to publicly evangelize his supervisors and coworkers. While his zeal is admirable, his tactic is both foolish and faithless. Just as the LORD worked through the actions without words of Obadiah to save those prophets, so also can the LORD work through our actions when we lack the appropriate opportunity to speak. Through his insistence that the LORD use his public words at work, his dependent children have had to rely on others for their support. Instead, Obadiah was an excellent worker who won the trust of royalty and the power that comes with that. Obadiah then used that power to serve the LORD and his fellow Israelites by rescuing and supporting 100 prophets for years. The LORD used his faithful servant Obadiah, and we should never be ashamed to work well where we are and see how the LORD will use us.

If we also consider 2 Kings 22, we see this same pattern again. Godly King Josiah has taken the throne from his evil father Manasseh who was even more evil than Ahab. King Manasseh actually sacrificed his son. Nevertheless, thankfully, he still had godly people working for him. When King Josiah begins to rebuild the temple, those godly workers, who would have also worked for his evil father Manasseh and are nevertheless so trustworthy that they don’t need to be audited, actually rediscover the lost Torah. Should everyone have left the service of evil King Manasseh? If every godly person had left civil service, what would have happened to Judah’s society? What would happen to our society today if everyone understood their occupations only in moralistic terms, as an opportunity to signal their virtue? What if those of us who strive to do well at whatever we do, through thick and thin, decided to pack it in, when we perceive that the morality of those we serve has been compromised? Probably, we would starve and have mass chaos. Thank the LORD that He has provided people like Obadiah to stay at home with ungrateful and disobedient children, to put out the fires of every company and home, to protect and serve all of the people, and to produce the products and services we rely on every day. For those of us who are more like Obadiah than like Elijah, limited in power and influence but not in faithfulness, thank you for your service.

Why would I believe that?

One of the questions that the story of Obadiah raises for Christians like us is ‘What does it say about me that I tend to read into Obadiah’s story a conclusion that he is less good than Elijah?” That is an uncomfortable question for me, because when I re-read his story while remembering that the LORD is its primary subject not Elijah, I can clearly see that Obadiah like Elijah is a vessel for His grace. The primary difference between Obadiah and Elijah is their power. The LORD used Elijah to speak to King Ahab with drought-inducing power. The LORD used Obadiah to speak to King Ahab with service and duty. Elijah seems like a superhero, wielding the LORD’s power to stop the rain and raise the dead. Obadiah seems, well, normal in contrast even though he rescued and supported 100 prophets.

So, when I read into Obadiah’s story a conclusion that Obadiah is not only less powerful but less good than Elijah, I am actually asserting that power itself is a virtue, a moral good. If Obadiah is less good than Elijah, and if the primary difference between them is a difference in power, then Obadiah’s possession of less power than Elijah must be why I see him as less good or less moral than Elijah. I must therefore confess that I believe, in spite of knowing that this is wrong, that power itself is a virtue. I believe that it is a moral good, and as a moral good, something to aspire to possess. I must, in other words, confess my own will to power.

I want to further point out how pervasive this sinful belief in power is for me. It has the power to change my perception and understanding of Scripture. It warps the message about a holy and loving God who reaches through different sorts of people who are each playing very different roles and uses them harmoniously together for His purpose. This sinful belief in power twists that message into a heart-level message that Elijah is better than Obadiah, because he has more power.

As I confess this sin, I must also ask how this sin grew so powerfully within me that it is able to warp my understanding. I did not think my way to this sinful belief. I know that it is wrong. As ever, I cultivated this sinful belief by uncritically immersing myself over and over again in the stories and practices of our culture that reinforce this belief. Think of all of the subtle ways we train ourselves to see power itself not as a conduit for grace or evil but as a moral good in its own right.

What should a Christian do?

Understanding power itself to be a virtue is a shared cultural belief for us. If we look for it, we can see it across our culture. We can see it as the underlying assumption in the way we usually practice politics and in the superhero movies we like to watch. We are not somehow immune to this as Christians.

When we regularly read the Bible, however, and allow the Spirit to speak to us through its stories on their own terms, we can begin to see these sinful beliefs and attitudes of ours for what they are. We begin to see our own sin through the contrast provided by this self-revelation of our holy and sovereign God. In so rooting ourselves in Scripture and with the help of the Spirit, we are able to not only start seeing our sin but also to begin rooting out our sinful beliefs.

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