January 19, 2018

The Enigma of Evangelicalism

Lessons from a Godly Compromiser

Layton Talbert

Biography is surely one of the most interesting and engaging forms of literature. It is also one of the most instructive forms of revelation folded into the larger genre of historical narrative. The biography of Jehoshaphat reveals a remarkably timeless and complex personality with a great deal to teach us about ourselves, both in terms of human nature and divine perspective.[1]

A Good Start (2 Chronicles 17)

When he came to the throne of Judah at the age of 35, Jehoshaphat assumed a position of strength and a defensive posture against Judah’s traditional enemy-relative to the north, Israel (17:1, 2). The Lord favored Jehoshaphat and consolidated his kingdom because he followed the example of David in seeking Yahweh alone, obeying His commandments, and delighting in His ways (17:3–6). Jehoshaphat even launched a praiseworthy program of public education, catechizing the people of Judah in the law of God (17:7–9). Striking a posture of both military and spiritual strength, Jehoshaphat gave Judah its greatest era of tranquility and prosperity since the reign of Solomon (17:10–19).

A Bad Precedent (2 Chronicles 18)

In what would become his defining flaw, Jehoshaphat entered into an alliance that bore bitter fruit for years to come in his own family and among the people of God, contaminating the course of their leadership for future generations. Jehoshaphat’s militant posture lost its edge and looked instead for ways to secure peace and unity between Judah and Israel. Sometime during his first fifteen years, a peace treaty with Israel was finalized by a marriage alliance between the Davidic house of Jehoshaphat and his royal (but not spiritual) colleague to the north, the house of Ahab and Jezebel (18:1). It would be remembered as a strike against him that he “made peace with the king of Israel” (1 Kings 22:44).

During a visit to Samaria, Ahab royally feasts Jehoshaphat and persuades him to participate in Israel’s war against the Arameans (18:2, 3). True to form, the godly (but newly compromised) Jehoshaphat genuinely wants to know what God thinks (18:4), asks specifically for a bona fide prophet of Yahweh (18:6), prevails upon a reluctant Ahab to send for one (18:7), and hears the sobering interchange, including Micaiah’s express warning that the battle will fail and Ahab will be killed (18:12–27). Jehoshaphat’s response is astonishing: “So the king of Israel and Jehoshaphat the king of Judah went up to Ramoth Gilead” (18:28)! Jehoshaphat didn’t heed the very counsel he had requested from Yahweh. Astonishing turns to bizarre when Ahab—in a bid to outmaneuver Providence—suggests that Jehoshaphat wear his royal apparel (as an unwitting decoy) while Ahab camouflages himself as a common soldier and slips into the battle . . . and Jehoshaphat agrees (18:29)!

God is unbelievably kind even to stupid saints (18:30– 32)—a truth that surely benefits all of us some time or other. But what could possibly make this godly man so insensible to common sense, let alone such clear revelation? Was it pure naïveté? Gullibility is not a characteristic often associated with such unquestioned leadership abilities. Would he have been embarrassed to be the only one willing to listen to this “troublesome” prophet of Yahweh? Perhaps, but elsewhere he seems unashamed of the Lord and His testimony. Did he feel additionally pressured by his treaty agreement with Ahab, in spite of what God seemed to be saying? Maybe. Did his preoccupation with unity so skew his priorities that he was more willing to risk disobeying God than displeasing man? Any of these are feasible explanations, all of them possible factors. The last, however, is the most consistent with the implication of the context (18:3).

Rebuke and Rebound (2 Chronicles 19)

Jehoshaphat returned by the skin of his teeth. Not cowed by any respect of persons, the prophet Jehu delivered a ripping rebuke from God that mixed reprimand with encouragement. His message and spirit are refreshingly evenhanded: “Shouldest thou help the ungodly, and love them that hate the LORD? therefore is wrath upon thee from before the LORD. Nevertheless there are good things found in thee, in that thou hast taken away the [idol] groves out of the land, and hast prepared thine heart to seek God” (19:2, 3).

Are we as honest and evenhanded in our assessment of those whose practices and associations we rightly contest? If we would think God’s thoughts and be like Him, we must be as direct and as gracious in dealing with others as He is in dealing with them.

Jehoshaphat displays a healthy rebound from this incident. The chronicler records Jehoshaphat’s renewed missionary spirit even among the Israelites in the hill country of Ephraim (19:4), as well as his significant and spiritually motivated judicial reforms throughout the land (19:5-11).

More Compromising Alliances (2 Chronicles 20; 2 Kings 3)

The record of Jehoshaphat’s reign concludes with a lengthy account of this king as a model of trust in Yahweh—a trust vindicated by an extraordinary victory (20:1–30). But Jehoshaphat failed to learn the lesson of alliances. The final evaluation of Jehoshaphat is punctuated with a footnote (20:31–34), a bare mention and brief censure of yet another compromise (20:35–37). Chronologically, this alliance followed within only a year or so of the Ahab alliance.

Alliance with Ahaziah (20:35–37; cf. 1 Kings 22:48, 49). The conclusion of the Jehoshaphat chronicle draws attention to his inappropriate “alliance” (20:35, 36, 37; cf. 18:1). His partner in this alliance—King Ahaziah of Israel, who succeeded his father Ahab—”did very wickedly” (20:35). This alliance appears to have been a commercial enterprise— a joint shipbuilding venture for mercantile purposes. God apparently sent a massive storm that wrecked Jehoshaphat’s ships. The prophet Eliezer explained, “Because thou hast joined thyself with Ahaziah, the LORD hath broken thy works.” The announcement seems to have come not as a warning but as an explanation after the fact, implying that Jehoshaphat needed no warning. He should have known better. The repetition highlights an alarming pattern in an otherwise godly man.

Alliance with Jehoram (2 Kings 3). The chronologically final alliance of Jehoshaphat does not appear in Chronicles at all. But it, too, came reasonably soon after the Ahab-alliance—within five years at the most— and within three-to-four years of the Ahaziah alliance. Jehoram, another son of Ahab who took Israel’s throne after Ahaziah, decided to rein in Moab’s rebellion and invited Jehoshaphat to help him. Incredibly, Jehoshaphat agreed, offering the same old rationale: unity (2 Kings 3:7). When the expedition ran into trouble, Jehoshaphat again called for a prophet of Yahweh, and Elisha was found nearby (2 Kings 3:8–12). After a cutting remark to Jehoram, he said that only his respect for the presence of Jehoshaphat induced him to help them (2 Kings 3:13, 14). But the implication lingers: What is Jehoshaphat doing here? And the campaign’s success is dubious at best (2 Kings 3:26, 27).

What are we to conclude about Jehoshaphat? This is not merely a “slow learner.” This is a tender-hearted man with a stiff neck or a weak spine, or maybe a little of both.

Assessing the Problem Biblically

Compromise is not new. Jehoshaphat’s defining flaw was his habitual alliance with the enemies of God’s Word—well-intentioned alliances that he forged and defended in the interest of unity (18:3; 2 Kings 3:7). But they were alliances that had a devastating impact on his own family and on the people of God long after he was gone—and a nearly devastating influence on the Davidic-Messianic line.

Nevertheless—and this is the real test both of our charity and of our honesty—despite his foolish and directly disobedient alliances, Jehoshaphat was an indisputably good, sincere, and godly man. God’s own inspired account makes that abundantly and repeatedly clear, both before and after his disobedient alliances. How can this be? It seems to undermine every separatist instinct, every Fundamentalist argument. But Fundamentalists must conform their instincts and arguments to the Bible.

Jehoshaphat was one of only eight godly kings in Judah, and one of only three kings compared to David. He walked in the ways of David, took heart-delight in the ways of the Lord, and appointed leaders to teach God’s law throughout Judah. His positive acts of genuine godliness are further detailed in 2 Chronicles 19–20, and God’s concluding assessment of Jehoshaphat is almost entirely positive (2 Chron. 20:31, 32).

Surprisingly, the fact that he made peace with Israel is not one of his accomplishments but one of his flaws, listed alongside his failure to remove the idolatrous high places in Judah (1 Kings 22:43, 44). Included for our instruction in God’s record of Jehoshaphat are his habitual alliances. In every case Jehoshaphat was rebuked, directly or indirectly, by God’s prophets (Micaiah, Jehu, Eliezer, and Elisha). Yet godly Jehoshaphat appears to have consistently ignored or rationalized God’s warnings.

Confronting the Evangelical Paradox

Can a godly man compromise so blatantly and so continually? Does such compromise prove that his godliness is only apparent? The striking feature of Jehoshaphat’s life is this incongruity between his incontestably godly character and his atrociously damaging alliances. Fundamentalists often wrestle with this same incongruity personified in many modern Evangelicals. What is a Biblical assessment of such men? The inspired record of Jehoshaphat addresses and resolves much of the enigma of Evangelicalism.

We are convinced on Biblical grounds that many Evangelical practices and alliances are wrong. (In fact, an increasing number of them are convinced that many Evangelical practices and alliances are wrong, and they are writing about it.) Yet they write such good books. They preach powerfully and Biblically. Their ministries appear strong and successful. And many of them seem godly and sincere. How can they ally with those who reject Biblical truth, or dialogue with those who reject the truth of God as it is revealed in Scripture? How can they share platforms with other men who do these things, and sustain relationships with those who make these kinds of alliances, without rebuking them for it?

These are hard questions to answer. That is why some are tempted to focus only on the positive elements of Evangelicalism—the good books, the Biblical preaching, the successful ministries, the apparent sincerity and godly character—positive features which, they argue, make Fundamentalism appear by contrast to be weak, small, insignificant, petty. The preoccupation with the appealing elements of Evangelicalism leads some to conclude, “These Evangelicals can’t be so bad—certainly not the evil men some Fundamentalists make them out to be.” And very often, they’re not. They’re Jehoshaphats. Their Jehoshaphat-like gifts and godliness and success are precisely what make them appealing. They may, like Jehoshaphat, be very good men. But also like Jehoshaphat, they are in many cases men whose alliances contradict and undermine the very truth they believe. And like Jehoshaphat’s alliances, theirs also dilute the distinction between truth and error, blur the discernment of God’s people, compromise the leadership of the Church, and damage the cause and testimony of Christ.

Formulating Biblical Conclusions

The Scripture emphatically colors our assessment of Jehoshaphat by insisting that throughout his life and reign, he did “that which was right in the sight of the LORD” (2 Chron. 20:32). But after surveying the course of the kingdom under his son and grandson after him, how can anyone still insist that the alliances of the leaders of God’s people have no lasting influence on the people of God? No one who carefully considers this historical record can conclude that separation is an inconsequential issue, an overblown exaggeration of a few isolated verses by pugnacious Fundamentalists.

The parallels between Jehoshaphat and a number of household names within modern Evangelicalism seem inescapable. There is some heated dispute over whether such men are, in fact, godly or good or even sincere men. It is a moot point. In the final analysis, we have no infallible guide to their hearts. But we do have an infallible guide to Jehoshaphat’s heart. According to that guide, he was a good, godly, and sincere man. Yet the effects of his blatantly disobedient alliances on the people of God and the direction of their leadership was devastating.

The example of Jehoshaphat demonstrates that it is possible— indeed, probable that a compromising Evangelical may be good and godly and sincere. Fundamentalists ought to offer no contest on that point. That is not the issue. The issue is that many Evangelicals undermine through un-Biblical alliances the very cause of Christ that they espouse. Jehoshaphat valued “getting along” over genuine allegiance to the Lord, and external unity over faith in God’s Word as the criterion for determining his alliances. In the process, he demonstrated an inexplicable ability to ignore the plain words of God.

The Jehoshaphat narrative shows both sides of the coin. Granted, an Evangelical may be good, godly, sincere, and successful. But that does not excuse him from rebuke when his alliances undermine the truth of God’s Word and the purity of His people. God’s view of compromising alliances is always the same. Paul had to rebuke Peter publicly not over any doctrinal aberration, but for an association that threatened to undercut the truth of the gospel message that they both believed and preached (Gal. 2).

Final Thoughts

The fact that a man is—like Jehoshaphat—good, godly, sincere, and successful does not mean (a) that all his actions are, therefore, right (19:2); (b) that his wrong actions should be overlooked or unrebuked because he is, after all, such a good and godly and sincere and successful man (19:2); (c) that God is not displeased with him, whether we see evidence of that wrath or not (19:2); or (d) that his wrong actions necessarily nullify his good and godly character (19:3).

That’s why it is inappropriate to castigate such men with verbal abuse. When we go beyond an accurate application of Scriptural terminology to the error of such men, we ignore Paul’s fundamental insistence that we treat the erring and compromising believer “not as an enemy, but . . . as a brother” (2 Thess. 3:13–15). When we are unwilling to acknowledge evidence of genuine gifts and commendable deeds, we are being narrow and petty. We need to reflect the kind of gracious magnanimity our Lord displays even in rebuke (see Revelation 2, 3). But if we fail to warn them and others of the error and danger of such alliances, we ignore the Biblical force of the prophets’ example.

Micaiah, Jehu, Eliezer, Elisha—these are the “Fundamentalists” in the Biblical record of Jehoshaphat. If we would be on their side, then we must take our cues from them and pattern our speech after them. For our necessary criticism of un-Biblical behavior and alliances to carry credibility, we must be as willing as God is to acknowledge the positive features of modern-day Jehoshaphats. But for our emphasis on the positive to be Biblically balanced, we cannot ignore un-Biblical behavior or alliances. To focus on either to the exclusion of the other is dishonest and unbiblical.

The question is, with whom in the narrative do you most desire to be identified? The wicked Ahab and Ahaziah and Jehoram? The godly but compromising (and divinely rebuked) Jehoshaphat? Or the “negative” (but honest) prophets such as Micaiah, Jehu, Elisha, and Eliezer? Who is most clearly and consistently on the Lord’s side? Isn’t that what matters most?

This article is an abbreviated excerpt from “A Theological Biography of Jehoshaphat: Lessons from an Old Evangelical” in Biblical Viewpoint (November 2004).

Dr. Layton Talbert teaches theology and apologetics at Bob Jones Seminary, Greenville, SC and is a Frontline Contributing Editor.

(Originally published in FrontLine • January / February 2005. Click here to subscribe to the magazine.)

  1. Note: Unless otherwise indicated, references are to 2 Chronicles. []

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