Back in fall, Brazos Press sent over a copy of Scot McKnight’s newest release, Kingdom Conspiracy: Returning to the Radical Mission of the Local Church. I am very grateful for the book, as I appreciate McKnight’s biblical-theological approaches.
Scot McKnight, professor at Northern Seminary, is one of the leading New Testament scholars of today. In all, this was a needed book in the discussion around our understanding of three key theological areas: the kingdom of God, church and mission.
McKnight begins the book by challenging 2 groups within the American church context in regards to its understanding of the gospel. Those 2 groups and their perspectives are as follows:
1) Skinny-Jeans Kingdom – These are the hipster evangelical (or emerging) folk who bring a strong emphasis on social justice as part of the fuller “gospel of the kingdom”. The strong focus here is that the kingdom of God can become very practical in daily “kingdom” work for the common good.
2) Pleated-Pants Kingdom – These are more traditional evangelicals who see the kingdom as more of a spiritual-redemptive reality. Thus, the kingdom is not necessarily any one actual place, but rather it is everywhere or anywhere because of its spiritual nature.
Now, the inherent problem with the discussion at hand is that we are dealing with two perspectives that are found primarily amongst Anglo-American evangelicals in one way or another. I’m sure these discussions are found in other contexts, but the labeling (which, on a side note, I find hilarious) is found mainly within a white, middle-class context. Still, that is somewhat of McKnight’s own context (though he speaks/teaches wider) and that’s my own general context. So it provides a good framework for dialogue.
McKnight spends the book forging a path forward, addressing where both crowds might be missing something. His intent is to not necessarily find a meeting in the middle between the two groups, but rather to provide a more biblically-focused ground that gives a call of change to both camps where they have missed the mark.
This starts by questioning the typical storyline that both groups present from Scripture. Most start with the Creation-Fall-Redemption-Consummation framework (identified as C-F-R-C by McKnight). 1) God created all things good (Creation). 2) Humanity fell into sin in the garden (Fall). God started his great redeeming work, even from the get-go in Gen 3, which was fully realized in the work of Christ (Redemption). God will finally and completely make all things new in Christ at the end of history (Consummation).
That’s the normal account given by just about every modern-day evangelical.
However, McKnight insists the Skinny Jeans and Pleated Pants narrative of C-F-R-C is too narrow. Rather there is an A-B-A’ framework that better encompasses the biblical narrative.
That A-B-A’ story goes something like this:
- Plan A: From Adam to Abraham to Samuel, God is ruling the world through his elect people, but God is still the one and only king.
- Plan B: Israel as a whole tends to usurp God’s rule. God graciously grants Israel a human king and the story then takes on a Davidic-kingly focus.
- Plan A Revised: God returns to Plan A in Jesus because God himself now rules once again.
The C-F-R-C narrative focuses on redemption-salvation. This weaves kingdom into the story, rather than making it primary.
The A-B-A’ narrative focuses on kingdom. This weaves redemption-salvation into the story, making it secondary to kingdom.
“When Jesus declared, “The time has come. The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news,” the average Jewish listener didn’t say, “Finally, someone to tell me how to get saved.” Instead, what first came to mind when Jesus spoke this way of the arrival of the kingdom were thoughts about “David” and “king” and “messiah” and “temple” and “Jerusalem” and “Kick the Romans out!” and “justice.” Kingdom makes no sense in the New Testament, from Jesus to Paul to the Apocalypse, until you understand the specialized story kingdom is telling. I propose that the following A-B-A’ story is the one driving the kingdom story and that the C-F-R-C story is a theme within the A-B-A’ story. Most important, the A-B-A’ story will lead us squarely to focus on the gospel declaration that Jesus is the Messiah, Lord, and Savior.” (p28)
This is the problem that others, including folk such as N.T. Wright, have brought out in recent days. The story line of Scripture, and the foundation of the gospel, is the story of the kingdom of God. As McKnight argues in his previous work, The King Jesus Gospel, most evangelicals are presenting the “plan of salvation” when they speak about the gospel rather than the gospel itself. The gospel and plan of salvation are connected, but they are not synonymous.
But here is where the road meets the rubber. For Scot McKnight, the kingdom of God and the church are ultimately synonymous. And the rubber keeps meeting the road in espousing that kingdom mission and church mission are equivalent. He argues that, to say, “I’m doing kingdom mission,” as apart from or at the expense of church mission, is not a viable biblical option. Kingdom and church are synonymous; so is their mission.
First off all, I applaud this approach, though I don’t fully settle in the same boat as McKnight. I commend it because of this very reason: it makes kingdom and church theology very practical or very, very earthy. Most of our theology is abstract, ethereal, conceptual without any real affecting of actual life on planet earth. Things become too “spiritual.” However, theology in Scripture is very down-to-earth, impacting actual people’s lives, affecting the actual world we live in. McKnight has made that real in The Kingdom Conspiracy.
From this standpoint, there is a desire for the kingdom of God to not just be an ethereal rule “up there” or “somewhere” that sometimes bursts forth here and there through personal salvation, social aid or even the miraculous. The rule of God is very much connected to the people of God. They are THE great expression of God’s kingdom rule on earth as in heaven.
However, to make the kingdom fully synonymous with the church is, I believe, not easily established from the pages of Scripture itself. I find myself in a quagmire here – mainly because I want to swing the pendulum away from abstract theology. The kingdom is THE story of God within Scripture – and that story was lived out. However, there is too much in my mind that leads me to conclude that the kingdom of God is something bigger than church. There are 4 particular points that come to mind:
1) The kingdom of God was first, not the church. God’s rule is everlasting, the church is not. I’m of the opinion that the new covenant ekklesia is a continuation of the old covenant ekklesia. Still, the rule of God is everlasting. The church has never been (at least from an initial starting point).
2) It is the gospel of the kingdom, not the gospel of the church. Now, what I believe McKnight would argue is that the church is intricately connected to that good news as the body who embraces that message. We must remember that! Still, there’s something “outside” the church that is calling the church to cross and resurrection. It’s the gospel of the kingdom and its king.
3) We are to pray for the kingdom to come, not the church to come. When God’s rule comes, the church is established, ordered, renewed and more. But such happens as the rule of God is worked and proclaimed in our midst. Not to mention that the rule of God can become, does at times become, a reality even apart from the work of the people of God. Even Satan himself can be utilized by God to see his rule established on earth as in heaven. And so we’re praying something bigger than ourselves be enacted, however for such to be enacted in and through us.
4) We are to seek the kingdom of God, not the church. We are to seek not ourselves, but the distinct rule of the Triune God. If the church should not seek the kingdom, God will still be king and he will still make his rule real.
In his book, The Unshakable Kingdom and the Unchanging Person, these words of E. Stanley Jones, I believe, are quite powerful.
“The Christian Church, while it holds within itself the best life of the Kingdom, is not the kingdom of God. The Kingdom is absolute, the Church is relative – relative to something beyond itself, the Kingdom. The Kingdom judges and redeems the Church, and the Church is potent to the degree that it obeys the Kingdom and embodies the life and spirit of the Kingdom. The Church is not an end in itself, the Kingdom is the end. Jesus never said, “May thy church come on earth as it is in heaven.” He did say, “Thy kingdom come…, on earth.””
I think McKnight’s book is one that will challenge many evangelicals and emerging church thinkers about the kingdom of God. I say, “Good! Keep on!” Sometimes we are too spiritual-ethereal in our perspectives; sometimes we are so focused on doing common good work apart from any connection to the church. Both are terrible perspectives, problematic ways to approach a perspective on the kingdom of God, church, mission and the gospel. McKnight has done well to help center us back in the ways of Jesus and the kingdom.