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.
I am wondering how you see that Kingdom coming in the here and now? How do you think that is supposed to be practically worked out on this earth where we live? In other words, how, and to what extent, do you believe that the Kingdom of God is supposed to be worked out in the here and now?
You have likely discussed that somewhere, but I either have not seen it or do not remember. I am just wondering what your personal perspective is on this issue.
I think the rule of God is expressed ultimately in & through the people of God, the church itself. I’d say that primarily comes in the local expression – not an abstract “universal” church. I don’t deny a universal element, but most discussion of the church in Scripture is an actual local setting. And we see the kingdom of God come in the proclaiming of the evangel good news that God’s order has come in Jesus and when we live in light of that order, from both small to larger things. So a local church opening their building to the homeless for meals & beds to sleep on is the rule of God being expressed in a real, practical way. But to also see the church freed from consumerism, individualism & rationalism into more holistic, sacrificial & communal ways is also the reality of God’s kingdom expressed in our midst.
Some of that sounds abstract, but I hope that makes sense.
It made sence. 🙂 People in the church do not always mean the same thing when they use that terminology these days. Thank you for explaining your understanding of the subject.
Yes, that is true. Many people talking about doing “things for the kingdom” or “building the kingdom” and it’s simply an ethereal idea. This is why I want to lean up closely to McKnight’s thoughts. The church as the kingdom is something practical & good to consider, to speak about. But most people can’t/won’t say the local people of God is the actual, real expression of the kingdom of God. I think that is a tragedy.
When I asked my question. I was thinking more along the lines of the folks that talk about the Kingdom coming in the here and now in more politiacal/”take over the culture” type terms in contrast to what you said in your reply to me.
I have not read McKniight’s book, nor is he someone that I would look to for direction.
But I do much more agree with what you said here about the chruch expressing the Kingdom in practical ways like the ones you have mentioned rather than the political/cultural takeover that some folks seem to be talking about when they use those terms.
Lastly, I do not think you mean to be belittling this idea either, but we must remember that until the Kingdom actually comes in the hearts of men–one person at at time–when they are personally born again into that Kingdom, any works being done by folks out there are not truly an expresion of God’s Kingdom through His true chruch. His Kingdom is truly expressed to others through folks that first know the inner transformation and salvation that comes through Jesus alone when they are placed into His Kingdom and become His people. Then those “works” that they do are an expression of the inner reign of the Lord of that Kingdom in their own hearts and lives.
With regards to the political/cultural take-over talk about “the kingdom,” you’ll usually note this within the extreme political camps of America (and other places). There are too many that align Republican ideas or Democratic ideas as being the ways of Jesus and the kingdom. This is dangerous, disastrous – from both sides! You might also see the whole take-over aspect in something like Liberation theology (especially in Latin America). It sees the need for a frontal engagement with the corrupt structures of society. There is a time to take stand, but I think violence betrays the central message of Jesus and the cross.
Having said that, Jesus and the kingdom are VERY political. However, they are political in the original sense of the word – not the American sense. I’ve shared before that the kingdom is political because: a) there is the proclamation that there is but one Lord, Jesus, the Messiah and b) politics has to do with the polis, or the city, which is the people. This is why McKnight has some very good things to say in connecting the kingdom with the people (or polis) of God. So I will always say the kingdom of God is political – if understood properly.
I am good to talk about personal conversion. That is important. But I think we have to guard against being so ethereal/abstract in our theology. The kingdom of God in Scripture is “measurable” because people actually see it enacted – through God’s deliverance (literal, not just spiritual deliverance). The kingdom is actually expressed in a visual sense. The idea of “I have a personal relationship that I know in my own personal heart” can be problematic in the actual reality of the kingdom of God “on earth as in heaven.” This is why baptism has always been a necessary marker for entrance to the body of Christ (until recent centuries). It was the VISIBLE marker of being a part of the church, who were the people of the kingdom. Not to mention that I think we read passages like John 3 through a more modernist, 20th century evangelical understanding than its original Jewish, 1st century context. The words to Nicodemus about being born again would probably invoke the words of Ezekiel and the rising of the dead bones from the dry valley, ignited by the Spirit. It was a communal picture of Israel being called to new birth, not just an ethereal, personal picture. What a radical transformation to John 3 if we see it coming from the lips of the JEWISH Messiah. Of course, within the communal situation, individuals are affected. But I am convinced the Scripture starts at the communal and moves to the personal, not the other way around like we do in the modern western world.
And I’d also argue that the kingdom is not only “truly expressed to others through folks that first know the inner transformation and salvation that comes through Jesus alone.” I’m not saying every “good” or humanitarian act is a reality of the kingdom of God, per se. But God is very active even apart from his people. Ask Muslims that are having dreams about Jesus as Messiah & Lord, converting, and looking to stay within their Muslim context to be salt & light in the best way they can. It doesn’t fit our paradigm, but God doesn’t always (maybe even never normally) fit our ideas of how things should be done.