Over the past few months, I have been posting articles in which I have been considering two major topics set within Scripture: the nature of the church and the kingdom of God. Hey, these are probably my two most favourite topics to discuss from the Scriptures, hence why I’ve taken up such a task.
When I set out to discuss the kingdom of God, it was definitely my desire to discuss the nature of its relationship to the church. When considering such, these are some questions that would probably arise:
• Are the kingdom of God and the church synonymous?
• Are they distinct from one another?
• Is one more important than the other?
Ladd echoes these questions here:
‘One of the most difficult questions in the study of the Kingdom of God is its relationship to the church. Is the Kingdom of God in any sense of the word to be identified with the church? If not, what is the relationship? (A Theology of the New Testament)
It is Roman Catholic theology that has typically identified the church with the kingdom of God, as espoused in works like Augustine’s City of God (see Book 20, ch.9).
Yet, I believe there are four major teachings within Scripture that show the kingdom of God and the church are not synonymous. I will take a look at these four points in this post while, in the next article, I plan to address a major objection that might still arise.
The Kingdom Was First, Not the Church
As I put forth in one of my first articles on the kingdom, God has been King from the beginning and His kingdom rule is eternal:
The LORD is king forever and ever. (Psalm 10:16)
Your throne, O God, is forever and ever. The sceptre of your kingdom is a sceptre of uprightness. (Psalm 45:6)
Your kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, and your dominion endures throughout all generations. (Psalm 145:13)
There has never been a time when God was not King and there was never a time when He did not rule. But, in contrast, there was a time when the church, God’s ekklesia, did not exist. Even for those who believe the church/ekklesia is actually a continuation of Israel, which I fall into this camp, there was still a time when the kingdom existed but not the church.
Thus, if God’s kingdom is eternal, but the church is not, then we find the church utterly dependent upon the King and His rule. And that is good news! Therefore, my conclusion is that the rule and reign of God takes precedence over the church.
‘The Kingdom is primarily the dynamic reign or kingly rule of God, and derivatively, the sphere in which the rule is experienced. In biblical idiom, the Kingdom is not identified with its subjects. They are the people of God’s rule who enter it, live under it, and are governed by it. The church is the community of the Kingdom but never the Kingdom itself. Jesus’ disciples belong to the Kingdom as the Kingdom belongs to them; but they are not the Kingdom. The Kingdom is the rule of God; the church is a society of women and men.’ (George Ladd, A Theology of the New Testament)
Even if one wants to equate the physical nation of Israel with the kingdom of God, there was also a time when the Hebrew people did not exist. But, again, there was never a time when the kingdom of God did not exist. God has always been king!
The Gospel of the Kingdom, Not the Gospel of the Church
It is interesting to note that Jesus came proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom, not the gospel of the church.
And he went throughout all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction among the people. (Matthew 4:23)
And Jesus went throughout all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction. (Matthew 9:35)
And this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come. (Matthew 24:14)
The Law and the Prophets were until John; since then the good news of the kingdom of God is preached, and everyone forces his way into it. (Luke 16:16)
For me, this alone should suffice to show that the two are not synonymous, but rather, the kingdom is of greater import. And Ladd only concurs with this remark about the first Christians:
‘The first missionaries preached the Kingdom of God, not the church (Acts 8:12; 19:8; 20:25; 28:23, 31).’ (A Theology of the New Testament)
Prayer for the Kingdom to Come, Not the Church to Come
Simply stated, Jesus taught us to pray for the kingdom rule of God to come on earth as it is in heaven, not for the church to come.
Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven. (Matthew 6:10)
E. Stanley Jones made this powerful statement:
‘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.”’ (The Unshakable Kingdom and the Unchanging Person)
Now those are some words of truth!
We Are to Seek the Kingdom, Not the Church
Finally, in another well-known passage, Jesus declared that His followers were to seek the kingdom and its righteousness, not the church.
But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. (Matthew 6:33)
As Jones goes on to state:
‘So let not our cry be, “Save the Church,” but “Seek the Kingdom,” seek the Kingdom, first, last, and always, and “all these things will be added unto you,” including the Church, redeemed and reoriented and single-pointed – the Kingdom. If the Church should perish the Kingdom would remain.’ (The Unshakable Kingdom and the Unchanging Person)
Thus, for me, the gauntlet has landed. These four Scriptural points make it evident that the kingdom and the church are not synonymous. The kingdom takes precedence over the church. No doubt the church consists of the covenant people of God who have submitted to His rule, and thus, we are the greatest tool of the kingdom…but I get ahead of myself for a later post. To summarise:
- The kingdom was first, not the church
- It is the gospel of the kingdom, not the gospel of the church
- We are to pray for the kingdom to come, not the church to come
- We are to seek the kingdom, not the church
Click here to view my next article in which I address a major objection to the conclusion that the kingdom and the church are not synonymous.