“Kingdom theology” is on the rise, says Scot McKnight in his new book, Kingdom Conspiracy: Returning to the Radical Mission of the Local Church (Brazos, 2014), but what in the world is the kingdom? Or better said, what is the kingdom in this world? And how does the kingdom relate to the church and its mission?
Kingdom Activism vs. Kingdom Redemption
Scot sees two basic choices among evangelicals today. First, we have the “Skinny Jeans” crowd of young activists who define the kingdom as “good deeds done by good people (Christian or not) in the public sector for the common good” (4). Then, there is the “Pleated Pants” crew who believe the kingdom is God’s redemptive rule and power at work on the world” (13) – some who see this redemption primarily in terms of personal salvation and others who expand redemption to societal and cultural transformation.
When scholars lay out two opposing viewpoints, they usually proceed to point out the strengths and weaknesses in both sides and argue for a middle way. Scot’s approach is different. He’s not a referee trying to make two teams get along. Instead, he’s more like a professor on the sidelines telling both teams, “I think you’re playing on the wrong field.”
The Biblical Landscape
If we’re going to get on the right field, we’d better make sure we understand the storyline of the Bible, particularly Israel’s story and what “kingdom” meant to the Jews. The gospel’s declaration – “Jesus is Messiah, King, Lord, and Savior” – must be seen as the answer to a question, which comes from within a specific story. Instead of using the common Creation, Fall, Redemption, Consummation storyline to describe the Bible, Scot opts for an A-B-A’ story.
Plan A extends from Adam and Abraham to Samuel, and its theme is “God rules the world through his elected people, but God is the one and only king” (28). Where does sin come into this picture?
“The story of sin in the Bible is the story of God’s elect people wanting to be God-like instead of god-ly, or ruling instead of sub-ruling and being ruled” (29).
God’s response is to form a covenant of Abraham and call him and his people to rule for God.
Plan B is the establishment of a human king for Israel as an accommodation to Israel’s selfish desire to be like the other nations. Though God grants Israel a human king and continues to forgive Israel of its sins through the temple system, the people long for the right kind of king and kingdom. Once they are exiled, their hope of return and redemption increases.
In Plan A Revised, God comes to rule once again through the person of Jesus Christ. In Jesus, God is King again, Israel and the church live under His rule, and forgiveness is granted through Jesus until the day He returns to consummate His kingdom.
The Spread of the Kingdom Story
How does our understanding of the biblical storyline affect our mission?
Scot believes kingdom mission requires conversion (he summarizes repentance and faith as a “surrender” to King Jesus) and discipleship (being mastered by the Bible’s story). Spiritual growth is linked to the kingdom’s inauguration.
“To the same degree that the kingdom has been inaugurated in Jesus, the kingdom can be realized among us. To the degree that the kingdom has not yet been realized, it cannot be lived out in the present” (39).
Understanding this truth gives us both a sense of hope and realism as we grow in Christlikeness.
Kingdom mission also requires context. Scot shows how Jesus’ kingdom story set him against five competing stories (including the Pharisees, the Essenes, and the Zealots). Likewise, faithfulness in the kingdom mission means we must “embed kingdom realities” in our own context, intentionally countering the ruling stories at work in our world.
God’s Kingdom as a People
The boldest proposal in Kingdom Conspiracy comes next. Scot challenges the evangelical consensus that “the kingdom of God” refers to God’s redemptive rule and not His people. “The kingdom of which Jesus speaks is a people governed by a king,” he writes (74).
Why does this matter? Because, whenever we reduce “kingdom” to God’s rule as either justice in the world or God’s rule as personal salvation for the human heart, we ignore the close connection between the kingdom of the King’s people. “You can’t be kingdom people without being church people,” he says (79).
Scot is not denying distinctions between the church and the kingdom, but he believes evangelicals have overstated the distinctions and missed their close connection. He writes:
“It is reasonable to say that the kingdom is the church, and the church is the kingdom – that they are the same even if they are not identical. They are the same in that it is the same people under the same King Jesus even if each term – kingdom, church – gives off slightly different suggestions” (206).
Kingdom Mission as Church Mission
If we fail to understand the kingdom’s connection to the church, we will get lost when we go looking for the primary place redemption is found. The Skinny Jeans activists are all about redemption in society. The Pleated Pants folks are all about redemption for the individual. Scot says both are looking in the wrong place. The primary locus of redemption is in the local church. (85). “There is no kingdom now outside the church,” he writes (87).
But, wait! The church is so messed up. How can this possibly be the place of God’s redemptive rule?
It’s here that Scot takes the “kingdom is now and not yet” consensus of evangelicalism and applies the same insight to the church. Just as we say the kingdom is already here, but not yet fully, so we should we also consider the church as already sanctified but not yet perfected (92).
So, what is kingdom mission? “Kingdom work is what kingdom citizens do under King Jesus.” So, if “the kingdom is the people who are redeemed and ruled by King Jesus in such a way that they live as a fellowship under King Jesus,” then “kingdom mission is about creating and sustaining that kingdom community, the church” (99).
The church’s mission is to “mediate the presence of God in this world” primarily through its embracing of its identity as an alternative kingdom politic. Local churches must embody the vision of Jesus in a way that tells His kingdom story.
“Kingdom mission forms a kingdom people and that kingdom people in the present world is the church” (123).
On both the left and the right, evangelicals are missing the essence of kingdom mission due to their conflation of political involvement with kingdom work. The big problem is that Christians are seeking for the nation what should first be a witnessed reality in the local church (102). Political involvement is a major distraction from kingdom mission in that it seeks to enshrine a “Judeo-Christian ethic,” an ethic that, by definition, either “strips the Christian elements” or “turns the ‘Judeo’ part into a Christian ethic” (220).
Likewise, our good works in society are necessary, but we shouldn’t call them “kingdom work.” Neither should we use the terminology of “redemption” to describe our good deeds in the world. Scot makes his point clear:
“Any kind of ‘redemptive’ activity that does not deal with sin, that does not find its strength in the cross, that does not see the primary agent as Jesus, and that does not see it all as God’s new creation life unleashed is not kingdom redemption, even if it is liberating and good and for the common good.” (150).
Does this mean Christians should withdraw from the public sphere? Not at all, says Scot. But the question needs to be flipped. We’ve been asking where the church fits into society, when instead, we should be asking how society is summoned into God’s society (the church) (111).
According to Scot, redemption is indeed holistic, and there is certainly a “social” side of Christian activity. But his point is that the “social” dimension of redemption is the social reality called the church (154). First the local church, then the world.
Points of Appreciation and Disagreement
Tomorrow, I’m going to offer some areas of agreement and disagreement with Scot’s proposal.