Endangered Gospel: How Fixing the World is Killing the Church
By John Nugent
We will be reading through the book this month, and posting discussion questions as we go. We hope you will read along with us, and share your thoughts and questions. (Or, even better, get a group of people at your church to read through the book together!)
Q/A with ERB Editor Chris Smith
As an offshoot of our readthrough, John was kind enough to answer some questions that I had about the book…
My take on the book in brief:
I absolutely agree with you about ecclesiology. Our primary call is to be faithful together as communities of God’s people, and this ecclesiology is missing from the activism of many well-intentioned Christians. My experience concurs with you in wanting to call out the sort of activism that too often omits the role of the church from the salvation of God’s coming kingdom. That being said, I wonder if you might be swinging a little too far in reaction to this sort of activism that you minimize the role of the local church in action in its place? I wonder if there might be a perspective that is located between the ones that you call world-centered and kingdom-centered. Perhaps I could call it incarnation-centered. To begin imagining such a view, let’s start with your chart on page 112, and particularly the two columns on the far right hand side. I’m not completely comfortable with the labels for either of these columns, but it seems with a tiny tweaking of the verbiage, an incarnation-centered view could have incorporate these two as a both/and and not an either/or. Yes, God is ultimately “replacing the fallen order,” but scripture also speaks of God redeeming and reconciling all creation. (More on this in a moment). The final column “Christians begin fixing fallen order,” also is problematic. I agree that we don’t “fix” the world by our own human wisdom or human strength. But the nature of God’s design for creation is one of collaboration, and God has provided the Holy Spirit to guide our churches into an active life that embodies Christ among our neighbors in ways that they can engage and be transformed. So, to the extent that we faithful discern the presence of the Spirit in our midst, we become part of God’s “fix” for healing a broken creation.
So, I’ve already laid my cards on the table, so to speak, but my biggest questions about the case you make in the book focus on eschatology and pneumatology/incarnation.
Thank you for carefully reading and thoughtfully engaging my book. As you know, it is humbling honor to be read carefully and taken seriously. Your questions and observations get to the heart of things, which is refreshing. Before I engage them I want to make clear that I affirm all that I have seen and heard going on with Englewood Christian Church in its community. You all are a “poster child” for what it looks like to participate in world-bettering activities within the kingdom-centered approach I am recommending. So if you are interpreting anything I am saying as standing in tension with what you are doing, then you may be misreading me.
That said, I think my book does challenge some of the language you use to frame what you are doing. I think the core issue is eschatology, which is rooted in exegesis. We interpret some key passages differently, which results in some eschatological differences that have implications for how we conceive the church’s specific nature and mission. I look forward to discussing them. Before do so, I want to discuss your incarnation model.
I find your incarnation-centered approach to be a necessary posture within the portrait I am trying to sketch. I wouldn’t, however, locate it on a continuum between “world-centered” and “kingdom-centered.” I would want to locate it squarely within the kingdom-centered option, although I am pretty sure it could also be appropriated by advocates of human- and world-centered approaches. In think that, on the ground, Englewood Christian Church exemplifies a faithful incarnation of the kingdom-centered approach. Yet some of the language you use in this exchange is textbook world-centered language.
Some of your line of questioning exploits the greatest lacuna in my book. It is a chapter I meant to write, but simply forgot to write until it was too late. It belongs in part 3. It has to do with how we relate to nonhuman creation, though it also has implications for how we engage powers and structures outside of Christ. My failure to include this chapter leaves me pretty wide open to misunderstanding. I’ve tried to offset the omission by discussing the topic a bit in the Q&A section of my endangered gospel website, but I fear it is too little, too late. If a second edition is ever called for, I will be sure to address it!
Back to incarnation. Incarnation, as I understand it, names how we embrace, display, and proclaim God’s kingdom. It is not a fourth task alongside these three, which is why I would include it within the kingdom-centered approach. As the body of Christ, animated by the Spirit of Christ, we order our life together according to the kingdom. We live it out in relation to one another, the land we inhabit, and the neighborhoods in which we dwell. It is analogous to how Israel inhabited its land as a set apart people whose relationship to the land reflects divinely intended stewardship – how all humans were originally meant to inhabit and relate to the land. Ancient Israel also had foreign neighbors. It had to relate to them in ways that were healthy—in ways that were different from how they related to fellow covenant bound Israelites, but nonetheless in ways that were exemplary, attractive, and welcoming into the specific thing God was doing among his covenant people. This brought the Israelites into relationship with the powers of neighboring lands, and they needed to negotiate those relationships carefully and wisely in ways that respected both the powers’ non-submission to Torah and the powers’ worthy aspirations to world betterment. The powers could observe Israel, learn from Israel, be impacted by Israel, and assimilate lessons learned from constructive interaction with Israel. Churches today can have a similar impact.
But this leads to my point – all of this was already a part of old covenant, pre-eschatological reality. God’s people have always been in a particular sort of should-be-peaceful and could-be-beneficial relationship with nonhuman creation, human communities, and various structures that stand outside of submission to God’s reign. What changes with Jesus is not the fallen state of nonhuman creation or the fallen state of powers and structures outside of Christ, but the new humanity that has come into being through Christ and the permanent dispersion of that new humanity throughout the world with a clear mandate to invite rebellious humans into full inclusion into that new humanity and its incarnational witness to God’s kingdom wherever its communities exist.
So I think it is a presupposition of genuine kingdom witness that we occupy territory and find ourselves in a unique relation to the specific territory we inhabit, with its land, neighboring structures, and governing powers. Yet our kingdom mandate is not to improve that land, those structures, and those powers. Our kingdom mandate is to embrace, display, and proclaim God’s kingdom in that place in whatever specific ways the Spirit leads us. That will change considerably based on the members and resources of the kingdom communities that occupy specific places, as well as the needs, opportunities, and receptivity of various communities and their powers. Sometimes our witness to the kingdom will have the effect that the structures around us improve for the better; other times, especially far from Christendom, our witness may result in things getting worse. The powers my lash out against us and others because of our contrasting values. Innocent people inside and outside the church may be oppressed, even to the point of death. The powers might harden their resolve in the opposite direction of God’s kingdom and alter their structures accordingly, perhaps tightening their oppressive grip. The persecuted church is not being less faithful when this happens, but kingdom witness has different effects in different circumstances and we need to be careful not to confuse the positive effects it has in some circumstances with the mandate of all churches in all circumstances.
Our churches are not merely human communities. We are, of course, to use Paul’s terms, the temple of the Holy Spirit. It is then the Holy Spirit that guides our actions (to the extent that we faithfully discern the Spirit’s guiding together), and that brings us to life as Christ’s body. So, although I agree that we clearly do not FIX the world, we are — by the grace of God — the transforming presence of Christ in our particular places, and that is an essential part of the way that God has chosen to reconcile the world. We are always at risk of arrogance, about the extent to which God’s presence in the Holy Spirit is transforming bits of the world through us, but taking an incarnational approach can help to mitigate that a little. We are a body that has presence in a particular time and place. We are not working for causes as abstract issues, but rather following the course of trying to live and flourish faithfully and peaceably in our place with our neighbors — and sometime encountering impediments (in policy, etc) that interfere and have to be addressed.
Human vs. Spirit Agency
I am in full agreement that God’s people are currently involved in a collaborative effort with God’s Spirit to carry out our witness in all sorts of ways. Also, and let me be clear about this, I have no aversion whatsoever to our involvement in activities that make the world better (whether nonhuman creation or fallen human powers and structures) or even fix it in certain ways. I hasten to add, however, that God is at work in this world outside of the church to make this world better and fix it in certain ways. But just because God is doing it and his people may join it, doesn’t mean it’s “kingdom work” and doesn’t make it part of our kingdom mission. It is, nonetheless, good and worthwhile work. When it grows out of the kingdom-witnessing body life of a congregation like Englewood Christian Church, it may in addition embrace, display, and proclaim God’s kingdom and in so doing participate in kingdom witness—but world bettering activities are not essentially that. Good and worthwhile work has a long history that is not intrinsically rooted in the eschatological reality of God’s in-breaking kingdom through Christ. So while my chart on 122 leaves the category of “Christians begin fixing the old order” unchecked for the kingdom-centered approach, it’s not because we can’t or shouldn’t be involved in such work. Rather, it is because it’s not the specific work to which we as God’s kingdom people have been called – in the way that it is for the human- and world-centered views. According to my narration, it is the specific work to which the powers have been called and one doesn’t require the Spirit, the community of faith, or regeneration to do it well. Yet I agree with Yoder that there is not a huge chasm between what makes the world work well and what God’s kingdom is like; so we do have insights to provide. If we approach it right and the soils of our neighborhood are receptive, our kingdom insights may indeed become a significant part of our kingdom proclamation.
You said: “Our churches are not merely human communities. We are…to use Paul’s terms, the temple of the Holy Spirit. It is then the Holy Spirit that guides our actions (to the extent that we faithfully discern the Spirit’s guiding together), and that brings us to life as Christ’s body.”
You had me in full agreement up to this point, and then you conjured the spirit of Niebuhr and said,
“So, although I agree that we clearly do not FIX the world, we are — by the grace of God — the transforming presence of Christ in our particular places, and that is an essential part of the way that God has chosen to reconcile the world. We are always at risk of arrogance, about the extent to which God’s presence in the Holy Spirit is transforming bits of the world through us, but taking an incarnational approach can help to mitigate that a little. We are a body that has presence in a particular time and place. We are not working for causes as abstract issues, but rather following the course of trying to live and flourish faithfully and peaceably in our place with our neighbors — and sometime encountering impediments (in policy, etc) that interfere and have to be addressed.”
Please show me where I am wrong, but I don’t see the Scriptural basis for saying that we are God’s agents of “transforming” the world. If the gospel is true, we ARE the newly “transformed/being transformed” world, breaking into the old world that is passing away. And we must reckon with the stark ways that the NT consistently talks about the old orders outside of Christ as fading, passing, ending, and being destroyed. This is why my chart on p. 17 is so important. The Bible talks differently about nonhuman creation and the old orders/powers/elemental spirits. The world-centered view collapses them together too often and creates a misleading exegetical impression.
Additionally, I am pretty sure that the NT nowhere says that our actions to transform any place or thing are how God has chosen to reconcile the world. Paul is quite clear in Romans 5 and 2 Corinthians 5 that God has reconciled the world through the cross of Christ. We do not accomplish this, nor does the Spirit through us. If I am wrong about this, please show me where. It is all God’s work through Christ and we get to embrace it, display it, and proclaim it to those who don’t know that Christ has already done it for them, too. Reconciliation is not a work we do, but a gift we receive and share. We are never called to reconcile to God that which is outside of Christ. We are only called to be reconciled to one another, since God has accomplished that in Christ, and we are called to display it to the world as the primary form of our witness to Christ’s inaugurated kingdom. They will know we are disciples by our love for one another. Through our unity the world will come to believe that God sent Jesus to inaugurate God’s kingdom in world history.
You say on page 17: “God is doing a revolutionary thing NOW among his people, but NOT YET in the wider world.” (emphasis yours). I’d love to hear you unpack this conviction. Certainly, God’s PRIMARY work is in the people of God, but God is sovereign over all creation, yes? And God is at work in the world preparing and wooing (Lohfink) humanity for the social order that God is perhaps more actively cultivating among the people of God. Your conviction here, of course, is not strictly eschatological, but seemingly is directly connected to the overall eschatology of the book, encapsulated in your conviction that the wider world will not be [a better place] until Christ returns (p. 20). On the surface of things, it’s hard to disagree with this conviction. I agree that the world will not FULLY be a better place until Christ returns, but I also don’t believe that the return of Christ is something that will magically make the world the better place that God intends (and to which the church bears witness in the present). Scripture always portrays God working in, through, and with humanity, healing and restoring creation. The way that we live together as the church and embody Christ among our neighbors, bears witness TO THE POWERS AND PRINCIPALITIES (Eph 3:9-10). I agree that the powers do not BECOME the “better place,” but God may transform them through our faithful witness and engagement with them into habits and convictions that are either more in line with the shalom that God intends for creation or that serve to prepare the way for the continued flourishing of God’s people.
Witness to the Powers:
And so, given all the above, my final area of comments/ questions lands on Chapter 22. What you describe as the “agenda of the state” (184-185), in contrast to the agenda of the Kingdom, strikes me as generally true, and perhaps more true of modern nation-states than other historical or present governmental authorities. I think that there are a lot of shades of grey in these depictions of governments that you are depicting as largely black (in contrast to the white of the kingdom). These powers may never become white, but they can become lighter, and more sympathetic to the new order of shalom that God is bringing in the church. Certainly, I agree with you that our primary calling is to live faithfully as the church, but as we do, I believe God will slowly and gradually transform the powers through our faithful engagement with them in our particular place (and maybe over time flowing outward a little from our place). Our love and care for our real flesh and blood neighbors is decidedly political. As you have sketched, the ways in which we engage in these politics (as we seek to bear witness to God’s kingdom) differ from those of the powers, but at times, we will have engage these powers as an expression of the care we have for our neighbors. (And the powers we engage, might not always or often be governmental ones, we might work with schools to help students who are struggling, we might work with businesses to find jobs for people who need them, or who might have a felony or other societal baggage that might finding a job difficult).
This is a place where I am calling all ecologically-sensitive believers (with whom I would self-identify) to revisit the NT. Based on the Scriptures, I have had to change my understanding of the timing of God’s restorative work in the wider world. It’s a matter, I believe, of biblical eschatology. There has always been an ecological mandate for God’s people that is rooted in the OT. That mandate is in no way abrogated by the new covenant. Israel had to be exemplary stewards of nonhuman creation as part of their holistic witness, and so it is with the church. Israel had Palestine, and we have whatever lands we are given dominion over. The NT does not teach forthrightly that, in Jesus, God has already somehow begun healing nonhuman creation in some new sort of eschatological way that he was not already doing through Israel whenever and wherever they were being exemplary stewards of creation. It goes without saying that creation’s healing is not “fully” accomplished, but I wonder, is there a strong exegetical basis for saying that its eschatological expression has even partially begun in the same sense that the new humanity of God’s kingdom people is “now but not yet”? My tentative conclusion, and I would be happy to be out-Bibled on this, is that nonhuman creation is still “not yet” and that it only participates in the “now” in a sort of secondhand way through its experience of the new humanity that Christ has inaugurated in us. The clearest exegetical basis for this is Romans 8:19-23:
“For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies” (vv.19-23).
Here we see a distinction between nonhuman creation and the new creation of the children of God. Creation waits for “the children of God” to be revealed because it sees/experiences something in us that has not yet begun for it. It longs to obtain the freedom of the glory of “the children of God” because we have already begun to experience that freedom and glory in ways that it has not. It is “we ourselves” who have the first fruits of the Spirit, according to this passage, not creation itself. Paul here presumes the “now but not yet” framework since God’s children still await the redemption of our bodies, but only God’s children participate in the “now” part. Creation does not. This passage is quite clear and should be used to interpret other passages that are less clear.
To be sure, other NT passage highlight the comprehensive scope of Christ’s work on the cross. Take Col 1:20, for example: “and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.” Here, it is clear that God has reconciled all things to himself on the cross. This is an accomplished reality. It closely parallels Eph 1:8-10, which speaks of Christ gathering up all things in heaven and earth. To a lesser degree it also parallels 2 Cor 5, which speaks about God having already reconciled the world to himself through Christ.
But what is the precise meaning of these passages for nonhuman creation? Do they imply an ontological, physical, or metaphysical change of some sort? Does anything in the NT or elsewhere support such a change? Neither Colossians, Ephesians, nor 2 Corinthians goes on to talk about any ecological dimensions of Christ’s work. The lofty poems in Colossians and Ephesians on the cosmic scope of Christ’s work are used to frame a discussion about the new reality that has begun quite concretely already through the new humanity of God’s people who alone are called “new creation” in Paul’s letters. In 2 Cor 5, Paul makes clear that “creation is new” for those who are “in Christ” – and he talks about new creation in terms of never viewing people in the same way we once did and in terms of being reconciled to one another and to God. It’s not at all about nonhuman creation. Our consequent responsibility, according to this passage, is to spread the message about God’s accomplished work of reconciliation through Christ as ambassadors of the new order to citizens of the old order.
Without a single clear passage to overturn it, it seems more appropriate to interpret these passages in ways that are consistent with the timeline that Paul sets forth in Rom 8. The work of Christ to reconcile all things to God is complete, but the restoration of all things is not. It has begun partly among the children of God in the form of a new kind of community, but it remains to be completed when Christ returns and nonhuman creation is restored.
Peter’s sermon in Acts 3 uses similar language and agrees with Romans 8 about the timeline: “Repent therefore, and turn to God so that your sins may be wiped out, so that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord, and that he may send the Messiah appointed for you, that is, Jesus, who must remain in heaven until the time of universal restoration [literally: restoration of all things] that God announced long ago through his holy prophets” (vv. 19-21).
This passage clearly states that the restoration of all things announced by the prophets, which clearly has ecological dimensions, will not happen until Jesus returns. It is true that the already new creation, which is God’s kingdom people, ought to be exemplary stewards of nonhuman creation and experience a sort of kingdom harmony with it—but there is nothing in such activity that God’s people and any good farmer were not already doing or able to do prior to the incarnation of Christ and gift of God’s Spirit. It seems, then, to be a stretch to narrate such activity in and of itself as “kingdom work.” To do so would be to empty kingdom language of its eschatological import, which is a huge theological misstep.
Ephesians 3:9-10 and the Church’s Witness to the Powers
This seems to me to be a passage out of which we get a lot more mileage than Paul did. In context, he is talking specifically about the full incorporation of Gentiles into the originally Jewish people of God, which resulted in a new humanity. This is the mystery of Christ hidden from ages past that has been entrusted to Paul and through the church is being revealed to heavenly powers who have apparently been out of the loop until that time. I suspect that Paul targets the heavenly powers at this point because he shares the Second Temple Jewish view that certain heavenly angels have been given jurisdiction over various nations states and have been somewhat responsible for maintaining their borders. They are the heavenly guardians of the walls of separation between ethnic groups, and now Christ has broken down those walls of separation and created a truly transterritorial, transethnic peoplehood the likes of which no man or angel has seen before.
So, it is a pretty big step from a verse making this sort of claim to assert that part of the church’s kingdom mandate is to show or help rulers in our cities do their jobs better. It’s not that there is anything wrong with God’s people being involved in doing that. And when it grows out of a life like Englewood Christian Church’s, it certainly can serve as kingdom witness. But this verse can only be said to be saying such a thing in the most cryptic of ways. And that is a problem because it’s the only exegetical basis for saying that the church’s job entails strategic partnerships with the powers to make our cities better places. So, again, I have no desire to disqualify it as legitimate kingdom witness, but I would hesitate before including it as a necessary component of the kingdom mandate (as it is for human- and world-centered approaches). So it is a bit strong for you to use language like “we have to” or “we will” work with the powers to improve our neighborhoods. A congregation’s positive fruit from such an endeavor does not constitute necessity for all churches in all circumstances. From a kingdom-centered vantage point, it is only one of myriad ways that God’s spirit may lead some churches in particularly conducive situations to creatively interface with their communities in vibrant kingdom witness. Yet it may last only for a spell. There eventually arose a Pharaoh in Egypt who didn’t know Joseph and things changed dramatically for God’s people’s cozy relationship with the powers.
Experience and Ecclesiology
Englewood Christian Church has always been careful to state that what God is doing among you has everything to do with the unique set of circumstances in which you find yourselves and that other congregations must seek what the Spirit is leading them to do in their unique locations. But what I hear you suggesting now, albeit subtly, is that how God’s Spirit has led and equipped you to display his reign (in certain forms of engagement with the powers and your neighbors and neighborhood) is constitutive of what it means to embrace, display, and proclaim God’s reign. Yet certain forms of engagement to which you are privy are far from what the earliest disciples had access to or that a buildingless group of disciples in Lansing currently have access to. I would not suggest for a minute that we are right because our situation is more analogous to the early church. Rather, you are right in your time and place because you are following the Spirit’s leading as to how you might embrace, display, and proclaim God’s kingdom in your specific time and place. All of us must be careful not to read some of the specifics of how God has guided us in our situations back into the kingdom mandate of Scripture in ways that are not explicitly normative for all congregations in all times and places. In my book, I try to keep the big picture vision generic enough so that all churches might look to their own circumstances in light of the mandate we all share and then ask the Spirit to guide them to embrace, display, and proclaim God’s kingdom—the amazing, abundant, life transforming eschatological gift that it already is—in contextually-appropriate, incarnational, and faithful ways.
John, thanks for taking the time to respond to my thoughts and questions. Depending how the next few weeks go, I may follow up with a few more thoughts in response.