Probing The Church-Kingdom Relationship.
A Reflection on Two Recently Published
Perspectives on This Relationship and its Meaning
By Chris Smith
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[ Read my review here… ]
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What is the nature of the Kingdom of God – God’s reign here on Earth and throughout creation – and how does that relate to the local church community? These two concepts have both been crucial to our understanding here at Englewood Christian Church of what it means to follow Jesus, so it is not surprising that this question kept racing through my mind as I read parts of two excellent new books: Scot McKnight’s One.Life: Jesus Calls, We Follow and Right Here, Right Now: Everyday Mission for Everyday People by Alan Hirsch and Lance Ford (Note: the passage from this second book that got me pondering the above question was from Alan Hirsch’s concluding chapter, so I will refer him alone when referencing this book). I have a deep appreciation for the work of both Scot McKnight and Alan Hirsch, and I have read a number books of by each author over the last decade; thus, it grabbed my attention when they made statements that seemed– at least on the surface of things – to bein complete opposition. What I’d like to do here is to survey the passages where the authors make the pertinent statements about kingdom and church, as well as part of a recent interview I did with Scot McKnight where I asked him to elaborate on his statement in One.Life, and then to try to unpack the logic and context of both statements and explore the image they cast together of the relationship of kingdom and church. In my review of Right Here, Right Now last week, I briefly summarized these two positions in this way: Alan Hirsch is making the appeal that we need to loosen up the correlation between kingdom and church, while Scot McKnight is calling for a stronger correlation between kingdom and church.
Consider the passages that got me thinking, beginning with Alan Hirsch’s:
But we all continue to get the distinction between kingdom and church very wrong, and with disastrous consequences. Let me suggest that the basic mistake here is to make a complete correlation of the church—the redeemed community of Jesus’ people—with God’s kingdom—his active government or rule in the world.
Is the kingdom of God simply to be equated with the church? I sincerely hope not. As much as I love the church and believe that it is a nonnegotiable part of God’s plan, it is to King Jesus and not any human agency that I must give my ultimate allegiance. The church is not simply the same as the kingdom. The church is an expression of the kingdom, perhaps even the most consistent expression of it, but the kingdom (God’s active rule in and over his universe) is much larger than the church—in fact, it is cosmic in scope.
Reggie McNeal wisely suggests that we need a kingdom-shaped view of the church, not a church-shaped view of the kingdom. In other words, as God’s people we must always assess ourselves in the light of God’s active rule in the world and not the other way around. …
Why all this church-kingdom stuff? Well, because if we are to be effective agents of God’s kingdom in this world, we need to be freed to see his kingdom express itself everywhere and anyplace—as indeed it does. God turns up in places where we might least expect to see him, but we need the eyes to see what he is doing if we are going to join him in the redemption of the world. A complete association of the kingdom with the church looks up God’s activity and links it exclusively to organized church activities like Sunday school, communal worship services, and the like. And as wonderful and necessary as these are to Christian community, the diminished view of the kingdom that results from this will never get us beyond the four walls of the church so that we might fulfill our mission of discipling the nations.
The kingdom of God can’t be institutionalized in this way. To the contrary, it challenges all these idolatrous attempts to control it—be it churchly and otherwise! Besides, it’s not about simply getting more church-based services up to scratch; it is going to take the whole body of Christ as a fluid, dynamic, witnessing agency, active in every possible arena of life, to bring the gospel of God’s love into his world. This, in fact, goes to the heart of our mission in the world (247-249).
And the passage from Scot McKnight:
Why is it so easy to work for kingdom purposes, but ignore your local church? Why do we see kingdom work in such idealistic terms but look down our noses at our local churches? Do you think Jesus ignored the local in order to chase the Kingdom? Or did he want us to be inspired to enter into the imagined life of his parables and then bring that back to the ordinary relations of our ordinary world?
This division between church and kingdom needs to be examined afresh. What Jesus meant by kingdom was the society where God’s will is done. But any reading of the Gospels will show that he knew that the kingdom dream wouldn’t happen all at once in a perfect and sudden way. He knew it meant hard work, struggles and interpersonal conflict with real people in our own neighborhoods. He knew his own followers weren’t perfect and their society wasn’t living up to the ideal. His closest followers denied him; his specially chosen apostles were power-hungry and reputation-grubbing. Yet, those were his people and the ones he chose to concentrate all of his attentions on.
Local churches aren’t perfect, and if you are looking for the perfect local church, you won’t find it. But here’s something I’ve learned: Local churches reflect the realities of real humans who participate in kingdom living in a world broken by sin and systemic evil. Kingdom life is designed to take root in local communities, and it is the vision of Jesus for you and me to make our local community of faith our primary launching place for kingdom-dream living. Neither your community nor mine will be the perfect one. Our challenge is to settle in and strive for the kingdom dream from the local community into the global village. It’s much harder, but it’s the real world.
Jesus’s kingdom dream is meant for this world and is meant for folks like you and me. We fall short of our own ideals, and we dwell with others who fall short. Perhaps the commitment of “short-of-ideals” people to one another is the very heart of what Jesus means by kingdom living in the here and now. Which has taught me this: I owe my primary commitment to my local church, not because it is what I want and not because it is the ideal place, but because the only way for Jesus’ [kingdom] to take root is when local people commit to one another to strive with one another for a just, loving, peaceful, and wise society, beginning at home, with friends, and at their local community of faith (107-108).
I also asked Scot to elaborate on this passage in an interview I recently did with him about the book, and here’s what he said (The full interview appears in Issue #2 of our print edition, which is now at the printer!):
[The problem of people pursuing the kingdom outside the context of the local church] is a major issue, and I’ve been hammering away on my blog on this issue for a long time. If you study the word “kingdom” in the Gospels, where it is found the most in the pages of the Bible, and it is the focus of Jesus’s vision, you will find a community of fellow followers connected to Jesus. Kingdom is not going to Sudan and drilling for water while church is what happens on Sunday, or what happens in the spiritual world. For some reason, we’ve developed a dualistic set of categories: i.e., kingdom applies to things of this world and church applies to the things of the future world or church applies to spiritual matters and kingdom applies to the natural or physical. I think this is a fundamental misunderstanding of what kingdom means. Kingdom work and church work cannot be divorced, and when we divorce them, we ruin what church means in the New Testament, and we lose what kingdom means in the New Testament.
I tell my students all the time, if you think you’re devoted to the kingdom but not to the local church, then you’re not devoted to the kingdom. The only things that are connected to the kingdom are the things that are done in the context of the local church. Seriously, when I say this to my students – and I’m talking about some bright Christian kids – they look at me as if I’m speaking some foreign language. … One of my students, a really sharp young woman, said “My sister is working for a social work organization in Chicago, and she sees that as kingdom work and so do I, but it has nothing to do with the church or with Christianity.” And I looked at her and I said, “Well, that’s not kingdom work. Kingdom is always manifested through the local church because its connected to followers of Jesus manifesting God’s will together as a fellowship in this world.” The big picture is this, I want us to connect kingdom to the word church more closely than we have been doing in the last century.
Now, to unpack these statements… It seems to me that Alan and Scot are each framing their remarks about church and kingdom in response to two very different problems that emerge as we seek to embody a church-kingdom relationship amidst the fragmentation of today’s postmodern world. These problems being addressed are both, in my experience anyway, very real and very acute problems, and I am hopeful that in seeking to synergize the responses from both writers, we will find ourselves pointed toward a deeper and richer understanding of the relationship between the kingdom and the local church. Scot is in essence addressing the problem of individualism, and our tendency to narrate the kingdom through our own individualized lens rather than through our commitment to and the discernment of the local church community. I share Scot’s experience that this is a HUGE problem, I think he is right to name this problem and to call us back to a first century understanding of the local church community as the fundamental context in which God’s kingdom is discerned and narrated. Even Alan Hirsch, in sketching an ecclesiology for the missional church, earlier in the same chapter from which the above passage was quoted, seems to be sympathetic to Scot’s critique of this problem. He says, for instance, that “A [covenanted] community centered on Jesus as Lord participates in the salvation that he brings” (240), and here I am making the – hopefully legitimate – assumption that the salvation that Jesus brings is the reign of God on earth. It is the covenanted community, not the individual apart from the community that participates in embodying God’s reign.
Alan, on the other hand, is addressing the problem of narrow-mindedness, the perspective that God’s kingdom is manifested only in the local church community. I think he too has a vital point here; God created and is reconciling all creation, and I think we need to have the epistemological humility to say that we don’t know the fullness of God’s means of bringing reconciliation, which probably is much broader than our experience as church communities. Alan’s comments also seem to have the undertone of critiquing the limits imposed by the conviction that God’s kingdom comes primarily through the religious activities of the church. This point also is one that Scot makes throughout One.Life, and particularly in his remarks there about vocation; God’s reign is wholistic, it is sovereign over all facets of life and not just that of our religious services. As John Howard Yoder has detailed in his superb book Body Politics, however, the religious practices of the church are not ends in themselves, but rather means of formation into wholistic patterns of life that bear witness to our neighbors of the love and reconciliation of Christ. I know both authors have a deep appreciation for Yoder’s work and am pretty certain that they would agree with him on this basic point. Hirsch’s comments quoted above must be taken in the context of the ecclesiology that he has described in the earlier part of the same chapter and elsewhere. It seems to me, however, that the clarification that needs to be tacked on to Hirsch’s above comments is that the scriptural narrative emphasizes throughout that the primary way in which God has chosen to bring his reign is through the gathering of a people and that the local church community, as an expression of God’s people in a particular place, is the way that we have been called to embody God’s reign (regardless of the other ways God might be working toward the reconciliation of all creation). These points, which a careless reading of Hirsch’s above comments might overlook, are developed superbly in the work of Gerhard Lohfink, particularly in his books Jesus and Community and Does God Need the Church?
These passages will undoubtedly be coursing through my head for the indefinite future, but I wanted to call them to your attention and to offer them side-by-side in order to spur some deeper reflection in our church communities on the problems that they address in our own understandings of the church-kingdom relationship. I am hopeful that if we would reflect seriously together on these two passages in our local church communities, testing them against the witness of the scriptural narrative and seeking to discern and embody their meaning in our own particular contexts, we would find ourselves in a rich season of kingdom growth, deepening our roots and by the grace of God even perhaps bringing forth an abundance of the succulent fruits of the Holy Spirit’s work in our midst.
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com