What is NOT the Mission of the Church? 5

I’ve been writing a series of posts critically engaging Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert’s new book on the mission of the church: What is the Mission of the Church?. I too am very concerned that we get this right. I have the unique privilege of being both a professor of New Testament at North Park and pastor of college students at Christ Community Church. So the question of the church’s mission is squarely at the center of my vocation.

Furthermore, my academic pursuit has largely been focused on just this set of questions. I wrote my Ph.D. dissertation on Jesus’ mission to the “lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matt 10:5-6; 15:24) in Matthew. In that study the issues of kingdom, Messiah, and mission were front and center. I love Messiah and his church. I want us to have a biblical vision for our corporate mission that determines in practice how we prioritize our work in the world.

DeYoung and Gilbert and I have a great deal in common. I don’t know these guys, but it would be great fun to discuss these together over a pint, perhaps even smoking pipes! I don’t know if they read our blog, but I invite a conversation in that kind of enviroment.

In this post I’m looking at chapter six of the book, “Kings and Kingdoms: Understanding God’s Redemptive Rule”.

I believe this chapter and the discussion of the “kingdom” is the most fundamental of the whole book. It seems to me that how one defines “kingdom” largely determines what kind of gospel one preaches and what kind of mission the church pursues.

In reading the chapter I see now more clearly than ever the fundamental difference between my understanding of the church’s mission and theirs; and it has everything to do with the definition of the kingdom of God.

How should we define the kingdom?

DeYoung and Gilbert organize the chapter by first establishing the framework called inaugurated eschatology made popular among evangelicals by George Ladd in the middle part of the 20th century. They then tackle directly the definition of the kingdom which they define, following Ladd, as God’s reign in distinction from God’s realm. It is this distinction that forms the basis of their understanding of kingdom; and it is a very common definition in both scholarly and ecclesial circles. They are certainly voicing a mainstream evangelical, non-Dispensational perspective (at least classic and revised Dispensationalism). This framework is the basic position of the historic-premillennial position articulated by Ladd. My guess is that that is DeYoung and Gilbert’s position given their praise of Ladd.

Using biblical texts they argue that the term “kingdom” is parallel with terms such as “power” and “dominion”. Thus, they conclude: “Kingdom is a dynamic or relational concept, not a geographical one” (119); “[The kingdom of God] is a dynamic word (about power) and a relational word (about human beings’ relationship to God their King) (120, emphasis theirs). While they say that geography is not “irrelevant” to kingdom, it is, nevertheless, “[non-] essential” to kingdom (120). “When Jesus and the apostles talk about the kingdom of God, they are speaking specifically of God’s benevolent, redemptive reign over those he has saved” (120).

This non-geographic, relational definition then leads to a primary “ramification”. I quote them at length because I think the definition and their inference from the definition is the crux of their thesis about the mission of the church.

Understanding that the kingdom is a dynamic, relational word rather than a geographic one keeps us from thinking that “extending the kingdom of God” is the right way to describe planting trees or delivering hot meals to the homeless. Sometimes people talk as if by renovating a city park or turning a housing slum into affordable, livable apartments, we are extending God’s reign over that park or that neighborhood. We’re “bringing order from chaos”, someone might say, and therefore expanding the kingdom. But as we’ve seen, the kingdom isn’t geographical. Rather, it is defined relationally and dynamically; it exists where knees and hearts bow to the King and submit to him. And therefore you cannot “expand the kingdom” by bringing peace and order and justice to a certain area of the world. Good deeds are good, but they don’t broaden the borders of the kingdom. The only way the kingdom of God—the redemptive rule of God—is extended is when he brings another sinner to renounce sin and self-righteousness and bow his knee to King Jesus (121).

Read this again. This is the most important paragraph in the book.

So, the bottom line: if one defines the kingdom differently, one will likely understand the mission of the church differently. If one does not agree with the disjunction of reign and realm, so fundamental to DeYoung and Gilbert’s definition, then one is more likely able to see the relationship between people and place.

What if . . . the body of Messiah leaves a footprint in the world and it and its footprint (its tangible presence in the world) IS kingdom of God.

More on the kingdom to come . . .

  • Anonymous

    Great discussion. In light of the buzz that Wright and McKnight are generating about Jesus and the Kingdom of God, this sort of reflection is much needed.

    I was especially struck by the contrast between N T Wright’s claim that God establishes human governments because He abhors chaos with these authors’ near dismissal of the role of chaos and order in the Kingdom (not that I find Wright’s vision of the kingdom all that compelling…) A great deal of divergence is inevitable I suppose. Best we recognize it for what it is.

    I look forward to future posts on this topic.

  • Anonymous

    Great discussion. In light of the buzz that Wright and McKnight are generating about Jesus and the Kingdom of God, this sort of reflection is much needed.

    I was especially struck by the contrast between N T Wright’s claim that God establishes human governments because He abhors chaos with these authors’ near dismissal of the role of chaos and order in the Kingdom (not that I find Wright’s vision of the kingdom all that compelling…) A great deal of divergence is inevitable I suppose. Best we recognize it for what it is.

    I look forward to future posts on this topic.

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  • Bruce

    I would identify most closely with Ladd’s Historic Premillennial position, but I also like Graeme Goldsworthy’s simple definition of kingdom as “God’s people, in God’s place, under God’s rule.” So what is the role of “place,” and what do we mean by it?

    There is a significant dimension of “place” but we must be careful in how we define it. If we get too aggressive with a notion of building a kingdom-as-realm in the here and now, we get the worst aspects of Christendom: state churches, nominalism, religious wars, etc. If we try, as I think D&G are, to hedge against mere good deeds and/or social justice as establishing kingdom apart from the gospel and the lordship of Jesus, then we can overly spiritualize the kingdom. There will indeed be a kingdom-as-realm in eternity, which will be the entirety of the New Heavens and New Earth.

    Using some of their language, I think “renovating a city park or turning a housing slum into affordable, livable apartments” is an exercise of human dominion over creation (a la Gen 1:28), but exerting our dominion (even as an act of obedience and faithfulness to God) does not extend Christ’s reign over that park or apartment building. This is why I wish D&G gave more weight to the creation mandate, but in the end I agree with their assessment that we announce the good news of the kingdom, calling people to repentance and faith in the King. However, I do think that we are to do more in this world than the Great Commission, in view of creation and New Creation, the character of God, the example of Christ and the apostles, etc., etc.

    It seems you want it all to be “mission” and they want to preserve making disciples through proclamation of the gospel as “mission.” If we’re careful in our thinking, I believe there’s a good bit of overlap, as you say.

  • Bruce

    I would identify most closely with Ladd’s Historic Premillennial position, but I also like Graeme Goldsworthy’s simple definition of kingdom as “God’s people, in God’s place, under God’s rule.” So what is the role of “place,” and what do we mean by it?

    There is a significant dimension of “place” but we must be careful in how we define it. If we get too aggressive with a notion of building a kingdom-as-realm in the here and now, we get the worst aspects of Christendom: state churches, nominalism, religious wars, etc. If we try, as I think D&G are, to hedge against mere good deeds and/or social justice as establishing kingdom apart from the gospel and the lordship of Jesus, then we can overly spiritualize the kingdom. There will indeed be a kingdom-as-realm in eternity, which will be the entirety of the New Heavens and New Earth.

    Using some of their language, I think “renovating a city park or turning a housing slum into affordable, livable apartments” is an exercise of human dominion over creation (a la Gen 1:28), but exerting our dominion (even as an act of obedience and faithfulness to God) does not extend Christ’s reign over that park or apartment building. This is why I wish D&G gave more weight to the creation mandate, but in the end I agree with their assessment that we announce the good news of the kingdom, calling people to repentance and faith in the King. However, I do think that we are to do more in this world than the Great Commission, in view of creation and New Creation, the character of God, the example of Christ and the apostles, etc., etc.

    It seems you want it all to be “mission” and they want to preserve making disciples through proclamation of the gospel as “mission.” If we’re careful in our thinking, I believe there’s a good bit of overlap, as you say.

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  • Brad

    Puzzling that they can say, “The only way the kingdom of God—the redemptive rule of God—is extended is when he brings another sinner to renounce sin and self-righteousness and bow his knee to King Jesus” How can you “extend” something that is not geographic?

    By the way, has anyone ever heard of a kingdom that didn’t have territory?

  • Brad

    Puzzling that they can say, “The only way the kingdom of God—the redemptive rule of God—is extended is when he brings another sinner to renounce sin and self-righteousness and bow his knee to King Jesus” How can you “extend” something that is not geographic?

    By the way, has anyone ever heard of a kingdom that didn’t have territory?

  • John Thomson

    I like Bruce’s points. I appreciate your post Joel though not fully with you. It is helpful to get a critique of the book from someone coming from a different perspective,

    I take the present ‘realm’ of the Kingdom to be ‘the heavenlies’. This seems to me to be an intended contrast with the earthly kingdom of Canaan. It seems to me Christians live by faith – faith that is in a Kingdom realm yet to be revealed. Thus… the Jerusalem above… our citizenship in heaven… seek these things above. We await the point when the Kingdom of this world becomes the Kingdom of our God and of his Christ. We await the manifestation of the sons of God.

    In the meantime, we are aliens. The realm of the Kingdom is our hearts by the Spirit where Christ is ackowledged Lord and his rule acknowledged. The life of God in our souls is the dynamic of the Kingdom. Its ‘powers’ reach out though the church to others but beyond this I am reluctant to go. Only those born of God ‘see’ and ‘enter’ the Kingdom of God.

  • John Thomson

    I like Bruce’s points. I appreciate your post Joel though not fully with you. It is helpful to get a critique of the book from someone coming from a different perspective,

    I take the present ‘realm’ of the Kingdom to be ‘the heavenlies’. This seems to me to be an intended contrast with the earthly kingdom of Canaan. It seems to me Christians live by faith – faith that is in a Kingdom realm yet to be revealed. Thus… the Jerusalem above… our citizenship in heaven… seek these things above. We await the point when the Kingdom of this world becomes the Kingdom of our God and of his Christ. We await the manifestation of the sons of God.

    In the meantime, we are aliens. The realm of the Kingdom is our hearts by the Spirit where Christ is ackowledged Lord and his rule acknowledged. The life of God in our souls is the dynamic of the Kingdom. Its ‘powers’ reach out though the church to others but beyond this I am reluctant to go. Only those born of God ‘see’ and ‘enter’ the Kingdom of God.

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