Part 11 of Response to The Gospel as Center: Chapter 11 The Kingdom of God

Part 11 of Response to The Gospel as Center: Chapter 11 The Kingdom of God

As those of you who have followed my blog for some time know, the Kingdom of God is one of my favorite themes. I am deeply concerned that most Christians seem to misunderstand the Kingdom of God. They talk about “building the Kingdom” and the church as the Kingdom of God. These are simply theological mistakes. Scripture says nothing about “building the Kingdom” (the Kingdom of God is gift) or about the church itself as the Kingdom (although it is rightly understood as a colony of the Kingdom).

So, as I approached Chapter 11, “The Kingdom of God,” in The Gospel as Center I was curious to see what a member of The Gospel Coalition would say about the Kingdom of God. The author is Stephen Um, a Presbyterian minister.

The problem with Um’s chapter is not what it says but what it doesn’t say. Nowhere does he equate the church with the Kingdom and he rightly emphasizes social responsibility as part of the church’s presence in the world (without even hinting at theocracy let alone Christian Reconstructionism).

Um begins by beating the conservative evangelical drum against postmodernism which is allegedly all about overthrowing all authority. Again, as with previous authors who mentioned postmodernity and postmodernism, he doesn’t mention a single postmodern philosopher. He mentions a postmodern theologian—Don Cupitt, but I would say he doesn’t represent all of postmodern thought. In fact, I think Cupitt is just an old fashioned liberal dressed up in postmodern garb.

For the first half of the chapter Um emphasizes the Kingdom of God as God’s kingly, authoritative rule which will only be complete in the eschaton. Jesus is the presence of Gods’ Kingdom in history. He writes about the Kingdom as “already but not yet”—a pretty standard treatment of the Kingdom of God among evangelicals.

His two most often quoted sources are Richard Bauckham and Tim Keller. I wasn’t surprised that he quoted Keller often, but I was surprised that he quoted Bauckham so much. (Last year Bauckham gave lectures at my seminary and told me he read my book Reformed and Always Reforming and considers himself one of my “postconservative evangelicals.” I was, of course, gratified to hear it!)

Toward the end of the chapter Um writes about the church as an “alternative kingdom” or “alternate city” whose citizenship is primarily in the Kingdom of God and whose ultimate loyalty is to that Kingdom rather than to any earthly one.

Again, it isn’t so much what Um says that bothers me as what he does not say.

First, it’s all well and good to emphasize God’s authority, but it seems to me worthwhile to at least mention that Jesus called his disciples (and by extension all his followers who would come later) his “friends.” There is danger in emphasizing either autonomy or authority. The natural reaction to modernistic or postmodern (?) autonomy and individualism is to underscore authority. There is danger there, also. I think Moltmann is right to emphasize that the Kingdom of God is friendship with God. Not equality with God, of course. But the quality of relationship in the Kingdom will be (and perhaps should now be) friendship more than servility.

Second, I looked in vain in Um’s chapter for any concrete application of his generalization that the people of God are to be a “Kingdom-driven alternative community” bound in loyalty to the Kingdom of God over every earthly loyalty.

This chapter struck me as bland. It could have done so much more with the idea of the people of God as citizens of another Kingdom (than any earthly kingdom). That just kind of fizzled out. The chapter lacked courage. Well, perhaps in the circles Um moves in some of what he wrote took courage, I don’t know. But it seemed to me prosaic and bland.

For those who would like to read something more challenging about the Kingdom of God I highly recommend an old standard—The Upside Down Kingdom by Donald Kraybill. At points in his chapter I thought perhaps Um had read this book. He does mention the reverse value system of the Kingdom (from the world’s value systems), but he doesn’t expand on it as Kraybill does.

According to Kraybill, the strange thing about the Kingdom of God is how those we tend to overlook and even denigrate (the poor, the weak, the stranger, the disabled, the marginal, the outsider) become the most important. It’s the opposite of Social Darwinism which is, I think, the default value system of humanity.


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  • jesse

    In what book does Moltmann talk about the kingdom of God as friendship with God?

    • rogereolson

      See The Trinity and the Kingdom, p. 220. But the same theme can be found in most of his books.

  • Roger,
    You speak about the upsided down kingdom i.e how the vaues of God’s Kingdom are at variance with those of the world esepcially in relation to those whom we denigrate ( the poor, weak, stranger etc) . How does that relate to Gays and the whole “gay debate” and how we as Christians pursuing the Kingdom of God ought to relate to them?

    • rogereolson

      Certainly the upside-downness of the Kingdom does not mean accepting everyone’s behavior, but it does mean siding with those who are oppressed.

  • Jeff Martin

    Dr. Olson you said, “I think Moltmann is right to emphasize that the Kingdom of God is friendship with God. Not equality with God, of course. But the quality of relationship in the Kingdom will be (and perhaps should now be) friendship more than servility.”

    I guess it depends on how friendship was defined in that culture. I have heard about this statement that Jesus made that it was Him as God’s representative telling the disciples that now the New Covenant has come into effect and we have fellowship with him again without worry of further enstrangement. I don’t know there is any evidence of any further meaning than that of friendship in that context. But I could be wrong. What do you think it means when Jesus talked about them being his friends?

    • rogereolson

      I think it implies fellowship.

  • Zach

    I wonder how your review of this chapter relates to your previous post. How does the Kingdom of God, as an institution of sorts, differ from the institutions we get to deal with (governments, private corporations, etc)? How should Christians who try to be a part of the Kingdom participate in those institutions? For my part I’m not sure which party I disagree with more: Christian conservatives who basically equate the Kingdom with the free market (as you aptly point out) or Hauerwas, who wants to have his cake and eat it too (he benefits from government and private corporations and yet rebukes them). I agree that that Anabaptist tradition is an important Christian witness, but I’d like to see those who endorse it put their money where their mouth is (I think Jesus mentioned that!). I don’t think Hauerwas, for one, will do so.

    • rogereolson

      Didn’t the prophets participate in and benefit from the social arrangements they criticized? Couldn’t that argument (against Hauerwas) be used against any social critic? Hauerwas is not an anarchist. He just thinks Christians need to avoid baptizing any ideology or state as “Christian.”

      • Zach

        The prophets argued for the wealthy and powerful to do their part, to love justice, as the Lord commanded them, and they did so on a political stage. Hauerwas refuses to do that: he doesn’t believe in social justice. All I’m saying is that Hauerwas fails to actually “do” what he says Christians should do. I have yet to see him be a part of any radical alternative community or to face any suffering for his passion for the “community of character”. You’re right that all of us are hypocrites; I just find it incredibly ironic that Howie doesn’t consider himself one and that he considers his ethics eminently “practicable”. If that’s so, it would follow that he would practice them! For my part (I’m biased) I think one can learn and put into practice Niebuhrian realism while Hauerwas’ hypocrisy is limited to the sect (some sects aren’t hypocrites, to be sure!). And isn’t that what ethics is all about, virtue put into action (something he might say)?

        • rogereolson

          I wouldn’t call him a hypocrite, but I have asked why he doesn’t join a Mennonite congregation.

  • Mikael Stenhammar

    Another interesting read! Your book recommendations are also very welcome. Please keep them coming as they help me find the gems.