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.