Discussion of Scot McKnight’s Kingdom Conspiracy: Returning to the Radical Mission of the Local Church Part Two
A few days ago here I invited you to read Kingdom Conspiracy (Brazos Press, 2014) along with me and participate in a discussion of it here. Hopefully you have obtained the book by now and are prepared to participate as you wish. I will be offering my thoughts about the book in several response posts over the next couple weeks. This Part Two of the series and covers Chapters 4 and 5, “Kingdom Mission Is All about Context” and “Kingdom Is People” respectively.
I don’t have much to say about Chapter 4, “Kingdom Mission Is All about Context” except “Amen!” I loved this chapter and especially its culminating point that “Kingdom mission follows kingdom theology, and kingdom theology has a story to tell: the kingdom story. We are summoned by Jesus to enter into that story by submitting to King Jesus, to participate in that story by letting it permeate our entire life, to gospel that story to the world, and to challenge all idolatrous stories that seek to diminish the kingship of King Jesus.” (63)
Early in this chapter Scot list fourteen “different ways this basic story [of the kingdom of God] was told in various contexts in ancient Judaism. The one I would include that he (following James Dunn) doesn’t is the earthly rule and reign of the Messiah at the end of history (Isaiah 65 among other passages). Perhaps Dunn and Scot mean that to be included in “Hope for prosperity, healing, or paradise.” (46)
I keep on wondering what Scot is going to do with the biblical theme of the end-of-history earthly millennial reign of King Jesus after his return (parousia). Earlier in the book he mentioned George Eldon Ladd as formative in his own earlier thinking about the kingdom of God. Ladd was, of course, a “historic premillennialist”—believing in a one thousand year (or indefinite time period symbolized by one thousand years) earthly rule and reign of the risen Lord, King Jesus, after his return (no “secret rapture” included in that premillennialism).
Much of Chapter 4 has to do with wrong ideas among both ancient Jews and contemporary Christians about the meaning and application of “kingdom of God.” Scot’s basic point seems to be that “kingdom mission counters our world as a counterculture.” (59) We are not called to use force to bring about the kingdom of God, nor are we called to withdraw from the world to build a separatistic kingdom of God. We are to experience God’s kingdom without violence or withdrawal. How? Where? When? Who? Those are the questions Scot promises to answer in the rest of the book.
So, now to Chapter 5: “Kingdom Is People.”
I start with the chapter’s last sentence which clearly reveals Scot’s thesis: “I…contend that you can’t be kingdom people without being church people.” (79) Just before that conclusion to the chapter Scot states ever more clearly than before the view of the kingdom of God he opposes: one that pits the kingdom against the church, viewing the church as merely one means toward the kingdom of God but not central to it.
Now, backing up to the beginning without summarizing the whole chapter. Scot argues quite cogently (not to say conclusively) that for Jesus and those who first heard him “kingdom of God” had mean God’s rule over a people. Without a people, there is no kingdom. Throughout the Old Testament, he avers, “’kingdom’ refers to a people governed by a king.” (73) In other words, he is saying, in the culture of the Bible, “kingdom” could not be understood as a “dynamic rule” without a people ruled over. Here Scot specifically cites as mistaken D. A. Carson who, he says, articulates a “mistaken and reductionistic, if not simplistic, conclusion” that ignores text after text. (73) (Carson asserted in an article in Themelios that “kingdom of God” refers to the “redemptive dynamic” and not to people ruled over by a king.)
The obvious question lingering at the end of this chapter is whether this new people of God, ruled over by King Jesus, is the church. He promises to answer that more fully than just the assertion of the last sentence of the chapter quoted above. I look forward to that.
I will say this about the book so far: I agree with Scot that too many Christians, “mainline” and evangelical, tend to overlook the church in their talking about the kingdom of God. “Kingdom of God” has become too amorphous, vague, “gauzy.” Whether it should be identified with the church or the church regarded as central to kingdom of God before Christ’s return is another question. We’ll see what Scot says. I don’t want to prejudge his answer even though I have heard him speak on this subject.
But let me end by returning to the last sentence (“You can’t be kingdom people without being church people”). Whenever I say something even close to that the automatic response I get (like pushing a button on a machine) is “What about a person who can’t find a church to belong to? Can’t she be a kingdom person, too?” I have to admit I have some sympathy with that question. My experience of visiting numerous churches in numerous locales is that very, very few are fitting “kingdom of God” as Scot describes it (“a new kind of fellowship, a new community, a new people of God”). Most of them, in my humble opinion, are American first and Christian second or Baptist first and Christian second or middle class first and Christian second. Most of them function like community clubs. There’s a lot of God talk but very little God showing up among them. They are not really “a people, a community, a fellowship.” For the most part they don’t even know each other well. They certainly don’t share their lives; they value their privacy and individuality far, far too much for that.
What is a person to do when there really is no church as Jesus meant it to be (assuming Scot is right about that)? That is, of course, what has led to numerous denominations being formed. But most of them, perhaps all of them, eventually go the way of all flesh and become church-in-name-only. Where is the church of the Acts of the Apostles? Oh, I know many that claim to be that, but when I look closely I don’t see it.
So I eventually come around with Scot, based on his final statement of Chapter 5, to where I come around with Stanley Hauerwas: “What ‘church’ are you talking about?” An ideal one? No? A real one? Where?
Now, having sounded extremely cynical, let me end on a more sensitive (if not optimistic) note: I do believe many, many Christians in America and elsewhere sincerely want to be the true church of Jesus Christ, the contemporary church of the Acts of the Apostles, but find it impossible given the cultural realities. But the few I know that have come really close have always been labeled “cult” by those around them—including many so-called “mainline Christians.” What is a person to do about being a “kingdom person” when there is no true church available?