Secularizing Kingdom

Secularizing Kingdom November 15, 2010

The word “secular” and the word “kingdom” should not be brought together. The paradox of what I’m hearing is that “kingdom” is being overwhelmed by the word “secular.”

Example: last Thursday in my Introduction to the Bible class I discussed what “kingdom” means in the teachings of Jesus. I sketched a few ideas that I will mention below, but I want to get to the discussion I had afterwards with one of our students. She told me she admired her sister who was now at work in a major social service organization because she was doing “kingdom” work. I’ve heard this so many times I think I can put it this way:

For many, “kingdom work” means “social” justice while “church work” means “spiritual life.”

A big fat hogwash all over this idea.

Are you seeing a “secularizing” of the word “kingdom”? What are some examples? Do you think we need to connect “kingdom” and “church” more closely?

Sit down some afternoon — maybe today — and look up all the “kingdom” references in the New Testament and you will see the following major ideas:

First, kingdom refers to a redemptive society. Second, one must “enter” this redemptive kingdom society by repentance and faith and obedience to Jesus. Third, kingdom society and Jesus are so closely connected one has to say that there is no such thing as “kingdom” apart from relationship to Jesus. Fourth, no one uses the word “kingdom” in the NT for “social” justice that is not connected to kingdom people of Jesus or connected to the fellowship of his followers — the Church.

The best example of “kingdom” work in the entire Bible is Acts 2:42-47, and there the kingdom people, in the context of a local fellowship (church), were making the kingdom manifest. The place to begin with kingdom work is to take care of the society of Jesus’ followers.

But somehow this equation of “kingdom” with “social” work, especially as distinguished from “church” or “spiritual” or “evangelistic” work, is precisely what has happened in our culture. We have all kinds of people who want to do “kingdom” work but by that they mean “social” justice — and by that they mean helping the poor, building homes in Haiti, creating wells of water in Africa, ministering to AIDS victims in the world, showing support for Palestinians in the Middle East, or running for political office. These folks have done the unthinkable: they have secularized the kingdom of God.

Let me say this clearly: each of those activities is good and godly; each of those actions is noble and ennobling. But none of those actions are “kingdom” work unless they are done in the context of the redemptive society of Jesus, and that means more or less in connection with the Church of Jesus Christ, who is Messiah and Lord.

One could say such actions “extend” the kingdom society of Jesus to others; I’m fine with that. But the fundamental idea here is that if we want to talk “kingdom” let’s talk what Jesus actually says about kingdom. And what he says is that the kingdom has to be entered by entering into relationship with him. He’s talking about the redemptive society around him.

So here’s my concluding point: kingdom work is church work, it is Jesus work. It is not “social” work when “social” is distinguished from “spiritual” or “church.” Jesus never left that option to us because he came to create the redemptive kingdom society and he called us to enter into by entering into relationship with him. To say “kingdom” work is “social” work (over against the church) is Constantinianism.

If you want to do kingdom work, I suggest you get busy in the ministries of your local church.

"I too couldn't help conflating the two pieces. I'm a retired history professor who took ..."

Weekly Meanderings, 17 November 2018
"Sorry, no. As a former fundy, I repeat the mantra so often used against the ..."

What Evangelicals Need Most To Read ..."
""The results stunned her: men – or rather, misogynists – were using an armchair enthusiasm ..."

Weekly Meanderings, 17 November 2018
"One reason is a conviction that God is in control and will intervene if necessary ..."

Climate Change Deniers? (RJS)

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • I agree with you basic point about secularising the kingdom. Kingdom seems to be an adjective that can be put in front of all sorts of nouns these days, to give them validity.

    However, I wonder if you concluding point that “kingdom work is church work” is not too narrow. The phrase “redemptive society” is a good one, but it seems to be a bit broader than church . You says that the redemptive society is “more or less” the church. I would suggest it is a bit more.

    What about those of us whose employment is outside the church. Do we stop doing Kingdom stuff when we go to work. How do you categorise your own work in a secular institution? Are you doing Kingdom work?

  • Scot, if those activities you mentioned were called ‘Doing Justice’ (as in Keller’s book Generous Justice) or part of a biblical command to ‘do good to all’ (Gal 6:10) I guess you would have no problem?

    You are wanting to keep kingdom connected with community / church. I also wonder if part of the problem is how the word kingdom is often detached from God (or heaven in Matthew) whose kingdom it is yet the NT never does this as far as I know. ‘Kingdom’then becomes a vague catch all term that can mean virtually anything.

  • The critique sounds reasonable. But therein lies a big problem. Many “social justice” activities are not allowed to occur alongside prosetylising, for funding and/or political reasons. THAT is (in many cases) why christians appear to be separating the two.

  • Diane

    I would agree with the Blessed Economist that perhaps equating Kingdom work with church work is too narrow. As Christians, we hope we take God with us into any work we do–and thus, through grace, it becomes transformed into Kingdom work.

  • smcknight

    Patrick, that’s right.
    Diane, I don’t want to equate the two terms but bring them into strong and robust connection as they should be. It is key to me that kingdom is the redemptive community.

  • J.L. Schafer

    This is a thought-provoking and challenging post. I believe that Scot’s point is fundamentally correct. In the times in which we now live — the period between Jesus’ ascension and his second coming — his ministry on earth is being carried out by the Holy Spirit, and the Holy Spirit is inhabiting the Church. The Church, with a capital “C”, is the Body of Christ and the instrument of his earthly work.

    However, there is the problem of church with a small “c”. Actual faith communities often stray from the kingdom mission and substitute their own peculiar vision and ideology. A great deal of work needs to be done within small-“c” churches to restore the kingdom mission.

  • Susan N.

    I echo Blessed Economist @ #1 and Diane @ #4. Except for paid church staff (pastors, youth and women’s directors, etc.), the majority of the Church works in a secular job. Wouldn’t it be living a double life, or compartmentalizing our faith, if we kept Christian service confined to our activities within the Church?

    “As Christians, we hope we take God with us into any work we do–and thus, through grace, it becomes transformed into Kingdom work.” This is such a beautiful expression of my heart on the matter; let it be so!

    That secular social justice shouldn’t be a substitute for Christian service and “community” is a truth that would be good to know and live, I don’t disagree. But, is a secular “social justice” vocation necessarily NOT a true and worthy calling? God needs somebody out there representing Him; might as well be a Christian?

  • T

    I agree that the connection to Jesus is a must for anything properly called the work of his kingdom or reign. Which naturally means his (particular) people, his church.

    But another angle on Scot’s post which strengthens the argument that the kingdom can’t be secularized is that Jesus explicitly connects ‘kingdom’ with the power of the Spirit for God’s work. “If I drive out demons by the Spirit of God, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.” I think it’s safe to at least wonder, then, whether something done apart from the Spirit, even if the Church does it, is really ‘kingdom work.’ Again, even if we use Scot’s example in Acts, can we isolate that dramatic work from the dramatic “receiving of power” at Pentecost?

  • T

    Let me add that I do think that many so-called secular jobs are jobs that God wants done and wants folks doing. Like everything else, it is awaiting redemption.

  • smcknight

    Susan, yes, by all means it is noble. But where is the kingdom if not in the redemptive community of Jesus?

  • Jason Lee

    If I understand you Scot, you’re pushing back on people taking the “kingdom” label away from church-based ministry and evangelism. This seems like a valid push back. But my concern is with the reverse…secularizing kingdom endeavors that may be more para-church or highly nascent or informal in nature. Some evangelism happens in people’s social spheres away from church-based ministries. And due to geography, for example, the fruit of evangelism may not lead back to one’s own local church. In the same way, could it be that very small networks of Christians may be encouraging each other to apply their faith justice or ethics problems in the world? I envision a fledgling group of Christian banking leaders trying to help each other apply their faith to an arena fraught with ethical problems, but with great ramifications for the lives and despair of millions men, women, and children. Perhaps they are supporting each other through prayer and theological resources. Perhaps they let their faith splash over to non-Christians in their spheres. The Christian banking leaders belong to local churches and draw spiritual support and encouragement(hopefully) from leaders there. Are you saying that this kind of thing is not kingdom activity also?

  • smcknight

    Jason, I see this sort of thing as extending kingdom.

    Everyone wants to find what we might call “marginal” activity — stuff out in the “secular” world — and call that kingdom. I want to connect the primary kingdom work with church.

    So, on bankers: I’d like to see them making a difference within the walls of their local church. I’d like to see Christians first take care of the needy in their own congregation. That is, to quote, Paul, to do good to all, esp to those in the household of faith.

    But, yes, I don’t see their making a more just banking business to be strictly kingdom work. It’s just and it’s good and all, but kingdom activity takes place in the redemptive community of Jesus.

    Evangelism by its very nature is kingdom extension.

    Your questions brother show to me how entrenched this secularizing theory of kingdom is at work in our world. People look at me like I’m saying something entirely confusing when I say these things. I say back to such folks all the time, show me in the Gospels that kingdom is not connected to the redemptive community of Jesus’ followers.

  • T


    I think there has to be some space for so-called secular work to become kingdom work when it is done “not to men, but to God” and is shaped and powered by the Spirit in the Christian. I know you’ve settled on “community” as the core of your kingdom definition, but if we allow for more of the “God’s reign/will” angle as well as the Spirit angle, I don’t think we need work to be communally Christian to be “kingdom.” Work that is done by individual Christians in various contexts may become exactly what God would have it be (his will done on earth as in heaven), even done in his name. I think it is difficult then to say that such work isn’t then a part of God’s reign as he works through a person for his purposes in it.

  • josenmiami

    “A big fat hogwash…”? Thats rather strong language for you Scot.

    Arn’t we called to take (or advance) the kingdom into secular realms? How do we do that if we confine all of our kingdom activity to local church ministries?

    I would certainly argue that the kingdom of God was activily demonstrated through the witness of Daniel in Babylon … but where was the redemptive community? He was not involved in any local synagogue ministries … he was in public administration after going through intellectual preparation at Babylon U.

    My concern with your point in the post is the tendency for the redemptive community to become a kingdom ghetto …

  • Jason Lee

    Scot (#12), I’m glad you clearly say that you consider the Christian banker example as extending the kingdom. I also think what you’re saying is a good corrective…that Christians need to be careful not to treat AIDS projects in Africa as kingdom, but neglect ministry and people in their own local church or the spiritual and physical needs of Christians in the inner-city next to their suburb. And clearly you’re pushing back on a major misconception, that things like social work may or may not be “kingdom work” and that the redemptive community of disciples most definitely is “kingdom.”

    I don’t think what you’re saying is confusing, again it sounds like a proper corrective. But let me restate a concern in what seems to be a narrow scope for “kingdom” in your post: is there a danger of throwing out the baby with the bathwater on the social just/secular world side of things? The Christian bankers in my example are clearly connected to the redemptive community of Jesus’ followers, including involvement in a local church. Why do you see this as marginal or confirmation of the secularization of “kingdom”? Why aren’t both things potentially “kingdom”? Clearly church community is kingdom and should be labeled so. But beyond this, isn’t part of the problem then better delineating between Jesus-followers’ activity out in the secular world that we can affirm as “kingdom” and that we can affirm as perhaps good but not “kingdom.” To this latter problem I think you’re saying it must have strong connection to redemptive community of Jesus followers, no? T also seems to point out some distinguishing characteristics, no?

  • Kingdom work is not based on anything we can claim we are doing. We are not earning our way to heaven. I think that servanthood can be quiet and not advertised. We can brag about all we do for His kingdom, but one day He might say “depart from me, I never knew you.”

    Yes Christ’s kingdom is springing up all around us, but it is His kingdom and not our campaign.

  • MD

    if i understand you correctly, i think you would say that neither evangelism and front-line mission work in an area where the church does not exist is kingdom work.
    i think i observe correctly from the comments that each commenter above has trouble with this, but offers no scriptural basis supporting the objection.
    if so, are you ok with using “ministry” and “calling” to describe what commenters are defending?

  • Susan N.

    Scot @ #10 — yes, I think I understand what you are trying to say. Someone pointed out the distinction between little ‘c’ church and big ‘c’ Church. The folks in these various communities can form very distinctive definitions of “kingdom work” (i.e., partisan political activism that mirrors their particular opinion of “justice”). But, in the larger, invisible Body of Christ (invisible, worldwide Church), I believe that God is working and moving His people to BE His Kingdom come on earth. And I doubt it’s about earthly power structures, such as government.

    I think about a study of the Lord’s Prayer that I did several years ago… “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, ‘in’ earth as it is in heaven.” We who are redeemed through Christ are literally God’s kingdom people, the “earthen vessels” that make up His kingdom. Is this only true in local, little ‘c’ church community? Evangelism happens in the everyday of our work, our play, and our interaction with the wider world. We may get paid for it, or not, so the word “work” is even debatable. Our faith should inform our action (or abstinence from action) in every sphere of our lives. So, kingdom “work” is everything we do that arises from our intentional desire to BE the redeemed people of God, inviting others to Christ as a result.

    One little ‘c’ church takes up the social justice cause of abortion, while another has a heart for those in poverty. Biblically-speaking, neither one is wrong? But Christians judge one another by the pet causes we support, and can become so dogmatic about one’s own sense of rightness at the exclusion of the other, which I think is the real problem? I am trying to think outside of my own view on this also, and learn to give grace to others with whom I disagree… I appreciate this discussion forum for that opportunity.

  • smcknight

    Jason, yes, I agree. There is a danger of sectarian withdrawal and I can’t imagine followers of Jesus not extending kingdom into every sphere of their work, including bankers meeting with bankers. I’m unconvinced that is kingdom work and would like to see it as kingdom extension.

    I think you see and agree with my concern: to make “kingdom” the “social justice” stuff folks do outside the church and to pose the two as alternative spheres of work.

    MD, evangelism is kingdom extension. Call it kingdom work, that’s fine with me, but it’s intent is to draw people into the redemptive society of Jesus.

  • Jason Lee

    Scot(#19): Your last comment does not clarify things for me. I don’t see how your “redemptive community” definition of kingdom doesn’t apply to a small fellowship of Christians engaged in a social problem in the world also. You seem to root the boundaries of “kingdom” in the redeemed and gathered people of God. Isn’t a long-term group of Jesus-following bankers who meet, pray, and spur each other on also a redemptive community and so “kingdom?” Perhaps they should also be connected into and deeply involved in a larger redemptive community, yes, but still why is the small bankers community not also “kingdom?” Again, I agree with the general thrust of your post, but I’m fuzzy on how you’re drawing the lines and why? Are you unnecessarily throwing out some forms kingdom community in the world (yes, even if they’re tiny in number)?

  • smcknight

    I didn’t see you were asking that, Jason. Well, it gets down to asking where “church” is, and I’m not sure the Matt 18 principle is “church” as it is the promise of Christ’s presence. I want to hold up the centrality of the local church, as a particular locus of God’s redemptive activity where kingdom becomes manifest. I see all parachurch ministries as extensions of the local church, so bankers are extending their own local church kingdom ministries. That clear?

  • Jason Lee

    Scot(#21), your general argument seems clear, but it seems to unravel when its pushed. Some local churches may start or grow based on occupation-based networks (e.g., bible studies or prayer groups). And then some para-church ministries may look, feel, and function much more like local churches than some local churches. Some local churches may be nothing more Matt. 18. So to me the “local church” definition of kingdom doesn’t clearly specify things. If kingdom depends on redeeming community, then redeeming community needs careful definition. Isn’t it possible that some local churches would fall outside its bounds, some para-church ministries would fall inside, and some informal communities of Christian might also fall inside?

  • Randy Gabrielse

    Thank you for this post Scot. I see two tensions throughout these comments and discussions. One comes from society around us, and one comes from developments in the study of scripture.
    One of the tensions I see is how we relate religious and secular work and vocation in a world that is becoming more both more secular and more sectarian — That is, there is less of an agreed upon public sphere or public square where we all agree, so religious identities such as “Christian,” “Muslim,” or even “pagan” are defining more and more of who we are and how and why we work. At the same time, we are in the end of an era where Christians could do “secular” work with a spirit-led direction and could presume its Christian character and direction. This we want to call “kingdom work.”

    The second tension is that as “Kingdom” language has rightfully become common in our Christian vocabulary, people easily grasp the word as a way of connecting their work and their beliefs. There is inevitably some drift in such use of language. That leads me to wonder, what language will be able to use once the language of “kingdom” has become so common that it no longer carries much power?

    Randy Gabrielse

  • Pat

    Unfortunately, I find myself rebuking people for not exhibiting a kingdom mentality within the church. We talk about and to each other in ways that do not reflect the kingdom. We mistreat those not like us that enter our midst in ways that do not reflect the kingdom. We make decisions in ways that are more reflective of our attention to the bottom line as opposed to the kingdom. So yes, there needs to be a closer association with kingdom and church because at some point, we’ve gotten away from it in the church and have gotten bogged down in bureaucracy and our way of doing things that does not often make for an environment conducive to ushering in the kingdom. I think this is probably behind so many people moving outside of the church walls to do the work that the church is still debating about being worthwhile.

  • Brian

    But isn’t the sister of your student part of the church?
    Why do you want to draw hard lines?

  • Richard


    I’m curious as to how you might see this apparent negative of a “secularized Kingdom” interact with Bonhoeffer’s religionless Christianity?

    I’m also reminded of Jesus admonishment to his disciples that whoever is not against him is for him and wondering if that pertains, acknowledging that “in the name of” also means in the “character of” and not just an incantation.

    It seems that quite often the Kingdom was spreading faster than the work of the Apostles and they were mostly “pulling back the curtain” (revelat-ing, apocalypt-ing, etc) on a mystery that was a reality amongst people…

  • smcknight

    Brian, yes, she’s part of the church. My concern, once again, is assigning “social justice” to “kingdom” and keeping kingdom separate from church.

    Richard, I join the many who aren’t sure what Bonhoeffer means by “religionless Christianity” but surely “religion” for him meant the corrupted Lutheran church’s complicity with the Nazis. No?

  • T

    I think part of this problem is when Scot says, in essense, “kingdom work is Church work” several of us think of the church as a classic “umbrella” organizational chart and then infer that only those ‘ministries’ operating under the supervision, control, etc. of the leadership of a local church are “official” kingdom work in this definition. That’s gonna get some push back.

    If, though, we turn that organizational umbrella for the Church upside-down, whereby the leadership of local churches are at the bottom, largely serving those people “above” them, preparing them for works of service with and through Christ’s Spirit, then at least my imagination for what constitutes “kingdom work” grows appreciably larger, much less bureaucratically controlled, and more respectful of the Spirit’s role and tendency to blow where he wills. I see the Church as the servant of the kingdom (not to mention the Trinity), and the Church’s leadership largely as serving/equipping/helping those who do the work of the kingdom.

    And Scot, to your ‘show me’ in 12: The Spirit’s activity (and Jesus’ name) seem more critical in the biblical narrative to me than societal membership, oversight or approval. The disciples tell a man to stop healing and casting out demons in Jesus name (via the Spirit) because the man was not part of their “group/society.” But Jesus rebukes them for this. Clearly the man was doing the “works of the kingdom.” Israel and the Church have a long history of claiming exclusivity over God’s reign and work, and God seems to go out of his way to correct that tendency. Yes, following Christ (the king) is foundational for “kingdom work” but the Spirit is more fundamental than the society, both in Israel’s history and in the Church’s. The Spirit forms, empowers, leads and corrects the society of the kingdom and even determines its members. But when the society rejects the Spirit’s work in or through others, the Spirit still works as it wants, not as the (presumed) society of God wants. “I can turn these stones into children of Abraham.”

    And further, I think John the Baptist, as a prophet of the kingdom (whom God’s Spirit was with), had people asking “what should we do” in the context of his heralding of the reign of God. Their questions (and his answers to them), I think, should be understood as questions that assume the reign of God to be their context and impetus. John’s answers to the soldiers, tax collectors and others of doing their work honestly, sharing what they have, etc. must have some meaningful connection to the reign of God and what kind of “work” it powers and requires for the narrative to make sense. Of course, John’s pointing to Jesus as the king of God’s kingdom was his pinnacle work, which is also in that kingdom context. So I agree that the Name is central (though not always present) in kingdom work, but the emphasis of “society” over “Spirit” strikes me as almost literally putting the cart before the Horse. And the Spirit’s idea of what constitutes the work of the reign of God (and who is to do it) seems perennially broader than the same idea held by the society or people of God.

    I’m all for saying that the Spirit always pushes toward communal cooperation, and we need more of that, and I’m for some reality checks with so-called “kingdom work” that is hesitant to openly confess Jesus as Lord, and as the reason and rightful shaper of such work. But I have a hard time thinking of “kingdom work” as small as “church work” tends to be.

  • Wherever the Spirit of God is at work, the kingdom of God exists. God can take a Judas and ‘apply’ him to the service of the kingdom in a glorifying way. There isn’t anything ‘secular’ to the Almighty. On the other hand, as Scot well says it, ‘social justice’ work in an of itself is not ‘kingdom’ work. It is merely the opposite ditch from fundamentalism. Can or does God use it? Of course. Yet we shouldn’t be deceived. God has called us to be vessels of His Spirit loving our neighbors as He loves us. This is truly being missional in the ‘kingdom’ sense, eh?

  • smcknight

    T, but I’d want “church work” to be as large as “Spirit/kingdom work.”

  • Twins Fan

    Referring to your last comment “If you want to do kingdom work, I suggest you get busy in the ministries of your local church.” I couldn’t agree with you more. However, there is a problem. The local church, many times by it’s own admission, do a poor job of being outwardly focused and bringing the kingdom into the world where it can be of some evangelistic good.

    Doing good works just for the sake of doing good is not kingdom work, but Christians who focus on doing good works just for the sake of doing them may simply be scratching and itch that isn’t scratched by the church.

    I think we need to reverse the trend of the kingdom being overrun by the secular by overcoming secular with the kingdom. I don’t see any reason to ask Christians to stop “doing good”. However, for it to be kingdom work we must teach (at the local church level) that it is an obligation as Christians to bring the kingdom with them into the places where they serve. If the church would step up and have more ministries focused on outreach we would have less of a problem with secular vs. kingdom because we would be doing the kingdom work we are called to. There is just a disconnect between what people see in scripture and what the church is doing.

    That’s my two cents…

  • “kingdom work is church work, it is Jesus work. It is not “social” work when “social” is distinguished from “spiritual” or “church.” Jesus never left that option to us because he came to create the redemptive kingdom society and he called us to enter into by entering into relationship with him. To say “kingdom” work is “social” work (over against the church) is Constantinianism.”

    Yet such a resistance to this entire idea – for some reason we have this terrible mis-notion we have grasped the meaning of the Kingdom and can do our little bit to bring it about. Why is it so hard to go into the whole mess on our knees acknowledging on our own we only make the mess bigger by inserting our notions of redemption and justice.

  • MJ Judt

    Of course, none of this kingdom talk has to do with the celestial kingdom. Right?

  • Dave T.


    People need another term besides “social justice” to describe how what they are doing fits into the bigger picture. You appropriately point out that “kingdom” is not that word. May I suggest the term “Edenic”. Whenever we do good for the world (eg. social justice that isn’t done in the name of Jesus or specifically tied to his community), the kind Adam and Eve were originally commissioned to do, it is Edenic. The work is a part of our original commission as human beings but not our Christian calling to carry out those tasks in the name of Jesus.

    I think a significant part of the problem is in the desire to tie social good into the greater good. We just need to tie it to the garden and not the cross when it doesn’t bear the name of Jesus. It’s not that we are saying it isn’t good, it just isn’t Christian. It’s Edenic.

  • Brian

    Scot, I appreciate your patience on this topic. I must confess, though, I’m having a difficult time understanding your concern. I find T’s comment helpful. I don’t necessarily find the “sacred/secular” divide helpful and maybe that’s part of what’s preventing me from grasping your point.

    What about this: “He told them still another parable: ‘The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into about sixty pounds of flour until it worked all through the dough.'”

    In your example- your students sister- we agree that she is part of the church…could she not be uniting the “secular” kingdom work with the church (that she is a part of) via the mystery (if you will) of the yeast-like kingdom? I’ve tended to see the parable of the yeast and the mustard see teaching that the kingdom comes in unexpected ways. Maybe the kingdom is breaking through by her work in this “secular” organization. (Or maybe I’m still totally missing your point. lol…)

  • T

    Scot (30),

    I figured. But I don’t think church work has ever been as large as Spirit/Kingdom work. Though I agree with the aspiration, I don’t even think such is possible. Kingdom/Spirit work is always within and beyond church work, calling the church and anyone else to enter. For example, how would your post read during the reformation? The (Catholic) Church would say a hearty “Amen!” But the Spirit will not be monopolized, nor the work of Christ’s reign be limited to what the Church can percieve and acknowledge as such.

    Again, I agree that when supposed “kingdom work” is missing not only connection to a church, but also the Spirit’s power and/or character, and/or even Christ’s name, there is good reason to question calling it work of Christ’s government. But percieved failure to be part of “church” or “God’s people” doesn’t strike me as conclusive given the scriptural narrative and subsequent history. The veil is torn; the Spirit on the loose. Israel and the Church misses, fails to bless and even opposes kingdom work all the time, and God works with and through the willing.

    A modern example: AA started in/through the Church and the Spirit. It now is a pseudo-Christian/humanist collection of groups. But I cannot deny that kingdom work–through God’s Spirit–happens in AA and other similar groups every day, sometimes when his Name is still unknown to the participants. “The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is upon me to . . . ” Everything in that verse happens in AA routinely. I can’t tell you how deeply wrong it would seem to me to deny that those things are kingdom work, even when Christ’s name is not acknowledged, even when the connection to what we call “Church” is distant at best.

    Anyway, I know you love the kingdom, the Church and all God’s work. Thanks for raising such great topics.

  • Lance

    Scott, many times I am very much on board with what you express through your posts and I may very well be misunderstanding you here, but this one seems to me to confuse “how” Christians should go about Kingdom work with “what” the Kingdom of God is. I would concur with the sentiment already mentioned in the comments above that the idea of the “kingdom of God” is more in the line of “God’s reign-realm-will” than activity that can be definitively connected to a local expression of the church.

    In my estimation, I am thankful God is at work beyond the obedience of the church. While the church is to be a primary vehicle for spreading the kingdom, I believe it must also be recognized that there are many outside the community of faith, whether they realize it or not–to one degree or another, that are doing “kingdom work”. Therefore while our kingdom work will many times be connected with a local expression of the church, it should not be limited to this as such. I have further thoughts about this here:

    If I may ask, how would you define the kingdom of God? Would you not say that all good work including that of mere social justice would fall within the reign, realm and will of God whether done by the church or others? Second, if not, does that not mean that we would be claiming there is good work and social justice being done that is not a part of the kingdom, reign-realm-will of God?

    I suppose I am most worried about a Christian-ghetto mentality that I’ve so often seen within the Christian community instead of a Christianity that is willing to lock arms with others (when appropriate) and work together for the common good. The latter to me is a better opportunity for dialogue about our kingdom motivations. I also agree with “T”, thanks for raising the topic.

  • DRT

    Scot says:

    “So, on bankers: I’d like to see them making a difference within the walls of their local church. I’d like to see Christians first take care of the needy in their own congregation. That is, to quote, Paul, to do good to all, esp to those in the household of faith.”

    I am not on board with you Scot. First, I am concerned that your vision of working first in your church is inherently discriminatory. My bet is the WASP community does not have a lot of problems with poverty, drug dealers, or prositution.

    Second, I think the outreach efforts many are doing in the secular world are evangelical and not just charity.

    Third, people are all different. For some worship in the local church and helping others is their thing. For others, doing kingdom work in the world is their expression of faith.

    Lastly, I believe our degree of specialization and not live communication with others was unthinkable in the time of Paul. We can affect the world in many more ways than he could.

  • Dan Arnold


    I’d be interested if you clarified what you think the “kingdom” is? I notice you limit the context of our search to the NT, but doesn’t it have roots in the Hebrew Scriptures? In the Hebrew Scriptures, it is often linked directly to national Israel. And, if I read your post correctly (and I admit that I may not be), you seem to link the c/Church to the kingdom in a similar manner.

    National Israel was supposed to be the place where God was king/ruler/lord. They are God’s people (Jer 24:7; 31:1,33; 37:23,27; Ezek 11:20; 14:11; 37:23,27) and God is their king (Ps 149:2, 1 Sam 8:4, Dan 6:26). The implication is that God’s kingdom (a political term with social ramifications if ever there was one) is present wherever God’s rule is acknowledge and submitted to. In Jesus, then, we find God’s kingdom fully present. What then is the c/Church? Would you agree that the c/Church is not the kingdom? Are they linked? I think so! But as far as I can tell, the kingdom is not fully here now even as the c/Church is visibly present now. This leads me to see the church as an advance colony (excuse the colonial metaphor) which should be living out that paradigm of submission to God’s rule

    According to my understanding of God’s Kingdom, it seems that wherever God’s rule is acknowledged and submitted to, there is the Kingdom of God. The c/Church is that colony, but at times we must acknowledge that we have stood against God’s rule and at times, just as in the Hebrew Scriptures, God’s rule exists outside the borders of the established colony, whether Israel or the c/Church.

    This is a rather long winded way of saying that God’s righteous, loving rule is bigger than the c/Church and at he same time, it is inexorably yet imperfectly tied to it.

  • smcknight

    Dan, I did use some categories for defining kingdom in the post, but I very much like that “advance colony” and I agree with your seeing Israel as a nation and a kingdom — it’s a socio-political entity, and so also the kingdom of which Jesus spoke. It’s the society of the Jesus-redeemed. But I don’t see warrant for making it bigger than the church, if church is properly understood and if church is living properly. What I see you saying is that the church sometimes doesn’t live up to its kingdom calling; I agree.

    Let me say something one more time: I see a whole lot of pushing back in this post to be concerned with the margins. What I mean is that folks want to explore where kingdom and church “differ.” Fair enough, but the whole point of the post is to push against taking that “differ” so far that kingdom and church are two separable entities, with the former referring to social things and the latter to spiritual things. Big mistake, I think.

    I’m concerned with secularizing kingdom. That I see way too much of.

  • DRT

    BTW, I am on board with my interpretation of Scot in that I believe Kingdom work to be a subset of church work. The only people who can overtly be working on the kingdom are those in the church. You can’t have kingdom work without church work. My life work under Jesus, which I hope is my entire life, is church work.

  • T

    Scot, I agree with you in 40 without reservation. Church needs to be pushed to extend past just “spiritual” categories, and any “kingdom work” that is good work, but separated from church, Jesus and Spirit needs a new name.

  • Michael

    I agree that church and Kingdom should not be considered two separable entities. I am from a church which defines two different segments of the organisation as building the “church, and building the “kingdom” – whereas to me they should be considered a part of the same story.

    However, with regards to “If you want to do kingdom work, I suggest you get busy in the ministries of your local church.” – this depends on how you define ministries of your local church.

    If local church ministry must be directed by the actual ‘organisation’ of the local church, then you are excluding members of a local church who gather together to help their neighbors of their own accord, without a direct mandate from the church organisation. If this is what you mean, then this approach would concern me.

  • Richard

    “Richard, I join the many who aren’t sure what Bonhoeffer means by “religionless Christianity” but surely “religion” for him meant the corrupted Lutheran church’s complicity with the Nazis. No?”

    I don’t know that I would understand it to be narrowly focused on that though it surely would include it. He was well-traveled enough where he was thinking greater than his immediate context I think. He seems to intend the various liturgies we “worship” in when he says something like,

    “It is not the religious act that makes the Christian, but participation in the sufferings of God in secular life. That is metanoia: not in the first place thinking about one’s own needs, problems, sins, and fears, but allowing oneself to be caught up into the way of Jesus Christ, into the messianic event, thus fulfilling Isa. 53” (LPP, 361-2)

    As I’m reading through other comments and Scot’s replies, I’m wondering Scot if your concern seems to be people just doing good things without any sense of Jesus’ reign when you’re referring to the “secularizing kingdom” concept?

  • “If you want to do kingdom work, I suggest you get busy in the ministries of your local church.” This assumes that a church can be found that cares for the poor, the oppressed and the marginalized as a core product of its life in the world.

  • Scot-
    I get your point, and agree to a certain extent. Bill and Melinda Gates are doing a tremendous amount of good that could be considered kingdom work – if they were Christians. Because they are professing atheists, their good deeds are indeed good – but not deeds that expand the kingdom. Instead, doing good works without first residing in Jesus’ kingdom are wasted efforts. If, however, we meet Jesus and do these good deeds out of our love for him and in response to his teaching, we grow the kingdom and simultaneously meet the social needs of people.

    Thanks for the insight – made me think.

  • Andy

    I thought I had a handle on this at first, but now I’m confused again.

    Scot, this is what I hear you driving at:
    Church and Kingdom are not distinct entities or spheres. Church is not “spiritual” work and Kingdom “secular” work, in nature of what they do or what they effect. Nor are they insider/outsider designations for the Christian community – as if we do inside is “church work” and what takes place in outside world is “kingdom” work.

    So … if I get you right:
    Our work in “building for” the kingdom (I think that’s Wright’s phrase?) or “yearning to see it come and extended” means both our church/body of Christ life together and our vocations in the wider world. In this way, the church as the visible community is necessarily engaged in myriad of ministries around the world – whether manifest in our individual lives or our communal practices. What you are asking us to do is fight against the distinction between “church stuff” and “kingdom stuff,” such that kingdom is just a synonym for social justice work that may or may not have anything to do with the gospel in intention or outcome.


  • smcknight

    Andy, yes, that’s what I’m saying. I’m pushing back against the idea that kingdom is social; church is spiritual.

  • Jason Lee

    Seems like there are two ways to fall off this horse: 1) saying only in-the-world activity is kingdom and local church isn’t, and 2) saying only local church is kingdom and Christ-centered in-the-world activity isn’t. While this post is IMHO rightly directed at the former, I see mostly the latter in some of the evangelical Protestant circles I am around.

  • I agree with your point that Kingdom should not be used to categorise social work from a secular base. However, within that, there’s plenty of room to say that the Kingdom of God has had a profound influence on society, using secular social work as a case in point.

    For instance, before slavery was considered unjust by secular society, groups such as the Quakers had mutually decided to live their lives in opposition to slavery and other injustices. This influenced the rise of the Abolition Movement, which slowly morphed into a secular thing. However, we can rejoice that this is the result of the Kingdom’s influence on society. I could also point to Buddhist temples in Thailand that operate effective drug rehabilitation programs. That was unheard of a generation ago, but it was the Christian missionary organisations that blazed the trail.

    I believe we should genuinely rejoice that the Kingdom of God has had an influence, but at the same time, if we consider ourselves to be doing Kingdom work, we ought to be far ahead of the game, blazing yet more trails.

  • Scot:

    The local church where I pastor partners with Habitat for Humanity. Today myself and two others volunteered to paint.

    Scenario One: we talk about volunteering at Habitat as kingdom work, but we talk about the Board of Administration meeting the night before as church work. That’s the split you calling for us to reject.

    Scenario Two: our local church considers everything it does as kingdom work because the locus of all activity is love God/love neighbor. Partnering with Habitat is one way for a local church to express the love God/love neighbor ethic. The Board of Administration meeting is also a kingdom work – an arena for mature believers to steward resources that further even more kingdom/church work within the redemptive community and through it.

    I’m trying to process this post/comments in light of what our particular local church is attempting to do.