The kingdom is for outsiders: a “skinny-jeans evangelical” response to @scotmcknight

The kingdom is for outsiders: a “skinny-jeans evangelical” response to @scotmcknight February 26, 2014

I’ve been enjoying the stimulating conversation at the Ecclesia National Gathering in DC. Scot McKnight started things off with a polemic against the “skinny-jeans evangelicals” (like me, sometimes) who tend to define the kingdom of God as happening “when good people do good in the public sector for the common good.” I think his polemic is legitimate. There is a furious backlash among evangelicals of my generation against the culture wars, which can turn us into generic “social justice” activists who no longer have any concept of church. “Kingdom” gets used as a code label to define a here-and-now social gospel over against an “eternal fire insurance” gospel. As McKnight says, “If the kingdom means everything, it means nothing.” He comes up with five Biblical principles for what the kingdom must include. But I think he needs some help from a “skinny-jeans evangelical” heckler like me, because I don’t think his five principles avoid reaffirming and returning to the problematic Christendom of the past.

So here are McKnight’s five principles for legitimately talking about the kingdom of God:

1) The kingdom of God has to have a king.

To talk about the kingdom means recognizing Jesus as the legitimate king of the universe. In other words, he’s not just our buddy or our mentor or our sage. He’s our king, which means that he’s in charge and his subjects submit to him.

2) The kingdom of God has to have a people.

McKnight was very intentional about naming Israel as the people of God and saying that we who are Gentiles are grafted onto the tree of Abraham, as Paul puts it. One of the great historical evils of Christian theology is supersessionism, saying that the church replaces Israel as God’s people. Now at this point, McKnight said something that I’m not sure I would go along with. He maintains that “kingdom work” can only be done by Christians. So for example, to him Gandhi did good works, but he did not do kingdom work. The objection I raised with him was that this way of defining things means that Christ isn’t fully sovereign over all the good that happens in the world. I will get into that more later.

3) The kingdom of God has to involve the king ruling, teaching, and redeeming.

I think McKnight means here that all activity related to the kingdom of God is an outflow of Jesus’ reign. So essentially kind of like #2, just because good things are happening doesn’t mean that they’re kingdom things. For something to be a kingdom phenomenon, it’s a good work that’s directly connected to the redemptive work of Christ drawing all the nations into his body.

4) The kingdom of God has to have a law.

It makes sense that if we’re going to talk about a kingdom, there has to be some kind of law or there isn’t really any sovereignty to speak of. Now I don’t think this means that the law needs to be exhaustively casuistic down to the jot and tittle. Jesus may have said that in Matthew 5, but he also did plenty of breaking the law to fulfill the law. Paul does say in Romans 13:10: “Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.” I see the law more in virtue ethic terms; it is the behavior that organically flows out of somebody who has been given the heart of Christ.

5) The kingdom has to have a land.

I’m a little puzzled by this one, and McKnight ran out of time to explain it. I get that God has the prerogative to elect a particular people as his starting point for redeeming the world and that the minute we try to deny this particularity like the Enlightenment did, then we’ve started the journey towards secularism, and white supremacy, as J. Kameron Carter documents in Race: A Theological Account. But I’m very troubled by the apartheid that currently exists in the Holy Land. If we’re going to talk about a physical land for the kingdom, then it should be the Zion of Isaiah 2, where “all the nations stream” to receive God’s teaching. There are far more widows in Zarephath now in the Holy Land than in the time of Elijah (Luke 4:25-26).

So here’s the problem.

All five of these components for the kingdom of God could be legitimately attributed to European Christendom as it existed for most of Christian history. It ostensibly submitted itself to Jesus as king; it had a people who were brought together across national boundaries through a common church by which they became the original basis for racial “whiteness”; Jesus’ redemptive work was the official raison d’etre for colonialism; Jesus’ law was the mark of “civilization” and the reason that “primitive” cultures had to be civilized through slavery; the land of the New World was the “city on a hill” through which white people would build the perfect Christian utopia.

Here’s what I think is missing. God’s kingdom has to be exclusively for people who are illegitimate. The Bible often pits the kingdom against “the world.” To me, what “the world” describes is a demonic social order which privileges some and marginalizes others, as opposed to the kingdom, which is a social order of redeemed sinners who are all illegitimate and only justified by the blood of their king. McKnight says that working for the common good is not kingdom work because kingdom work should not legitimize the world’s demonic order but should rather call people out of the world. I absolutely agree, but we need to be clear on what “out of the world” really means.

In American Christianity, wealthy suburbanites often create gated communities of socially enclaved homeschooling families who go to the same megachurch and call that being “out of the world.” The irony is that the privilege and exclusivity of a gated community are the epitome of worldliness. We leave the world in a very specific way, the same way that the condemned prisoners would leave the world on the way out of the city gates to Golgotha to be crucified. It has to be cruciform.

When Jesus says in Mark 8:34: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me,” he had not yet been crucified, so the cross could not yet have a spiritualized meaning. The only meaning that the cross had at the time that Jesus said these words was an instrument of Roman terror by which people were utterly dehumanized. (You only get to give “cross” a post-Easter spiritualized meaning in this context if you want to go down the historical-critical road of saying that Mark put words into Jesus’ mouth for his own didactic purposes.) For Jesus’ audience at the time he spoke, to take up your cross would mean to join the procession of condemned prisoners whose humanity had ceased to be recognized. So the call to take up your cross is a call to illegitimacy,

which is one way of understanding what it means to “deny yourself.”

A recognition of the necessary illegitimacy of the kingdom is the way to avoid resurrecting the colonial monstrosity of Christendom. If we recognize our illegitimacy, that means understanding that none of us do kingdom work; only God does, through people who recognize what he is doing and through people who don’t. God is the sovereign author of all the good that is done in the universe. Every good work is part of his kingdom even if his kingdom remains hidden from the accidental agent whom he uses to promote his good. The hiddenness of the kingdom is certainly a broadly enough attested Biblical trope (so maybe that could be principle #7: the kingdom is always hidden from even its “citizens”).

As Christians, our task is to declare the work of the kingdom in our own lives and the lives of those who have not yet recognized the kingdom in which they’ve been unwitting accomplices. The critical difference that I am drawing between this model of kingdom and Christendom is that we are not insiders; we are merely prophets who proclaim what we see God doing for those who have ears to hear. God does not need to submit himself to the mechanisms of our institutionalized church. True church is not anything we create, but simply God’s “out-calling” itself; his ekklesia.  In the Roman communion liturgy, when the priest says, “Look not upon our sins, but upon the faith of your church,” he’s essentially saying to God: look upon your own faithfulness instead of our perpetual failure to build on top of it.

The kingdom is the “wind [that] blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes” (John 3:8). It is “as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how” (Mark 4:26-27). It is a mystery that we should not try to colonize even though we are being colonized by it. The most important thing about God’s kingdom is that we don’t own it. We are not its gatekeepers; only its heralds. The kingdom has no insiders, because it’s only for outsiders.

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  • Ian Paul

    I want to say ‘two cheers’ to your suggestion. I don’t think it is true, sociologically or theologically, that the kingdom is ‘only’ for outsiders. It is the tension between being the ‘ekklesia’ which suggests settled and stable, and ‘paroikoi and parapidemoi’ (1 Peter 2.11). the kingdom/’church’/people of God needs to be both/and. See http://www.psephizo.com/life-ministry/state-of-the-church-sociology-or-theology/

    • MorganGuyton

      I’m wondering if you meant to give me a different reference from Peter. I couldn’t find those words in the Greek.

      • Ian Paul

        ∆Agaphtoi÷, parakalw◊ wJß paroi÷kouß kai« parepidh/mouß aÓpe÷cesqai tw◊n sarkikw◊n e˙piqumiw◊n aiºtineß strateu/ontai kata» thvß yuchvß

      • Ian Paul

        OK–your blog doesn’t like Greek! 4th and 6th words.

      • Ian Paul

        Here’s the comment I make on my blog.

        When Paul says ‘Come out from among them; touch no unclean thing’ (2 Cor 6.17, quoting Is 52.11), he is saying something both nuanced and yet vital. The New Testament characterises the people of God in two paradoxical ways. The first is as the ekklesia which is the word used in the OT for the ‘congregation’ (AV) of Israel, but also used by Greeks as the gathering of citizens for decision-making in relation to their city. This is an established, respectable and reasonable understanding of ‘church.’ But the other, equally important insight is the idea of being paroikia and parepidemoi (1 Peter 2.11)—resident aliens, refugee pilgrims. We are citizens, but citizens of a different kind. We are to ‘seek the welfare’ (Jer 29.7) of the city we are in, but also to remember that we are citizens of a different city (Hebrews 12.22). (I heard a brilliant exposition of this by Rowan Williams when he was ABC in a meeting of CEEC. He was a much better expositor than the two leading evangelicals who were speaking with him!) We are to be embedded in society, and yet distinct from it.

        • MorganGuyton

          The problem is that in American evangelicalism, the “different city” is white suburbia.

          • Ian Paul

            I am not sure it is. I think white suburbia is the city in which we are in exile, and you are right to point out that there is another dimension to the kingdom.

            But I think you overstate it in reaction to what you see. According to the NT, it is both/and and not either/or. That is why, I think, NT ethics at one moment looks radical and counter-cultural, and at another strangely accommodating.

            Hence my ‘two cheers’…

      • Ian Paul

        Have you found them now?

  • Howdy Morgan, thanks for your words. I do believe there is a place for legitimate people in the Kingdom of God. That God can love even those who don’t belong in the Kingdom constructed of the illegitimate. Like Nicodemus, for instance.

    This post has got me thinking. If God is always at the margins, there is no people, because as soon as there is a people, the Spirit shifts to those seeking to enter but who cannot enter.

    But what about boundaries that we might consider necessary for the protection of those who have been preyed upon by the world, for instance, the expulsion of sexual predators from a community? Or even the expulsion of a gay-hating fundamentalist that constantly berates homosexuals in the community?

    When we ask questions like this, we are speaking of the identity of our community. Who the people are, not whether we should be a people. And if the people is constructed of illegitimate folks, one must create the community for those people and protect them from harm. Which means excluding those who would sabotage the community if the community is not strong enough.

    If we look at it from this perspective, then McKnight’s rules still hold, the question becomes, “Which is God’s church?”

    One more thing, lashing out against the culture wars is actually just fighting a culture war from another angle. And I encourage progressive Christian bloggers to continue to fight the culture war: we are winning.

    • MorganGuyton

      This is a good point. It sounds like Miroslav Volf’s point in Exclusion and Embrace.

  • Grazer #E2H

    It’s almost like the difference between the world and the kingdom, aren’t physical places but states of being……

  • Susan Irene Fox

    Morgan, absolutely agree on #5 – the Old Testament was about land. The New Testament (New Covenant) is about having God dwell in us. That is where God resides now through the Holy Spirit.

    I also agree with you regarding Gandhi – Jesus has no boundaries. He will do his work through anyone and everyone, and his specialty was claiming “outsiders” as his. He chooses those who say, “I will go.” If we refuse to believe that people other than proclaiming Christians do the will of God then we are limiting His power and putting Him in a box of our own making.

    Great thoughts here.

    • MorganGuyton

      Exactly Jesus can work through anyone. The question is whether we are blessed by it.

  • jwlung

    Great post, lots to think about.
    Looking for “spiritual meaning” in the Cross or anything else is a always a waste of time. Your dualism is showing.
    The Kingdom has a King; the world has a prince, for a time. The “demonic social order” (another strawman) is only a part of the organized opposition to the Kingdom. The primary point of attack, the primary evil we must deal with is the abolitionist movement: The movement to abolish Man.
    Christendom is yet another strawman. Christendom, whatever it is, is not ENTIRELY evil. “Christendom” did not give us the Gulag and the Holocaust, the two greatest accomplishments of modernity’s movement to “make disciples and transform the earth” and destroy the image of God in man in the process. The five points remind you of Christendom because the church was closer the the Church then as now.
    Peace.

    • MorganGuyton

      “Looking for ‘spiritual meaning’ in the Cross or anything else is a always a waste of time. Your dualism is showing.” Say more. I don’t understand the critique here but I’m interested.

      • jwlung

        Your baptist upbringing is showing. By “dualism” I mean a metaphysical system that divides reality into the material (bad) and spiritual (good). It’s essentially gnosticism.

        I cannot relate to understanding the cross (or anything else, like eucharist) in “spiritual” as opposed to some other context. Certainly the disciples’ understanding of Jesus’ figure of speech deepened after the resurrection, and the depths of what happened on the Cross can never be fully explored. But Jesus was not referring only to the mechanism of his execution when he spoke the words. Sure, there is an image of the condemned carrying a cross, and the image may have entered the imaginations of his followers. He was speaking of the totality of the work he came accomplish on behalf of those he came to save. He was not speaking of the cross as a symbol or metaphor, though it is certainly that. Just as when he referred to the Cup that His disciples were not up to taking, He was talking about the totality of His redemptive work.

        If you recall our previous exchange concerning the objectivity of the atonement, we’re having the same discussion. The discussion started at least with Anselm and Abelard, and probably much earlier. It is a discussion about the work of Christ–what God accomplishes in time in the life, death, burial, resurrection, ascension of the Messiah.

        I wish that I had the theological and philosophical learning to better explain what I am trying to say. I have many evangelical friends, many of them Baptists, who labor under the same disability. All I get back are blank stares. But the point is very important because we lose so much when be begin to speak of “spiritual(ized) meanings.” Most especially, we lose the meaning and power of baptism and the eucharist.

        Perhaps it would help if you tell me a little bit more of what you mean when you state: “the cross could not yet have a spiritualized meaning.”

        • MorganGuyton

          Ah, okay. In this case, the word “spiritual” is very unessential. We could say “religious” just as easily. All I mean is that before Jesus was crucified, “taking up your cross” could not have had any positive metaphorical meaning like enduring the hardships of fasting or something. It was simply going to die a brutal death at the hands of the Roman Empire because it had nothing to do with all of the theology that Paul would later add to the mix post-Easter. So when people try to say that Jesus had a figurative/metaphorical/spiritual meaning when he says to “take up your cross,” what they’re effectively saying is that Mark put words into the pre-Easter Jesus’ mouth from his post-Easter perspective (which you’re allowed to do if you’re a liberal historical-critical scholar but not a fundamentalist).

          • jwlung

            Agree. “Take up your cross and follow me” as a figure of speech only takes on its full meaning with, as you say, a “post-Easter perspective.”

            My problem is with your statement that “he had not yet been crucified, so the cross could not yet have a spiritualized meaning.”

            To be continued. Gotta go to work.