Discussion of Scot McKnight’s “Kingdom Conspiracy” Part Three

Discussion of Scot McKnight’s “Kingdom Conspiracy” Part Three September 29, 2015

Discussion of Scot McKnight’s Kingdom Conspiracy: Returning to the Radical Mission of the Local Church Part Three

A week and some days ago 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 am offering my thoughts about the book in several response posts over a few weeks. This Part Three of the series and covers Chapters 6 and 7, “No Kingdom outside the Church” and “Kingdom Mission as Church Mission” respectively.

In these chapters Scot’s concern, theme and thesis come to perfect clarity and practical application. The title of Chapter 6 says it all “in a nutshell”: “No Kingdom [of God] Outside the Church.” (81) In the middle of the chapter, after doing some careful exegesis of biblical passages about the Kingdom of God, Scot states “With one sentence, now, I pull the rope taut: there is no kingdom now outside the church.” (87) There was Kingdom of God before the birth of the church and there will be Kingdom of God in the eschatological new creation, but, in the interim, during the “church age” (as some would call it), “Kingdom of God” and “church” not only overlap but are, for all practical purposes, identical. (Which is not to say every group that calls itself “church” is Kingdom of God—a point I wish Scot would make clearer.)

Scot’s view stands in clear contrast to two alternative views of “Kingdom of God” in the present: 1) the “skinny pants view” that tends to call every ethical program for the common good “Kingdom of God work” even if it has no connection whatsoever with the church, and 2) the “pleated pants view” that recognizes some connection between Kingdom of God and church but tends to make the church an adjunct or appendix to the Kingdom of God rather than its center.

In the middle of Chapter 6 Scot presents a very healthy and helpful account of the relationship between the church and Israel—that contrasts with several other views of that relationship. His thesis is that “The Bible never talks of the replacement of Israel with the church, but rather of the expansion of Israel to include the Gentiles.” (89) He is neither a dispensationalist nor a successionist. “The church is the kingdom called Israel now expanded to include gentile believers.” (90) In this chapter Scot also emphasizes that the present church is not the eschatological church “without spot or wrinkle” (as the hymn has it about the “glorious church”) which is yet to come after the parousia.

One question I have asked earlier in this series is what church Scot means when he talks about the intimate, inseparable connection, if not identity, of “church” and “kingdom of God.” As we all know there are many Christian denominations and independent churches. On page 96 he expresses a kind of paradox. He says he both does and does not mean “institutional church.” He ends with an example of a local, institutional church that he regards as embodying (imperfectly, of course) the kingdom of God in the “not yet.” His example is Lawndale Community Church in Chicago. He ends the chapter with a teaser about the next chapter: “Kingdom mission is local church mission.” (98)

At this point I can enthusiastically say that I agree and don’t agree with Scot’s thesis about church and kingdom of God!

So far I am convinced that Scot is right about the contemporary tendency of many Christians, especially young ones, to separate “kingdom of God” almost entirely from “church.” Therefore, I agree with his project to re-connect them. I agree that the church as Jesus envisioned it is central to kingdom of God in the present as Jesus envisioned it. But I have more sympathy than Scot does, so it seems, anyway, with or for those who have struggled and struggled to find a church that actually embodies and lives out kingdom of God as Jesus envisioned it and have given up. Sure, there’s one here and there’s one there and one should never give up on church. But my experience is that the vast majority of American “Christian” churches of all kinds are so Americanized, so culturally accommodated, that I have trouble criticizing people who give up. I encourage them not to, but I understand their frustration.

So far what I would say with Scot is that the church as Jesus envisioned it is central to Jesus’ vision of the kingdom of God “between the times.” But I wonder if it is quite right to limit “kingdom of God” to the institutional church and its work—mission done within its context? (Now I’m assuming Chapter 7, but Scot anticipates his argument in that chapter in Chapter 6.)

Jesus’ prayer taught to the disciples included “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” So far, so far as I can remember, Scot has not mentioned that prayer or that petition. But it seems we shouldn’t ignore it. While I agree with Scot that “kingdom of God” ideally should never be separated entirely from church, I wonder if we can rightly say that where God’s will, as Jesus defined it in, say, the Sermon on the Mount, is never at least anticipation of the future eschatological kingdom of God even when it is accomplished totally apart from any institutional church.

But that leads us right into Chapter 7 “Kingdom Mission and Church Mission.” This is in some ways the real heart of Scot’s book. Here some heavy influence of John Howard Yoder and Stanley Hauerwas appears—which is not to say Scot agrees with either of them entirely. But Scot wants to separate “kingdom of God mission” from worldly politics (even in the broadest sense) while arguing that worldly political activism outside the church can constitute “good deeds.” In other words, here he makes absolutely clear that the mission of the church is to embody the kingdom of God within itself with “kingdom of God” defined by Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (in terms of behavior).

If you have the book, please look especially carefully at the middle of page 115. I would love to quote it fully here but that might violate “fair use” copyright laws. It’s a fairly lengthy paragraph. In case you are reading the book on an e-reader and you don’t see page numbers, the paragraph I am pointing toward here is just above the subtitle “Mission in Vocation” and begins with “In arguing what I am arguing.” Here Scot makes abundantly clear that he favors “Christian engagement in social activism” on behalf of the poor and homeless. What he does not favor is calling that “kingdom work” if/when it is disconnected from the church. He especially does not favor it when calling it “kingdom work” is used to justify it as “ultimately significant” when it is done apart from the church.

Chapter 7 is a great chapter and, as I read it, I find myself saying hearty “amens” and equally hearty “oh, nos.” The amens outnumber the oh nos. I agree with Scot that it is wrong to regard every good work done for suffering people and the common good “kingdom work.” I agree with Scot that we need to return to placing the church at the center of what we mean by “kingdom of God.” I am just uncomfortable (in my pleated pants!) with strictly identifying “kingdom of God” and “kingdom work” with institutional church and work done by it.

I have many students preparing for chaplaincy ministry—in many different contexts. Some are already doing hospital or hospice chaplaincy. Some are doing business chaplaincy. Some are preparing to become military chaplains. Of course, some chaplaincy positions require endorsement by a denomination. Others do not. So my question to Scot is: What about that Christian chaplain, sitting for hours in the “waiting room” of a surgery suite with the family of someone who may die on the operating table? She is praying with them, pointing them to Jesus, being a comforting Christian presence with them, answering their questions about God and suffering, etc.? She is a seminary student and member of a Christian church, but her ministry in that hospital waiting room is not directly related in any way to any church. Her salary, such as it is, is paid by the hospital. Is she not doing “kingdom work?”

Okay, I totally get the problem Scot is struggling with. Far too many Christian people are identifying that (good work, even Jesus-centered ministry) with “kingdom of God” and “kingdom mission” and leaving the church behind. But is it possibly an overreaction to that problem to deny that any good work, even ministry done in Jesus’ name and for his sake, is “kingdom work” unless it is done within the context of the local church?

I could press my question harder with even more exceptions to what seems to be Scot’s rule. What about the individual Christian who goes “incognito” (not as a Christian doing mission) to a Muslim country to, say, teach English, but works “behind the scenes” to bring the gospel to people there? He can’t found a church, but he can and does talk about Jesus, his atoning death, repentance and faith, and prays with Muslims who are intrigued and want to know more about this Jesus?

Am I as a Christian theologian to say to the hospital chaplain and the lone missionary (not being sent or supported by any institutional church) “Sorry, you are not doing ‘kingdom work’?”

This pleated pants theologian who occasionally tries on skinny jeans wants to know.

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