The Joker Begins: Why Do Almost All Pastors Urge Congregants to “Build the Kingdom of God?”
I recently announced that I will be posting a series here—about what I would ask pastors, Christian congregational leaders, leaders of Christian organizations and institutions if I could—without negative repercussions. I argued that every church and Christian organization should have a person whose function is to raise critical questions (not in a hyper-critical way) about customs, practices, beliefs, forms of worship—even songs sung—when they seem not to be biblical and/or theologically correct and/or simply contrary to the church’s flourishing as a community of believers (ekklesia). The kinds of things I have in mind are ones taken for granted as good and true and appropriate but without thought or examination. To paraphrase Socrates, the unexamined church is not worth attending. My proposal is for a constant, ongoing self-examination with the help of someone who can raise questions without negative consequences because he or she is expected to do that.
I don’t remember when I first began to ask why almost all pastors at least occasionally urge the congregation to “build the kingdom of God.” I hear that all the time from nearly every preacher I listen to. “Let us give and serve to build God’s kingdom.” Those might not be the exact words, but that’s the essence of the urging. But is that a biblically and theologically correct imperative?
I understand why pastors and preachers say it. They want to motivate people to give and to serve. If people believe they are “building God’s kingdom,” they will be more likely to participate. But, I ask, where in scripture are we Christians encouraged to “build God’s kingdom?” Nowhere that I can recall.
Why does this even matter? Simply because it—the imperative, the urging—misrepresents God’s kingdom which is pure gift. The kingdom of God is built by God alone; we cannot “build” it. We can pray for it, participate in it, receive it, but we cannot “build” it.
Jesus taught his disciples (and us) to pray “Thy kingdom come; thy will be done….” He did not urge his disciples to “build the kingdom.”
*Sidebar: The opinions expressed here are my own (or those of the guest writer); I do not speak for any other person, group or organization; nor do I imply that the opinions expressed here reflect those of any other person, group or organization unless I say so specifically. Before commenting read the entire post and the “Note to commenters” at its end.*
There is something Pelagian about “build the kingdom of God.” It implies that we can bring about the ultimate good on our own or at least that we can cooperate in building it—something that usurps God’s gracious endowment—the gift-nature of every good thing that comes from above.
If I were “the joker,” as I have described that role in an earlier blog post, and if I had the freedom to challenge anything said from the pulpit with impunity, I would begin by asking the preacher (and others) to recognize and acknowledge that the kingdom of God is pure gift and that we cannot build it; only God can do that. But God is more likely to do that among us if we are open to it, pray for it, participate in its coming, receive it.
So what is the church if not the kingdom of God? The church is intended to be the anticipation of the kingdom of God, the outpost of the kingdom of God on earth, the community of the kingdom of God, the place where God’s will is being done on earth as it is in heaven. But it is not itself the kingdom of God. We can, with God’s help, build the church and by that I mean give and serve and strengthen—with God’s help. But the kingdom of God comes among us only from God as we are open to receiving it.
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