Church and Kingdom: A Review of Kingdom Conspiracy

Like the kingdom but not the church? Then Kingdom Conspiracy might be just the challenge you need. In this new book, Scot McKnight makes the provocative claim that the church is central to the kingdom . . . and if you want the kingdom without the church, then you’ve got a different kingdom than the one Jesus has in mind.

“But the church is messy! Corrupt! Power-hungry! Irrelevant!”

For those hands flying up in protest already, let me say this: I’ve had a growing sense over the years that one of the deepest maladies of the American evangelical church involves the lack of a healthy, robust ecclesiology (doctrine of the church). McKnight goes a long way towards helping us reclaim a good foundation.

So let’s review a few highlights from his book and see if they might resonate.

Skinny Jeans vs. Pleated Pants

McKnight opens contrasting two popular visions of kingdom with a humorous image: skinny jeans vs. pleated pants. The “Skinny Jeans” crowd (which I find more familiar) equates kingdom with acts of justice and mercy, while the “Pleated Pants” crowd equates it with the rule of God resulting in personal salvation.

So the former focuses on pursuing justice in society and celebrating where it is found (as a signpost of God’s kingdom reign on earth as in heaven), while the latter focuses on evangelism and helping people have a personal encounter with God (in the rule of Christ that leads to life transformation).

McKnight offers the following helpful summary of how kingdom language works in each sphere:

  • Skinny Jeans:”Kingdom work, then, is when good people do good deeds in the public sector for the common good.” (7)
  • Pleated Pants: “Kingdom has come to mean God’s redemptive rule and power at work in the world . . . redeeming individuals in Jesus Christ.” (13)

One is social, the other is personal. In both, the church is at best marginal, at worst irrelevant.

Now, while justice in society and personal encounters with Jesus are both good things we should celebrate, the question is this: are they the kingdom? McKnight’s contention is no, both fall short because “the kingdom of God is more than social justice or personal salvation.”

Which leads to our next question: how does the biblical narrative describe kingdom?

The Kingdom Story

McKnight re-frames our understanding of kingdom back into the biblical narrative. In this storyline, humanity is created to co-reign under God and with God, as sub-rulers.” Central to our problem, however, is that we prefer to reign like God rather than with God: we want to extricate ourselves from under this King and rule the earth ourselves.

Adam & Eve are usurpers . . . they want to rule ‘like God’ instead of ruling ‘under God’ . . . The story of sin in the Bible is the story of God’s elect people wanting to be God-like instead of god-ly, of ruling instead of sub-ruling and being ruled. (29)

In Israel’s story, McKnight draws particular attention to 1 Samuel 8, that pivotal moment when the people reject God as king in order to have a human king like “all the other nations.” This is unpacked as a re-enactment of the scene at Eden: “Israel doesn’t want to rule for God in this world but wants to be like the world and rule like God.” (30)

Downstream for Israel, the impact is disaster: corrupt kings, oppression, idolatry . . . and exile.

God’s plan to rule in and through his people, Israel, is apparently thwarted. But the messianic hope looks forward to the Messiah, the coming Davidic king, who will end the exile, re-establish God’s people, and enact the kingdom reign of God in and through his people, as a people (this point is crucial to the book), in the world.

This Messianic King, of course, is Jesus.

Kingdom People

When we come to Jesus’ proclamation that “the kingdom of God has come near,” McKnight challenges our temptation to reduce kingdom to merely justice or salvation, reminding us that for Jesus’ audience the primary associations with kingdom would be “a geopolitical people under a king.” (66) At the forefront of the 1st century Hebrew imagination was David’s kingship in the biblical narrative, the prototype for a king “sub-ruling” under and with God, and the hope in God’s promises for a Davidic messiah who would arrive to inaugurate the kingdom in and through his people.

Kingdom in this biblical narrative involves five central components: “a king, a rule, a people, a land, and a law.” (76) McKnight’s crucial observation here is that there is no presence of the kingdom without a people under the rule of the king. We cannot reduce kingdom to God’s rule, if there is no people under this rule. And in the New Testament, this people under the rule of this King (Jesus) becomes the church.

McKnight is now ready to swing the most provocative blow: “there is no kingdom now without the church.” (87)

This is a challenge to the common tendency to pit kingdom and church against each other (kingdom as the perfect rule of God, church as the screwed up people who sometimes hit but often miss that kingdom target). To address the obvious tensions that arise, McKnight observes that we are often comparing the church now to the kingdom not yet, but that this is an unfair comparison.

Yes, the kingdom is both now and not yet in the biblical narrative, but so is the church. The proper comparison to be made is between the kingdom now with the church now, and the kingdom not yet with the church not yet. And it is here that we begin to see they are nearly identical, inasmuch as the church is that people under the rule of King Jesus. McKnight goes so far as to say,

When we compare present kingdom and present church, or future kingdom and future church, we come out with near-identical identities. This means it is reasonable to say that the kingdom is the church, and the church is the kingdom–that they are the same even if they are not identical. They are the same in that it is the same people under the same King Jesus even if each term–kingdom, church–gives off slightly different suggestions. (206)

The church becomes an alternative society in the midst of the empire that not only bears witness to the kingdom, she herself embodies the presence of the kingdom in the midst of a rebellious world.  This means that “the fundamental mission of the church is to mediate the presence of God in this world.” (100)

The church is not only called to point to the kingdom, but to be the kingdom.

Justice and salvation are obviously integral to this priestly mediation, but the church becomes central rather than marginal to this work of Christ in the world. In the words of Ephesians 1:23, “The church, you see, is not peripheral to the world; the world is peripheral to the church.” (The Message)

In the words of Stanley Hauerwas, the first task of the church is not to fix the world, but rather “to be the church and thus help the world understand itself as world . . . what the world is meant to be as God’s good creation.” (quoted on p.18) This is not anti-world. For the church to embody the love, justice and righteousness of God, this community-embodied witness is “for the sake of the world so the world will become what it is meant to be.” (18)

The church is a colony of the kingdom in the midst of the empire.

Okay, I love this book. Before moving to a few minor reservations, let me just say: if you think the kingdom is simply about enacting justice in the world, or getting people saved, or have ever wondered what in the world the church has to do with the kingdom, then go get this book now. It is a powerful and much needed call for the church to reclaim her identity as the church in the world.

A Few Reservations

I love Kingdom Conspiracy’s overall thrust to reclaim the centrality of the church for our understanding of the kingdom. Within that broad appreciation, I did have a few questions and reservations. Here were three main ones.

God’s Sovereign Rule

First, it seems to me God’s kingdom still carries an important sense as, or at least primary implications for, his cosmic rule that transcends his people. For example, God’s heavenly throne is often depicted as the place from which he reigns over both the nations and the geography of the earth (cf, Psalm 47:8; Isaiah 66:1; Revelation 4). In the words of Psalm 103:19:

God has established his throne in heaven, and his kingdom rules over all.

I suppose we could say these passages emphasize that the nations over which God rules are in rebellion against that rule, and because of this rebellion the earth is in disarray. God’s will is not currently done on earth as in heaven, and so the kingdom is not embodied on the earth over which God rules until a collective people are formed who submit to and are shaped by that rule in their life together as a people.

Yet it seems to me here that God’s sovereignty over the nations can quickly return with the left hand of “rule” what the right hand of “kingdom” has taken away–a Kuyperian call to go forth like Daniels and Josephs, even in the heights of the Babylons and Egypts of the world, to create culture and witness to the sovereign rule of God that brings earthly kings to their knees (cf. Gn 41:39-57; Dn 4:28-37).

True, Joseph and Daniel do not turn Egypt or Babylon into the kingdom–they remain empires structurally grounded in our attempt to rule the earth without God, with bestial impulses perhaps at best restrained rather than redeemed. But God’s kingdom infiltrates through his kingdom citizens in a way that seems more constructively, interactively, and redemptively engaged in the empires of the world than Kingdom Conspiracy’s emphases allow.

In fairness, McKnight advocates strongly for Christians to be proactively engaged in contributing to the flourishing of their communities. He makes a case for such actions being called “good works” rather than “kingdom work,” to delineate a stronger demarcation between such actions and the kingdom as the life of the church. Where he wants to emphasize distinction, I’d prefer to retain a stronger sense of connection between such works and the kingdom.

In short, while McKnight emphasizes the church gathered, I think there is still significant room for the church scattered to reclaim many of the “Skinny Jeans” emphases on cultural transformation and common good as inherently related to the kingdom of God, with disciples as kingdom citizens dispersed into the world with a godly approach to vocation in the public sphere.

McKnight’s work can help us reclaim these vocational identities as crucially rooted in the life of the church as God’s people, with Word and Sacrament and all that this entails.

Church/State Relations

This leads to my second reservation: while I understand and share McKnight’s concerns over a “politicized” Christianity, I am more optimistic about the possibilities of constructive relationship between church and state. In Portland, we’ve built constructive partnerships as a local church body with the mayor’s office, the foster care system, the police department, our public schools, and more. These state agencies help us serve and contribute to the flourishing of our city in strategic ways that are more meaningfully engaged than we could determine on our own in isolation.

I think it would be presumptuous of us to think we do not need the leadership, discernment, and expertise they bring in a primary sense to our partnerships in these areas. Rather, we seek to honor and rely on them, and I would not see our role as thus reduced to merely “running errands for the world.” (18, quoting Hauerwas) In short, I want to retain a stronger positive framework for the constructive role of the state and its possibilities, and the positive potential for church/state relations.

True, for these church/state relationships to be healthy, we must first know who we are as a church–having a strong church identity rooted in Christ that precedes these relationships. But I believe we can, from a robust and healthy ecclesiology, enter constructively into such partnerships.

And I would not want to divorce these partnerships from kingdom mission–they are ways in which we witness, as a people, to the loving rule of God for his world.

Constantine and Yoder

Finally, related to the above two concerns, I have reservations about the use of the word “Constantinian” to dismiss constructive patterns of church/state relations. McKnight’s is an Anabaptist vision, drawing significantly on the ecclessiology of theological giants Yoder and Hauerwas. I’m grateful for the way Yoder and Hauerwas remind us, when the church gets too cozy with the state, that the church’s first allegiance is to Jesus and our first task is simply to be the church.

Amen. I am in full agreement.

Yet often the Anabaptist vision, in my estimation, leaves no positive role for the state, and any constructive relationship attempted between the church and the state is too quickly dismissed as “Constantinian”: a dilution, corruption or distraction from what the church is intended to be.

I find myself more Reformed in my ecclesiology, with a framework for church/state relations heavily inspired by (Anglican) Oliver O’Donovan, who argues for a strong appreciation of the medieval political tradition. Even if this dominant tradition of the Church’s history, nuanced and multi-faceted as it is, must be critically discerned and contextualized for today, it is too easily and quickly dismissed with the word “Constantinian.” I am in agreement with N.T. Wright’s assessment,

Too many people, for far too long, have been able to murmur the awful word Constantine, knowing that the shudder it produces will absolve them from the need to think through how the church and the powers of the world actually relate, let alone construct a historical or theological argument on the subject.

McKnight does not succumb to this temptation, he thinks provocatively and powerfully through these relations. He helpfully clarifies, as does Yoder, that “Constantinianism” is more about the idea than the person, and is not dependent upon the actual history, aims or intentions of Constantine himself and the controversial events surrounding his reign. But I find Peter Leithart powerfully convincing when he argues, in his important study Defending Constantine, that Yoder’s historiography and theology are not so easily separated as the distinction would suggest. They are integrally intertwined on the “Constantinian” question, and Yoder’s flawed historiography gives rise to a problematic theology in these areas.

I would have loved to see Kingdom Conspiracy interact with O’Donovan (on the church/state question) and Leithart (on the Constantinian question). This is not a fault of McKnight’s though, so much as a selfish wish from my great respect for all three thinkers. McKnight does give a strong and solid engagement with a vast array of other major historical thinkers in this arena (such as Kuyper, Niebuhr, Moltmann, Gutierrez and more) towards the end of the book.

These reservations are simply an attempt to interact with the work (a work worthy of interaction with!) on some of its sub-points, and should not be seen as a detraction in any way from the broader thrust of the book–which is a much needed counter-corrective to the state of the church in its understanding of kingdom today.

Conclusion

Go get this book! It is an important and significant resource for the church today (particularly the American evangelical church) to recenter her understanding of kingdom around her own Christ-given identity as the community of the King. McKnight makes a strong, clear, popularly accessible case that confronts significant challenges today head-on: particularly our polarizing tendencies to reduce God’s kingdom to either social justice or personal salvation, and to marginalize the church as the people of God in the process.

I was challenged to see afresh the way church and kingdom relate, and shocked to find them much closer in relation (even identical in important ways) than is often assumed. As a matter of fact, the topic is significant enough that over the next few weeks I plan to write a few posts reflecting on Kingdom Conspiracy’s application in my own pastoral context today.

Author: "The Skeletons in God's Closet." Pastor: Imago Dei Community. Husband, Father, Foster Parent.

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