Levis vs. Dockers. This is a tale of two pairs of pants. Or better yet two kinds of Christians who tend to wear two kinds of pants. In one corner you have the skinny jean wearing, tattoo flaunting, hipster eye-glassed, latte sipping Christians who think that “the Kingdom deeds good deeds done by good people in the public sector for the common good” (4). In other words the Kingdom mission means working for social justice and peace. In the other corner you have the pleated pants crew – the Docker wearing Christians who have focused all of their kingdom theorizing on two questions – “When does the Kingdom arrive?” and “Where is the Kingdom?”
Their answer to these questions is generally “The kingdom is both present and future, and the kingdom is both a rule and a realm over which God governs” (9). We might summarize their position as “kingdom = God’s redemptive rule and power at work in the world.”
In Kingdom Conspiracy: Returning to the Radical Mission of the Local Church Scot McKnight offers an Anabaptist interpretation of what scripture means by Kingdom of God & how that will affect the mission of the church. He concludes that kingdom means “a people governed by a king.” (66) Kingdom does not refer to rule, or a redemptive dynamic, it specifically refers to a people governed by a king. This leads to the surprising conclusion that “kingdom is a people and the church is a people, then it follows that the church people are the kingdom people… there is no kingdom outside of the church.”
This claim goes up against the evangelical consensus which has in general followed George Ladd who claims that:
The Kingdom is primarily the dynamic reign or kingly rule of God, and derivatively the sphere in which the rule is experienced. In biblical idiom, the Kingdom is not identified with its subjects. They are the people of God’s rule who enter it, live in it, and are governed by it. The church is the community of the Kingdom but never the Kingdom itself… the Kingdom is the rule of God; the church is a society of men and women.
The upshot of McKnight’s position is that kingdom mission is church mission, church mission is kingdom mission, and there is no kingdom mission that is not church mission. Or we might say that the criteria for deciding whether something is “mission” or not is whether it forms or enhances local churches. Something is only mission if it is about Jesus. This will certainly ruffle the feathers of the Skinny Jeans crowd.
Kingdom mission is church mission is gospeling about Jesus in the context of a church witness and loving life. Anyone who calls what they are doing “kingdom work” but does not present Jesus to others or summon others to surrender themselves to King Jesus as Lord and Savior is simply not doing kingdom mission or Kingdom work. They are probably doing good work and doing social justice, but until Jesus is made known, it is not kingdom mission. (142)
I believe that this last paragraph is the heart of this book – if its not pointing people to Jesus & if its not carried out by Jesus’ people then its not really kingdom work.
There are so many great things about this book. I love the fact that he makes a case for why all social justice isn’t necessarily kingdom work. I love the fact that he centers mission around the proclamation of King Jesus. I love the fact that he grounds his arguments in thorough readings of scripture. However despite the fact that I agree with his vision for who King Jesus is and what mission is, I can’t buy into what he sees as the implications of the gospel and mission. Before I push back on a bunch of things, let me just say that I ate up this book, I loved McKnight’s heart for the church and for proclaiming Jesus as the one and only king. In fact, I agree with Publisher’s Weekly who said that “This is must reading for church leaders today.” I really believe that this is a book that many people in my own generation, those who are drawn to a Skinny Jeans gospel, need to read. Having said that, here is where I want to push back:
- The Kingdom Story is All Mixed-Up: Most evangelicals hold to a Creation-Fall-Redemption-Consummation story of the bible. Some have ignored some key parts of this story (Abraham, Israel, Exile, etc) but in the last few years we have been improving our understanding of this big picture story. McKnight however suggests a different story. He suggests an A-B-A’ story. The Story goes: Plan A: God rules the world through is elected people but God is the one and only King. Plan B: God accommodates to Israel’s selfish desires and lets David or an Israelite king rule. Plan A’: Plan B failed, Plan A takes on a new form, with God ruling in the God-man Jesus. What is wrong with this Kingdom Story? It makes it seem as though God’s plan failed and he had to come up with a brand new plan. It makes it seem as though Jesus was not the point the whole time, as though Jesus was God’s backup. I just can’t go there.
- McKnight’s Theology of Mission Needs to be Nuanced: McKnight is absolutely right, anyone who calls what they are doing “kingdom work” but does not present Jesus to others or summon others to surrender themselves to King Jesus as Lord and Savior is simply not doing kingdom mission or Kingdom work. However this position needs to be nuanced. He doesn’t do this, so I will try to offer a nuanced position for him ( I think he will agree). Here is my revision of his position: Kingdom work is work that proclaims King Jesus as Lord and Savior. Any work which proclaims the reality of Jesus’ universal reign as King – and is done by kingdom people is kingdom work. We need to remember though that proclamation need not be verbal at all times. Ultimately it will lead to verbal proclamation, but one can testify to the reality that Jesus is king without a verbal proclamation. Practically this means, that a Christian who works for an organization like Living Water International can do kingdom work because her work is done in the name of Jesus and proclaims the fact that under Jesus’ rule it is unthinkable that people would suffer from a lack of clean water. This means that a church who serves their community by opening their doors for recovery programs is doing Kingdom work because it is done in the name of Jesus by Christians. This means that the lone Christian who works in a secular non-profit that does public health education is doing Kingdom work because he is bringing God’s reign to bear (people’s health flourishing) and is doing so in an effort to proclaim “this is what life is like when Jesus reigns,” even though they might not be doing so explicitly with their words on a daily basis.
- The Kingdom is Not the Church: In an effort to make his case that Kingdom = Church he quotes D.A. Carson who says that “In no instance is Kingdom to be identified with church, as if the two words can occasion become tight synonyms. Even when there is a referential overlap, the domain of ‘kingdom’ is reign, and the domain of ‘church’ is people.” I agree with Carson. McKnight believes that one day Christ will reign over all of creation, but right now Christ’s reign is only over the church. Again I have to disagree – for there is no square inch of creation over which Christ does not say “mine.” How is that reign expressed? And to what extent do we experience that reign? That is a question for another place and another day. Nevertheless we can say with Richard Mouw that:
The Kingdom is the broad range of reality over which Christ rules… Kingdom covers all those areas of reality where Christ’s rule is acknowledged by those who work to make that rule visible…The institutional church is certainly an important part of Christ’s kingdom, but the church is only one part of the Kingdom…You don’t have to go into a church to do something related to the kingdom…Wherever followers of Christ are attempting to glorify God in one or another sphere of cultural interaction, they are engaged in kingdom activity.” (Abraham Kuyper: A Short and Person Introduction)
McKnight’s Anabaptist theology will not allow him to buy into this Kuperian-Reformed view of Kingdom and culture. I believe that contrasting Mouw’s/Kuyper’s vision with McKnight’s vision of the Kingdom reveals the core of McKnight’s kingdom theology – ultimately McKnight’s kingdom theology is Anabaptist – it is one in which the Church is radically separate from the world. This means that the church does its own thing and can only stand against culture. The church and its mission cannot begin from within the system. This is exactly what McKnight sees happening with the Skinny Jeans Christians and the Pleated Pants Christians. And according to McKnight this is a big problem. Even though I do have a few problems with this book – I certainly don’t want it to come off as though I don’t recommend this book. I highly recommend this book, I honestly believe that every person in ministry should read it, primarily because it will challenge your assumptions about what “Kingdom” means, and hopefully that will lead you to come to your own conclusions.