Which Kingdom is Coming Near?: Contemporary Discussions in Kingdom Theology
Reggie McNeal. Kingdom Come: Why We Must Give Up on our Obsessions with Fixing the Church—and What We Should Do Instead. Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale Momentum, 2015. pp. Paperback. $11.95.
Scot McKnight. Kingdom Conspiracy: Returning to the Radical Mission of the Local Church. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2014. pp. Paperback. $15.16.
“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near” (Matt 4:17). Jesus inaugurates his ministry in Galilee with these words. After Pentecost, Jesus’s followers began preaching and teaching about the kingdom of God throughout the Roman empire. For the early church, the gospel of Jesus was intertwined with the kingdom. But how should we understand the kingdom of God? What does the kingdom mean for us living in the twenty-first century? How do we, individually as Christians and corporately as church, participate in this kingdom?
Typically, responses to these questions fall into two distinct categories. Some see the kingdom as political and social action, working for justice and equity in our world on behalf of the oppressed. Others define the kingdom as the church itself, with its worship, service, activities, and teachings. Two recent books written by Scot McKnight and Reggie McNeal help illustrate these different approaches to the kingdom of God. Although they discuss similar themes—the identity of and participation in the kingdom of God—they come to different missiological conclusions due to their differences in ecclesiology and soteriology.
In his book Kingdom Come, Reggie McNeal contends that the American church has become so enamored with doing church and fixing the church that they have missed out on the kingdom of God. Churches spend the vast majority of their assets (time, money, energy, attention, and people) on what happens during the assembly on Sunday, but they fail to make a difference in the communities that surround them. The church scorecard is measured in terms of “celebrated church activities on church property led by church people for other church people” (McNeal, 3). In McNeal’s eyes, the church has spent so much time trying to get the message right that it has forgotten about mission. That mission is what he wants the church to recover.
At its core, McNeal’s book contends that the kingdom is not synonymous with the church.Jesus did not come to establish the church but to expand the kingdom. The key to this mission is found in John 10:10—“The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.” Evil and sin are anything that destroys or diminishes life, whether from intentional and immediate actions or consequences of actions done long ago. This sin affects our relationships with God, one another, and all of creation. The kingdom is working systematically to restore abundant life to those affected by sin. These efforts can include anything from feeding the hungry to teaching newly released prisoners to raising money for a local charity to creating art and music. Anything that involves “people helping people to experience life as God intends it” is a manifestation of the kingdom of God (McNeal, 41). Jesus’s ministry was characterized by healing the sick, driving out demons, and feeding the hungry; adherents of the kingdom are those who do the same.
McNeal also argues that the kingdom of God is bigger than those who claim allegiance to its king. For McNeal, “whenever and wherever God’s character and will are displayed, the Kingdom is made evident” (McNeal, 25). Any initiative that demonstrates love, mercy, compassion, and justice, among other godly attributes, is a manifestation of the kingdom. Those that participate in these actions, whether believers and followers of Christ or not, are part of the kingdom of God. Those who follow Jesus should look for the initiatives where God is at work and collaborate with those who are doing them, whether or not they claim Christ as their motivation.
McNeal’s desire for the church is a shift from self-orientation to kingdom-orientation. For church-centric thinkers, the church’s practices of worship, sacraments, and teaching are the reason for its existence. But McNeal wants the church to recover its identity as a kingdom of priests sent out to bless the world. As he contends, “The church was created on purpose, for a purpose—to partner with God in his redemptive mission here on earth” (McNeal, 90). Church is more about a way of being in which every aspect of life is an organic and incarnational manifestation of faith (McNeal, 8–9).
For McNeal, this does not mean that the church is irrelevant. Indeed, he directs his book to current church leaders and those who are involved in church but yearning for something more relevant. His overarching desire is for the church to speak and work prophetically in the culture, looking for ways in which God is already at work confronting the effects of sin and partnering with those who are participating in God’s redemptive work. The church must begin to work to transform culture, both the culture in the surrounding community and, more importantly, the culture of the church itself. The priorities of the church must shift from activities that built up the organization to kingdom-focused initiatives.
In his book Kingdom Conspiracy, Scot McKnight calls views of the kingdom like McNeal’s the “skinny jeans kingdom.” According to adherents of this position, “Kingdom means good deeds done by good people (Christian or not) in the public sector for the common good” (McKnight, 8–9). The kingdom, then, boils down to anything done in the world that helps better the human life or experience. The other extreme, according to McKnight, is the “the pleated pants kingdom.” Adherents of this position focus on understanding the nature of the kingdom and the timing of its arrival, specifically through the lens of personal redemption. The kingdom is boiled down to those who are personally “saved” from sin and those who are not. This kingdom is about those who believe and those who do not, and the kingdom only exists as a “not yet” because not everyone believes. For these, the kingdom will only be fully realized at the eschaton (McKnight, 9–13).
McKnight contends that both understandings of kingdom run counter to the biblical concept. When the Bible talks about a “kingdom,” it always has in mind a group of people in a physical place under the rule of a king. Thus, the kingdom of God is where “there is a king (Jesus), a rule (by Jesus as Lord), a people (the church), a land (wherever Jesus’s kingdom people are present), and a law (following Jesus through the power of the Spirit . . .)” (McKnight, 99). For McKnight, the biblical narrative is about more than just creation, fall, redemption, and consummation. Rather, the biblical story describes how God is at work extending his rule throughout time and space through Jesus the Messiah, the Lord and King (McKnight, 23–35).
For McKnight, the kingdom cannot be divorced from the church. Throughout history, God has always chosen to work through a people, regardless of how messy and broken they were (and still are.) The church of today is the group of people who accept the lordship of Jesus Christ, even though it might seem marred and distorted at times. Indeed, McKnight says “the church now is the church gathered in broken leadership, broken fellowship, broken holiness, broken love, broken justice, and broken peace” (McKnight, 94). But the church now is leading toward the “church not yet,” the eschatological realization of all that the church (and the kingdom) are meant to be. There is an integral overlap between the kingdom and the church of today in that “they are the same people governed by the same king living out the same law under the same kingdom redemptive powers” (McKnight, 95–96).
For McKnight, salvation is multidimensional, involving salvation from sin, Satan, and systemic evil. Sin is the “Adamic condition” of rebellion against God, and redemption means a return to right relationship with God through his sacrifice on our behalf. Salvation also rescues us from the dominion of the evil one, which entraps us in death and distortion. Finally, redemption fights against the effects of systemic evil by “principalities and powers,” both demonic and political. The church is made up of individuals who have accepted the redemption of God through the lordship of Christ and practice a cruciform lifestyle of righteousness living and loving service. The church is working to establish redemption through “kingdom community in the here and now,” while realizing that the kingdom can only be partially experienced in the present (McKnight, 157). For the church, this means offering holistic salvation that addresses the spiritual, physical, emotional, and social needs of the world.
For McKnight, the key is recognizing the integral connection between the church and the kingdom. The kingdom does not exist apart from the church, and the mission of the kingdom cannot be realized outside of the participation of the church. While McNeal and other missional church advocates would state that any work that brings “life” is a manifestation of the kingdom, McKnight would not call these expressions of kingdom mission. These benevolent actions are done for the common good, but when they have no impact on the local church nor lead to people accepting the kingship of Christ they are not kingdom endeavors. Indeed, McKnight contends that social activism becomes idolatry when it replaces the church (McKnight, 121–22). But if the church is truly following Jesus as its king, it will engage in a mission of extending justice, equity, peace, and redemption into the world, confronting the effects of sin, Satan, and systemic evil. “Any kingdom mission that does not offer this kind of redemption is not kingdom mission” (McKnight, 158).
While McKnight and McNeal make different assertions through their books in regard to salvation and mission, their desire is the same: they call the church to truly be the church on mission in the world. For McNeal, this means realizing that following God is about more than just what occurs on Sundays. Kingdom participation is not just about showing up on Sundays and “doing church” but is also about participating with God in what he is doing in the world to bring light into darkness. McKnight wants to caution against the millennial mindset that the church is outdated and unimportant, and that kingdom work must often be done outside of the local church. Instead, kingdom work is about building up and edifying the local congregation as it participates in the mission of God.
There are parts of each book that also miss the mark. While McNeal argues that the book is written to help the church be the church, it often feels more like a guide on community activism devoid of the church entirely. His treatment of sin is relatively light, as well, addressing only the ways in which sin “damages life” in social and economic parameters. Anything that enhances beauty or “restores life,” including classical music, are seen as redemptive manifestations of the kingdom. McKnight’s view seems to negate the possibility that God is at work in ways outside of the church. Kingdom mission and advancement is solely the responsibility of the church, yet that is out of step with other biblical examples (e.g., Cyrus being God’s “anointed” to return the people from Exile; the work of the Holy Spirit in the world convicting the world of sin.) The church is called to join God in what he is already doing in the world, which also means participating with others who are engaged in kingdom initiatives. While McKnight reminds us of the primacy of the church, his contention that the kingdom is restricted to the church’s actions is overstated.
Both of these books add to the ongoing conversation about the way in which the church participates in the mission of God to extend his lordship over all of creation. McNeal reminds us that we are not called simply to be “churchy” but to be redeemed people participating actively in redemption. McKnight reminds us that this redemption should not be separated from the life and mission of the church because the church is God’s chosen instrument. When read in conversation with one another, McNeal and McKnight call us to a deeper understanding of the kingdom and the mission of God than we may have considered before.
West University Church of Christ
Houston, TX, USA
1 McNeal makes a point of capitalizing kingdom throughout his book while keeping church lowercase. This is his way of emphasizing what is most important in his missional theology.
2 These shifts includes changes in priorities, vocabulary, leadership, and evaluation. See pp. 134–59.
3 For McKnight, the kingdom and the church are inseparable, but it is also unfair to compare the church today (in its brokenness and imperfection) with the perfection of God’s kingdom. Yet, he argues, the kingdom and the people of God (i.e., the church) are one and the same, and the kingdom is present in the work of God’s people today.