KINGDOM CONSPIRACY: Returning to the Radical Mission of the Local Church. By Scot McKnight. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2014. 289 pages.
What does the kingdom of God look like? Is it a heavenly place that those who accept Jesus get to experience when they die? Or is it a matter of pursuing social justice and the common good? What role does the church play in this kingdom? Is the kingdom synonymous with the church, or is it much larger than the church? Is it possible that they have no relationship with each other? These are questions that Christians have been debating for generations. In what looks like a post-Constantinian era (or a post-Theodosian era), the question of whether the kingdom has something to do with the public square becomes even more germane.
The question of how the church fits into the biblical definition of the kingdom has become pertinent because many Christians, as well as non-Christians have begun to wonder whether God has anything to do with the church. Is the church an institution whose time has long since passed and needs to get out of the way, so God can get busy taking care of the created order? Where once it was assumed that outside the church, which controlled access to the sacraments, there was no salvation, many have abandoned that idea, arguing that it is better to be spiritual than religious. So, instead of building the church, we should get out in the world and join in the mission of God.
There are many who advocate abandoning the church in favor of pursuing the kingdom of God, Scot McKnight, an influential Evangelical Bible scholar and blogger, begs to differ. Scot wants to reclaim the kingdom for the church. He bemoans the link made between kingdom work and either personal salvation or social justice. He speaks of two visions of the kingdom – one he compares to pleated pants and the other to skinny jeans. Pleated Pants folks are those who envision the kingdom in heavenly terms. With or without the church, the goal has been to get people saved, so that they might enjoy the kingdom of heaven. This has been a traditional Evangelical perspective, which continues to have adherents. The other group – the skinny jeans crowd – is comprised of younger evangelicals who have adopted a liberationist vision and who equate the kingdom with the common good. The church may or may not have a role to play in this work, but kingdom mission equals social justice. Scot rejects both visions and offers an alternative. While he finds both agendas problematic, since the pleated pants folk largely live in the past, his focus is on the skinny jeans crowd.
Scot’s alternative vision focuses on building the church. This is the kingdom of God – the church. He’s not opposed to doing good, but that isn’t the focus of the kingdom – at least not outside the church. Good works are the spillover of what is happening within the community of faith. Like Stanley Hauerwas and John Howard Yoder, he envisions the creation of an alternative community, which has little use of the public sector. Indeed, he is quite concerned about what he calls the Constantinian Temptation. The way he envisions this temptation, any engagement by the church with the public sector, even attempts to influence the public sector to do good things, goes too far. The government is essentially there for those outside the kingdom – and doesn’t involve Christians. There are roots of this vision among Anabaptists, and Scot counts himself as one (though I have a hard time envisioning an Anglican Anabaptist).
If the church and kingdom are essentially one and the same, and the kingdom mission is focused on building the church, then what about caring for the poor and the exploited? What about the message of the prophets – that God is concerned most about justice, kindness and humility (Micah 6:8)? Scot’s not opposed to helping the poor and the exploited, it’s just not kingdom mission – unless the poor and exploited are part of the church. Therefore, Scot takes a narrow interpretation of Matthew 25. Whereas a growing consensus understands the “least of these” to be the world’s poor, exploited, and marginalized, Scot sees them as the disciples of Jesus. How the disciples are treated determines whether a person welcomes Jesus. As for Jesus’ first sermon in Luke 4, this act of liberation comes as the people (church) becomes Torah observant. That this sermon has any implications for social justice ministry, Scot doesn’t venture an opinion (p. 192).
So what it is the kingdom? Scot has a very tightly argued definition, which he believes reflects how first century Jews would have understood kingdom imagery, and thus would have understood the message of Jesus. For him, the kingdom is “a people ruled by God who appoints Jesus as King” (p. 77). This people is governed by a Law, with the Sermon on the Mount replacing Torah. This people is best described as “Israel expanded” rather than “Israel replaced.” This people also dwells in the Land, which is the church. Since church and kingdom are one and the same, kingdom people are church people. By church, he has in mind not denominations but local congregations.
Scot does believe that there is a “now” and a “not yet” dimension to the kingdom, so the church doesn’t fully embody the kingdom vision – that must wait for the life beyond this one. But, this means there is even more impetus to focus on the church. If the church is to be this alternative community under the rule of Jesus, then the church should focus on getting its act together – by following the Sermon on the Mount. The public sector can’t be the realm of God, because it is not submitted to Jesus and therefore can’t be expected to follow the Sermon on the Mount (the new law). While it is not the role of the church to engage the public sector, individual Christians can show the glory of God through their good works. I sense ambivalence in Scot’s book and in other things he’s written about the Christian engagement (even as individuals) with the public sector. He would not count himself among the backers of big government.
The kingdom, ultimately, is a moral fellowship. It is, to borrow from Hauerwas and Willimon, a “Christian colony.” While Scot resists the label of being sectarian or separatist, there is in his work, as well as in that of Hauerwas, Willimon, and Yoder, a sectarian streak. Since Kingdom mission is redemptive, it must be evangelistic. That is, the mission of the church is to invite the world into the church and thus come under the rule of Jesus, rather than the church going into the world and transforming it – as is often understood by at least some of those who embrace a missional theology.
One of the concerns Scot has, and one that largely separates his vision from that of more progressive mainliners such as me, is a fear that in moving toward social justice, progressive Evangelicals (skinny jeans types) are abandoning the substitutionary atonement. If people are going to enter the kingdom, and thus pass through judgment unharmed, they will have to accept for themselves the redemptive work of Christ on the cross on their behalf. The blessings of the kingdom are first experienced in this life, but carry over into the next. In many ways, I’m not sure that there is all that much difference between Scot’s vision and that of his “pleated pants” group, except that the “pleated pants” group tends to have less use for the church than does he. Of course, most evangelicals have had a diminished ecclesiology and have been as happy to work through parachurch groups as they are through ecclesial communities. And so, I sense that part of his agenda is reining in Evangelicals attracted to parachurch ministries.
The book concludes with fifteen “Kingdom Theses,” which essentially summarize the content in the preceding chapters. With regard to kingdom mission, which he summarizes in thesis fourteen, it is comprised of evangelism, worship, catechesis, fellowship, edification (advocacy), discipleship, and unleashing of spiritual gifts. What is lacking here is any expression of social justice. Though it is possible that by advocacy he means engaging in prophetic witness in the community, but that is never really spelled out in the book.
While I respect Scot, in the end I found his vision of the realm of God too narrow and too confining. While I too share his concern about the church being neglected by many current expressions of the Christian faith, can we limit the work of God to the church? I don’t know if Gandhi does kingdom work, but I do believe that Gandhi understood the message of Jesus better than do many Christians. Indeed, one could compare Gandhi to the Samaritan (a parable that Scot ignores). While I share Scot’s concern about the Constantinian Temptation (appendix 1), is there not a difference between acting in solidarity with the poor and marginalized and seeking the protection of the state for Christian perspectives? That is, calling on the government to provide an adequate social net is different than enshrining Christian understandings of marriage, school prayer, or teaching of creationism in the schools. While the Religious Right argues that America is a Christian nation, few if any progressives argue the same. It would seem to this reader, who lives on the liberal/progressive side of the political spectrum, that Scot has a lot more concern about the progressive trends than that of the Religious Right.
What I appreciate about the book is that Scot lays out a vision of the kingdom that can be a point departure for an important conversation about the nature of the kingdom. While I don’t find his position ultimately convincing -- -indeed, it seems to me that Scot has created a “kingdom grid” that he places on Scripture, picking and choosing texts that support his view – he raises an important point about the role of the church. Since Scot appeals to the Bonhoeffer of Cost of Discipleship and Life Together, perhaps we also need to pay attention to the Bonhoeffer of the Letters and Papers from Prison, where he begins to explore the idea of a “religionless Christianity.” While I would agree that the church can enter into kingdom work, I also believe that the work of God transcends the church. In other words, I’m not sure that the church as we have it is able to fully express the work of God – especially the typical white congregation, whether they be Evangelical, Catholic, or Mainline. They are quite happy sharing potluck dinners, but unless they feel their privileges are being threatened (fewer members to pay the bills) they rarely look outward. So, perhaps we would be wise to listen to the voice emanating out of African American and Hispanic congregations, which continue advocating for justice. I think it’s telling that many middle and upper class Catholics are pushing back against Pope Francis’ call to stand in solidarity with the poor. They are content to focus attention on opposing abortion and gay marriage, while resenting his stepping on their economic toes.
While I struggled with the book, I pushed through to the end. The argument is dense and tightly argued; therefore, it’s not a quick and easy read. I also have concerns about how he portrays Liberation Theology, especially that outlined by Gustavo Gutierrez. While I thought that the conversation about pleated pants and skinny jeans somewhat off-putting (and andocentric), I was especially dismayed at the way he characterized those he opposes in this book. I didn’t think it was helpful to characterize those he dismissively calls “skinny jeans” folk as being "largely a shame-based movement masking a shallow gospel and an inept grasp of what kingdom means in the Bible" (p. 254). While there is much to be ashamed of on the part of White Christianity, I think it does a disservice to speak of liberationist theologians as shame-based, shallow, and inept. Indeed, as I read this I heard the voice of Martin Luther King (who is mentioned only once in the book as if he is of no importance to the conversation), calling out from the Birmingham Jail to moderate white pastors who didn't want to get involved because King was engaged in stuff that lay outside the purview of a good minister. In other words, let’s build the church and hold a nice potluck dinner and ignore the plight of the poor and oppressed in our midst. That doesn’t sound like the kingdom of God to me. That being said, the book does pose important questions about the relationship of church and kingdom.