Do you wear skinny jeans or pleated pants?
Kind of a funny question, but those are the metaphors theologian Scot McKnight uses to describe two prevailing and popular views of the Kingdom of God in his book, Kingdom Conspiracy. The first view, skinny jeans, predictably represents a more current approach that frontloads public sector social justice activism, while often times bypassing the church. He writes, “Kingdom means good deeds done by good people (Christian or not) in the public sector for the common good.” (p.4) The second picture is, again predictably, a perspective that is more represented in “traditional” Christianity. He describes this group’s view by saying, “…the Kingdom is both present and future, and the kingdom is both a rule and reign.” (p. 9)
McKnight is not content with either of these views. The thrust of the book juxtaposes these two with, from McKnight’s viewpoint, a more robust theological and holistically biblical approach.
A key element for the book is re-setting a view about the Kingdom from a redemption/salvation aspect to its natural Old Testament view of a “nation” and “Israel.” He writes, “Thus, kingdom is front and center about a people and cannot be limited either to social ethic or a redemptive moment.” (p.205) He contends that a proper view has five elements: a king, a rule of a king, a people the king rules, a law by which the king reveals how to live as one of his people, and a land in which the king rules. McKnight doesn’t give up the “already/not yet” aspect of the Kingdom which captures the best of both perspectives.
Where he arrives and what I think is the strength of the book is connecting this view of the Kingdom to church. There truly has been a shift of perspective related to the church. For many there is the feeling of, Kingdom yes! The church, boo!!! So, the upshot of this is many simply by-passing the church with the idea that if what really matters is the Kingdom, then God really won’t mind if I just do Kingdom stuff and stay away from the church. I mean, come on! They are an embarrassing lot. McKnight will have none of this. And this is where he “lays the lumber” and probably shocks not just a few by saying unapologetically (ready?), “With one sentence, now, I pull the rope taut: there is no kingdom now outside of the church.” (p. 87) WHAT? I could feel my muscles tighten and my theological sensibilities contract as I slowly read. Even though I am a churchman….even though I have given my entire life to leading the church, the statement caught me off guard. I thought to myself, “Really? Did he really mean to write that?” I must admit I made the sound “hmmm!” (or maybe it was “hmmm?”) numerous times while thinking about it. He clarifies that the idea of kingdom in Jesus’ world always meant “…a people governed by a king.” (p. 66) Now, this is at the very heart of the book's effort to reunite Kingdom and Church. He writes, “…If kingdom is a people and the church is a people, then it follows that the church are the kingdom people. The church, then, is what is present and peopled in the realization of the kingdom now.” (p. 87) In other words, if you assert that there is a King there must be a Kingdom, and if there is a Kingdom there must be a people. If that is agreed upon, the question has to be asked regarding the New Testament: who are the people of the King? I suppose there might be some astute interpretive device to wiggle out of that syllogism, but even with a natural reading of the New Testament, the people of the King is the church. Citing Bonhoeffer, it is written: “The church according to Paul’s understanding presents no essential difference from Jesus’ ideas [about the kingdom].” (p. 94) If that is agreed upon, which I do for the most part, McKnight’s assertion that there is an undeniable link formed between Kingdom and the Church cannot be dodged or avoided.
Thinking that would be enough to swallow for one book, McKnight takes it one step further wrapping in the sub-title of the book (Returning to the Radical Mission of the Local Church), by saying, “At the very heart of kingdom mission are kingdom people, the church of King Jesus. In one short expression, then, kingdom mission is first and foremost church mission.” (p.95) He spends an entire chapter laying out what the mission would look like which draws in both redemptive activity and social engagement. It includes evangelism, worship, catechesis, fellowship, edification, discipleship, and through the utilization of spiritual gifts. Sounding very Wrightian, McKnight recaps his viewpoint: “I want now to sum up what kingdom mission is: kingdom mission flows from the kingdom story, and that story focuses on God at work in history as God brings that history to its focal point in Jesus as King. That kingdom story, then, focuses on God as King through King Jesus…kingdom mission forms a kingdom people and that kingdom people in the present world is the church. This means kingdom mission is all about forming and enhancing local churches as expressions of the kingdom of God in the world.” (p.123) A person might potentially disagree with how McKnight arrives at his conclusion, but there is no denying the strength and resolution of his conviction.
- First, know that I did not read this book alone. I read it with two different groups of “skinny jeans” folk (none of them, by the way, appreciated the caricature). One was a group of undergrad theology majors from the university I teach at and the other was a group of mid-twenties theology studies graduates who attend the church I pastor.
- Secondly, let me say that I really like Scot McKnight. As a matter of fact, I believe he is one of the truly helpful theologians that I have read. His books on the Gospel (King Jesus Gospel) and the Atonement (A Community Called Atonement) I felt were spot on and timely works. That said, to a person, everyone I read with felt that McKnight could’ve stayed true to his objective and shortened the book. Each felt like it could’ve been just as powerful as a shorter read.
- Lastly, I felt like Scot did an admirable job pushing people to “deal with” the church. As already stated, as a pastor, I have seen a steady flow of people with an atrophied ecclesiology simply go it outside of the church thinking they are standing on solid theological footing. McKnight boldly dispels this idea. He may have overreached with some of his language of kingdom and church correspondence, but the need to recapture the linkage is both commendable and very much needed.
McKnight closes his book by saying, still absolutely unflinching, “The only place kingdom work is and can be done is in and through the local church when disciples (kingdom citizens, church people) are doing kingdom mission,” and I might add, whether you wear skinny jeans or pleated pants! (p. 208)
Learn more. http://www.kingdomconspiracy.com/