Church and Kingdom: A Thought Experiment
Preparing for the Sixth Sunday after Pentecost: One Day before Sunday (Year C)
Psalter: Psalm 52
Old Testament: Amos 6:1-14
Gospel: Luke 8:4-10
Psalter: Psalm 15
Old Testament: Genesis 14:1-16
Gospel: Luke 8:4-10
O God, you invite us to hold the needs of our sisters and brothers as dear to us as our own needs. Loving our neighbors as ourselves, we offer our thanksgivings and our petitions on behalf of the church and the world. Hear our prayer. Amen.
Cross over to Calneh and see;
from there go to Hamath the great;
then go down to Gath of the Philistines.
Are you better than these kingdoms?
Or is your territory greater than theirterritory,
you who put far away the evil day
and bring near a reign of violence? (Amos 6:2-3).
Then his disciples asked him what this parable meant. He said, “To you it has been given to know the secrets[a] of the kingdom of God, but to others I speak in parables, so that
‘looking they may not perceive
and hearing they may not understand’ (Luke 8:9-10).
Understanding the kingdom of God as God’s dynamic, redemptive reign has profound implications for our understanding of the nature of the church. The relationship of the concepts of the kingdom of God and the church is at the heart of unraveling many of the problems associated with church life today. It is also central to a proper understanding of a missiological ecclesiology—Craig Van Gelder, The Essence of the Church (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2000), 75.
For many years now I have regularly taught the basic theology courses at the graduate level. When I present my material on the church and its relationship to God’s kingdom, I have basically affirmed the accepted theological party line—the church and the kingdom are related, but they are not synonymous; the church is the glimpse, the foretaste of the kingdom.
But over the past few years I have begun to wonder if that related but not the same teaching is in fact true. The more I think about ecclesiology from a missional perspective, the more I am beginning to think that church and kingdom are two different ways of speaking of the same reality. And I am wondering if the related but not synonymous view can be sustained when reading the New Testament. Consider the following (I only mention a few):
1. To speak of the church simply as a glimpse of the kingdom is to place the emphasis on the kingdom’s significance in the future, which is not how Jesus speaks of the kingdom as a present reality. To be sure, there is more to come, but the kingdom is now here, which is why Jesus begins his kingdom parables with the words, “The kingdom of God (heaven) is like...” Indeed, for the writers of the New Testament, the last days have been pulled into the present (cf Acts 2:14-21). What initially triggered my questions on this particular point was reading many treatments of constructive theology in which the primarily present nature of the kingdom was affirmed, but then in dealing with the kingdom’s relationship to the church, the same theologians had to affirm the kingdom as primarily a future reality without even realizing the shift they had made.
2. In Jesus, the kingdom of God has introduced a new missional reality where God’s redemptive work is on behalf of the whole world, which explains Jesus’ ministry to Gentiles and Samaritans. It is that same mission that is realized in the church where there is no Jew or Greek, slave or free, male and female (Galatians 3:28; cf. Colossians 3:11). Moreover, while kingdom language is rare in the Pauline corpus, when it is employed it is used in missiological ecclesiological context (cf. Colossians 1:9-14).
3. In Matthew’s Gospel the word “church” is employed in redemptive imagery as in Matthew’s kingdom language (16:16; 18:17). While Matthew likely puts the word “church” on the lips of Jesus, the key point here is that Jesus’ kingdom teachings on redemption and reconciliation are to be seen and embodied in the community of faith.
4. There is no place in the New Testament where kingdom and church are presented as two things that are essentially different, though one can find plenty of overlap as one analyzes the character of each. Christians are at one and the same time citizens of the kingdom and members of the church. I am having trouble finding evidence that the two are presented as fundamentally different realities.
5. Perhaps the most that can be said in reference to difference is that kingdom is primarily, though not exclusively, the language of the New Testament used in reference to Jesus’ earthly presence and ministry, and church is the terminology employed of the same reality which experiences the risen Christ through the presence of the Holy Spirit, though not exclusively. Thus, if there is a difference it has to do with how Christ is present with his people, but from a missional ecclesiological point of view, the kingdom is the church and the church is the kingdom; and if the kingdom has yet to come in its fulness, then church has not yet arrived at perfection. Are these two ways of expressing the same reality?
If the church is God’s kingdom present on earth, then we are citizens of that kingdom here and now and must embody the character of that kingdom in all things.
PRAYER: We praise your abiding guidance, O God, for you sent us Jesus, our Teacher and Messiah, to model for us the way of love for the whole universe. We offer these prayers of love on behalf of ourselves and our neighbors, on behalf of your creation and our fellow creatures.
An excellent book on church and kingdom is Scot McKnight, Kingdom Conspiracy: Returning to the Radical Mission of the Local Church.