What is the relationship between the kingdom of God and the church?
If you’re interested in kingdom topics, you will know this one generates considerable debate. We’re in Genesis where there is no direct reference to the church. Nevertheless, if you miss the significance of the early chapters of Genesis, it can undermine how you read the rest of Scripture.
Scot McKnight is one of the scholars pursuing the topic of the kingdom. He is Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL. He has authored 50+ books, including The King Jesus Gospel: The Original Good News Revisited (Zondervan, 2010) — worth a read.
I therefore had high hopes of Scot’s Kingdom Conspiracy: Returning to the Radical Mission of the Local Church. (Brazos, 2014). Unfortunately, he largely misrepresents the kingdom in this book.
What Scot McKnight set out to do was to redirect the “Pleated Pants” people (conservative Evangelicals focused on soteriology) and the “Skinny Jeans” people (millennial activists focused on social justice) so they both understand the kingdom as the church. That’s right: Scot equates the kingdom and the church. He acknowledges this is a minority view (page 85), but he wants us to believe the kingdom of God and the church are the same thing (page 87, emphasis original):
With one sentence, now, I pull the rope taut: there is no kingdom now outside the church.
How does Scot reach this conclusion? His argument goes something like this:
- Israel was the kingdom of God in Old Testament times.
- Israel was expanded to include the Gentiles in New Testament times.
- This expanded Israel is the church.
- Therefore the church is what Israel was, i.e. the kingdom.
The trouble with this argument is that it starts off on the wrong foot. Israel was not the whole kingdom of God in Old Testament times: it was only a representative kingdom, to show the nations what they were missing (i.e. the blessing of YHWH’s rule). The first and most foundational covenant our sovereign made was not the Mount Sinai covenant—the one that established Israel as a kingdom under God’s rule. That covenant only made Israel a representative of the sovereign who rules the whole earth:
Exodus 19:5–6 (NIV)
Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.
The first covenant was not the promise to Abraham either (Genesis 15, 17). The first covenant was with Noah and his sons and their offspring (Genesis 9:8-9), i.e. all the nations (Genesis 10). In this covenant, our sovereign committed himself to never give up on his responsibility for his creatures, and to never be so hard on us again, no matter how difficult we were to govern. The Noah covenant formally recognizes the whole earth is God’s kingdom, including all its people and creatures, even those who resist God’s rule.
Israel was not the kingdom of God: it was only a kingdom—a representative kingdom to bring the nations back under the blessing of YHWH’s rule where they belonged. Only if you miss the significance of the Noah covenant and the first eleven chapters of Genesis could you make the mistake of imagining that the kingdom of God was limited to Israel in Old Testament times, and therefore make the mistake of limiting the kingdom of God to the church in New Testament times.
There are plenty of other affirmations in the OT that Israel is only representing God among the nations and is not the total extent of his reign, e.g. Psa 22:28; 47:8. If the prophet Jonah had read Scot’s book, he would have been amazed to learn that YHWH’s kingly authority was limited to Israel and did not extend to Nineveh (capital of Assyria). If Isaiah had read Scot’s book, he would have been astounded to learn that Cyrus the Persian could not possibly have been YHWH’s anointed representative because YHWH’s kingdom did not extend to Persia. If Daniel had read Scot’s book he would have had to change what he told Nebuchadnezzar about the Most High ruling over the kingdom of men and giving authority to whomever he chooses (Dan 4:17, 25).
The kingdom of God was always bigger than Israel, even though Israel had a crucial role to play in the kingdom story. In the same way, the kingdom of God is always bigger than the church, even though the church has a crucial role to play in the kingdom story. It will not do to equate the kingdom with the church, and then claim that “there is no kingdom mission that is not church mission” (Kingdom Conspiracy, 96).
Despite Scot’s diminished view of the kingdom, it becomes clear by the end of the book that he does have a valid and important concern. One of the dangers God’s people face is collusion with the powers that currently run the world, in solutions that are ungodly. One of the examples he provides is the way some of the proponents of “liberation theology” took up guns to fight for the violent overthrow of oppressive regimes. By using the weapons of evil against evil, they colluded with evil so that good would result. They effectively became pawns in a fight that replaced one human government with another—not with the kingdom of God. It’s a trap Christians have faced since the days of Constantine:
Ironically, in calling social agitation for Christian values in the public sector “kingdom work,” the Christian joins hands with Constantinianism itself, for it equates “kingdom” with “state.” Winning in the Christian influence theory is getting the state to back up the Christian voice. Do we see what this means? It means we give the final authority to the state.
— Kingdom Conspiracy, 217 (emphasis original)
This is not only a valid criticism: it is an important warning for the church. Jesus faced this temptation, and warned his disciples that peace can never come from war, that justice can never come through the methods of evil.
The state can never provide the long-term answers to resolve what’s wrong with humanity. Jesus alone can do that. But don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater: God rules the entire earth, and he can and does use Nebuchadnezzar, Cyrus and others for his purposes. Restricting the domain of the kingdom of God to only the church misses the majesty of our sovereign and the scope of his authority.
No, Scot: there is no “kingdom conspiracy” to make the kingdom larger than the church. God’s kingdom is and always was larger than those who acknowledge the king’s business. God reigns over all: he has covenanted himself to never give up his kingship over all people, all creatures, his whole world. He loves to partner with the people who acknowledge him, but his kingdom extends well beyond the church.
What others are saying
Michael F. Bird, Evangelical Theology: A Biblical and Systematic Introduction (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2013), 712:
In light of that, I propose six theses on church and kingdom:
- The kingdom creates the messianic community, the church, the priesthood of believers, who bear God’s Spirit and know God’s salvation.
- The church is not the kingdom, but it is the embassy for the kingdom on earth; it mediates allegiance to God.
- The church is a witness to the kingdom by announcing the gospel of the kingdom.
- The church, in public engagement, is a window into the life, hope, joy, and peace that the kingdom will finally bring.
- The church builds toward the kingdom by projecting God’s reign through the healing and restoration of peoples, steeples, places, spaces, and structures toward their divinely intended purpose.
- It is the basileia coming through the ecclesia that will lead the redeemed people of God in the new creation to sing alleluia.
Tom Wright, Simply Christian (London: SPCK, 2006), 193:
To work for a healing, restorative justice, whether in individual relationships or in international relations, or anywhere in between, is therefore a primary Christian calling.