Thursday, October 6, 2011

Kings and Kingdoms

Scott McKnight has an article about how misused the word "kingdom" is in modern Christianity. He has a point.
One of my college students told me her sister was not working in the Church but was doing “Kingdom” work and “justice” work at a social service. Another student explained to me she was joining hands with a local inter-faith group to further peace. She called it “Kingdom” work and added, “It has nothing to do with the Church.” There’s a common theme here: the “Kingdom” is bigger and better than the “Church.”
So people talk about kingdom work because they want to avoid talking about church. You can see why. The protestants concept of church is a mess. People want to unite with other Christians to serve God but they no longer see any church as a good vehicle for doing that.
The word “kingdom” comes from Jesus, and so to Him and His Jewish world we must go. It was impossible in Jesus’ world to say “kingdom” and not think “king.” Either the word “king” referred to Caesar, the empire-building, worship-me-or-die emperor of Rome, or it referred to Israel’s hoped-for King, the Messiah. When Jesus said Kingdom, He meant the Messiah is the one true King and Caesar is not.
 This is important. The concept of kingdom has lost some meaning today. Certainly Israel would think of Caesar and they would think of the ultimate King promised by God someday. But there would be others. King Herod was there. King David was big in their thinking. So the Messiah as the one true King would be seen in the light of those kings. A wise and kind ruler that could keep order and foster prosperity. A brave warrior who could lead them into battle when enemies attacked. Someone who would not abuse the power of taxation and arrest.
Furthermore, a first-century Jew couldn’t say “Kingdom” or “King” without also thinking of “Kingdom people” (or citizen-followers of the Messiah). The most unusual of people were Jesus’ Kingdom people—sinners, tax collectors, fishermen, hookers, demonized women and ordinary, poor Galileans.
I don't think this is true at all. A king was not someone who asked you if you wanted to be part of his kingdom. Everyone has to be part of it. There was no concept of kingdom people and non-kingdom people. If you opposed the king you were a traitor and would be executed. But there was a matter of who has the king's ear. Who would he listen to and often what favors has to be done to get the king to do what you want. Jesus was different because He was not at all self interested. Kings of that day were always interested in those who had money or influence. Jesus wanted broken spirits and contrite hearts.
There’s a third element about what Kingdom means for Jesus. Kingdoms only work well when they have a constitution. The Jews of Jesus’ day called it “Torah.” Jesus swallowed up Israel’s Torah into His Kingdom vision—and it broke loose one day when He was teaching His disciples. We call it the Sermon on the Mount. This is the Torah for followers of King Jesus. 
Again this seems strange to me. The Torah was not associated with the king. It was associated with the priests and the teachers of the law. Sure a kingdom needs rule and it needs structure. But the sermon on the mount was about personal morality and not about community action. The king's role was more about appointing magistrates than it was about writing law. There might be some laws a king would proclaim but most laws were already there. It was a matter of it being applied fairly.

A kingdom without a magisterial structure was just unthinkable. It still is. Every government has one. Every church has one. Every company has one. To say that Jesus established a kingdom but did not establish a hierarchy for governing that kingdom is to really confuse matters. In fact, that is the root cause of all the misuse of the word "kingdom" among Christians today. It is all over the gospels. Jesus mentions it more often than any other concept. But in protestant thinking Jesus never left us anything remotely resembling a kingdom. So of course the word is misused because using it properly would make Jesus' statements into nonsense. Or they would be Catholic. Either they refer to nothing at all or they refer to the Catholic church as one visible organization that is charged with governing all Christians.

Who in Jesus' day would say they were loyal subject of Caesar and yet openly disobey Pilate? It would make no sense. Being loyal to Caesar was the same thing as being subject to his local magistrates. It did not mean you only had to listen to Caesar if he got on a boat and personally came down from Rome and gave you an order. That is not the way kingdom's worked. So why should the kingdom of Jesus work any different? Why should my acceptance of Jesus as king not imply I obey the local officials of His kingdom? How else is the kingdom supposed to work?
The biggest problem with the Church for many is that the people they know who go there don’t follow Jesus. Which is the exact reason why so many today want to disconnect Kingdom from Church: Too often a church looks like anything but the Kingdom because too many so-called Kingdom people don’t follow Jesus!
But the kingdom of God is supposed to have wheat and tares. It will always have people who don't follow Jesus or follow Him so differently that I don't recognize them as followers. That is not a problem with the church. It is a feature. We can't fix it. God won't fix it. So church has to work anyway.
Christians need to sit down with the gospels, read them and compare the themes of Jesus’ Kingdom vision with the themes of many local churches.
This is a nice thing to do. It won't fix the problem. Never has. Personal renewal does not fix a church. It is a good thing but it is actually more likely to make the differences greater and more intense. It will also make it more important that you get Jesus' kingdom vision right. I think Scott McKnight has gotten it quite wrong. I think many people will get it quite wrong from just sitting down with the gospels. More is required.
I wish we would all dig in all over again and construct new foundations for a Kingdom vision of the Church. A church embodies  themes like love, justice, peace and wisdom. The Kingdom church will not only talk about such themes, but will be a society marked by a Gospel justice, a Gospel peace and a Gospel wisdom. It will be a people who eat together, love one another and who see the needs in the world around them and do something about those needs. According to Jesus, a local church is designed to be a local fellowship of Kingdom people who love and follow King Jesus.
What makes him think we can construct new foundations that are better than the foundation laid by Christ?(1 Cor 3:11) He keeps coming back to eating together. As a Catholic I immediately think of the Eucharist. Maybe going to a church with a valid Eucharist would be a good place to start.

I wonder what text he is thinking of for the last sentence. Jesus only used the word "church" twice in the gospels. Mat 16:18 and Mat 18:17. Don't see it there.
Instead of choosing either the Church or the Kingdom, Christians are called to see church as a living manifestation of the Kingdom.
 This is so true. Making the Kingdom invisible and subjective really robs it of it's power. But the same is true of the one, holy, catholic, and  apostolic church. It needs to be visible and objective. As a protestant I pretended that my denomination was the living manifestation of that. I knew it wasn't but my I needed to pretend it was for my faith to work. As a Catholic I could stop pretending.


  1. Hi Randy,

    Random question: there was an article that was titled something like "Salvation and the Trinity" that I posted on your blog at one time, but now I cannot find it. It was about how Protestants saw Justification as not connected directly with the Trinity (since they believed in imputation) while Catholics saw Justification as all about being united to the Trinity.

  2. Never mind, I found it:

  3. Thanks for reminding me of that Nick. It is an interesting angle on justification. Not sure how convincing it would be to protestants. As a protestant I did see the trinity as a sort of "So what?" doctrine. It felt wrong but it would not have been enough motive to question other doctrines I considered settled.