So much recent debate surrounding social justice seems to boil down to fundamental disagreements and misunderstandings about the relationship between the "Kingdom of God" and the "Church." Many have conflated these two biblical concepts so as to lose the clear lines of demarcation regarding the mission of the church and the activities of believers in the world. Others have so pitted them against one another as to bifurcate any necessary correlation. In vol. 5 of his Reformed Dogmatics, Geerhardus Vos made a number of profoundly important points regarding both the distinctness and interconnectedness of these two biblical concepts when he wrote,
"On the one hand, 'kingdom of God' is the narrower, and 'church' the wider concept...On the other hand, the 'kingdom of God' or 'of heaven' is a broader concept than that of the church."1
Concerning his observation about the "Kingdom of God" being a more narrow concept than the "Church," Vos noted,
"While the Church has both a visible and invisible side, and so can often be perceived of an entire nation, the kingdom of God in its various meanings is the invisible spiritual principle. It is the lordship Christ exercises over our souls if we truly belong to Him, our submission to his sovereign authority, our being conformed and joined by living faith to His body with its many members. It is the gathering of these true members and subjects of Christ. It is called the "kingdom of heaven" because it has its center and its future in heaven. All the spiritual benefits of the covenant are linked to it: righteousness, freedom, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit [cf. Rom 14:17]. As such a spiritual entity, it is within man and does not appear with an outward face. Understood in this sense, the kingdom of heaven equals the invisible church, but then in its New Testament particularity, for Christ preached that the kingdom of heaven had come near, namely, through His coming. He is the king, and through His clear self-revelation and through His completed work, the invisible church also receives a new glory that it did not have previously, so that even the least in this kingdom is still greater than John the Baptist [Matt 11:11]."2
With regard to the insistence that the "Kingdom of God" is the broader, and the "Church" the narrower concept, Vos explained,
"The Kingdom of God...is presented to us as leaven that must permeate everything, as a mustard seed that must grow into a tree that with its branches covers all of life. Plainly, such a thing may not be said of the concept 'church.' There are other spheres of life beside that of the church, but from none of those may the kingdom of God be excluded. It has its claim in science, in art, on every terrain. But the church may not lay claim to all that. The external side of the kingdom (the visible church) must not undertake these things; the internal essence of the kingdom, the new existence, must of itself permeate and purify. It is precisely the Roman Catholic error that the church takes everything into itself and must govern everything. Then there appears an ecclesiastical science, an ecclesiastical art, an ecclesiastical politics. There the kingdom of God is identical with the church and has been established on earth in an absolute form. According to us, it is otherwise. The true Christian belongs in the first place to the church, and in it acknowledges Christ as king. But besides that he also acknowledges the lordship of Christ in every other area of life, without thereby committing the error of mixing these things with each other. The Old Testament church-state, which comprehended the entire life of the nation, was a type of this all-encompassing kingdom of God."3
These distinctions lead naturally to certain conclusions concerning the complex interrelatedness of these two spheres of God's rule and reign in His people and in the world. Vos wrote,
"If now one compares the visible church and the kingdom of God viewed from the first side, then one can say that the former is a manifestation and embodiment of the latter.
If one compares the visible church and the kingdom of God viewed from the second side, then one can say that the former is an instrument of the latter.
If one looks to the final outcome, then one must say that the church and kingdom of God will coincide. In heaven there will no longer be a division of life. There the visible and the invisible will coincide perfectly. Meanwhile, for now the kingdom of God must advance through the particular form of the church."4
The complexity of these two concepts necessitates that we give the utmost care to our consideration of both their distinctness and interrelatedness. It is only as we do so that we will profitably enter into conversations about the mission of the church, social justice, mercy ministry, the individual and the corporate, the sacred and the secular, and the myriad of others associated matters about which Christians love to spend inordinate amounts of time debating online. Though a daunting task, in and of itself, it will prove a worthy endeavor sure to yield great benefit to fellow members in the church.
1. Vos, G. (2012-2016). Reformed Dogmatics. (R. B. Gaffin, Ed., A. Godbehere, R. van Ijken, D. van der Kraan, H. Boonstra, J. Pater, A. Janssen, ... K. Batteau, Trans.) (Vol. 5, pp. 8-9). Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.
2. Ibid., vol. 5, p. 8.
3. Ibid., p. 9