March 2, 2015
Scot McKnight, Kingdom Conspiracy: Returning to the Radical Mission of the Local Church. Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2014. x + 289pp. $21.99
The Kingdom of God has captured the attention and imagination of many recent evangelical writers. Even so, nothing resembling a theological consensus concerning the Kingdom has arisen within evangelicalism. Many have pressed for an understanding of the Kingdom that carries a mandate for the amelioration of social ills or the rectification of perceived social inequities. These priorities often curiously align with those of progressive political platforms in western democracies. American Evangelicalism, associated through much of the last third of the twentieth century with conservative political policy, appears to be undergoing a palpable if gradual transformation. Such tectonic movements in the American church only underscore longstanding questions about the relation of the church to the political sphere and to the world at large.
Scot McKnight is sensitive to these dynamics attending recent evangelical reflection on the Kingdom of God. In Kingdom Conspiracy, McKnight proposes a comprehensive way of understanding the Kingdom and its relation to the broader world. If only because McKnight's proposal aligns with neither those on his left nor those on his right, it is a proposal worth consideration. In the first two chapters of Kingdom Conspiracy, McKnight contrasts what he terms "Skinny Jeans Kingdom" with "Pleated Pants Kingdom." "Skinny Jeans Kingdom" refers predominantly to younger, progressive evangelicals who invoke the Kingdom in the name of what is said to be "social justice." This understanding of the Kingdom "means good deeds done by good people (Christian or not) in the public sector for the common good" (p.4). McKnight does not offer as crisp and formal a definition of "Pleated Pants Kingdom," whose advocates include "Bible scholars and theologians and many pastors" (p.9). These proponents see the Kingdom as "both present and future ... both a rule and a realm (over which God governs)" (p.4). In practical terms, this approach conceives the Kingdom practically in terms of "ordinary evangelism," "power evangelism or power deliverances," and "public activism" defined as "culture making, cultural transformation, and cultural influence" (pp. 15, 16).
McKnight pronounces a plague on both these houses. For all their differences, McKnight contends, both understandings of the Kingdom are quite similar. Both effectively subordinate the Kingdom and the church to culture (pp. 8, 18). "Pleated Pants Kingdom" does so by trying to work "from within the system;" "Skinny Jeans Kingdom," "against the system" (p.229). Neither is acceptable because each ends up trimming and distorting what the Bible has to say about the Kingdom. Even so, McKnight argues, both "approaches to kingdom" capture important truths - kingdom is "about a just society" and kingdom requires "redemption under Christ" (p.18). How, then, can these truths be preserved and the errors of each approach avoided?
The remainder of Kingdom Conspiracy is dedicated to advancing what McKnight understands to be the New Testament's teaching about the Kingdom of God. Fundamental to understanding the Kingdom is "story." The Kingdom of God exists within and is the product of an extended biblical narrative. Conventional tellings of this narrative, along the lines of "creation - fall - redemption - consummation," McKnight argues, put too much emphasis on the individual person and not enough on Jesus and the church (p.25). For McKnight, the Kingdom's story emphasizes Jesus' Messianic Kingship. This Kingdom "story" yields a corresponding "mission." People must be "convert[ed] into the story" by "surrender[ing] ... to the ruling of the King" (p.36), and experience "ever-deepening discipleship into the story" (pp.36,37). This mission also entails a confrontation and repudiation of the world's stories (p.60), particularly the "worldview of power" that entices American Christians (pp.60, 62).
McKnight argues that Western Christians conceive the Kingdom too individualistically. In both the Old and New Testaments, God's Kingdom is defined in terms of God's people. This reality means that one may not put the Kingdom and the church in antithesis. On the contrary, "you can't be kingdom people without being church people" (p.79). McKnight, in fact, claims that "there is no kingdom now outside the church" and that "there is no kingdom mission that is not church mission" (pp.87, 96, emphasis original).
What form, then, does Kingdom mission take? For McKnight, Kingdom mission consists of the church being the church - "liv[ing]" together "as a fellowship under King Jesus" (p.99). It is in this respect that McKnight is prepared to speak of the church's existence and mission as political - the church provides "a witness to the world of a new worship, a new law, a new king, a new social order, a new peace, a new justice, a new economics, and a new way of life" (p.101). This "alternative politic" stands in opposition to (American) Christians' attempts to "influenc[e] and improv[e] Caesar or transform culture or us[e] the political process to accomplish their wishes" (p.101). McKnight, however, does not see the church as removed or detached from the world. When the church lives up to what the church is called to be and to do, the church then "mediates the presence of God in this world" (p.100, emphasis original). "Christian public actions are ... the [necessary] 'spillover' of the church's inner workings"
The last portion of Kingdom Conspiracy dwells on the way in which, for McKnight, the church is to be the church. The church's story and mission is, first of all, determined by the story of the crucified Messiah (pp.134-35). The Kingdom's mission is, therefore, "incarnational." Incarnational mission includes "radical hospitality, shared life among cultures, seeking justice for the least, [and] new life in Christ" (p.139, emphasis removed). In committing itself to these practices, the church takes up the call to "gospel [sic] about Jesus," that is, "summon others to surrender themselves to King Jesus as Lord and Savior" (p.142). This call is a call to "redemption" (pp.143-58), draws the called into a "moral fellowship" under "kingdom law" (p.159), and conveys a "hope" that gives present meaning and significance to our endeavors.
Kingdom Conspiracy draws some valuable observations about the Kingdom, particularly as the Kingdom has been understood within contemporary evangelicalism. McKnight raises pointed and salutary criticisms of the transformationalism that pervades much evangelical reflection on the Kingdom. He perceptively observes that what many evangelicals call "culture," the New Testament calls the "world." The apostle John, for instance, characterizes the "world" as "the unredeemed realm of human affairs, a realm into which Jesus is sent and out of which he saves his own" (p.17). In light of this state of affairs, efforts to redeem or transform the world are themselves worldly efforts (p.17).
McKnight no less incisively critiques what he terms liberationist approaches to Kingdom and culture. Endeavors to pursue what is called "social justice" invariably sideline the church and secularize the Kingdom and its mission. They reflect an unwholesome pairing of "liberal progressivism and kingdom" (p.223). They place "the focus of energy [in] the political process" (p.224). No less than transformationalism, liberationism subordinates the Kingdom of God to the priorities and agendas of the world.
McKnight is equally correct to draw a much closer tie between the Kingdom and the church than is often recognized. Even if some of its formulations on this point are given to rhetorical excess, Kingdom Conspiracy's basic point is sound - the New Testament directs us to look for the Kingdom by looking to the church, the people of God under the New Covenant. The expansion and welfare of the church is the way in which the Kingdom flourishes in this age. The work that Christ has tasked the church in the New Testament is one and the same with the work of the Kingdom.
The particular ways in which Kingdom Conspiracy understand the church to be involved in the world, however, raise an area of concern. Indebted to both Stanley Hauerwas and John Howard Yoder, McKnight conceives the church, as a community other than the world, offering an alternate politic that stands against that of the world. McKnight insists that this is not a program for retreat or withdrawal. He argues that Christians should be engaged in the world around them (pp.111-18).
But on what terms should the Christian engage the world in which he finds himself? The Christian's endeavors in this world become "vocation instead of 'just a job' ... when [his] job is swallowed up by the kingdom/church mission" (p.117). What does that process entail? "Only to the degree that a person is pointing others to live under King Jesus, guiding others into the fellowship of the kingdom called church, and encouraging others to follow the moral vision of Jesus is a person doing kingdom work" (p.117).
This particular vision of Christian engagement of the world is not altogether dissimilar to the transformationalism that McKnight elsewhere eschews. While McKnight recognizes that Christians should "do good" in the world (p.111), he stresses that Christians should endeavor to let their "job[s be] swallowed up by the kingdom/church mission" and in this way do "kingdom work" (p.117). In this way, Kingdom Conspiracy pressures Christians to justify their this-worldly endeavors in explicit Kingdom terms. The Scripture teaches, however, that Christians working in a God-approved calling need no further justification for undertaking labor that is pleasing and acceptable to God (see 1 Thess 4:11, 2 Thess 3:11-12, 1 Cor 10:31).
One further problem with this approach is that virtually any activity can become "kingdom work." McKnight commends a Chicago, Ill. congregation that opened and operated a laundromat, "health facilities," a gym, and a "pizza joint" for the wider community. He sees these activities as examples of "church mission" and therefore "kingdom mission" (98). To be sure, these are laudable efforts in themselves and appropriate endeavors for Christians to undertake in their callings. The New Testament, however, affords no warrant for the church in her organized capacity to undertake such works.
How, then, does the New Testament define the church's "kingdom mission"? The Kingdom of God expands through the preaching of the word of God (Mark 4:1-20). Jesus therefore commissions the apostles to preach the Word (Matt 28:18-20; Luke 24:44-49; John 20:21-23; Acts 1:8). Both Acts and the epistles show us a church that is single-mindedly and unswervingly committed to the preaching of the word. Jesus Christ has called the church in her organized capacity to undertake the Kingdom endeavor of proclaiming the gospel.
Therefore, for the gathered church to entangle itself in the breadth of activities for which Kingdom Conspiracy pleads is, in effect, to transgress her royal commission. It is equally to involve herself in matters for which she has no promised competency. These spheres of endeavor are left to Christians, in the context of their callings, to pursue in obedience to their risen King. When the church is faithful to her commission to make known the whole counsel of God, then such Christians will be well equipped to serve the Lord anywhere and everywhere he is pleased to call them. Even if such service is not "kingdom work" in the sense that Kingdom Conspiracy defines that term, when a true believer labors in obedience to Christ's will and for Christ's glory, he may be sure that his labor is pleasing to the King.
McKnight's proposal, therefore, carries with it some significant liabilities. I voice these concerns in the same breath that I heartily reaffirm McKnight's fundamental point. In this age of redemptive history, the Kingdom is most clearly and fully evident in the visible church. The Kingdom carries a mission of its own - one assigned by her King, Jesus Christ. We may be thankful that Kingdom Conspiracy spurs us to think more deliberately, carefully, and biblically about matters that are particularly dear to our Risen King and, therefore, should be dear to each of his willing subjects.
Guy Prentiss Waters is the James M. Baird, Jr. Professor of New Testament at Reformed Theological Seminary, Jackson, Miss. USA