We’re discussing Scot McKnight’s latest book Kingdom Conspiracy: Returning to the Radical Mission of the Local Church.
In the last post, we considered the various Millennial theories. In contemporary evangelical discussions, however, the idea of “kingdom” has been discussed in very different terms.
In a metaphor that will surely catch on, Scot distinguishes between the views of “skinny jeans” Christians” and “pleated pants” Christians.
It’s not that your point of view depends on your weight, but if you sit in a conference room in which a ministerial staff is debating these things, you’ll often be able to predict the positions taken by the participants by their clothing choices. The same is true in academia, I’m sure.
The Skinny Jeans point of view is that the kingdom exists wherever good is done by anyone. The kingdom is social justice. The kingdom is the world becoming a better place.
In the Skinny Jeans approach, it’s not essential that the good work be done overtly in the name of Jesus. Indeed, by separating evangelism from good works, we make the good works more selfless, more authentic, and so demonstrate a purer sort of love.
The “kingdom,” therefore, is not the church, but the church is generally part of the kingdom. Hence, we can do “kingdom work” through parachurch organizations or even secular organizations. If I volunteer to clean trash out of a creek as part of the Sierra Club, it’s still kingdom work because good is being done. The earth is being, bit by bit, redeemed.
A missionary wrote this to me recently: “Religious work in Africa is very interesting. Almost no missionaries are doing Bible teaching, evangelism, discipleship, or church planting. We’re all doing orphanages or trade schools or working with the deaf or HIV/ AIDS education, etc. I’m puzzled as to why that is our reality.” He didn’t say it, but I suspect that those missionaries who are “doing” those good deeds think they are doing “kingdom work.”
(p. 3). Now, it’s not as though the Bible says nothing about social justice. In fact, social justice is a major element of the scriptural narrative:
One thinks of the marvelous concern for the poor in Deuteronomy; of the prophetic critique of exploitation, which is always a moral concern and never a theoretical economic theory and system; 9 of the relentlessly piercing words and practices of Jesus; and of the overall impact of a vision of justice and peace in the future kingdom.
In Western liberal democracies — where rights are assumed and protected or, when they are not, someone is at work to grant them — we are in constant need of reminding ourselves of the simplest narrative at work in the Bible: an oppressed and enslaved people, the children of Israel, were liberated through Passover from their oppressors (Egypt) and led by the hand of God through a desert and through water into the land where they were given instructions by God on how to live as a nation.
Put baldly, this is a political narrative — a narrative of God granting an entire nation political freedom. Should that liberation narrative not shape how we work for the “common good”? Of course it should.
(pp. 4-5) (paragraphing added here and throughout this series to facilitate reading on the Internet).
On the other hand, when we separate social justice from the gospel, we have a problem.
First, this gauzy definition of one of the Bible’s strongest words is not what “kingdom” ever means in the Bible; the Bible never calls working for the common good “kingdom work.”
Second, this word’s meaning matters because its meaning shapes what happens when we do kingdom “work” or kingdom “mission.”
I’ll add a third: when people do kingdom “work” in accordance with this understanding of kingdom, they fail to do kingdom “mission.”
Sorry, but I have to add a fourth: there is a profound irony in how this crowd uses the term “kingdom.” Statisticians are all telling us that Millennials are leaving the church, and it is usually observed that they are leaving the church because it has become too political. Agree?
If you agree, listen to this: Millennials, who are shaping the Skinny Jeans vision of kingdom, have turned the kingdom message of Jesus into a politically shaped message. Perhaps we should ask if they are leaving churches not so much because the message is too political but because the politics are too conservative.
(p. 5). I can get into this. It sounds like Alexander Campbell’s famous teaching,
We choose to speak of Bible things by Bible words, because we are always suspicious that if the word is not in the Bible, the idea which it represents is not there; and always confident that the things taught by God are better taught in the words and under the names which the Holy Spirit has chosen and appropriated than in the words which man’s wisdom teaches.
(This is, of course, not an absolute truth. “Trinity” is not a scriptural word, but it stands for a profoundly scriptural idea. Then again, I’m also confident that God did not intend for us to divide, subdivide, and anathematize over subtle questions of Trinitarian metaphysics.)
We should be particularly cautious when we must invent a new vocabulary to discuss what we imagine to be scriptural concepts. The use of scriptural language for scriptural ideas helps not only the speaker but also his listeners connect the teaching to the Bible. When we get away from that, we make it easy for worldly philosophies to creep in.
When authors make their points from other authors (which is okay) but don’t also demonstrate their teaching from the scriptures (not okay), we are in danger of disconnecting ourselves from the scriptures and so from the Author of the scriptures. (And, yes, I’ll be citing plenty of scriptures before we’re done.)