Scot McKnight’s Kingdom Conspiracy: Skinny Jeans

KingdomConspiracy2We’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.


Worship leader in skinny jeans

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.


N. T. Wright in pleated pants

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.

Scot writes,

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.)

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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5 Responses to Scot McKnight’s Kingdom Conspiracy: Skinny Jeans

  1. Zach Price says:

    I thought we’re supposed to take care of orphans because that’s what you’re supposed to do as Christians. I’m honestly confused by the distinction here. Isn’t preaching the gospel just another one of those good works that God has prepared for all of us to do along with helping the poor/orphans/widows/etc. ?

  2. Skip says:

    I know lots of skinny jean Christians who take the exact opposite position to what is posited by Scot McKnight. They are radical in the name of Jesus to spread the gospel.

  3. Grace says:

    “Millennials (also known as the Millennial Generation or Generation Y) are the demographic cohort following Generation X. There are no precise dates when the generation starts and ends. Researchers and commentators use birth years ranging from the early 1980s to the early 2000s.

    Authors William Strauss and Neil Howe wrote about the Millennials in Generations: The History of America’s Future, 1584 to 2069, and they released an entire book devoted to them, titled Millennials Rising: The Next Great Generation. Strauss and Howe are “widely credited with naming the Millennials” according to journalist Bruce Horovitz. In 1987, they coined the term “around the time 1982-born children were entering preschool and the media were first identifying their prospective link to the millennial year 2000”. Strauss and Howe use 1982 as the Millennials’ starting birth year and 2004 as the last birth year.

    The phrase Generation Y first appeared in an August 1993 Ad Age editorial to describe teenagers of the day, which they defined as different from Generation X, — then aged 11 or younger as well as the teenagers of the upcoming ten years. Since then, the company has sometimes used 1982 as the starting birth year. In 2012, Ad Age “threw in the towel by conceding that Millennials is a better name than Gen Y,” and by 2014, a past director of data strategy at Ad Age said to NPR “the Generation Y label was a placeholder (name) until we found out more about them.”

    Several alternative names have been proposed by various people: Generation We,Global Generation, Generation Next and the Net Generation. Millennials are sometimes also called Echo Boomers, referring to the generation’s size relative to the Baby Boomer generation and due to the significant increase in birth rates during the 1980s and into the 1990s. In the United States, birth rates peaked in 1990 and a 20th-century trend toward smaller families in developed countries continued.

    Newsweek used the term Generation 9/11 to refer to young people who were between the ages of 10 and 20 years on 11 September 2001. The first reference to “Generation 9/11” was made in the cover story of the 12 November 2001 issue of Newsweek Magazine.

    In May 2013, a Time magazine cover story identified Millennials as those born from 1980 or 1981 to 2000.

    In his book The Lucky Few: Between the Greatest Generation and the Baby Boom, author Elwood Carlson called Millennials the “New Boomers” (born 1983 to 2001), because of the upswing in births after 1983, finishing with the “political and social challenges” that occurred after the terrorist acts of September 11, 2001, and the “persistent economic difficulties” of the time. Generally speaking, Millennials are the children of Baby Boomers or Gen Xers. Older Millennials may have parents that are members of the Silent Generation.

    The Pew Research Center, an American think tank organization, defined “adult Millennials” as those who are 18 to 33 years old, born 1981–1996. According to them, the youngest Millennials are still “in their teens” with “no chronological end point set for them yet”. Another chart by the organization lists the Millennial birth range as 1981–1998.

    A global generational study conducted by PwC (a network of member accounting firms) with the University of Southern California and the London Business School defined Millennials as those born between 1980 and 1995.

    In Australia, a debate occurred regarding the dates for Generation Y; that is, when the generation began and when it ended. Some sources, including the Australian Bureau of Statistics, use 1982–2000. McCrindle Research Center defined Generation Y as those born between 1980–1994.

    According to The Economist, surveys of political attitudes among Millennials in the United Kingdom suggest increasingly liberal attitudes with regard to social and cultural issues, as well as higher overall support for classical liberal economic policies than preceding generations. They are more likely to support same-sex marriage and the legalization of marijuana.

    The Economist parallels this with Millennials in the United States, whose attitudes are more supportive of social liberal policies and same-sex marriage relative to other demographics, though less supportive of abortion than their elders.

    In the United States, Millennials are less likely to practice organized religion than older generations, and are more likely to be skeptical of religious institutions. While the majority of American Millennials are religious, one in three is irreligious, continuing a trend towards irreligion that has been increasing since the 1940s. 29 percent of Americans born between 1983 and 1994 are irreligious, as opposed to 21 percent born between 1963 and 1982, 15 percent born between 1948 and 1962 and only 7 percent born before 1948. A 2005 study looked at 1,385 people aged 18 to 25 and found that more than half of those in the study said that they pray regularly before a meal. One-third said that they discussed religion with friends, attended religious services, and read religious material weekly. Twenty-three percent of those studied did not identify themselves as religious practitioners.

    Over half of Millennials polled in the United Kingdom in 2013 said they had ‘no religion nor attended a place of worship’, other than for a wedding or a funeral. 25% said they ‘believe in a God’, while 19% believed in a ‘spiritual greater power’ and 38% said they did not believe in God nor any other ‘greater spiritual power’. The poll also found 41% thought religion is ‘the cause of evil’ in the world more often than good.”

  4. Dwight says:

    Very good thoughts. “The “kingdom,” therefore, is not the church, but the church is generally part of the kingdom.”
    The people that Jesus spoke to were often referred to as being in the kingdom by thier characteristics in the Sermon on the Mount, but they also had to have faith in God. The saints later reffered to as Christians were in Christ and led by Christ to do things characteristic of Christ, also were in the Kingdom that Christ attained from the Father and will one day return to the Father.
    The example of Jesus was that He did good while doing what he came for and that was to be the Word of God and bring salvation to man. But this confounded His apostles who thought He should be purely leading instead of being of service, healing and feeding people. This was reiterated again in the gospels from the OT, “Mercy is greater than sacrifice.” All in all what Jesus did by dying was mercy in sacrifice for all. He ultimately did good.

  5. Jay Guin says:


    Stick with me. I can’t reach the conclusion all at once. But not all good things are missional things. Not all good things are kingdom things. The kingdom isn’t the sum total of all that is good. If that were the case, then the kingdom existed not only before Jesus, it existed all over the world. And this is a very romantic idea, but it destroys the significance of the cross. If God just wanted good, moral people, he’s have sent us a book on ethics or fables with great morals. But he sent his Son and the Spirit — and called us into mission — which is somehow very different.

    We’ll get there.

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