We’re discussing Scot McKnight’s latest book Kingdom Conspiracy: Returning to the Radical Mission of the Local Church.
This is going to be an unusually long post. I decided not to break it into pieces — and so I’ll skip the next day or two to give the readers time to read, reflect, comment, and discuss.
There is much more in the book that I will not cover. But I’ve covered what I consider the core theses.
So what is the problem that Scot wishes to solve? What’s the point of the book? Well, from my own perspective, I see it like this —
1. Among our younger ministers and members, I have noticed a definite tendency to emphasize good works — what we used to call “benevolence” — at the expense of evangelism. Teen ministers haul their kids halfway around the globe to paint houses and plant gardens, but spend not a single minute teaching their kids how to be evangelistic.
Now, I’ve long taught the absolute necessity for the church to be engaged in good works — to care for the poor, to protect the fatherless, to be hospitable to the stranger and alien. I’ve taught these things for many years and have no regrets and no intention to change.
But we err — and err seriously — when we imagine that good works can substitute for evangelism. Indeed, when we do that, we secularize the church because no longer do we preach Jesus to the lost. Rather, we teach human generosity to the poor — which is a good and necessary thing but not nearly as good or necessary as Jesus.
2. While I entirely agree with the recent “missional” emphasis on serving the poor, we’ve sometimes so secularized their needs that we imagine the government and other non-Christian organizations might provide a sufficient solution.
As a result, we tend to seek political solutions for spiritual problems. But if the government could cure poverty and broken homes and the needs of immigrants, well, those problems would be cured already. Electing the right candidate or getting the right party in power will not solve any of this. After all, both parties have had more than ample opportunities and both have failed — because you cannot heal spiritual diseases with secular solutions.
3. Think about it. Why are so many immigrants flocking to the US for jobs? Because they live in nominally Christian nations that are so corrupt they can’t dig themselves out of poverty despite being desperately willing to work.
Other than Jesus Christ, what is the solution for a nation eaten up with corruption? It’s not new legislation from Congress. And it’s not executive orders from the White House. It’s the transformation that comes from faith in Jesus and receipt of the indwelling Spirit. Period.
4. I’ve often been struck by Stanley Hauerwas’ comments on the US attack on Libya during the Reagan administration.
Sometime ago, when the United States bombed military and civilian targets in Libya, a debate raged concerning the morality of that act. One of us witnessed an informal gathering of students who argued the morality of the bombing of Libya. Some thought it was immoral, others thought it was moral. At one point in the argument, one of the students turned and said, “Well, preacher, what do you think?”
I said that, as a Christian, I could never support bombing, particularly bombing of civilians, as an ethical act. “That’s just what we expected you to say,” said another. “That’s typical of you Christians. Always on the high moral ground, aren’t you? You get so upset when a terrorist guns down a little girl in an airport, but when President Reagan tries to set things right, you get indignant when a few Libyans get hurt.”
The assumption seems to be that there are only two political options: Either conservative support of the administration, or liberal condemnation of the administration followed by efforts to let the U.N. handle it.
“You know, you have a point,” I said. “What would be a Christian response to this?” Then I answered, right off the top of my head, “A Christian response might be that tomorrow morning The United Methodist Church announces that it is sending a thousand missionaries to Libya. We have discovered that it is fertile field for the gospel. We know how to send missionaries. Here is at least a traditional Christian response.”
“You can’t do that,” said my adversary. “Why?” I asked. “You tell me why.”
“Because it’s illegal to travel in Libya. President Reagan will not give you a visa to go there.”
“No! That’s not right,” I said. “I’ll admit that we can’t go to Libya, but not because of President Reagan. We can’t go there because we no longer have a church that produces people who can do something this bold. But we once did.”
We would like a church that again asserts that God, not nations, rules the world, that the boundaries of God’s kingdom transcend those of Caesar, and that the main political task of the church is the formation of people who see clearly the cost of discipleship and are willing to pay the price.
Stanley Hauerwas and William H. Williamson, Resident Aliens: Life in the Christian Colony pp. 47-48.
So it’s been a long time since Reagan. How well has fighting wars against the Islamic nations worked out for us? Who here believes that 50 years from now the US military will have successfully resolved the problems in the Islamic world?
On the other hand, there is a long history of Christian missionaries changing entire nations. After all, the church began with 3,000 members in Jerusalem. All else has been mission work. And Christianity very nearly obliterated paganism from Europe and large portions of Asia and Africa by 1000 AD. But the missionary impulse died for the better part of the next millennium — until the 18th Century.
The gospel is mightier than the sword. And we’re not going to convert the world for Jesus until we’re willing to preach Jesus.
On the other hand, no one will believe that they are loved by Jesus unless his people demonstrate his love in real and practical ways in the name of Jesus. Good works are only truly missional and only truly kingdom works when done in a manner that brings honor to Jesus.
Bringing honor to our nation or to ourselves or to our theological theories does not save the lost. But digging a well in the name of Jesus can.
5. We’ve long seen this trend toward good works in lieu of evangelism in the Mainline churches. You’ll have no problem persuading a Mainline congregation to buy a goat for an impoverished African family, but you’ll find it very difficult to find someone willing to take the goat to the family so he can preach Jesus at the same time. And the Mainline denominations are dying. After all, the American worldview of tolerance and acceptance disallows any notion that Jesus is absolutely essential to salvation — or even to an abundant life.
6. On the other hand, in evangelicalism, we often see the opposite — an emphasis on evangelism at the expense of good works. Some churches will send a thousand missionaries to the lost but refuse to help the poor in their own neighborhoods.
We’d rather build gyms and coffee shops and sanctuaries than care for the poor in our own neighborhoods. This is also a great sin because it reveals a lack of compassion.
7. In fact, one false assumption that crops up in these discussions is that the “poor” exist only outside of our congregations, and so when we talk about helping the “poor,” we are talking about helping the lost. Therefore, if we prefer service to Christians over service to the lost, we are no longer talking about helping the poor. Because we aren’t poor. (But there are lots of poor Christians in your hometown. You just don’t attend church with them.)
In fact, it does seem contradictory to push evangelism and good works in the name of Jesus for the benefit of the lost while also insisting that we help our own first. But it’s not.
You see, we American Christians — the ones who read blogs and evangelical literature — are in fact well to do, and we tend to attend churches that are fill with the well to do. We never associate with actual poor Christians because they attend different congregations. And this is very wrong.
So let’s begin by reminding ourselves that there are many, many poor Christians — who are poor for reasons that have nothing to do with laziness or being spendthrifts. And they are our brothers and sisters.
The command is —
(Joh 13:34-35 ESV) 34 “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. 35 By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
“One another” means “other disciples” not “everyone.” Which bothers us, because it seems somehow selfish to care for our own first (not only, but first). But that assumes that the poor within the church somehow are less deserving of our charity than the poor of the world. And that’s an unsustainable claim.
(1Ti 5:8 ESV) But if anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.
Paul insists that Christians must care, first, for their own families. We can’t let our physical children and parents and siblings become burdens on the church (or the government) if we can help them out ourselves. Is Paul uncaring toward the lost by taking this position?
And if this is true of our earthly families, then surely the same is true of our spiritual family.
(Gal 6:10 ESV) So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith.
It’s the same principle applied to the church as our family.
8. You see, as Jesus taught in John 13, people should see the love we have for one another and see that we are surely disciples of the Master. Long before we attempt to draw the lost toward Jesus by showing our love for the lost, we must first learn to show our love for each other.
(1Jo 3:16-17 ESV) 16 By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers. 17 But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him?
John interprets Jesus this very way. The overwhelming emphasis is on doing good works for fellow Christians.
Indeed, according to the majority of commentators, this is the point Jesus was making in Matthew 25.
(Mat 25:40 ESV) 40 And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’
As we covered in a recent post, most commentaries take “my brothers” to be a reference to Jesus’ disciples. Therefore, Jesus is saying that we’ll be judged by how well we care for the needs of fellow disciples of Jesus. (Just as John and Paul also teach.)
And this is, of course, consistent with the Torah, which emphasizes care for the poor, the widow, the fatherless, and the sojourner — among the Jews.
(Deu 14:29 ESV) 29 And the Levite, because he has no portion or inheritance with you, and the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow, who are within your towns, shall come and eat and be filled, that the LORD your God may bless you in all the work of your hands that you do.
The sojourner is presumably a non-Jew who has chosen to live among the Jews. The NET Bible translates “resident foreigner.” He has brought himself under the protection of the Jewish community. The equivalent in modern church life would be someone who hasn’t converted yet but has made the church his chosen community.
9. Now the legalism that lurks within all our hearts troubles us at this point. We want to shout regarding the need to care for the lost! After all, the lost need to see that we love them and that we don’t love our brothers only!
Of course. Of course. But despite what our legalistic tendencies shout, it’s not either-or. Nor is it both-and. Rather, it’s our own spiritual household first but not exclusively.
10. After all, when we preach Jesus, we are also inviting the hearer to become a part of the Christian community. And this should be a community that lives the Sermon on the Mount, Romans 12, and 1 Corinthians 13.
We in the Churches of Christ tend to define “church” as “the set of all saved people,” which is true-ish but rather like defining “family” as “the set of all people with x% DNA in common.” Such a definition sucks the life out of the word.
The church is a fellowship built on love — a love that cannot be attained except by the miraculous work of the Holy Spirit within us. The church is a community that lives out the ethics of the Kingdom — in terms of its leadership, of how we resolve disputes, of how we speak to and about each other, of how we honor our leadership, of how we worship together.
We Westerners are so severely individualistic that we see the “church” as a community that worships alone while in the same building together. We even see gathered worship as an act of solitude — insisting that we pensively meditate while we take communion in a gathering and sit quietly while waiting for the
showservice to begin.
But the scriptural vision of the church is that it’s a foretaste of heaven — a heaven best pictured as a banquet — a party! There will be music and singing and dancing (in the strictly non-sexual Middle Eastern way).
This is from the same chapter that promises a “new covenant” as quoted in Hebrews 8–
(Jer 31:4 ESV) 4 Again I will build you, and you shall be built, O virgin Israel! Again you shall adorn yourself with tambourines and shall go forth in the dance of the merrymakers.
(Jer 31:12-14 ESV) 12 “They shall come and sing aloud on the height of Zion, and they shall be radiant over the goodness of the LORD, over the grain, the wine, and the oil, and over the young of the flock and the herd; their life shall be like a watered garden, and they shall languish no more. 13 Then shall the young women rejoice in the dance, and the young men and the old shall be merry. I will turn their mourning into joy; I will comfort them, and give them gladness for sorrow. 14 I will feast the soul of the priests with abundance, and my people shall be satisfied with my goodness, declares the LORD.”
This is the church!
11. Because Jesus and the prophets spoke of the Kingdom as coming with a banquet on Mt. Zion —
(Isa 25:6 ESV) On this mountain the LORD of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wine, of rich food full of marrow, of aged wine well refined.
— Luke makes a point to mention this very thing in Acts 2 —
(Act 2:44-3:1 ESV) 44 And all who believed were together and had all things in common. 45 And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. 46 And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, 47 praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.
Thus, we should take the end of Acts 2 as a model of what the church was intended to be.
The sharing of goods was among fellow Christians. It wasn’t middle class white Christians sending money to the poor in far away lands, but all Christians together, rich and poor, with the rich helping meet the needs of the poor within the same church.
The earliest Christians lived as a single family. When you live together as a family under one roof, you don’t see this chair, this table, this bottle of milk, this loaf of bread, as ‘mine’ rather than ‘yours’. The breadwinners in the household don’t see the money they bring in as ‘theirs’ rather than belonging to the whole household. That’s part of what it means to be a family. …
Where the church today finds itself stagnant, unattractive, humdrum and shrinking—and, sadly, there are many churches, in the Western world at least, of which that has to be admitted—it’s time to read Acts 2:42–47 again, get down on our knees, and ask what isn’t happening that should be happening. The gospel hasn’t changed. God’s power hasn’t diminished. People still need rescuing. What are we doing about it?
Tom Wright, Acts for Everyone, Part 1: Chapters 1-12 (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2008), 45–46.
12. So a key element of God’s plan for evangelism is not better tracts and sales pitches but a church that is truly the church. Not yet the ideal church, but a church where people actually love each other and care for another’s needs as though family.
This is not selfish. It’s not isolationist. It’s not discriminatory. It’s the nature of family. Families care for each other — first and especially but not only.
And no one will be attracted to a community or fellowship or family that doesn’t get along, much less love each other. When we love the stranger more than the brother in our own church, we create a huge barrier to converting the lost. No, a truly church-like church, a cruciform church, a church filled with the Spirit, will draw the lost far more than a million goats and wells and painted houses — not that we shouldn’t buy goats and dig wells and paint houses. But those things will not spread the kingdom very well if we can’t figure out how to love one another.
13. We cannot love the stranger in Africa if we cannot love the destitute sister in the pew next to us. We might feel proud of ourselves and noble and charitable and all for helping dig a well in Africa, but we’ve also managed not to have to meet the person we’re helping. We’ve formed no relationship. We’ve done nothing that the United States Congress couldn’t do as well, if not better.
But that’s doesn’t mean we don’t help dig wells in Africa. Rather, we need to learn to think of well digging from a Christian perspective, not a secular, political perspective.
To the world, the cure for poverty is money. To the Christian, the cure for poverty is Jesus and the church and being loved and being transformed. Yes, money is often very necessary — and in Acts 2, the church raised a lot of money to meet needs. But it also met spiritual needs.
And so the church has to learn priorities —
A. For our own physical families.
B. For our spiritual family, our congregation and the church-universal.
C. For good works that offer the opportunity to teach Jesus.
D. For good works that can be done in the name of Jesus.
E. For good works.
A tsunami hits Indonesia, threatening the lives of millions. Recovery efforts require that millions of dollars be raised. And yet the country is Islamic and not open to Christian charity. What to do?
Well, I know many churches that passed the hat and sent money to the Red Cross, which passed the money along to the Red Crescent — a sister organization that works among Muslim nations.
This was good and admirable — and God will reward this, even though Jesus was only glorified in his own churches.
But other churches raised an army of volunteers who traveled to Indonesia and helped with reconstruction and met medical needs. And they did so in the name of Jesus, without apology. And they made converts and opened eyes and hearts to the gospel.
And this is better.
Some would argue that it makes it appear that they only helped to win converts, but this attitude reflects a Western, capitalist view of the world — that everything is an exchange, that the help was given to get something else — which is presumed evil, revealing a slightly Marxist worldview.
But in reality, the goal wasn’t to get anything but to share both financial and spiritual blessings. It’s not as though Christianity is multi-tier marketing and that the American church is going to collect commissions off churches planted in Indonesia!! No, the only thing the churches “get” is the joy of seeing the lost find Jesus. And that’s not selfish.
And so when we instinctively feel that it’s somehow wrong to preach Jesus while providing free medical services, well, that reveals a view of Christianity that is not Christian.
On the other hand, anything good can be done in a bad way. And it would be wrong to make medical services, for example, conditioned on attending a Bible class. But I know no one who does such a manipulative and wrongheaded thing. But I’m sure it’s happened.
Nonetheless, it’s still right and necessary that we look for ways to do good for the lost that will draw them to Jesus — but we must also remember that God makes it rain on the just and unjust. We cannot condition our good works on baptism or reading a tract or subscribing to a correspondence course.