Christian Century Post: The Church and the Kingdom of God

I woke up in the morning to some interesting dialogue on Twitter. Apparently Scott Mcknight has a new book, which I have not read, and it is getting some attention for his polemics around “skinny jeans” and “pleated pants” Christians’ understanding of the kingdom of God. It is not those categories that was controversial, but rather his actual claims about what the kingdom of God is, or isn’t. This is not a review of his book, I do not plan on reading or reviewing the book, so you must go elsewhere for that. However, I did want to problematize the main point I saw in a review David Fitch, a friend and seminary colleague of Mcknight, brought attention to in his book. The claim Mcknight supposedly made was that the kingdom of God is the Church, and that there is no kingdom of God outside of the Church. That is an echo of Cyprian from the 3rd century, but applied in a new way, to the kingdom of God in this contemporary case, which needs brief responding to.

It should be no surprise that I see this read as both irresponsible and problematic as an interpretation. I will argue based on my reading of the Jesus narratives in scripture and with strong support from an early Church teaching, pointing to a different understanding of the kingdom of God than Mcknight does. Furthermore, by attempting to make such a claim, I suggest it diminishes the particularity of Jesus’ own poetic descriptions of the kingdom of God in the parables, the very content I assume Mcknight is mostly drawing from in his book to come to such conclusions.

Before the primary critique, it should be said that Mcknight is not completely wrong on everything. First, my take is that he understands that there are very real spatial realities to be considered when discussing the kingdom of God, though “geopolitical” is problematic because it moves us back to a place of dominating land and space. The kingdom of God is something present in particular spaces. Secondly, a kingdom inevitably does include both a king and a people in particular spaces. It seems that Mcknight does not want people to lose sight of the King and people that make for a kingdom. These points are not insignificant, and to completely lose sight of those things does cause room for other problems. However, we cannot draw a clean line from the realities of earthly kingdoms to that of the kingdom of God. It is precisely the fact that the kingdom of God, as it was revealed and announced by Jesus, surprised and shocked many, helping us understand that it must not be assumed or predicted ahead of time as though we can expect from general common sense what it would be. Rather, only after careful attentiveness to the gospel narratives, read alongside the least of these in community, can we begin to venture to say something meaningful about the kingdom of God.

One of the big stumbling blocks for McKnight seems to come out of him falling into ‘churchology’. That is, McKnight here is operating out of a weak Christology and Pneumatology in relation to his understanding of the kingdom of God, which inevitably slips him away from ecclesiology and into churchology. Ecclesiology is about being called out, to gather around Jesus the crucified One as his people, and to embody the life and teachings of Jesus together. On the other hand churchology takes for granted the presence of Jesus, as a matter of fact (for whatever theological reasons), and the alignment of God’s mission and will, with any particular gathering or institution. Churchology is dangerous. It is a new-Christendom for the 21st century, in which a community assumes that they are part of what God is doing in creation, just because they think so.Ecclesiology realizes how easy it is to lose Jesus along the way (Luke 2:41-52), to have him on the outside of what we’ve got going on (Luke 3:19-20). The kingdom of God is not automatic for a gathered people who call themselves Christian, nor is it confined by the limits of Christian gatherings.

Simply put, the kingdom of God is anywhere King Jesus is present in any particular place.The most important thing to remember about the kingdom of God is not the Church (though there is close association between the two) but it is Jesus himself. For this reason Origen famously described Jesus as “autobasiliea”. Jesus embodied the reign of God all by himself! That means that wherever Jesus is present, the kingdom of God has come near! Now certainly the Church should be a place that Jesus is truly present, a space in which people are reorienting their lives and social arrangements according to the reality of the Messiah. Yet we know that is not always the case.

Read the end of the post here.

Published by Drew G. I. Hart, PhD

Drew G. I. Hart is a theology professor in the Biblical & Religious Studies department at Messiah College with ten years of pastoral experience. Hart majored in Biblical Studies at Messiah College as an undergraduate student, he attained his M.Div. with an urban concentration from Missio Seminary in Philadelphia, and he received his Ph.D. in theology and ethics from Lutheran Theological Seminary-Philadelphia. Drew was born and raised in Norristown, Pa and has lived extensively in Philadelphia and Harrisburg, PA as well. Dr. Hart’s dissertation research explored how Christian discipleship, as framed by Black theologies and contemporary Anabaptist theologies, gesture the Church towards untangling the forces of white supremacy and the inertia of western Christendom which have plagued its witness in society for too long. As two traditions that emerged from the underside of violent and oppressive western Christian societies, he found Black theology and Anabaptism each repeatedly turning to the particularity of Jesus in the gospel narratives. From that arises an ethic of solidarity with the oppressed and pursuing liberation in Black theology and an ethic of radical peacemaking and ecclesial nonconformity in the Anabaptist tradition. Each challenge the violent and oppressive logics of mainstream western Christianity and salvage the call to follow the way of Christ. Together in dialogue they deepen our analysis of the churches failures and the need for Jesus-shaped repentance. His work beyond teaching and writing has included pastoring in Harrisburg and Philadelphia, working for an inner-city afterschool program for black and brown middle school boys, delivering lectures and leading anti-racism workshops, collaborating with local faith-based organizers and activists in his city, and doing a broad range of public theology. He is also a co-leader for a local Harrisburg faith-based relational network called FREE Together which has collaborated with POWER Interfaith, MILPA, the Shut Down Berks Detention Center movement, and a little with the Poor People’s Campaign. Trouble I’ve Seen: Changing the Way the Church Views Racism by Drew Hart, has received great reviews by Publisher’s Weekly and Englewood Review of Books. Endorsing this resource, Shane Claiborne said, “This book is a gift from the heart of one of the sharpest young theologians in the United States. Hold it carefully, and allow it to transform you--and our blood-stained streets.” As a text, Trouble I’ve Seen utilizes personal and everyday stories, Jesus-shaped theological ethics, and anti-racism frameworks to transform the church’s understanding and social witness. Trouble I’ve Seen focuses on white supremacy as an overarching framework for understanding racism, with careful attention to its systemic and socializing dimensions. However, unlike sociology textbooks on the subject Dr. Hart also considers the subversive vocation of Jesus and the nonviolent yet revolutionary implications his life ought to have for his followers today. His newest book project is entitled Who Will Be a Witness?: Igniting Activism for God’s Justice, Love, and Deliverance and will be published September 1, 2020. Who Will Be A Witness? invites the church to liberate its centuries long captivity to supremacist practices, and to expand its restricted political imagination in view of Jesus’ messianic reign. The book guides disciples of Jesus into joining God’s delivering presence through scriptural reasoning, historical reflection, practical theology for congregational life, social change theory, and the Christian call to love our neighbor. It is written for congregations, leaders, and students that understand that pursuing God’s justice goes way beyond waiting around for electoral seasons to come around. It is about the ongoing vocation of the Church right now, at the grassroots level, seeking after the wellbeing of their neighbors through faithful, strategic, and concrete action. Drew recently joined the Inverse Podcast team serving as a cohost along with Australian peace activist Jarrod Mckenna. Together they interview interesting people and explore how scripture can turn our ethical imagination and the violent and unjust systems of our world upside-down, which contrasts with interpreting the Bible as a tool for the status quo. Dr. Drew Hart was the recipient of bcmPEACE’s 2017 Peacemaker Award, a 2019 W.E.B. Dubois Award from a Disciples of Christ congregation, and in October 2019, Dr. Hart was chosen as Elizabethtown College’s 2019 Peace Fellow. Each award recognized him for his local and national justice work and public theology. You can find Drew Hart on Twitter and Facebook, or you can catch him as he travels and speaks regularly across the country to colleges, conferences, and churches. Drew and Renee, and their three boys (Micah, Dietrich, and Vincent) live in Harrisburg, PA and attend Harrisburg First Church of the Brethren.

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