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.
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