Previous | Next

Spring 2019 · Vol. 48 No. 1 · pp. 13–21 

The Kingdom and the Church

Tim Geddert

I was standing today in a dark toolshed. The sun was shining outside and through the crack at the top of the door there came a sunbeam. From where I stood, that beam of light, with the specks of dust floating in it, was the most striking thing in the place. Everything else was almost pitch-black. I was seeing the beam, not seeing things by it.

Then I moved, so that the beam fell on my eyes. Instantly the whole previous picture vanished. I saw no toolshed, and (above all) no beam. Instead I saw, framed in the irregular cranny at the top of the door, green leaves moving on the branches of a tree outside and beyond that, 90 odd million miles away, the sun. Looking along the beam, and looking at the beam are very different experiences.

C. S. Lewis 1

At its most basic level, God’s kingdom is simply God’s will being done on earth as it is in heaven.

Friday evening, November 16, 2012. I was one of the lucky ones: I got to sit in a chair. Far more people stood along the walls, in the back, down the aisles. Scot McKnight was scheduled to make a presentation on “The {14} Kingdom and the Church.” But the room was packed for another reason as well.

The organizers asked McKnight to suggest a suitable respondent for his paper. He threw out the name, N. T. Wright, probably with little expectation that it could be arranged. But it happened. I remember each speaker’s opening lines. McKnight’s was something like this: “Wow! What a crowd! Apparently, Tom Wright is a hard act to follow, even when you have to speak before him!” After the presentation Wright praised McKnight for his wonderful insights, his biblical exegesis, his research and arguments, his rhetoric, and then said: “I have only one small problem with your presentation: I disagree with everything you said.” And then, in true N. T. Wright style, he proceeded to shred McKnight’s argument.

McKnight’s claim was: Jesus slid easily back and forth between references to “kingdom” and “church” and thus he must have viewed these as pretty much the same thing. For Jesus, until he comes again, the kingdom is essentially the church. McKnight cited the two Gospel texts in which Jesus speaks of the ekklesia. “On this rock I will build my church” (Matthew 16:18) is followed by “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven” (16:19). And “Tell it to the church” (18:17) is at the heart of Jesus’s response to the disciples’ question, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” (18:1). Clearly Jesus linked kingdom and church so tightly together that in this age they essentially overlap. In McKnight’s 2014 book, Kingdom Conspiracy, he makes the very strong claim that “there is no kingdom now outside the church.” 2

Wright was not persuaded. His primary concern was that the foibles and follies of the institutional church dare not taint the far more cosmos-encompassing reality of God’s kingship. My personal response (both then and now): It is about equally wrong to fully equate as to completely separate “kingdom” and “church.” The views of McKnight and Wright, I think, run the risk of moving too close to one of those extremes.

My goal in this essay is not to assess McKnight’s and Wright’s respective arguments. It is rather to propose another way of examining the relationship between kingdom and church that neither overemphasizes the church’s role (the danger of McKnight’s view) nor underestimates the church’s significant contribution to the kingdom’s current presence in the world (the danger of Wright’s view). My strategy will be to steer clear of explicit definitions of “kingdom” and of “church,” focusing rather on how followers of Jesus participate in both as they pursue the mission of God.

The question of how kingdom and church relate to each other is beset by multiple challenges: {15}

  1. It is notoriously difficult to provide anything like a definition of “kingdom of God.” Neither Jesus nor any New Testament writer ever provided one. Why should we assume we can do it?

  2. It is just as difficult to formulate a definition of “church.” Yes, of course, we can study carefully the Greek word ekklesia, but I shall argue that this barely gets us moving toward the goal of defining “church.”

  3. Even if we could define both of the above, it does not follow that the relationship between the two would suddenly become apparent.

My proposal will be to reverse the usual procedure. We do not first define both terms and then explore their relationship. Rather, we examine our role as participants in God’s mission, and then let that help us move towards a clearer understanding of both “kingdom” and “church.”

PARTICIPATING IN THE KINGDOM

I have benefited greatly by exploring the eight “models of the kingdom” proposed by Howard Snyder. 3 Snyder aims to capture the main emphases that have typified vastly diverse conceptions of “God’s kingdom” in the thinking and practice of the church throughout history. My own assessment is that the first four of Snyder’s models each capture an important facet of God’s kingdom, but each falls far short in capturing its breadth and depth.

Model 1: “The kingdom as future hope: the future kingdom.” This model tends to assign all of God’s kingdom to the future, denying the present reality of God’s reign, denigrating creation as the theater in which God’s kingdom becomes reality, and deferring all fulfillment into an unknown future. This is the proverbial “pie in the sky, by and by” view of God’s kingdom.

Model 2: “The kingdom as inner spiritual experience: the interior kingdom.” Here the focus is on the private spiritual experience of individuals. This view leans heavily on the probably mistranslated word of Jesus, “The kingdom of God is within you” (Luke 17:21). While many Christians testify to a deep inner experience of God’s presence in their lives, to equate this with “God’s kingdom” seems to miss the main point. When we experience God, that is not as the fulfillment of God’s promise to “grant us the kingdom” (Luke 12:32); it is the preparation for exploring what that might mean.

Model 3: “The kingdom as mystical communion: the heavenly kingdom.” This model highlights the “communion of the saints” that binds together the worldwide family of believers, across the globe, across the generations. This model strikes me as a somewhat adequate {16} characterization of who participates in God’s reign, but does not say much about what that reign is.

Model 4: “The kingdom as institutional church: the ecclesiastical kingdom.” I think McKnight’s presentation put him into this camp; and Wright’s critique rightly warned us against going there. The church, despite its overinstitutionalization, does participate in God’s reign, but should never be equated with it. God’s work in the cosmos goes far beyond anything the church, as institution, can grasp or claim.

In my view, the final four models contain two that go in the wrong direction altogether, and two that deserve careful scrutiny. Models 6 and 8 seem to confuse “the world” with “the kingdom.”

Model 6: “The kingdom as political state: the theocratic kingdom.” When the institution of the church is equated with God’s reign and rule, it is easy to co-opt or be co-opted by the powers of this world, so that church and state are linked, until they become inseparable or even indistinguishable. That was the great misstep of Constantine and the Roman church of his day; and it is a misstep that survived even the Reformation. Only gradually has the church let go of the reigns of governmental power in the Western World (or perhaps it is more accurate to say that that power has been wrested out of the church’s hands by secular forces). As disconcerting as it may be for the church to lose political control, it is a necessary step in learning to be a faithful church, recognizing and resisting the “principalities and powers” that resist God’s Kingdom.

Model 8: “The kingdom as earthly utopia: the utopian kingdom.” This one makes the opposite mistake. It does not try to force in God’s reign by political power. It naively believes God’s kingdom will come on its own as well-meaning people gradually transform this world into an earthly paradise. This view seems to retain remnants of an overly-optimistic nineteenth century liberalism, one that apparently does not believe it has been thoroughly discredited by the wars of the twentieth century, and the twenty-first.

We come to the two I commend, models 5 and 7. Snyder calls both of them “models of the kingdom,” but they seem rather to be two ways that the church relates to culture. “The kingdom as counter-system: the subversive kingdom” (Model 5) proposes that God’s people form countercultural communities, whose mission it is to bear witness to an “alternative kingdom” over against the kingdoms of this world. “The kingdom as Christianized culture: the transforming kingdom” (Model 7) proposes that God’s people exert Christian influence on culture, infusing it with God’s mercy and justice, while guarding against being co-opted by culture, and especially by political structures. {17}

In my view, the relationship between “church” and “kingdom” (though I have not yet attempted a definition of either) is best captured by a combination of these two emphases. The allegiance of the church is ultimately to God’s kingdom alone. All earthly allegiances are subordinate to that. And so, in solidarity with what our sovereign Lord calls us to be and do, we are always both countercultural and culture-transforming. We expose the self-serving injustices of the world’s ways; we bear courageous witness to the reign of God; we pour out mercy and love; we lift up the down-trodden in the name of Jesus; we work tirelessly to change evil structures. We participate in God’s reign by pursuing the shalom that God intends for all creation.

I am not claiming that this provides us with a clear definition of God’s kingdom. But I think it shows us a way to look “along the beam.” But before doing so any further, I now introduce another complication—trying to understand “church.”

METAPHORS FOR THE CHURCH

We often imagine that the word “church” is nothing more or less than the English translation of the Greek word ekklesia. That case would seem more plausible if we were speaking Spanish or French or Portuguese. At least in those languages the dominant word for church is derived from ekklesiaIglesia, église, Igreja. But even there we should guard against confusing transliteration with translation.

The word “church” in English, as in various other languages (Kirche, Kirk, kerk), derives from the Greek word for “belonging to the Lord” (kuriakos). Yet we often imagine that “church” means whatever the Greek word ekklesia means, and then compound the error by saying it means “the called-out ones” (from ek and kaleo). But if transliteration is not translation, neither is tracking the etymology of words. It is indeed true that those belonging to Jesus have been “called out” (e.g., “out of darkness into God’s marvelous light” [1 Pet 2:9]). When Peter declares this, however, he seems to go out of his way to call us by every other name besides ekklesia! We are an “elect race [genos], we are a royal priesthood [hierateuma], a holy nation [ethnos], God’s own people group [laos].” Of course, we are also an ekklesia, but Peter’s focus in this text is not on the fact that we are God’s “democratic assembly”—for that is what ekklesia actually means.

The word derives from the fact that Greek citizens were “called out” of their homes in order to be gathered in the city plaza for democratic assemblies. As citizens, they were set apart from the foreigners and slaves, who could not participate in governing the city state. By the time Paul chose ekklesia as one of his favorite metaphors (note well!) for the {18} church, the word’s primary meaning was no longer “the called-out ones” but rather “the assembly.” That makes it almost exactly equivalent to another Greek word, synagoge (from sun and ago). Indeed, three verses after Jesus says, “Tell it to the ekklesia,” he refers to the believers as those who “have been gathered” (a form of sunago).

There were at least two reasons why the Christian movement adopted ekklesia more frequently than synagogue, when referring to their gatherings. There was the pragmatic consideration: They needed to distinguish themselves from the other groups meeting in synagogues (i.e., those Jews who did not recognize Jesus as Lord). Then there was also the notable fact that Jewish synagogues were literally buildings (the places where they gathered), whereas Christian assemblies were not. Ekklesia referred to the gathered ones and the gatherings themselves. But there might also be a third reason. I suspect ekklesia was preferred because, more strongly than synagogue, it carried with it associations of a political assembly. The Christian church of the first few centuries understood itself to be a countercultural but also culture-transforming alternative community, pledging itself not to the one who ruled the empire, but to the one who rules the heavens and the earth.

It has been argued that the early church met together, not so much for the purpose of “worship experiences” but to have “church business meetings” . . . of course not the kind that follows Roberts Rules of Order to pass resolutions or revise bylaws, but the kind that understands the church’s true business to be “kingdom business,” bearing witness to God’s rule in word and deed, right in the middle of hostile kingdoms.

All this is to say that ekklesia is not simply the Greek word for “church.” Ekklesia is one of the important metaphors used in the New Testament to help us understand the church’s essence and its mission. When this metaphor is used, the focus is on “gathering” and on “promoting a counter-imperial kingdom.”

That puts ekklesia alongside all the other important metaphors: body (emphasizing diverse gifts and connection with Christ the head); bride (emphasizing purity, faithfulness, and anticipation of the consummation); building (focusing on our solid foundation and our unity for the purpose of effective sacrifice); family (focusing on being united with our one true Father and with each other as brothers and sisters); and many others.

When people say something like: “The body of Christ is a faithful bride,” OR, “The body of Christ is a holy temple,” it is not hard to spot the error. They have treated “body of Christ” as though it means “church” and then think they have supplied a metaphor for it. In fact, they have picked one metaphor for the church, thought it was a title, and then mixed two metaphors. And so, we fix the problem of mixed {19} metaphors by saying, “The church is the bride of Christ,” OR, “The church is God’s holy temple,” and so on. Except we are not actually fixing the problem at all, for “church” (i.e., when we think of it as simply the English way of saying ekklesia) is no less a metaphor than any of the others. The New Testament does not speak of the church at all, except in metaphors! And that implies that we understand church best if we learn from each of the metaphors without centralizing any. But then we are still left with the vexing question: What is it?

I quoted from C. S. Lewis’s “Meditation in a Toolshed” above. Christian theology has often spent its best energies analyzing the beam—studying the specks of dust, their size, their shape, their arrangements—and missed the beam. We do that with “Christology.” We first nail down our doctrines of God, complete with all eighteen divine attributes, each defined in good Platonic form. Then we create a theological anthropology, a critical study of the nature of humans, usually with a tri-furcation of body, soul, and spirit. Having concluded that we have an adequate definition of the nature of God and of humans, we puzzle over how it could be possible for Jesus to be both. Did Jesus have two essences? Two natures? We should be doing it exactly the other way around. We first encounter Jesus. As we learn of Jesus through his words and deeds, as we follow Jesus as Lord, we catch glimpses of what God is like, and what humans made in God’s image can be. Thus, we discover a “biblical theology” and a “biblical anthropology.” Our theology needs to aim to look along the beam, not merely at it.

In my final section I propose we do the same with our quest to understand church and kingdom. Let’s encounter them inextricably linked within the story line of Scripture, and then as we live into our calling as God’s people, pursuing God’s mission, representing God’s reign on earth, we learn who we are as church and how we relate to God’s kingdom.

PROPOSAL: LIVING INTO AN UNDERSTANDING OF CHURCH AND KINGDOM

I believe we understand the New Testament concept of “church” best if we pay attention to how it emerged and how it was transformed within the ongoing story line of Scripture. This, I believe, is captured best when we understand the church as:

  • the people of God

  • gathered around Jesus

  • empowered by the Spirit

  • and participating in the kingdom of God. {20}

My three-part claim was not crafted with the goal in mind of giving each member of the Trinity equal time! Rather it aims to capture the three primary movements in the long story of the birth and transformation of the people of God into the New Testament church.

When God decided to create “the people of God,” God did not select an existing nation or ethnic group. God created a whole new “people group” centered around promise, miracle, covenant, and missional purpose. At its best, Israel understood itself to be neither “God’s nation” nor “God’s ethnic people,” but rather “God’s covenant community,” commissioned to be both an alternative culture and a culture-transforming alternative to the ways of this fallen world and its empires.

Jesus came to fulfill the mission of God’s people, to die and rise for the salvation of the world, and to recruit followers who would carry forward God’s mission beyond the boundaries of Israel’s nation and ethnicity. The gathering of twelve disciples represented the symbolic refounding of covenant Israel, a community gathering around Jesus in worship and obedience. Through Jesus, “Israel” comes to mean those within ethnic/national Israel who acknowledge Jesus as Savior and Lord, plus those beyond the bounds of ethnic/national Israel who join that community, finding salvation in Jesus and acknowledging him as Lord of the Universe.

The outpouring of the Spirit at Pentecost was not so much the birth of the church as its transformation into a “democratic assembly.” And so ekklesia was added to an already long list of metaphors that help us understand what it is to be the people of God. All believers, Jew and Gentile, are now gifted, all are empowered citizens of “covenant Israel,” all join together to do the business of God’s kingdom. And thus, the church participates in the kingdom of God.

As we live into that calling, we discern ever more clearly who we are and what we are about. And as we do so, we also discern ever more clearly how we as “church” are related to that mysterious “kingdom of God” of which Jesus so often spoke, but which he never defined.

At its most basic level, God’s kingdom is simply “God exercising kingly rule.” It is “God at work, restoring creation.” It is “God’s will being done on earth as it is in heaven.” The church is not the kingdom, but it exists to live under God’s kingly rule and to proclaim the good news that in Jesus, God’s kingly rule has invaded this world. It exists to be a signpost and a foretaste of the ever-present reign of God that Jesus promised would one day come in fullness. It exists to live by kingdom priorities in the midst of worldly empires. And it exists to be a transforming influence for God’s justice and peace in this still fallen world, until Jesus comes to make all things new. {21}

NOTES

  1. C. S. Lewis, “Meditation in a Toolshed,” in The Collected Works of C. S. Lewis (New York: Inspirational Press, 1996), 442.
  2. Scot McKnight, Kingdom Conspiracy (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos, 2014), 87. Emphasis in original.
  3. Howard A. Snyder, Models of the Kingdom: Gospel, Culture and Mission in Biblical and Historical Perspective (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2001).
Tim Geddert has been professor of New Testament at the Mennonite Brethren Seminary in Fresno, California, for most of the past thirty-two years. Born Canadian, he has also lived in Scotland and Germany and served as a Bible teacher and author in many other places. He and his wife, Gertrud, have raised and are still raising their multi-cultural family.

Previous | Next