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kingdom_conspiracy“Kingdom theology” is on the rise, says Scot McKnight in his new book, Kingdom Conspiracy: Returning to the Radical Mission of the Local Church (Brazos, 2014), but what in the world is the kingdom? Or better said, what is the kingdom in this world? And how does the kingdom relate to the church and its mission?

Kingdom Activism vs. Kingdom Redemption

Scot sees two basic choices among evangelicals today. First, we have the “Skinny Jeans” crowd of young activists who define the kingdom as “good deeds done by good people (Christian or not) in the public sector for the common good” (4). Then, there is the “Pleated Pants” crew who believe the kingdom is God’s redemptive rule and power at work on the world” (13) – some who see this redemption primarily in terms of personal salvation and others who expand redemption to societal and cultural transformation.

When scholars lay out two opposing viewpoints, they usually proceed to point out the strengths and weaknesses in both sides and argue for a middle way. Scot’s approach is different. He’s not a referee trying to make two teams get along. Instead, he’s more like a professor on the sidelines telling both teams, “I think you’re playing on the wrong field.”

The Biblical Landscape 

If we’re going to get on the right field, we’d better make sure we understand the storyline of the Bible, particularly Israel’s story and what “kingdom” meant to the Jews. The gospel’s declaration – “Jesus is Messiah, King, Lord, and Savior” – must be seen as the answer to a question, which comes from within a specific story. Instead of using the common Creation, Fall, Redemption, Consummation storyline to describe the Bible, Scot opts for an A-B-A’ story.

Plan A extends from Adam and Abraham to Samuel, and its theme is “God rules the world through his elected people, but God is the one and only king” (28). Where does sin come into this picture?

“The story of sin in the Bible is the story of God’s elect people wanting to be God-like instead of god-ly, or ruling instead of sub-ruling and being ruled” (29).

God’s response is to form a covenant of Abraham and call him and his people to rule for God.

Plan B is the establishment of a human king for Israel as an accommodation to Israel’s selfish desire to be like the other nations. Though God grants Israel a human king and continues to forgive Israel of its sins through the temple system, the people long for the right kind of king and kingdom. Once they are exiled, their hope of return and redemption increases.

In Plan A Revised, God comes to rule once again through the person of Jesus Christ. In Jesus, God is King again, Israel and the church live under His rule, and forgiveness is granted through Jesus until the day He returns to consummate His kingdom.

The Spread of the Kingdom Story

How does our understanding of the biblical storyline affect our mission?

Scot believes kingdom mission requires conversion (he summarizes repentance and faith as a “surrender” to King Jesus) and discipleship (being mastered by the Bible’s story). Spiritual growth is linked to the kingdom’s inauguration.

“To the same degree that the kingdom has been inaugurated in Jesus, the kingdom can be realized among us. To the degree that the kingdom has not yet been realized, it cannot be lived out in the present” (39).

Understanding this truth gives us both a sense of hope and realism as we grow in Christlikeness.

Kingdom mission also requires context. Scot shows how Jesus’ kingdom story set him against five competing stories (including the Pharisees, the Essenes, and the Zealots). Likewise, faithfulness in the kingdom mission means we must “embed kingdom realities” in our own context, intentionally countering the ruling stories at work in our world.

God’s Kingdom as a People

The boldest proposal in Kingdom Conspiracy comes next. Scot challenges the evangelical consensus that “the kingdom of God” refers to God’s redemptive rule and not His people. “The kingdom of which Jesus speaks is a people governed by a king,” he writes (74).

Why does this matter? Because, whenever we reduce “kingdom” to God’s rule as either justice in the world or God’s rule as personal salvation for the human heart, we ignore the close connection between the kingdom of the King’s people. “You can’t be kingdom people without being church people,” he says (79).

Scot is not denying distinctions between the church and the kingdom, but he believes evangelicals have overstated the distinctions and missed their close connection. He writes:

“It is reasonable to say that the kingdom is the church, and the church is the kingdom – that they are the same even if they are not identical. They are the same in that it is the same people under the same King Jesus even if each term – kingdom, church – gives off slightly different suggestions” (206).

Kingdom Mission as Church Mission

If we fail to understand the kingdom’s connection to the church, we will get lost when we go looking for the primary place redemption is found. The Skinny Jeans activists are all about redemption in society. The Pleated Pants folks are all about redemption for the individual. Scot says both are looking in the wrong place. The primary locus of redemption is in the local church. (85). “There is no kingdom now outside the church,” he writes (87).

But, wait! The church is so messed up. How can this possibly be the place of God’s redemptive rule?

It’s here that Scot takes the “kingdom is now and not yet” consensus of evangelicalism and applies the same insight to the church. Just as we say the kingdom is already here, but not yet fully, so we should we also consider the church as already sanctified but not yet perfected (92).

So, what is kingdom mission? “Kingdom work is what kingdom citizens do under King Jesus.” So, if “the kingdom is the people who are redeemed and ruled by King Jesus in such a way that they live as a fellowship under King Jesus,” then “kingdom mission is about creating and sustaining that kingdom community, the church” (99).

The church’s mission is to “mediate the presence of God in this world” primarily through its embracing of its identity as an alternative kingdom politic. Local churches must embody the vision of Jesus in a way that tells His kingdom story.

“Kingdom mission forms a kingdom people and that kingdom people in the present world is the church” (123).

Kingdom Politics

On both the left and the right, evangelicals are missing the essence of kingdom mission due to their conflation of political involvement with kingdom work. The big problem is that Christians are seeking for the nation what should first be a witnessed reality in the local church (102). Political involvement is a major distraction from kingdom mission in that it seeks to enshrine a “Judeo-Christian ethic,” an ethic that, by definition, either “strips the Christian elements” or “turns the ‘Judeo’ part into a Christian ethic” (220).

Likewise, our good works in society are necessary, but we shouldn’t call them “kingdom work.” Neither should we use the terminology of “redemption” to describe our good deeds in the world. Scot makes his point clear:

“Any kind of ‘redemptive’ activity that does not deal with sin, that does not find its strength in the cross, that does not see the primary agent as Jesus, and that does not see it all as God’s new creation life unleashed is not kingdom redemption, even if it is liberating and good and for the common good.” (150).

Does this mean Christians should withdraw from the public sphere? Not at all, says Scot. But the question needs to be flipped. We’ve been asking where the church fits into society, when instead, we should be asking how society is summoned into God’s society (the church) (111).

According to Scot, redemption is indeed holistic, and there is certainly a “social” side of Christian activity. But his point is that the “social” dimension of redemption is the social reality called the church (154). First the local church, then the world.

Points of Appreciation and Disagreement

Click here to see where I offer some areas of agreement and disagreement with Scot’s proposal.


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11 thoughts on “God’s Kingdom as a People: A Summary of Scot McKnight’s “Kingdom Conspiracy””

  1. Kyle says:

    Authors who reduce positions to “clever” metaphors like this lose me immediately. Labeling people by what some in their movement wear seems counterproductive and unnecessary. By labeling one camp “Skinny Jeans” and the other “Pleated Pants” the author is guilty of a couple things that just rub me the wrong way:

    1. Associating views that are not age-specific with specific ages. This is probably the least offense, but it is still false. I know many young Calvinists and many old hippies, and in reality, neither of the two positions here described are “new”.

    2. Taken outside his book, the labels have no communicative content. I can’t say to my friend who has not read the book “so what do you think about Pleated Pants theology?” like I could if he used words that actually described their beliefs.

    3, The only content the labels contain is a negative stereotype, in fact this stereotype is encouraged. The author wants us to think of the “skinny jeans” crowd as flaky on theology, he wants us to think the “pleated pants” crowd is stodgy and cantankerous. This does a disservice not only to the people in his categories who don’t dress this way, but also to everyone who does dress in skinnies or pleats who thinks nothing of the kind.

    4. It’s just lazy and bad writing. It relies on context to make a point. In another culture, his labels would make no sense. Without the cultural stereotypes (negative) he might as well call the position “toasters” and “flow-bees” for all the content they convey.

    Conclusion: I guess I just find such illustrations as counterproductive. I assume the author wanted his points to be memorable, but calling a group of people “Pleated Pants/Skinny Jeans” doesn’t help me remember what this group of people actually believes or why it’s wrong, it just made me… well it made me write this post.

    I realize this is sort of a weird rant that doesn’t engage much with the content of the book, which is mostly pretty good, but I had an immediate reaction to the first paragraph which I could not recover from, and writing this helped me understand why.

    1. Trevin Wax says:

      Kyle,

      I wish you’d let us know what you really think! ;-)

      I suppose my reaction to these kinds of labels is the direct opposite of yours. They’re funny… and memorable. Scot’s not trying to set up a label that is going to be useful outside of his book. He’s saying, “Put the stodgy conservative next to the hip, social justice millennial and let’s see what they say.” I love this kind of creativity and writing, because it has a sense of humor, allows us to poke fun at ourselves while making serious points, and has the spirit of joviality about it.

      Nothing lazy about this kind of writing. I wish more folks would engage ideas by packaging them in memorable, lighthearted ways.

      1. Kyle says:

        I don’t usually post on things on the internet, as its rare to have any sort of real discussion, as both sides end up talking past each other without actually engaging the other side. I definitely hesitated for a long time before hitting post the first time, as perhaps I just needed to work out why I was rubbed the wrong way and didn’t need to share it, but I said what the heck. And since you responded, I guess I’ll take another stab at trying to discuss it.

        I can hear what you’re saying about it being memorable for you, and I agree about lighthearted, memorable, creative analogies, people like C.S. Lewis and G.K. Chesterton were masters of this. However, there’s nothing especially funny or creative about this particular topic to me, as I know too many people who just don’t fit the stereotypes he is reinforcing. And then it’s just about the easiest stereotype I can think of to divide ages of people. That’s not original or creative to me, it’s just kinda lazy.

        On the other side, I have a feeling that usages like this make it more likely that when someone sees another person in skinny jeans or pleated pants that they make potentially damaging stereotypes about that person’s views. Identifying an theological error with a style encourages judging a person beliefs based on that style. While you may not feel this affected you, I do think this could definitely impact less mature people who may read this. To me, this is enough of a negative to outweigh any of the positives, especially since they could just be different. Social Justice Jill and Stodgy Stan could be just as funny and effective without the explicit labels based on appearance. (Also clearly I am not super creative with analogies either. :))

  2. Kyle says:

    Thanks for the review Trevin. We are using the Gospel Project literature to study the Kingdom of God this quarter in Sunday School. I am patiently waiting on the continuation of your review tomorrow.

    1. Trevin Wax says:

      Thanks, Kyle! I hope you’ll be sharpened by McKnight’s book and by the rest of the review tomorrow.

  3. Manley C. Beasley says:

    I believe he is right on. The church is meant to be contrasted to the world as light is to darkness to display the glorious rule of Christ. The new testament even describes this as salvation (a part of it at least) vs wrath (in the present sense).

  4. Jason Woelm says:

    What is discouraging here is that there is another evangelical view of the kingdom that was not mentioned by McKnight, and, quite frankly, is rarely ever mentioned in evangelical discussions. The dispensational understanding of the kingdom has strong theological and exegetical support, and I hope that in future days it is actually engaged instead of ignored.

    1. Manley C. Beasley says:

      Wouldn’t dispensationalism fall under the 2nd category?

      1. Doug says:

        I’d say its on the very far side of the 2nd category. I’d say that it is far as you can go without being anabaptist… Spread the gospel in your hazmat gear, and depressurize upon returning home.

        How is that for analogies… ;)

        1. Kyle says:

          I like it. :D

  5. Thomas says:

    I hear some preachers proclaim this theology as gospel (good news) however my biggest problem when kingdom theology is presented is that it leaves out the primary way we enter the kingdom which is repentance of our sins and trusting in the finished work of Christ which gives us a relationship with God, not just changing the way we think about the kingdom and then following Jesus. At the end of John 6 many of Jesus disciples who were with him, had taken up their cross, and left all they had to follow him ended up leaving and walking away from Jesus because they could not understand and accept the attonment which is the provision for true righteousness which is the requirment for salvation. This theology is dangerous because it is a false gospel. This is how i have understood it from preachers in my circle. If I am off the wall please show me. :)

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Trevin Wax


​Trevin Wax is Bible and Reference Publisher at LifeWay Christian Resources and managing editor of The Gospel Project. You can follow him on Twitter or receive blog posts via email. Click here for Trevin’s full bio.

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