Yesterday, I summarized Scot McKnight’s new book, Kingdom Conspiracy: Returning to the Radical Mission of the Local Church (Brazos, 2014).
Today, I want to build on my summary of Scot’s proposal with some points of appreciation and then explore some areas of disagreement.
Points of Appreciation
First, Scot is relentless in his focusing our attention on Jesus’ Messiahship and what the identity of Jesus means for orienting us to the reality of the kingdom. His desire to ask the right questions of the biblical text is refreshing in that he is constantly bringing us back to Jesus as the central figure. “The gospel is the story about Jesus, not just the story about you and me and what we get out of it,” he writes (142). This approach skewers the psychological, self-help dilution of Christianity, while also challenges a “me-and-Jesus” vision of Christianity all-too-common in the Pleated Pants churches. The result is a radically church-centered vision of the kingdom and mission that counters the churchlessness of common evangelical thinking.
Secondly, Scot’s critique of evangelical fascination with politics deserves an open ear. When he claims that the quest for power through politics is a false “eschatology” that posits political engagement as the solution to our problems, he is right (63). One of the “ruling stories” we are to counter is the story of power through politics. Even if I may disagree with the way Scot applies this insight (see below), I believe his concern about Christian activism communicating that true power is found in political processes is valid. Christian activists on the right and the left need to hear and heed his critique.
Third, Scot’s criticism of evangelicals who see missions as social action is strident, but necessary. He does not mince words when he takes on young evangelicals who pursue “social justice” at the expense of local church work and then proceed to call their activity “kingdom mission.”
Scot is also concerned about what’s driving much of this activism. He concludes:
“For many today it is far easier to be committed to social justice in South Africa, to the restoration of communities on the Gulf Shore following Katrina, to cleaning up from the devastating tornadoes of the Plains, or to fighting sexual trafficking in any country than it is to be committed to building community and establishing fellowship in one’s local church… It is more glamorous to do social activism because building a local church is hard. It involves people who struggle with one another, it involves persuading others of the desires of your heart to help the homeless, it means caring for people where they are and not where you want them to be, it involves daily routines, and it only rarely leads to the highs of ‘short-term mission’ experiences. But local church is what Jesus came to build, so the local church’s mission shapes kingdom mission.” (97).
Scot is overstating the case here. We could argue that, depending on the context, local church ministry may be much easier than, say, devoting your life to well-digging in a war-torn African country. But there’s no doubt that much evangelical activism is poorly motivated and suffers from lack of local church engagement. So, once again, this is a valid concern that needs to be stated.
There are more points of appreciation I could list, including the strong link between the gospel announcement and the gospel community it creates, but it’s time to press forward to some areas of disagreement.
ABA’ vs. CFRC
First, I fail to see how Scot’s “Plan A, Plan B, Plan A Revised” version of the biblical storyline is more helpful or comprehensive than the more common Creation, Fall, Redemption, Consummation outline. I keep trying to understand how the A-B-A’ outline is somehow bigger, more expansive, and less focused on individual salvation. Scot is right that the gospel answer about Jesus’ identity (Messiah, Savior, King, and Lord) must cause us to ask the right question, but this doesn’t mean the question doesn’t concern redemption, both personal and cosmic. (See my review — part 1, part 2 — of Scot’s King Jesus Gospel for more on the relationship of salvation to the storyline of the Bible.)
Church as Moral Fellowship
Secondly, in a day in which traditional understandings of Christian morality are contested, I was hoping Scot would give more attention to the nature of the church as “moral fellowship.” In two senses.
To start, I appreciate the way this book puts the demands of Jesus front and center. “Entrance into the kingdom is determined by practicing Jesus’ kingdom Torah,” Scot writes (165). But even though he clarifies that this does not mean one “earns” one’s way into the kingdom (195), a good dose of “grace comes first” in his treatment of the Sermon on the Mount would have made this section stronger, especially since many believers feel they are constant failures in comparison to the “all-surpassing righteousness” required by Jesus, and since the Sermon’s demands are preceded by world-reversing pronouncements of blessing. I appreciate Scot’s desire to not mute or soften Jesus’ demands in any way, and yet I don’t want us to lose sight of the Sermon’s grace-filled underpinnings.
In the second sense, it would have been helpful for Scot to include more of the moral requirements Jesus is so zealous about, including His views of marriage, divorce, and sexuality. To not include this angle in a book encouraging less political involvement misses the opportunity to counter another ruling story in our world – not just “power through politics” but “power through sexual freedom” – the idolatry of the Sexual Revolution.
Third, Scot argues for the pursuit of intentional inclusiveness at the “table” as a way of implementing Jesus’ kingdom vision. But it’s not clear whether he is referring to the Lord’s Table or to the kind of welcoming hospitable spirit that should characterize all believers. To welcome to the Lord’s Table, one assumes repentance is present, but Scot doesn’t differentiate.
So, on the one hand, this is a book written from a heart of deep concern for stronger, sharper differences between the church and the world. But on the other hand, there’s a lack of clarity regarding how this plays out in local churches when it comes to Communion and church discipline, etc.
Christians and Politics
Fourth, though I appreciate so many aspects of the Anabaptist vision, not least the identification of the church as God’s “kingdom people” (what a great name for a blog!), I am concerned that Scot’s vision of ”work for the common good” must somehow be separate from political involvement. He seems to lop off politics as a particular place we do not belong, even in the softer, “influence the world for good” kind of way. ”Winning the Christian influence theory is getting the state to back up the Christian voice,” he says. “Do we see what this means? It means we give the final authority to the state” (217).
Actually, responsible Christian involvement in politics does the exact opposite. We serve to remind the world that politicians and the state are not the final authority. That’s why we vote and lobby and seek the good of our neighbors. There is a higher Court.
So, yes, the mistakes of Christians in politics are many, and we shouldn’t ignore them. But neither should the kingdom mission of establishing the local church as an alternative politic lead us to indifference regarding the politics of D.C. Scot never advocates withdrawal, but because he only speaks of the dangers, we are left without any suggestions as to what kind of political engagement he would approve of.
The Kingdom as the Church
Fifth, and perhaps most substantially, Scot’s desire to closely associate the kingdom and church runs the risk of missing the way in which Scripture does, in fact, speak of the kingdom as God’s cosmic rule. He says, “When I hear people make kingdom the cosmic rule of God, I think Jesus cringes!” (232).
But what are we praying for when we say “Your kingdom come” if not for the cosmic rule of God to be made manifest on earth as in heaven? We’re not praying for the arrival of the church, at least not primarily.
So yes, Scot is right that there is no kingdom outside the church. But his focus on the church as the local congregation (with kingdom mission being defined as everything the church gathered does – see point 14 of his theses on page 208) misses the distinction between the church as institution and the church as an organism. Differentiating between the church gathered and scattered does not resolve all of the issues or complexities here, but it goes a long way in helping unpack the way in which the kingdom of God is synonymous with the church and yet not identical. We shouldn’t limit kingdom mission and kingdom work to only those things God is doing through the church gathered. Otherwise, we are simply trading one reductionist vision of the kingdom (“God’s rule”) with another (“God’s people”).
Kingdom Conspiracy is a book that challenges some commonly held beliefs and assumptions among evangelicals. Scot McKnight will rile up people on both the left and the right, as brilliant Anabaptists always do. I’m a Baptist with a strong affinity for the Kuyperian vision, and so there were aspects of this book that resonated with me and aspects that frustrated me.
Overall, however, Kingdom Conspiracy‘s primary goal is one that I appreciate. It offers an ecclesio-centric view of the kingdom that refocuses our attention back on the church as the centerpoint of God’s plan in our world today.