20 Once Jesus was asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God was coming, and he answered, “The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; 21 nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There it is!’ For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you.” (Luke 17 NRSV)
Lately, the Kingdom of God has been the subject of much discussion in Christian theological scholarship and local churches. Two biblical scholars in particular have been at the center of this discussion, with two very similar but slightly nuanced views. Those two are Tom Wright and Scot McKnight. As is evident from their names, either of their views is -ight, but which was one is right? (See what I did there?)
Space and time constraints permit only a brief and perhaps reductionistic survey of both scholars’ views. However, my ultimate aim is not merely to survey their views, but to present my own. I hope to show where I see the reign of God present and its relationship to the church.
Let’s start with McKnight. In books like Kingdom Conspiracy, McKnight puts forth a proposal that we might call “ecclesio-centric.” He makes it clear that he does not find it biblical at all to speak of God’s “kingdom” activity outside the people of God. For him, God’s Kingdom is the church.
An ecclesio-centric model of the Kingdom has some appeal. It squares with a lot of Scripture. The people of Israel are often equated with God’s kingdom. And Paul often speaks very highly of the church, as the fulfillment of God’s purposes and plan (e.g. Eph. 1.23, 3.10, etc.).
However, Wright’s position also has biblical support. For Wright, Jesus is God’s-Kingdom-in-person. That is why Jesus preached the Gospel as “The Kingdom of God is near.” (e.g. Mt. 3.2; Mk. 1.15; Lk. 10.9, etc.) The church had not yet been established by Jesus’s death, resurrection, ascension, and sending of the Holy Spirit. And yet, Jesus’s presence was the supreme sign of the Kingdom’s in-breaking. What’s more, the Risen Christ continues to be present in the world by his Spirit, revealing Christ and manifesting the Kingdom.
So, therein lies the primary point of departure. Both theologians believe that the Gospel is the announcement and enactment of the Kingdom of God. Both theologians believe that Jesus, the Spirit, and his church are central to that enactment. But there is a slight nuance in how they would view the relationship between the church and the Kingdom.
Perhaps it’s relevant to state that McKnight, though he has become Anglican of late, has for many years been one of the most prolific voices in the U.S. for what’s been called “Neo-Anabaptism.” Both the Anabaptist and Anglican traditions centralize the church in the work of God. But it may be relevant that the Anglican tradition has been more comfortable with recognizing God’s work outside the church in common grace.
In a rare, constructive dialogue with a friend on Facebook, I suggested that maybe pnuematology would have an impact on this discussion.
If one views the work of the Spirit (e.g. illumination, drawing of people to Christ, manifesting shalom, etc.) as the same work that is theologically described as the “in-breaking of the Kingdom,” then the presence of the Kingdom would overlap with everywhere the Spirit can been seen to be at work.
Pentecostals and Charismatics have been talking this way for a hundred years, of course. Where the Spirit heals and delivers, the Kingdom is present. This is also backed-up by Scripture. Jesus correlated the miraculous power of the Spirit with the in-breaking of the Kingdom.
“20 But if it is by the finger of God that I cast out the demons, then the kingdom of God has come to you.” (Luke 11 NRSV)
Where the Spirit is at work, Jesus claims, the Kingdom is breaking in.
Another factor that may influence one’s view on this subject is one’s conception of a kingdom. If one associates a kingdom with an institution, one is more likely to side with McKnight. But, it’s important to note that “reign” is a more accurate translation than “kingdom” for the New Testament concept.1
The “reign” of a king is much more than an institution or a group of people—it is also the ethos of that king, the values, and way of life embodied in the era of that king’s rule.
The ethos of God’s reign is pictured throughout the Bible as the presence of peace, justice, right relationships between people and God and each other, as well as harmony with God’s creation. The prophets often picture this as the end of war and violence, or as the end of predator and prey, or God’s presence as in the Temple, only everywhere (e.g. Is. 2.4, 11.6; Rev. 21-22). This vision of God’s reign is also encapsulated in the complex Hebrew word: shalom.
Wherever God’s Spirit is at work wooing, drawing people to Christ, reconciling people to one another, fostering restorative justice; manifesting God’s love in physical healing, emotional healing, providing for physical needs like hunger, thirst, safety, and freedom, God’s reign is breaking into this world.
The church has a critical role to play in this in-breaking. The church are those who gather in that shalom, give glory to God in Christ through worship, and bear witness. The church are those who embody the reign of God through our lives.
This is how the church serves as a ‘colony of heaven’ (Phil. 3.20). We manifest the in-breaking of God’s reign in our communal life. We also spread God’s reign in our proclamation and embodiment of that reign in the world. The church is to be a microcosm of what will one day characterize the whole world.
Here’s a concrete example: the Conversion of Cornelius’s Household
In Acts chapter 10, we read of a man named Cornelius who is a Gentile Centurion. (That’s two strikes). But to his credit, he is described as a “god-fearer,” which likely means he is a Gentile convert to Judaism or just a Gentile who keeps the Law of Moses. (Note: Even if he has been in-grafted into Israel, he is not yet a member of ‘the Church of Jesus Christ’). And yet, this man’s generosity and devotion are recognized by God (cf. 10.4b). God is at work in this man’s life. How can God be at work in his life? By God’s Spirit, of course. God’s Spirit is the main character of Acts. The Spirit is the One through whom Jesus continues to be present to his disciples and to act in the world.
You know how the rest of the story goes: The angel who appears to Cornelius (who informs him that his devotion and generosity have been received by God) tells him to send for Peter. Meanwhile, Peter is getting a lesson from God about Gentile-inclusion. So that, by the time, Gentile messengers from Cornelius arrive, Peter is ready to go with them. Upon hearing the Gospel preached to them, Cornelius and his whole household received the gift of the Holy Spirit. It was upon their reception of the Holy Spirit that Peter initiates them into the church by the sacrament of baptism.
Who would deny that the activity of the Spirit in Cornelius’s life was the reign of God breaking in? How did it happen? By the power of the Spirit. When does the church come into the equation? When Cornelius’s household hears the Gospel about Jesus and receives the Holy Spirit.
- God’s Spirit is at work everywhere in the world—even among those we would least expect (e.g. Gentile Centurions, etc.). God’s Spirit is drawing people to Christ, as evinced by the vision of the angel and the command to send for Peter.
- The preaching and embodiment of the Gospel by Peter is met by the reception of the Holy Spirit in those among whom God is at work. God’s reign is manifest in their midst.
- Then, those among whom God has been at work by God’s Spirit, manifesting God’s reign, are initiated into the church.
Therefore, the church is the culmination of the in-drawing work of the Spirit in the world, and the front lines of where God’s shalom-making reign is found.
- basileia (transliteration of the Greek) means: royal power, kingship, dominion, rule—not to be confused with an actual kingdom but rather the right or authority to rule over a kingdom; of the royal power of Jesus as the triumphant Messiah; of the royal power and dignity conferred on Christians in the Messiah’s kingdom.