KINGDOM CONSPIRACY by Scot McKnight
Reviewed by Rob Fairbanks
Do you wear skinny jeans or pleated pants? Kind of a strange question, but those are the metaphors theologian Scot McKnight uses to describe two prevailing and popular views of the kingdom of God in his book, Kingdom Conspiracy: Returning to the Radical Mission of the Local Church (Brazos, 2014). The first view, skinny jeans, predictably represents a more current approach that frontloads public-sector social-justice activism, while oftentimes bypassing the church. He writes, “Kingdom means good deeds done by good people (Christian or not) in the public sector for the common good.” The second picture, again predictably, is a perspective that is more commonly found in “traditional” Christianity. He describes this group’s view as believing that “the kingdom is both present and future, and the kingdom is both a rule and reign.”
McKnight is not content with either of these views. The thrust of the book juxtaposes these two with what the author considers a more robust theological and holistically biblical approach.
A key element of the book is re-setting a view about the kingdom from a redemption/salvation aspect to its natural Old Testament view of a “nation” and “Israel.” He writes, “Thus, kingdom is front and center about a people and cannot be limited either to social ethic or a redemptive moment.” McKnight contends that a proper view of the kingdom addresses five elements: a king, a rule of a king, a people the king rules, a law by which the king reveals how to live as one of his people, and a land in which the king rules. He doesn’t give up the “already/not yet” aspect of the kingdom that captures the best of both perspectives.
Where he arrives—and what I think is the strength of the book—is connecting this view of the kingdom to church. There truly has been a shift of perspective related to the church. For many there is the feeling of: Kingdom, yes! The church, boo!!! Those who embrace this attitude simply by-pass the church with the idea that if what really matters is the kingdom, then God won’t mind if I just do kingdom stuff and stay away from the church.
McKnight will have none of this. And this is where he “lays the lumber” and probably shocks not just a few by saying unapologetically (ready for this?): “There is no kingdom now outside of the church.”
“There is no kingdom now outside of the church.”
– Scot McKnight
What? I could feel both my stomach muscles and my theological sensibilities contract as I read that statement. Even though I am a churchman—even though I have given my entire life to leading the church—I was caught off guard. Did he really mean to write that?
McKnight clarifies that the idea of kingdom in Jesus’ world always meant “a people governed by a king.” This is at the very heart of the book’s effort to reunite kingdom and church. “If kingdom is a people and the church is a people, then it follows that the church are the kingdom people. The church, then, is what is present and peopled in the realization of the kingdom now.”
In other words, if you assert that there is a king, there must be a kingdom, and if there is a kingdom, there must be a people. If that makes sense, we must ask regarding the New Testament: Who are the people of the King? There might be some astute interpretive device to wiggle out of that syllogism, but even with a natural reading of the New Testament, the people of the King is the church. Citing Bonhoeffer, McKnight writes, “The church according to Paul’s understanding presents no essential difference from Jesus’ ideas [about the kingdom].” If that is true, McKnight’s assertion that there is an undeniable link formed between kingdom and the church cannot be avoided.
“At the very heart of kingdom mission are kingdom people, the church of King Jesus,” he writes. “In one short expression, then, kingdom mission is first and foremost church mission.” He spends an entire chapter describing what a mission would look like that draws in both redemptive activity and social engagement. It includes evangelism, worship, catechesis, fellowship, edification, discipleship, and the utilization of spiritual gifts. Sounding very N.T. Wrightian, McKnight recaps:
I want now to sum up what kingdom mission is: Kingdom mission flows from the kingdom story, and that story focuses on God at work in history as God brings that history to its focal point in Jesus as King. That kingdom story, then, focuses on God as King through King Jesus…kingdom mission forms a kingdom people and that kingdom people in the present world is the church. This means kingdom mission is all about forming and enhancing local churches as expressions of the kingdom of God in the world.
While one may disagree with how McKnight arrives at his conclusion, there is no denying the strength of his conviction.
A few takeaways:
First, I read this in the company of two different groups of “skinny jeans” folk (none of them, by the way, appreciated the caricature). One was a group of undergrad theology majors from the university where I teach, and the other was a group of theology studies graduates in their mid-20s who attend the church I pastor.
Second, I really like Scot McKnight. As a matter of fact, he is one of the truly helpful theologians I have read. I felt his books on the gospel and the atonement were spot on and timely. That said, to a person, everyone I read this book with felt that McKnight could have accomplished his objective just as powerfully with a much shorter book.
Third, I feel Scot did an admirable job pushing people to “deal with” the church. As a pastor, I have seen a steady flow of people with an atrophied ecclesiology simply go it alone outside of the church, thinking they are standing on solid theological footing. McKnight boldly dispels the feasibility of this idea. He may have overreached with some of his language of kingdom and church correspondence, but his desire to recapture the relationship is both commendable and very much needed.
McKnight closes his book by saying, unflinchingly, “The only place kingdom work is and can be done is in and through the local church when disciples (kingdom citizens, church people) are doing kingdom mission”—and, I might add, whether you wear skinny jeans or pleated pants!
Rob Fairbanks has been a lifelong church planter, involved as both local practitioner and international catalyst. He currently resides in Spokane, Washington, where he is an adjunct professor of theology at Whitworth University and leads a church plant called Immanuel in the city.