I’ve been reading through Scot McKnight’s Kingdom Conspiracy, and while I think he probably doesn’t press his insights far enough into their conclusions, it’s a very good book, and if you’ve ever wanted a good, popular-level introduction into the ideas raised by the historical-critical world of biblical studies opened up by folks like N.T. Wright and James Dunn, I highly recommend it.
One of the things Scot brings up very early on is the tendency for modern Christianity to make the gospel either about individual “salvation” (where do I go when I die?) or a program of social transformation. He will argue for a definition of “kingdom work” that I think is headed in the right direction.
When we look at the formation and mission of Israel, we see that their primary job description is to be something. They are to be a nation of justice, compassion, mercy, restoration, and peace – a shalom kingdom. For His part, God would ensure this kingdom’s perpetuity and prosperity in the world.
But this kingdom was not supposed to wall itself off and isolate itself in a bubble. No, by being this kingdom, they were supposed to be a witness to the other nations of the reality and supremacy of their God, the world that this God wanted, and be a model to them of what that looked like. As they interacted with other nations, they would do so in ways consistent with their identity and witness. The idea being that other nations would observe this and want to get in on it. That they, too, would repent of their sins and embrace Israel’s God as their own.
So, Israel was not called to change the world directly – they were called to change themselves and, by doing good to one another and the world they came into contact with – call the nations into joining their project.
When we think about what this means for faithful, YHWH-following communities, today, I would argue the basic identity and mission is still very similar. Our faith communities (McKnight identifies this with “the local church,” which I don’t think is wrong, exactly, but I don’t want to make a hard equivalency with the specific, Sunday-go-to-meetin’ traditional concept of the local church that we’re used to) are called, first and foremost, to be something. The call/testimony/invitation to the rest of the world flows out of a healthy and vibrant identity that should be realized in the world.
Our faith communities must run on the Torah of love. We are to be kingdoms of peace, love, justice, mercy, compassion, and restoration. When one of us wrongs another, the wrongdoer should be swift to make amends and the wronged should be swift to forgive. The poor should be clothed and fed. The weak and struggling should be cared for and helped along. Mercy and reconciliation should be the themes of our justice, and indeed, justice should rule in our faith communities. In sum, we should look like the new creation; we should look the way we want the whole world to look.
If we can’t get this together, what are we calling people to? Where is our authority if we, ourselves, are not this kingdom? Shall we criticize the immorality of the culture around us if we have people in our congregation who won’t speak to each other? Shall we call the world into relationship with YHWH while we bar our gates against homosexuals? Shall we send money to feed the hungry “over there” while we have people in our own congregations who are in danger of eviction?
I realize that particulars are messy, and I don’t want to get into a debate about which needs are greater than other needs, etc. etc. Every person and congregation has to reason about this together based on what opportunities God has presented to them. But my point is this: any calling out we do to the outside world or any good we do in the outside world has to begin with a solid core that radiates outward. Before we give a testimony, we have to be a testimony.
If we could see our way clear to model a counter-cultural community that eschewed the values that drive the nations around us and worked our butts off to realize a community that sacrificially loved and cared for its members and ran itself according to the values God cares about, we might find that others would be interested in this project as well – the broken, the lost, the hungry. We might find that, rather than going out trying to get people to listen to us, that our doors would be full of people trying to get in.