What does the kingdom of God look like in practice? Great question, yes? I am enjoying two books that highlight the gap between the kingdom conditions of the early church and the condition of the current church. One is by the esteemed New Testament scholar, Scot McKnight, entitled, Kingdom Conspiracy – Returning to the Radical Mission of the Local Church. The other is edited by James R. Payton, entitled, A Patristic Treasury – Early Church Wisdom for Today (essentially it’s a list of writings and excerpts from the early church fathers – the folks who carried on the church after the first apostles of Jesus).
What struck me, among many things, is how McKnight, writing in 2014, lines up with a letter from one of the early church fathers – The Letter to Diognetus (150-225, author and audience unknown – but an incredible piece of work). The letter describes the reality of the distinctiveness of the early church. McKnight argues for our need to return to such distinctiveness. Hence the gap.
Here are excerpts from both, quoted at length to illustrate the point:
Letter to Diognetus (150-225)
Christians are indistinguishable from other men either by nationality, language or customs. They do not inhabit separate cities of their own, or speak a strange dialect, or follow some outlandish way of life. Their teaching is not based upon reveries inspired by the curiosity of men. Unlike some other people, they champion no purely human doctrine. With regard to dress, food and manner of life in general, they follow the customs of whatever city they happen to be living in, whether it is Greek or foreign.
And yet there is something extraordinary about their lives. They live in their own countries as though they were only passing through. They play their full role as citizens, but labor under all the disabilities of aliens. Any country can be their homeland, but for them their homeland, wherever it may be, is a foreign country. Like others, they marry and have children, but they do not expose them. They share their meals, but not their wives.
They live in the flesh, but they are not governed by the desires of the flesh. They pass their days upon earth, but they are citizens of heaven. Obedient to the laws, they yet live on a level that transcends the law. Christians love all men, but all men persecute them. Condemned because they are not understood, they are put to death, but raised to life again. They live in poverty, but enrich many; they are totally destitute, but possess an abundance of everything. They suffer dishonor, but that is their glory. They are defamed, but vindicated. A blessing is their answer to abuse, deference their response to insult. For the good they do they receive the punishment of malefactors, but even then they, rejoice, as though receiving the gift of life. They are attacked by the Jews as aliens, they are persecuted by the Greeks, yet no one can explain the reason for this hatred.
McKnight – 2014
But [today’s] Christians have failed to embody the church as an alternative politic and have instead opted for influencing and improving Caesar or transforming culture or using the political process to accomplish their wishes. Americans love politics, as do people all over the world. America is made up of lots of Christians, and this means that many Christians get riled up in the political process. Many fall for what I call the “eschatology of politics,” the belief that the next candidate or vote can bring in kingdom conditions [i.e., the return to the distinctiveness above]. Some give themselves to politics, and an increasing number have joined hands with the political process through social activism. To be blunt, many have abandoned the church and opted for the political process and are now calling it kingdom work.
In one simple sentence: what Christians want for a nation should first be a witnessed reality in their local church. Until that local church embodies that desire for the nation, the church’s witness has no credibility. When it is embodied in the local church, that embodiment is the only activism the church needs. Put directly, fighting for justice means embodying justice in the local fellowship; striving for peace means striving for peace in the local church; opposing abortion means converting sexuality into a pure, loving, and family-honoring joy; contending for economic justice means living out the kingdom vision for all we own and have. But too many Christians have ignored the politic of the local church and bowed down to the politics of the world.
In a very real sense Christians have lost sight of the kingdom mission (and approach) as exemplified in The Letter to Diognetus. McKnight is calling the church back to its mission (and cruciform approach), as modeled by King Jesus.
What are your thoughts on the state of the church, its mission, its focus…etc?
Thanks for reading,