For Clarity: Understanding Kingdom Theology and Work (and their ramifications)

Did Ghandi do Kingdom work? Stealing this question from Dr. Scot McKnight’s Kingdom Conspiracy, I ask my students (mostly upperclassmen at an Evangelical university) this question. The students have, by the point they engage with this question, finished Dr. McKnight’s text, having the term ‘kingdom’ well defined, unpacked, explained, and applied. They have even had the question answered by Dr. McKnight—no, he did not—and yet there is a difficulty in many of their answers. They do not want to agree with McKnight, though his logic has proven true at each step. There is a reticence in the answers. Many students write things like “in a way he did, but” or “to an extent” or “it depends on how you define kingdom”. The final receives the most eye rolls as I grade given that both my teaching and the assigned readings give basically the same definition (and Kingdom Conspiracy argues it is the only way to biblically understand the term kingdom). The struggle, it appears, is the desire to attribute all good things to the kingdom. As such kingdom work encompasses everything from fighting for social equality (as Ghandi did) to recycling, as my agnostic neighbors do. 

Kingdom Conspiracy by Dr. Scot McKnight juxtaposes the tendencies of both conservatives (Pleated-Pants) and liberals (Skinny Jeans) to overly simplify the Kingdom of God in order to seek a third-way. We need to be clear on what the Kingdom is if we are to seek it.
Kingdom Conspiracy by Dr. Scot McKnight juxtaposes the tendencies of both conservatives (Pleated-Pants) and liberals (Skinny Jeans) to overly simplify the Kingdom of God in order to seek a third-way. We need to be clear on what the Kingdom is if we are to seek it.

It is an understandable desire to have, to attach the works of those whose message and life seems so much like Christ to the same things he is working for. But we make two fatal, and I truly do mean fatal, errors when we associate the work of Ghandi with the Kingdom that Jesus now rules over from the Father’s right hand. The first error is that if Ghandi did kingdom work, we expand the definition of kingdom beyond the bounds of its use and understanding in scripture. The Bible, as McKnight shows, uses the word kingdom in a very particular way, and codifying a use of kingdom in Christian vocabulary that is foreign to the use in the Bible is at best confusing, and at worst theologically damaging. 

Confusion sets in when the word kingdom is applied to so much that it looses all its meaning. It is just another buzzword that is a part of current Christian parlance and will fade away with the next wave of Zondervan book titles. Thus kingdom, which was once such an effective and robust word, precisely because it was limited in semantic range, follows discipleship, Christ-centered, gospel-driven, relevant, and authentic to the metaphorically dusty shelves of Amazon.com. 

Worse than mere confusion, theological error becomes imminent when we meditate on the consideration that Ghandi may have done kingdom work. Consider that Rob Bell’s infamous Love Wins posed the question of Ghandi’s eternal destiny in its first chapter. Reason will guide us very quickly to very troubling conclusions if Ghandi was doing the Lord’s work in his Indian social reform. For example, if Ghandi did do kingdom work, how could he then be excluded from the kingdom? Some may at this point quote the sermon on the mount:

21 “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. 22 On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ 23 And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’

— Matthew 7:21-23 (ESV)

Considering the prophesying and casting out demons are a clear sign of the presence of the kingdom in Jesus’s ministry, the citation of Matthew 7:21-23 seems justified. Are these not then men who are excluded from the Kingdom on account of some deficiency in their relationship to Christ, in spite of their work for the Kingdom? Possibly, but that does not fit well with Jesus’s response. It is not that they have denied him (as Ghandi did), for they come to Jesus proclaiming “Lord, Lord.” Rather, they failed to do the will of God. How could any act be kingdom advancing, orienting, or supporting if it is outside of God’s will? The tentative conclusion that I, then, draw from this passage is that prophecy and exorcism are not intrinsically kingdom works, but are so when they align with God’s will. 

There is much that could be said on such a point, but I think it is important to move on to the question as to why so many evangelical youths desire to connect Ghandi to the Kingdom of God. I think the basic problem is a misunderstanding or a false equivalency of the missional/kingdom work of God to the providential work of God. The triune God is constantly at work in this world, though not all God’s work is advancing his kingdom and ultimate ends. For example, Colossians 1:15-20:

[15] He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. [16] For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. [17] And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. [18] And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. [19] For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, [20] and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.

— Colossians 1:15-20 (ESV)

“In him all things hold together.” Jesus is right now holding all things together. This is not explicitly kingdom work, this is the work of God’s caring providence for his creation, that he maintains it. The Psalms are full of such language and imagery. We may juxtapose this work with that of the cross, the illumination and regeneration of the Spirit, and the election of God—each of these has a clear connection to the progress of the Kingdom of light against the Kingdom of darkness.

Having this distinction in mind, I have no problem stating that God used Ghandi to accomplish some good things and to advance the cause of justice (a kingdom value), but that Ghandi was not working for the advance of God’s kingdom because he was not working in the name of the King. We need to be able to say that good things are done in this world as the result of God’s grace and in accordance with his plans and desires, without feeling the necessity to attribute it to the Kingdom of God.

I have now said quite a bit about what the Kingdom isn’t, but I have said precious little about what the Kingdom of God is. Following McKnight’s lead, allow me to say that a kingdom is a place (realm) where a king governs (rules) his people. As such the kingdom of God is where God’s king governs his people. To fill that out a bit more, the Kingdom of God is where ever Jesus (God’s King) reigns over his people through his word and power. The kingdom, then, exists in the hearts of disciples of Christ and is displayed in the local church—where disciples of the king gather to hear his word proclaimed and applied, and then obey his word through fellowship, baptism, and the Lord’s Supper.

Thanks for reading,

t.d.h

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