Book Review: Kingdom Conspiracy: Returning to the Radical Mission of the Local Church by Scot McKnight

Kingdom Conspiracy: Returning to the Radical Mission of the Local Church (Author) Scot McKnight, Brazos Press, 2014, pp 304- 978-1587433603

Over the years, I have learned a lot from Scot McKnight.  He has done  fantastic work on  the Jewish context of Jesus. I have always that a detailed understanding about the kingdom theme is imperative to healthy discipleship. I have also been in mission work to Jewish people for several years and know they mostly reject the claims of Jesus being the Jewish Messiah because of a different expectation of the kingdom of God.

McKnight begins by differentiating between what he calls the “ Skinny Jeans versus Pleated Pants” pastors and how they define the kingdom. He says:

 “For the skinny jeans crowd, kingdom mission is working for social justice and peace, and the foundation for most of these efforts, besides the writings of folks like Bill McKibben or Wendell Berry, is a selection of life-giving and important texts from the Bible ( 4), Kindle version.

Furthermore, McKnight says, “Millennials, who are shaping the Skinny Jeans vision of kingdom, have turned the kingdom message of Jesus into a politically shaped message. Perhaps we should ask if they are leaving churches not so much because the message is too political but because the politics are too conservative” (5).  Meanwhile the “Pleated Pants” the Pleated Pants crowd, which includes males and females— have produced shelves of books examining what the Bible teaches about kingdom. Listening to this crowd makes one wonder if they are ever looking at the same Bible! For the Pleated Pants crew, two theoretical questions have risen to the front of this three-century-old discussion: When does the kingdom arrive? (9)

McKnight then goes onto discuss how the kingdom is both present and future. He also spends time appealing to  the work of George Ladd (a monster theologian) who wrote extensively on the subject. I appreciated McKnight’s comments about Ladd’s personal struggles (his sins) while he tried to be a scholar. McKnight goes on to say:

Pleated Pants folks have delicate egos, so I want to put this issue about the timing of the kingdom into a theoretical epigram: to the degree that the kingdom has been inaugurated, it can be realized in our world today. The kingdom has invaded this world in and through redemption in Christ, and to the degree that the kingdom has been inaugurated, it can make us new people. The kingdom now is not the perfect kingdom of the not yet, and that means kingdom citizens are not yet perfect, not yet fully loving, not yet fully holy, not yet fully just, and not yet fully peaceful. But Jesus’ redemptive lordship is at work in the now, so kingdom citizens are to reflect that lordship” (11).

McKnight also correctly points out that “kingdom” means both rule and realm. He says: you can’t have a realm without someone to rule it, and anyone who rules has to have a realm over which he or she rules, and it is unfair to the Bible to force us to choose”(12).

Given I have used the C.F.R.C. (Creation, Fall, Redemption, Consummation), acronym at times, I appreciated McKnight’s critique of the problems with it. He says:

Questioning this age-old way of reading the Bible is like sticking my finger into your coffee to see if it is warm enough, but I shall because there are three significant problems with the C-F-R-C story: (1) it has taken over how people read the Bible because (2) it is a reading of the Bible that resonates with humans personally. Therefore, (3) it is a narrow or inadequate reading of the Bible. There’s so much more. Those who read the Bible solely through the C-F-R-C plot have an annoying propensity to read Genesis 1– 3 to get their C and their F in place, but then they skip all the way to Romans 3 or to the crucifixion scenes in the Gospels to get to the R. This skips 99.5 percent of the Old Testament. Some, too, tend to omit any serious discussion of Israel or church or the people of God as the locus of what God is doing in this world. Why? Because the focus of the C-F-R-C story is on personal salvation, it is also a focus on the salvation of the individual. By all means, the Bible tells the story of redemption, and each of us needs to be saved, and the C-F-R-C tells us how that happens. That’s good. But when the Bible’s story is reduced to the redemption story, we lose much of the story” (25).

I agree 100% and this is why many Christians are closet Marcionites without even knowing it.

McKnight rightly puts the kingdom theme back in the center of Israel. Hence, if you don’t know the plan of Israel in the Bible, you won’t understand the kingdom theme.

McKnight goes onto appeal to James Dunn’s work about the messianic/kingdom expectations at the time of Jesus.

Dunn says we must begin with the story context: “It will have to be the context of Israel’s memory of its own monarchic past, of Jewish current experience under the kingship of others, and of the hopes of the faithful regarding God’s kingship for the future.”

 He begins with three simple observations and then drenches those three points in a powerful display of evidence from Judaism of the various nuances at work at the time of Jesus. His three simple observations are these:

(1) God was King over all the earth (Ps. 103: 19); (2) only Israel acknowledges God’s kingdom, and that means Israel’s king (when they have one) is specially related to God the King; and (3) this universal kingship of God will someday, perhaps soon, expand over the whole earth. The integral features in the big story of Israel are these:

God is King, Israel is God’s people and as such is God’s kingdom, and God’s kingdom will someday cover the globe. We can say the story has three nonnegotiables: the universal kingship of God, the covenant kingship of God with Israel, and a future universal rule. These three nonnegotiable beliefs in the Old Testament and in the shaping of Judaism’s story are rarely alone and almost never this abstract or theoretical. Instead they flow into very timely and contextualized expressions, and it is here that Dunn advances our discussion. When those three ideas were at work in real ways with real people in real contexts, they wore all sorts of attire, and Dunn lists fourteen different ways this basic story was told in various contexts: Return from exile Hope for prosperity, healing, or paradise A Messiah The renewal of the covenant Building a new temple Return of YHWH to Zion Triumph over, destruction of, and sometimes inclusion of gentiles Inheriting and expanding the land A climactic period of tribulation Cosmic disturbances leading to a new creation Defeat of Satan Final judgment Resurrection Sheol/ Hades morphing into a place of final retribution This list does not come from one Jewish source. Each of the themes has traces or footings in the Jewish Scriptures, the Old Testament. Each takes on either emphasis or de-emphasis depending on the author and circumstance. Each can be the entry through which the whole story of Israel can be told. It is not as if there are fourteen elements of the one story that we are called to tally up, making sure each gets represented in each retelling of Israel’s future”(46).

He then says:

When Jesus said, “The kingdom of God has come near,” he made that announcement in the context of these other expressions. Yes, there’s something new in his retelling of the story, but mark my words: when he talked about the kingdom drawing near, these are the sorts of ideas that flashed across the memory screen of the ordinary Galilean” (46)

McKnight then goes onto why the story of Jesus was in competition with the following: The eschatological battle of God found in the Psalms of Solomon (God’s Messiah goes to war); the Maccabean and Zealot (strategy of holy warfare);the Essene strategy of holy withdrawal; the Pharisee push for greater zeal for Torah observance, and the Sadducee strategy of realism by cooperating with Rome.

He also discusses the various differences between liberation theology, the social Gospel, and how both the religious right and the religious left turn their political views and their desire for power and influence into idolatry. After all, how many Christians assume getting the right person in office is detrimental to God’s plan for America? He says:

In the United States, both the Moral Majority (or the Christian Coalition) and the Christian progressives have succumbed to Constantine; that is, they are tempted to use the state’s force (even if of the majority) to legalize the Bible’s teachings and its arena to carry out their battles. I see three modes in the Constantinian Temptation: Ethicize: we ethicize the kingdom into justice and then turn justice into “social” justice. We do the same with peace. Secularize: we secularize our deeply grounded ethic of love when it becomes tolerance; we secularize the cross when it becomes service; we do the same with resurrection when it slides into generalized hope. Politicize: we politicize the kingdom when we enter the political process in order to bring about the desired kingdom realities of Jesus and the Bible”(206).

One quibble I did have is McKnight’s take on Galatians 6:16. He says: “Once we begin with Israel as the beginning, the church naturally will be seen as the “Israel of God” (Gal. 6: 16)” (88)

While there has been many interpretive challenges and differences of opinions on this text, he goes on to say:

 “Paul shatters many of our preconceptions when he refers to the gentile believers as “wild olive shoots” grafted into the tree trunk called Israel (Rom. 11: 17– 21). If some of the branches have been broken off, and you [gentiles], though a wild olive shoot, have been grafted in among the others [faithful Israelites] and now share in the nourishing sap from the olive root, do not consider yourself to be superior to those other branches. If you do, consider this: You do not support the root, but the root [Israel] supports you. You will say then, “Branches were broken off so that I could be grafted in.” Granted. But they were broken off because of unbelief, and you stand by faith. Do not be arrogant, but tremble. For if God did not spare the natural branches, he will not spare you either. The image is clear, and we need to embrace it if we want to understand what church means. Paul did not say that God chopped down the original tree trunk (Israel) and planted, nurtured, and caused a new tree (church) to grow. Yet that is what so many Christians believe: they believe God has put paid to Israel and pushed them off the cliff. This makes God unfaithful. No, God’s promises are not obliterated, nor are they forgotten: they are up front and central to how Paul understands the church. The unfaithful of Israel are clipped from the same tree trunk called Israel, and gentile believers are grafted onto that tree trunk called Israel. For this reason it is wise to see the church as “Israel Expanded” and not as “Israel Replaced.” Those who are most sensitive to the Old Testament are also sensitive on this issue, and a good example is Christopher Wright: “It is a totally false and misleading reading of the Bible to imagine that God had a Plan A (Israel), which failed, so he replaced that with Plan B (the Christian church). The Bible never talks of the replacement of Israel with the church, but rather of the expansion of Israel to include the Gentiles.” Any reading of the apostle Paul reveals that Paul strives to incorporate gentiles into the people of God, into one unified fellowship. In places like Romans 11: 25 he calls God’s plan to expand Israel with gentiles the “mystery”(89).

I agree with this assessment.

In the end, McKnight wants to put the kingdom mission back into the Church. But for McKnight, we need to have a clear understanding of what we mean when we say the word “kingdom,” and how it was understood in its original context. He says:

Kingdom mission, then, is local church mission which includes, evangelism worship, catechesis, wisdom fellowship, love edification, advocacy discipleship, nurture gifts, Spirit unleashed. 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” (208).

McKnight rightly notes that nobody can actually say they are doing “kingdom work” if they don’t know and profess King Jesus as Lord.

He says:

In my years of talking about kingdom theology there is one question to which I go when I want to know where a person stands or when I want to get a student to think more articulately about where she or he stands on this kingdom issue. The question is this: Did Gandhi do kingdom work? For the Christ-transforming-culture approach the answer is on a spectrum from the ambivalent “Not really but kind of” to “No.” Since his work is parallel to what God’s church is called to do, since his work is good and just . . . for these reasons and plenty of others, Gandhi, though clearly not a Christian, in some sense did kingdom work for many in the transformation approach. In the liberation theology approach the answer is, “Yes, Gandhi’s peace work was kingdom work because Gandhi did God’s will.” Anyone establishing justice and peace is doing kingdom work regardless of their faith. I say, “No, only kingdom people do kingdom work, and since Gandhi is not a kingdom person he did not do kingdom work” ( 255).

He also says:

We don’t have an ethic for our Christian life and another ethic for our public, worldly, secular life. We have one ethic because Jesus is Lord over all. We confess Jesus is Lord, so when we are faced with an economic decision, we look to Jesus; when we are faced with a community decision, we look to Jesus; when we are faced with a family decision, we look to Jesus; when we are faced with an education decision, we look to Jesus; when we are faced with a global decision, we look to Jesus; and when we are faced with a political decision, we look to Jesus. We look to Jesus because Jesus is Lord.” (103).

Overall, I learned a lot from Kingdom Conspiracy. I had already read several books on the topic and have thought about this issue quite a bit. I think this book has plenty to offer and can take a disciple of Jesus from simply accepting Jesus as their Savior and truly make Him the King of their lives.


2 thoughts on “Book Review: Kingdom Conspiracy: Returning to the Radical Mission of the Local Church by Scot McKnight

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