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The Kingdom and the Church

by Henry Stob*

(This entire section is from a chapter by the same name in Stob's book, Ethical Reflections.  The reader would be greatly advanced in his learning if he were to track down, buy, and read this book, as well as Stob's Theological Reflections.  These books are out of print and used copies may not be found anywhere for very long.  Search and find your copies today!)

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Moses, as the representative of Israel, with whom the Covenant was made, sees the redemptive activity of God in the context of the Creation and the Fall, and against the background of God’s cosmic and historical design. I think we can do no better than follow him here. I propose therefore to begin by setting our discussion of church and Kingdom in the context of the three great movements of the biblio-historical drama (A). I shall then undertake to say some further things about the Kingdom (B) and the church (C).

A. The Context of the Kingdom

(1) Creation

I conceive that in the beginning, as he emerged from an eternal Trinitarian council, God the Father said: "I (we) will not be alone. I do therefore now decide to create a world and to people it with beings, resembling me, whom I will introduce into my fellowship, and upon whom I will confer divine graces and virtues. I determine to include in the divine life those whom, presently having no being at all, I will call into being in order that they, finite though they be, may share in the blessed fellowship which I have with my Son and Spirit. I purpose and intend a kingdom, a divine-human fellowship, a living and holy communion, which will include myself and those upon whom I will confer being and existence." Having so spoken, and moved by agape, the essential divine will to impart and to enrich, God uttered the creative words: "Let there be man, male and female, made in my image and fit and furnished for my fellowship. And to house him, let there be a world, rich, variegated, and adapted and adaptable to the Kingdom of love that I envision."

These creative words inaugurated the first stage of the world’s history. This first stage was an age of innocence, unfinished at the start, but yet set straightly on its course, and capable, by linear development under the joint stewardship of God and man, of attaining the goal of creation: the civitas dei. Although time waited to be filled and fulfilled, the purposed goal, the intended city or kingdom, was in meaningful sense already present at the outset. Man and God were at peace, and all the other creatures were united under their beneficent and effective rule. The world was as God, its Creator and Lord, willed and intended it to be, and contemplating it God called it good. He saw that it conformed in every part to his grand design.

In the foregoing account I have several times used the word "Kingdom" or one of its cognates. This was deliberate. I mean by such language to suggest that in the first stage of man’s existence we have a paradigm and promise of man’s latter end, when God shall be supreme in an abiding fellowship of free spirits, contextualized by a controlled environment. I also mean to suggest by such language that paying attention to the doctrine of creation will enable us to see that questions concerning the Kingdom’s time and extent need not be as puzzling as they are sometimes taken to be. Whoever takes creation, and therefore history, seriously will immediately see that the Kingdom must be both present and future; it must as long as history endures be both actual and eschatological. And whoever takes creation, and therefore totality, seriously will know that the Kingdom must include the cosmic environment of persons as well as these persons themselves; it must in its final form be both realm and reign.

My reference to the Creator’s will for fellowship and my acceptance of Eden as paradigmatic of the Kingdom must not, however, be misunderstood. I do not conceive the Kingdom hoped for in the Old Testament and introduced in the New as identical with the Paradise that was lost. History is too real in Scripture to allow us to think of returning someday to a primeval state. I am also aware that the Kingdom which is depicted in the Bible is a redemptive rather than a creational magnitude and that theology can go seriously astray when it mixes redemptive and creational categories. I do nevertheless suggest that the Kingdom idea is primordial and that the whole of God’s engagements with men, from first to last, is understandable in terms of his will for fellowship and communion. His will to create is identical with his will to establish a kingdom.

(2) The Fall

After creation came the Fall. It is not my purpose to consider all of its entailments. It is sufficient here to note that in and through the Fall man fell away from God into the grip of anti-God, known in the Scriptures as Satan. To God’s thesis (the Kingdom of Heaven) this figure posed an anti-thesis (the Kingdom of the World), and he managed by flattery and half-truths to entice the entire human race to come over to his side. Adam and Eve, the father and mother of us all, forsook the God who made them, abandoned his design for their lives, and adhered with religious devotion to the adversary. In the moment that they did so God lost his earthly Kingdom, and Satan became a prince—the ruler of this world. God’s reign upon the earth was at an end, his cosmic realm was occupied by alien forces, and the still young embodiment of his grand creational design lay fractured and attenuated.

I say "fractured and attenuated," and not "lost," for if Augustine is right (as I think he is) in holding that the holy angels are also members of the Kingdom, then it would be inaccurate to say that in the Fall God’s Kingdom vanished completely. His regency in the hearts of his loyal heavenly subjects and his use of their ministry upon the earth, kept God in the lists against the adversary even on the kingdom level. This being the case we may, in some sense at least, speak of two kingdoms—God’s and Satan’s—even at the moment of the Fall and "prior" to God’s redemptive counter action. Yet, as I have already observed, the Kingdom is in the Scriptures a predominantly redemptive concept, and it receives its deepest meaning from the contest between God and Satan that rages in the world for the hearts of men once free and innocent but now captive and despoiled. And from this point of view it may be said that when God lost the allegiance of the man and women he had created he lost the reign he once possessed, and if there were ever to be a Kingdom of God it would have to come. And when it came it would have to come, not through linear development, but through a radically new manifestation and exercise of that Divine Love from which the world issued in the beginning. And it would have to come in and through a crucial engagement with those demonic powers which since the Fall have claimed title to the world and held oppressive sway over the lives of men.

I cannot well leave the topic of the Fall without remarking that the biblical characterization of Satan as the prince and ruler of this world obliges us to draw a distinction between God’s sovereignty and God’s Kingdom. Sovereignty is an inalienable property of God. It is not affected by anything that happens, and it is secure if nothing happens. It follows from this that since God did not cease to be God, he did not cease to be sovereign when the Fall occurred. His right and his might remained intact, and he could have exercised his authority and employed his invincible power to contain his rebellious creatures in hell or (in extremis) to annihilate the cosmos. But this was not his will. His will was not simply to be the Sovereign which he always was and will be, but to be for others. He willed not merely to be God but to be God in fellowship with men. In short, he willed a Kingdom, and this required of him not merely action, but creative, and since the Fall, redemptive and re-creative action. His sovereignty he possesses; his Kingdom he must achieve. The divine sovereignty is; the divine Kingdom comes. The divine sovereignty is given in and with God’s being; the divine Kingdom comes at an incalculably high price. There is no cheap grace.

(3) Redemption: Christ

Grace, the Scriptures tell us, came with Jesus Christ. In and through him God was freeing the world from the grip of Satan and reconciling it to himself. This is to say that in Christ, his incarnate Son, God was establishing or re-establishing his Kingdom, doing so on grander lines than before had been envisioned, and securing it by a final and decisive victory against all future threats. Jesus Christ accordingly stands at the very center of that Kingdom. In the biblical representations he appears first as its proclaimer or announcer, then as its inaugurator, and finally as its Lord.

(a) Proclamation—According to the Gospel of Mark, "after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the gospel of God, and saying, The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the gospel’" (Mark 1:14,15). Repentance and belief are the two sides of one coin. One turns from one thing towards another, in this case from sin to grace, from Satan’s hold to God’s embrace, from the kingdom of the world to the Kingdom of God. And the call to do this is in Jesus’ preaching urgent and insistent, for the Kingdom is at hand and in its forward movement it brooks no delay.

When Jesus said that the Kingdom was at hand or imminent, he meant, we may believe, that it was even now—in his own person-breaking in upon the world and establishing itself there. But two questions arise at this point. First, was the Kingdom, according to Jesus’ teaching, about to arrive, or was it arriving, or had it arrived? And second, was there no authentic Kingdom of God before the Christian era? The answer to the first question is, I believe, that the Kingdom decisively broke in only in and with the death and resurrection of our Lord. Before that time- in the period of his ministry of preaching, teaching, and healing-it was approaching, on the threshold as it were, though the power of it (as attested in the miracles) was already present and manifest. The answer to the second question is, of course, that Jesus is the center of history as well as of the Kingdom, and that his significance and power extends backward and forward through all time. By this token all those who accepted the promise of God that he would one day by a crucial redemptive enactment establish the Kingdom became proleptically members, beneficiaries, and exponents of it.

When Jesus said that "the time is fulfilled." That the long-expected Kairos had arrived, he was vindicating the eschatological hope of God’s ancient people, and giving the Kingdom its proper and enduring eschatological, and even apocalyptic, reference.

All this, according to Christ the Proclaimer, is the "gospel of God," which is basically the gospel, or "good news" about God. What men are here being told is that God is not for himself only, but also for others, or better: for himself with others, i.e., a God of a Kingdom, a God of a people, the God of the covenant. In the situation of men’s rebellion and alienation it is the announcement that God pities his perverse and recalcitrant creatures, takes no delight in the death of sinners, and has made provision for their entrance into life and happiness. It is his will that in preaching this be universally communicated, that all men be invited, indeed implored, to believe that God is for them, so that in believing they may join his blessed fellowship and enter his eternal Kingdom.

(b) Inauguration—As has already been indicated, the Kingdom may be said to have been inaugurated, made actual, presented, by Christ. This actualization took place, specifically, in the crucifixion and resurrection of our Lord. When he died on the cross he was not merely passive; he acted. And he acted in two directions. Satanward, he entered the house of the strong man and plundered him; he dethroned the god of this world (II Cor. 4:4) and destroyed every (foreign) rule and power (II Cor. 15:24). Through him God the Father disarmed the principalities and powers, and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in him (Col. 2:15). Godward, Christ satisfied the divine justice, thereby freeing God to forgive. In this way men were in principle freed, freed from the captivity of sin, death, and hell, freed for fellowship with God, and freed for joyous and triumphant participation in the course and work of the world now no longer subject to alien thrones and authorities.

(c) LordshipWhen Jesus was raised by the power of God, he was elevated by the faith of the believing community to the status of Kyrios (Lord) and worshipped as such. But more importantly he was by God himself, by virtue of his selfless sacrifice, made in fact and deed the Lord of the entire world.

Christians are therefore bound to believe that the Son of God, who in lowliness and self-denial gave his life for them, is the same one who by his resurrection and ascension has been given "all authority in heaven and on earth" (Matt. 28:18). God, we Christians may and do believe, is now in the ascendancy, not by the power of sheer omnipotence, but-in Christ-through the redeeming might of his love and grace. The Kingdom has been made real. God reigns in Christ, the firstborn of the dead, who in everything is preeminent; for in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God has reconciled all things to himself, making peace by the blood of the cross (Col. 1:18-20).

This being the case, Christians can and need be anything but timid and pessimistic. Knowing that Christ is Lord they may move confidently into the world, being assured that Christ holds title to it and will in it most surely accomplish his beneficent purposes.

And so it happens that members of the Kingdom do in fact enter the world, there by warnings to expose to men their lost condition, by proclamation to witness to Christ’s love, by persuasion to allure men into his presence, and by service and action to establish righteousness and peace in every department of life.

B. The Kingdom

When now we come to consider the Kingdom itself, it is easier to grasp what it is than to find words to express it. It is obviously nothing physical. It cannot be reached or discerned by the senses. It is also not an organization or institution, although it is operative in all actual realms. It is, it appears, essentially a "reign" or "rule." It is the active and effective rule of God in Jesus Christ over all things in all places toward the gracious ends that he has set. What God intends, the Bible indicates, is a community of persons animated by a single spirit, the spirit of God, and set down in an environment completely serviceable to righteousness, peace, truth, and every other value. His present kingdom or reign is his faithful and invisible ordering of things toward the fulfillment of that fixed and gracious intention. His future Kingdom will be that state, situation, or condition in which that intention is actualized, and when he in the company of his children will be all in all.

If this, or something close to this, be what the Kingdom is, how are we to answer the questions that are most often put concerning it? And how are we to judge among the various interpretations put upon it?

It seems evident, to begin with, that if the Kingdom is God’s rule-in the existential sense of a fixed divine determination to do good—there is nothing we can do to evoke or hinder it. All we can do is recognize it as a fact and thankfully accept it as a gift—or remain blind and unbelieving and fall under its judgment. It is certainly not by our moral efforts that God is enticed to be gracious or by our enmity that he is deterred therefrom; his love and mercy flow unprovoked and invincibly from his free and sovereign will.

If in a related question it is asked whether the Kingdom can be participated in, not only in the sense of submitting to it and thereby reaping its benefits, but also in the sense of witnessing to it, reflecting it, and even embodying it, then the answer would seem to be that indeed we can. We cannot put a finger on God’s reign and say, "lo here, lo there," but we can experience, absorb, and exert its power and so act redemptively in imitation of and in cooperation with our Lord. This, in fact, is the Christian’s calling. Having been renewed by having been placed under God’s gracious and re-creative rule, he is called on to preach the Gospel of the Kingdom in order that others may also fall under its beneficent sway. And this means, not only to do missionary work, though this is central, but also to go out into the public arena in order with disciplined vision and balanced judgment to work upon socio-political structures and institutions. The Kingdom will not be established that way, but signs and tokens of its presence will thereby be set up and its end will be thereby served.

If, in another question, it is asked where the Kingdom is operative, the answer must be: wherever the Spirit blows, wherever the Word is taught or preached, and wherever Christ’s healing ministry is undertaken-and in the latter case whether it is done in his name or not. God demands and expects the service of his own children, but he is not bound to this, and those who do not know him, or do not know him yet, are often made serviceable, beyond their willing or knowing, to the ends of his Kingdom. When such people are discovered by Christians they must be joined and helped, or alternatively recruited, whatever their open or hidden profession.

I shall conclude this discussion of the Kingdom by remarking on its universal or worldwide character. The Kingdom is worldwide, first, in that it embraces in its membership men of every epoch, tongue, race, color, and condition. The Old Testament theocracy was exclusive. It was for the most part the rule of God over men of a single race. The Kingdom of Christ is not so. It is universal in its spread. It overleaps all natural boundaries. The conditions for membership are not historical or biological, but exclusively supernatural, namely, grace and faith (both being produced by regeneration – Ed). One need but believe to get in.

The Kingdom of God is worldwide, secondly, in the sense that it calls into exercise all the faculties of men. It uses as instruments every single gift and talent man possesses. The Kingdom takes control of the entire being. This makes the Kingdom worldwide because man participates in and functions in every aspect of creation. When a man is incorporated into the Kingdom, therefore, he takes the whole creation with him, not intended that which is sinful, but yet everything that is human, and allows it there to be sanctified.

The Kingdom of God is worldwide, finally, in the sense that it embraces the whole of human society. There are, as we all know, two kingdoms, two commonwealths, two cities-the City of God, and the City of the World. As Augustine said, two loves have built these cities. The earthly city, the city of the world, is built by a self-love that despises self. Now the existence of these two cities or kingdoms recurrently tempts us to think that the world is mathematically divided between them is such a way that a line can be drawn separating the Kingdom of God on the right from the kingdom of the world on the left. According to this representation the Kingdom of God is not worldwide, but only half a world wide; or, since the other kingdom seems in this age to be in the ascendancy, a good deal less than half a world wide.

Against this it must be pointed out, first, that neither kingdom is satisfied with half a world. Both want and intend the whole. And what is more, both do in fact penetrate and influence the whole. The kingdom of the world is in the Church. It is there making its influence the whole. And, conversely, the Kingdom of God is and ought to be entering as a conquering force into the bastions of the enemy. The two kingdoms are founded on antithetical principles; the one will ultimately destroy the other; but for the present, in this age before the judgment, they struggle for supremacy, and in the conflict the lines of battle are not so clearly drawn that one can always with precision fix the boundaries of the rival cities. Each interpenetrates the other. In this interpenetration they do not indeed lose their identity and character, but the ground they are struggling for can seldom be assigned with clear and full title to either contender. It is precisely this which makes the moral life as difficult as it is. Were the situation different than in fact it is, one could replace the fluid and spiritual line that distinguishes the kingdoms with definite empirical line that separates them into two halves, one could erect a wall upon that line and, taking refuge behind it, keep oneself from every contact with the world. This, however, from the nature of the case is impossible, and this it is that makes Christian living dangerous indeed, but also the constant challenge that it is.

C. The Church

The Church is, quite simply, the body of believers. It is variously represented in the Scriptures. It is first of all the new Israel, the extension and continuation of the Old Testament people of God. It is also the body of Christ, made up of those who, being joined to Christ in a living grace-induced faith, are subject to him as their head. It is also the new community of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Love and Fellowship, by whose inspiration we cry "Abba, Father" and by whose instrumentality we are enriched with all the graces of Christ.

In relation to the Kingdom the Church may be defined as the totality of those who at any time have been delivered by the power of God’s reign in Christ from the toils of sin and death and have been reconciled to God. As such the Church is the living, burning center of the Kingdom, a witness to its presence and power, and a harbinger of its final coming. It is not the Kingdom, it is narrower than the Kingdom, but it is its central exponent.

This church may be called an organism, but it is an organism organized and institutionalized by Christ himself. The form of its organization may vary with time and circumstances, but its institutional character is not an accident or proprium but an essential attribute. The New Testament knows no church that is not thus instituted, and no other Christian organization can, if one abides by Scriptural usage, be properly called Church.

The Church—like everything else—stands in the God-world setting, but it uniquely reflects the ambiguity of the existence in its ambivalent attitude to the world, in its complex attitude to that created being which is qualified by sin on the one hand and by redemptive grace on the other. Because the world is sinful the Church condemns the world and calls its members out of it; because the world proceeded from the hands of a benevolent creator and was reaffirmed by him in redemptive grace, the Church affirms the world and settles its members in it.

Like its Lord, who was both God and man, both divine and human the Church is both sacred and secular, both holy and profane. It is the congregation of those who have been "separated" from the world and "drawn up" into sainthood, the community of those who have been "called out" (the ecclesia); it is the congregation of those who have not been taken out of the world but simply "met" and "visited" and "addressed" within the world which, with them, has, in the very act of being addressed, been justified and affirmed.

If this is the nature of the Church, this is also its mission, the character of its ministry. Its mission is to alienate people from the world and from the saeculum, and to orient them to God and to eternity, to the realm of the holy and the sacred. And its mission is to resettle people in a world that came perfect from the Creator’s hands and that is now, after being fractured though not destroyed by sin, in the process of being renewed through the power of redemptive grace. Its duty is to be both God-oriented and world-oriented, both God-affirming and world-affirming. Its duty is to endorse both what God is and what he has made, while yet retaining its clear perception of sin and passing its negative judgment on worldliness.

This complex duty it has not always fulfilled, and because it has not, the Church itself has frequently been censured-at one time for being too sacred, at another time for being too secular; at one time for being too world-denying, at another time for losing the celestial vision.

The current criticism is directed against the Church’s world-denying tendencies. A resurgent and very vocal secularism finds the Church much too sacred and otherworldly. I myself do not think that the Church is all that bad, and more of us should start filing disclaimers with the Church’s detractors both within and without its walls, but it must be acknowledged that the Church has seldom held its double orientation—to God and to the world—in strict equilibrium. It has sometimes—as in culture Protestantism—minimized its vertical reference altogether. But more often it has been the other way around; the Church, when it erred, has usually erred in minimizing and undervaluing the saeculum. It has tended to deny the world in and through its affirmation of God, and thus tempted the world, and even some members of the Church, to deny God in deference to the values of the saeculum.

The Church, in whom Christ the incarnate Word was meant to be historically embodied, has too often been docetic. It unduly spiritualized existence. It plucked its members as brands out of the fire, immersed them behind high walls, set them to kneeling and chanting behind stained glass windows, enlisted them for exercises in heavenly contemplations, induced them to adopt ascetic practices, dressed them in drab clothing, killed in them the taste for food and drink and for the chaste delights of lawful sex, weaned them away from any participation in worldly affairs, stifled their impulses toward social involvement, muted their laughter while they blunted their compassion, and generally unfitted them for earthly existence. This picture, of course, is overdrawn, but it bears a certain resemblance to the church we know, at least to the world-deniers within it.

This is the docetic error, and it is a massive error that must be stoutly disapproved. But as Chalcedon has taught us, there is another and opposite error as serious at the first, the error of minimizing or denying the sacred and the divine, the error of absolutizing the historical and the horizontal dimension. This error has many advocates today—within as well as outside the Church. Outside the Church it takes the form of naturalism, positivism, secularism, atheism. It expressed itself in the so-called "new morality" that knows no laws or any supernatural sanctions. Within the Church it takes the form of a demand for a religionless Christianity, for an incarnational theology reflecting an absolute kenosis, for a form of the Church that dispenses with liturgy and worship and exercises itself incognito on the streets in the service of the underprivileged and dispossessed.

The Church in this situation must hear and proclaim the authentic Gospel, move steadily in both a vertical and horizontal direction, and be at pains to combine liturgy with ethics.

 

 

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