Reviewed by Patrick Schreiner
Scot McKnight has a way of balancing scholarly acumen with an unassuming style. His newest book Kingdom Conspiracy: Returning to the Radical Mission of the Local Church leans on the practical yet also contains challenges to popularly held scholarly beliefs. McKnight proposes new definitions of the kingdom, its relationship to the church, and the mission of the church. He does this all with an eye towards those in the church seeking to understand Jesus’ kingdom message.
He begins by setting up two opposing views of the kingdom: those who view “kingdom work” as social justice (skinny jeans), and those who think of the kingdom as personal salvation (pleated pants). McKnight rejects both of these views in favor of what he calls a more holistic perspective.
This perspective views the kingdom as “people governed by a king.” Rather than just viewing the kingdom as “good works” or “God’s dynamic rule,” McKnight argues a biblical definition of kingdom must include people. On this basis he proposes that the relationship between the kingdom and the church has been misconstrued. More pointedly, he argues the “the church is what is present and peopled in the realization of the kingdom now” (87). This goes against the current consensus that while the church and the kingdom are related, they are not identical.
McKnight therefore argues if the kingdom and the church are synonymous, then kingdom mission must be church mission. This includes evangelism, worship, acts of justice, love, nurture, but all of these are in and through the local body of the church. In the church an alternative community is formed, one of love and good deeds. The church is a dwelling place for God, a kingdom politic, and those who live under King Jesus.
Points of Appreciation
Much can be commended in McKnight’s book. As the opening line of this review states, McKnight has a scholar’s ear, but writes with a pastor’s heart. His scholarship serves the church and connects to the mission of the local church. The following are points of appreciation with McKnight’s proposal concerning the kingdom and the mission of the church.
First, McKnight rightly advocates for a holistic view of what the kingdom is. For too long people have recited Ladd’s definition but a close analysis of the kingdom reveals that kingdom is God’s rule, over God’s people, in God’s place. You cannot siphon out one of these in neglect of the others. Many still define the kingdom as God’s dynamic rule, but McKnight is right to push on this definition and ask for more clarity. In light of this, McKnight focused on the “people” aspect of the kingdom. But he also did not fall into the trap of rejecting it being the rule of God. Rather he pleads for an integrated definition.
Second, although many will disagree with his construal of the relationship between the kingdom and the church, I separately came to the same conclusion in my study of Matthew. McKnight is right to point out the correlation between the kingdom and the church in the NT. Revelation 1:6 says “he has made us a kingdom.” A more holistic view of the kingdom forces one to reconceive the relationship. If the kingdom is rule, people, and place then “the church is what is present and peopled in the realization of the kingdom now.” I do not have time to go into the implications now, but McKnight is right that it has become natural to repeat the often cited “related but not identical” argument, but this statement says next to nothing. It arose most likely out of a reaction to three different factors: post-millennialism, dispensationalism, and politicized religion (see especially Roman Catholicism where the church and state became one). But I digress.
Third, McKnight places the kingdom within the story of the Bible. The kingdom or the “kingdom story” arose from a narrative and McKnight is careful to base his kingdom story on The Story. This includes an emphasis on Israel, Jesus’ Messiahship, and the role of the church.
Fourth, McKnight strongly places the church as the means of God’s activity in this world encouraging participation and criticizing those who do “kingdom work” outside of the church. Many will not be pleased with McKnight at this point, but he does not mince words when he calls those who love Jesus to also love the church.
Although McKnight’s book had much I appreciated, there were also a few points I would like to press into further. The first concerns the place of the kingdom. McKnight could have enhanced his case by also highlighting the “place” of the kingdom. For people must be placed. I write this acknowledging that this is my pet project at the time, but also appreciating that we came to the same conclusion through different avenues. If the kingdom is a place as well as a people and rule, then where is that place now? It must be in the church. My analysis of Matthew’s view of the kingdom and the church confirmed McKnight’s proposal.
Second, at points McKnight set up straw men, especially in his construal of “Skinny Jeans” and “Pleated Pants.” Surely some are as extreme as McKnight suggests. However I have found that a good cup of coffee with even the stiffest of pants reveals that they acknowledge personal salvation and good deeds go hand in hand. McKnight is right that some emphasize one to the exclusion of the other, but he may have set it up a little too neatly.
Third, the “Plan A, Plan B, Plan A Revised” did not seem to be more comprehensive or helpful than Creation, Fall, Redemption, Restoration. McKnight’s new construal focused more on Israel’s story. But wouldn’t most in the CFRR include that in the “Fall” section, at least implicitly? The CFRR summary is not claiming to be exhaustive, but is a helpful tool and memory device for simplification. Any simplification will necessarily leave out details and does not claim to be comprehensive. Additionally it seems that his construal did not focus on the cross enough. Jeremy Treat’s most recent book has argued for a close connection between kingdom and cross.
Fourth (and related), I did not like the language of A, B, A’. Some unintended consequences arise from calling it Plan A, Plan B, Plan A Revised. It communicates that God’s first plan did not work, so he went to another one. This came to the fore the most pointedly when McKnight began discussing the nature of Israel wanting a king. A better construal of 1 Samuel 8:7-9 acknowledges that they wanted a king for the wrong reason, but it was God’s plan all along. Wrapping 1 Samuel 8 in the clothes of Genesis 50:20 is more satisfying. Their intentions were wrong, but God meant it for good. In fact, I think this paves the way for the Flesh King. Calling the Incarnation of the Son Plan B or even Plan A’ revised doesn’t seem like a helpful category.
Overall I was appreciative of the book. McKnight will get the most heat on his construal of the kingdom and the church, but I agree with him on this. It is time to break out of the Laddian straightjacket. McKnight focused on the story of the Bible, the kingdom, Jesus’ identity, and the importance/mission of the church. And these are the themes it seems the NT itself emphasizes.
Patrick Schreiner is Instructor of New Testament Language and Literature, Western Seminary.
Buy the books
Kingdom Conspiracy: Returning to the Radical Mission of the Local Church