It has become commonplace in parts of the missional discussion to make a strong emphasis on the distinction between the kingdom and the church. I agree the two are not identical. Try replacing “kingdom” in the gospels with “church” or “church” with “kingdom” in the epistles and you quickly realize synonyms they are not.
But like the proverbial rear view mirror, might these objects–the kingdom and the church–be closer than they appear?
What are We Talking About?
The kingdom is often described as God’s reign and rule. I like to particularize this definition by pointing to the first and last chapters of the Bible. Genesis 1-2 and Revelation 21-22 give us a picture of the kingdom. Where the kingdom is present there is peace, provision, and security. Mourning and pain give way to joy and comfort. Human relationships work right, and our relationship with God is free and confident. Most importantly, in the kingdom God is all in all. Consequently, the wicked will not inherit the kingdom. They cannot belong to God’s realm, because sin cannot stand in the presence of the King. In the kingdom, everyone worships and reverences the King.
This literal heaven on earth is what the kingdom of God is like. Adam and Eve lost it in the garden. The Israelites lost a type of it in the promised land. And Jesus came to usher in the fullness of the kingdom once and for all, culminating in the day when the kingdom of this world will become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ (Rev. 11:15).
Where Will We See It?
If the kingdom of God is heaven breaking into earth, Eden being replanted, the New Jerusalem nailing in stakes, then we should expect to see the kingdom almost exclusively in the church. Of course, the church, living in the world, ought to embody the principles of the kingdom. Likewise, we will be pleased when the world around us reflects many of the values of the kingdom–forgiveness, compassion, mercy, and justice. But we will not expect the world, in this life, to become the kingdom.
Here’s the problem: when people talk broadly about bringing heaven down to earth on the culture writ large, they can’t help but be selective about the nature of the kingdom. So some Christians will argue for dismantling of nuclear weapons because in the kingdom swords are beaten into plowshares. True, but in the kingdom everyone also sits under their own vine and fig tree. The vision of the kingdom/garden/city is one of extravagant opulence and prosperity. So should we try to be as rich as possible as a sign of the kingdom’s in-breaking? Well, no because the kingdom is not the full reality yet. As a result we must temper the notion of kingdom-living prosperity with the reality that some people don’t have enough to live. In the same way, we must temper the notion of kingdom-living pacifism with the reality that there are lots of bad guys in the world who don’t want us to live.
In other words, when we think of the kingdom as what we are trying to build in this world we will be severely disappointed, potentially dangerous. But when we see the church as the presence of the kingdom in this world then the theological pieces start falling into place. The oversight in some recent conceptions of building the kingdom is that the kingdom is only thought of in terms of social services. But where Christ reigns, wickedness is expelled too. If you want to build the kingdom in your town, if you want heaven to come down to earth in your city, then you must not allow unrepentant sinners to live there. For Scripture is clear that they share no part in the kingdom.
But once we understand that the local church is the witness to and manifestation of the kingdom the Bible makes more practical sense. In the kingdom, possessions are shared so that no one has to suffer want. That’s why the needs of the covenant community are met through the deacons. In the kingdom, unrepentant sinners are barred from entering. That’s why we have membership and church discipline. In the kingdom there is relational harmony and everyone is accepted by God and delights in God through his Son Jesus Christ. This is not only the goal of the church, but only in the church could we ever expect to see these realities.
So yes, we desire to bring the heavenly kingdom down to earth. But the kingdom that comes, the one we are looking for and living in, shows up in the church.