May 8, 2013 / David Fitch

Is the Kingdom Outside the Church? Yes and Here’s Why: My Take on Matt 25 by David Fitch

imagesWarning theological post coming.
Is the Kingdom a.) contained within the boundaries of “the church?” the people who have already submitted to the Lordship of Christ?

Or is the Kingdom b.) outside the church where God is already working irrespective of where the church is or isn’t,

or c.) is there a combination where in effect God’s rule is already at work, but indeed the Kingdom becomes manifest materially wherever His people gather to submit to His presence in that time and location?

The relationship between church and Kingdom is a key issue for missional church. How we discern it determines whether a church turns internal and even triumphalist (option a.?), or whether a church becomes so dispersed it loses the wherewithal to recognize God’s Kingdom in the world (option b.?). I believe Matt 25:31-46 holds the key for understanding this dynamic.

In Matt 25 Jesus tells the story of the final judgment of the Son of Man sitting on the throne separating the sheep from the goats, the righteous from the unrighteous (vs 31ff). After welcoming the righteous into the Kingdom who were “with the least of the brothers” by giving food to the hungry, drink to the thirsty, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and those in prison, these righteous ones say to the Son of Man “when was it we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, when was it …etc etc.?” The Son of Man answers (vs 40), “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.”

There are two common interpretations of the “least of these my brothers” in verse 40 (and 45). One interpretation (the “particularist” interpretation) understands “least of these my brothers” to refer to Jesus’ disciples and judgment is based upon how the world receives them and their mission.  Here for many reasons, including a desire to avoid turning work with the poor into a works-righteousness, the Kingdom (and indeed the presence of Christ) is located exclusively with the church. “The least of these my brothers” are the disciples of Christ and the righteous are those who receive them well. To see this argument in full I recommend looking at Martin Tripole’s “A Church for the Poor and the World: At Issue with Motlmann’s Ecclesiology” Theological Studies v. 42, p. 645-659.

The other interpretation (the “non-restrictive” interpretation) says that “the least of these” refers to all of those who are in need wherever they be found. Therefore the righteous are those who spend time/ ministering among them. The poor is where the very presence of Christ is (for it was I –the Son of Man- who was hungry and you gave food to eat etc etc. ). Moltmann argues that, since the Church is wherever Christ is, and Christ is to be found present with “the least of these,” the church is to be found outside the church proper (of already believing Christians). The church is to found wherever the poor are.   p126-130 Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit. See Klyne Snodgrass’s Stories With Intent p543ff. for exegetical comments that support this interpretation.

And so what we have here is a standoff where the “least ones” are either a.) the disciples in the world and therefore the presence of Christ/the church is located with the believers, or b.) the poor who are encountered in the world by the disciples, and here, the church is located in and with the poor. Option a.) some worry succumbs to colonialism. Option b.) some worry succumbs to dispersing the church/Kingdom with a loss of discrimination.

Over against these two options, I propose the Kingdom /the presence of Jesus becomes manifest in the dynamic of the disciple (or the church) becoming present with the “least of these” bringing love, reconciliation and renewal, wherever that occurs. I contend by being “with” the least of these in everyday life, not in worldly power but in service, the church opens the space for the dynamic of the Kingdom. Jesus’ very presence is made manifest.  The Kingdom literally takes on material reality as a foretaste of where the rest of the world is already going but not there yet.

This interpretation expands the boundaries of God’s work both in the church and beyond. It takes the borders of church beyond the ones who believe (the particularist position). Yet it provides the material means to discern the Kingdom in concrete circumstances (something lost in the non-restrictivist position) via the church, for it is when the church extends itself into the neighborhood, submitting to Christ as King in act of presence with the poor, that the Kingdom is discerned.

What this interpretation unfolds is this marvelous Kingdom missional dynamic that takes place when the church’s practices being “with” the least of these.

This dynamic is set loose when we are “present” with the least of these, with no pretention, out of everyday life, with no worldly power or mammon. Just as the “righteous” in Matt 25 come expecting NO reward (“when were we doing this?” they ask), so we also are “with” the least of these simply as part of our lives. The unawareness of the disciples in Matt 25 indicates they were doing nothing special. It was all just part of who they were, their everyday life. And out of this genuine presence, the relational space becomes the site for the authority of Christ to break in, his very presence to be made manifest, and the social relationships to be realigned. The Kingdom breaks in as we followers of Christ submit to His Rule and invite others to join in with us in this place.

For me Matt 25:31-46 testifies to the Kingdom dynamic set loose in this practice of “being with.” There is KIngdom happening here. The words in Matt 25:40 “when you did it to the least of these, you did it to me” are similar to the words “whoever welcomes this child welcomes me” (Matt 18:1-5 ) and “whoever listens to you listens to me” (Luke 10:16) where in each case there is a correlation with the idea of the Kingdom coming into our midst (Luke 10.9,10; Matt 18:4). This Kingdom coming is associated in each case with Christ’s presence. “It was I myself who is present in that space.” So one should read the words of the Son of Man in Matt 25 as referring to actions that were signs of the Kingdom breaking in.  The Son of Man in verse 32 is “judging” the people who are in and out of the Kingdom. But it is a reflective looking back kind of discernment. When you were doing this, you were already in the Kingdom, because I was present there, the Kingdom was breaking in. A such, being “with” the “least of these” should be read as a practice of the church which makes space for the Kingdom to break in.

I believe there are at least seven practices that function like this, given to us by Christ, that when we as disciples practice them in submission to one another and Christ as King, we become the means by which a site is opened for the Kingdom in our churches and in our neighborhoods. In essence these practices bleed into the world from our life together under His rule. These practices are reconciliation (Matt 18:15-20), the gifts of authority for leadership Eph 4:7-13,  the Eucharist (Luke 22:24-30), proclamation (Luke 10:1-17), Being with children (Matt 18:1-5) , Kingdom prayer and of course “being with” the poor, here in Matt 25: 31-46. In each case, Christ promises his presence, “that was me,” “I was there,” “there am I,” “he who receives you receives me.” In each case there is an authority set loose that is of another Kingdom, Christ’s Kingdom. I contend these practices are not just for the church proper, but are the means by which we participate in Kingdom inbreaking activity everywhere as we go in the neighborhood, work and everyday life, by inviting others to join in. This is the basis of a new book I am writing

I have come to see in my own life that being present with the poor is an incredible dynamic when done in prayer, simplicity and out of the patterns of everyday life. Out of this “being with” space is opened up for reconciliation in Christ, gospel proclamation, healing and renewal, discernment and the gifts, prayer, and transformation to come in through the Spirit. Our lives become transported into the arena of the work of the Spirit, the very presence of Christ, and His rule breaking in. But for many reasons in our society we have lost these ways. And we must begin to lead people again into this incredibly simple practice, which should not be a burden, but a transforming way of living life in the Kingdom

What do you think? How do you see Matthew 25? How does Matt 25 help you in understanding the dynamic of the Kingdom, the poor and the church’s presence in the world? Thanks to Ty Grigg for dialoguing.