The Kingdom is the Church. Huh? Scot McKnight’s Kingdom Conspiracy (Post 3)

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Previous to this post (here and here), I’ve described two of McKnight’s proposals in his book Kingdom Conspiracy. Now I’d like to turn towards the more controversial proposals in the book: that the Kingdom is the church and there is there is no Kingdom (now)outside of the church. He lays the groundwork for these assertions in ch. 5 and ch. 6.  Here goes. The Kingdom is a People Governed By A King

In chapter 5, entitled “Kingdom is People,” McKnight argues that throughout the Bible, especially the Old Testament, “kingdom” implies “a king, a rule, a people, a land, and a law.” In the OT, “Kingdom” always refers to Israel, a circumscribed area ruled by a king. He spends some time on how land is important (but I think I prefer the very dynamic understanding of inhabiting the land as gift as seen for example in Brueggemann’s book The Land). McKnight covers all five of these components of Kingdom, going into some detail from various texts. But the crux of the issue for McKnight is his statement on p.74: in the Bible, “the “kingdom” always refers to a people governed by a king.”

The kingdom therefore is not merely a dynamic that happens ‘magically’ in redemptive moments. It is not merely good works that follow a principle of justice extracted from Jesus life and teachings wherever that may be found. It is not “the spiritual reality of God at work in this world to transform God’s people into Christlikeness” ala Dallas Willard (p.84). It is a geopolitical people under a king. (p.66)

Now I prefer “socio-political” reality over his “geo-political.” Geo-political sounds too static to properly convey the idea of the OT and NT. Nonetheless, I too believe, along with McKnight, that the Kingdom is a spatial reality formed among a people socially as a political reality: a people together in the world. These people tend to their geography, where they live as part of inhabiting a place. This social reality takes visible shape wherever God’s people gather together to submit one to Jesus as Lord (or King) and live under His rule, power and authority. Out of this dynamic a social reality is birthed that makes the Kingdom visible. This social reality (or political reality) is a prolepsis, a harbinger, a making visible of God’s kingdom among us as a sign and foretaste of where the rest of the world is going when “all things have been made subject” (1 Cor 15:25) and ”the city has no need of sun or moon to shine in it” (Rev 21:23). The Kingdom then, in my words, is the social space of His Lordship.

The Kingdom is the Church  

In chapter 6, building on chapter 5, McKnight makes an even more controversial claim. He takes aim now at the now affectionately labeled “skinny jeans and pleated pants” justice people. He asks, if the Kingdom is always a people governed by the King, is the church this people?

McKnight’s answer to this question is a qualified “yes.”  Playing off of Jesus first and his words to Peter in Matt 16:16-19, “and I tell you Peter … on (you) this rock I will build my church … (and ) I will give you the keys to the Kingdom …” McKnight says “Jesus connects the present church (a people) to the future kingdom (a people). He connects what Peter does now in the church to what God will do then in the kingdom … church and kingdom are indissolubly connected … The church, then, is what is present and peopled in the realization of the kingdom now.” (p87). McKnight then exposits on this claim in the ensuing pages.

One of his best observations is made in anticipation of those who would argue that if what he says is true, then the present day church is a sad expression of the Kingdom. It bears little resemblance of the Kingdom described by Jesus.  In response, McKnight warns against comparing the church now with the Kingdom not yet. Such an understanding places undue expectations on the church with the inevitable accompanying disappointments. McKnight says instead we need to compare “kingdom now with church now, or kingdom not yet with church not yet.  But to compare church now with kingdom not yet is not fair to the church.”

McKnight has opened the door here for this very important conversation. Where is the Kingdom? And What is the relationship between Kingdom and the church? The Kingdom has become a nigh master-signifier meaning so much stuff, that it is hard to tell what would not be included in Kingdom work. (See my epilogue on Brian McLaren and the Kingdom in this book here). McKnight has clarified some terms, set the Table for various positions on the issue, and given us much to chew on in terms of the Bible. This book is significant as an accessible conversation starter.

Where all this leads (or flows from) is McKnight’s most controversial claim: there is no kingdom now outside the church. BOOM! McKnight said it. And now the discussion hits full tilt. McKnight makes no one happy with this statement. The Skinny Jeans progressives are unhappy with the necessity of the church, the pleated pants are equally disjointed over the too close equation of the church with the Kingdom. And I myself have gone a few go arounds with Dr McKnight. But I’ve learned a few things since he wrote the dedication page for this book. I hope to nail them on the next (and concluding) post on Kingdom Conspiracy.

Til then, what do you think of McKnight’s proposals? A.) The Kingdom is a People governed by a king. B.) The church is the kingdom.


Looking to study these things in depth? With McKnight and other scholar practicioners? Check out the newM.A. in Theology and Missionat Northern Seminary.

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14 responses to “The Kingdom is the Church. Huh? Scot McKnight’s Kingdom Conspiracy (Post 3)

  1. I attempt to deal with this issue in my book “Heaven on Earth: Experiencing the Kingdom in the Here and Now” (2013), which was written for a general audience, but based on the latest scholarship. It is the result of a decade long study. I hope your readers will take a look at it.
    While the church is an embassy of the kingdom and holds the keys to the kingdom, it is not THE kingdom. As James Dunn observes, wherever the eschatological Spirit manifests itself, there is the kingdom.

    1. That book, everybody, is by Alan Streett (his name is misspelled) from Criswell College. Alan, as you know, Scot did his PhD with Dunn. I think you and he differ on somethings. Although I haven’t got the chance to open your book yet. (Sorry)David Fitch

  2. This is why I didn’t vote yesterday. But I am still learning.
    On another note, for those who think more in Willard’s terms (which is most all of my Christian friends who I talk to in person on a regular basis), I wonder how helpful it is to try to teach them about the history of our Western anthropology(ies), which, obviously, involves our history of our relationship to place (and space). I have been trying to do this to a degree, with my closest friends, and I think it only exasperates them. :/

    Another friend knows our history quite well, and it’s like he has scales on his eyes. He’s a committed Skinny Jeans wearer – without having thought through the kingdom ramifications, other than to repeatedly declare that the kingdom is not political, Christianity is not a religion, and that his political concerns belong to the earthly order of things as opposed to the heavenly. So I ask him if he’s a Kuyperian. He responds he’s not a Calvinist. We talk about it for an hour, and suddenly he’s a Kuyperian. Lol.

  3. McKnight said something with us (Vineyard) this summer that I thought was funny – the Kingdom is not identical to the church but it is the same.
    We, in the Vineyard, are always being told what we think Kingdom theology is. It is rather amusing.

    I think this requires we define what the church is more than we define what the kingdom is. And, that is the problem. In the Vineyard, we have many definitions and expressions of the church… I have friends who have tried to define the “Mega Church” expression of the Vineyard as Para Church Mission Centers. With the smaller expressions of the church acting as “the church.” I don’t even know what to do with that.

    My definition of church is much more shaped by my time at Northern now. This actually fits in the more missional and smaller expressions of the Vineyard. This direction started at the turn of the century as my generation started trying to figure out how we would embrace the post-Christian context.

    1. Are you saying that Scot has direct interaction with the Vineyard? Speaking as someone who has spent plenty of time in and around the Vineyard, I think that’s pretty damning for the sincerity of his argument in the book. One of my biggest gripes with his skinny jeans vs pleated pants caricatures is that I have trouble pinning them on large groups of actual Christians in the real world.
      I can think of a few extreme examples to fit Scot’s analogies. But, for instance, the Vineyard is the only denomination (that I know of) that was specifically founded on modern Kingdom theology and it doesn’t fit the pleated pants or skinny jeans caricatures very well at all. In general, the Vineyard covers both / and of his two “groups.” You will find pleated pants, skinny jeans, and lots and lots in between in the Vineyard. Just one denomination, the most primary bastion of inaugurated eschatology / Kingdom theology that exists in the real life local church world, flatly contradicts his inaugurated eschatology straw man. It’s pretty annoying.

  4. A very interesting thesis! I need to order the book and really think it through.
    A couple of questions:

    1) Does Scot deal with the objection that the cosmos is God’s kingdom in OT texts like Gen. 1, 66:1, etc. It seems to me there are two stories inter-weaved (one ultimately serving the other): Yahweh as King of Israel / the church and God as King of the Cosmos.

    2) If the kingdom = the church (and only the church in the present), is God not also King of the world? What does that say about God’s sovereignty?

    As I said, I definitely need to read the book and his point seems to me to be very important (but I wonder if slightly overstated)? Guess I’m not ready to ditch Willard just yet.

  5. I would think that if we accept McKnight’s conclusion the kingdom is the church we would have to then take the step to also embracing Roman Catholicism. Otherwise how does one clarify what is the church and what is not. Does McKnight address this?

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