Church, Kingdom & Government part 1

Here is part one of The Church, the Kingdom and Human Government—a three-part essay from Grace Communion Seminary President Gary Deddo (click here for part 2, and here for part 3).

Introduction

The Resurrection of Jesus by Coypel
(public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Scripture declares that the resurrected and ascended Jesus Christ is Lord and Savior of all the cosmos! This singular revelation, coupled with the whole of the Scriptural revelation, sheds light on everything—on all of life and all history (and beyond!). Who Jesus Christ is, what he has done, is doing and will yet do as Creator and Redeemer, has everything to do with everything!

As Christians, we apply this insight to our life together as the body of Christ, the church, and then to the other spheres of life beyond the boundaries of the church. In doing so, we are thinking out of a Christ-centered worldview [1]—a way of seeing all spheres of life in accordance with the mind of Christ. A primary challenge in this is to discern Christ-centered answers to two important questions:

  • Since Jesus Christ is Lord and Savior of all, what should the message of the church be to the world outside the church?
  • As Christians, how should we live in relationship to the spheres of human life that surround the community of the church?

Properly answering these questions necessitates having a Christ-centered, biblically-informed understanding of the nature, purpose and interrelationships of three key spheres:

  • The church of Jesus Christ.
  • The kingdom of God.
  • Human government outside the church.

How we understand these spheres and their interrelationships shapes how we live in the world as followers of Jesus. Sadly, some have misunderstood what the Bible teaches and, consequently, have become cynical or hopeless noting that neither the church nor any human governments are the ideal. Others have compromised their faithfulness to Jesus and the church, seduced by false hopes and catastrophic fears promulgated by worldly ideologies.

To avoid these pitfalls, it is vital that we think carefully about this topic and not assume that what we read and hear are true. As of yet, a clear consensus within the church concerning how to put all this together has not been achieved. That lack seems to be due to the failure of much teaching to take into full account the triune nature of God, the return of Jesus (bringing about the fullness of the kingdom), the nature of the church, and the nature of human governments. Thus, there has been a failure to account for the purpose and place of each of the three spheres in God’s plan, leading to the blurring of the biblical distinctions between them. This has, in turn, led to the church making these mistakes:

  • Losing track of its God-given purposes and proper boundaries.
  • Regarding itself as the kingdom (rule and reign) of God, standing within the larger world.
  • Setting itself up as the ideal human government, standing over other governments, assuming that the church is the kingdom of God on earth.
  • Promoting certain human governments as being the kingdom of God on earth with universal rule over all other human authorities, thus ceding to human government what belongs to God alone.

When these and similar mistakes have been made, the church has lost its saltiness (by which it seasons the world) and its voice (by which it proclaims to the world the true hope of humanity). In this essay, we’ll seek to avoid these mistakes by defining the God-ordained roles for and the interrelations of the church, the kingdom of God, and human government. In doing so we’ll draw on the insights of several theologians who, sharing our incarnational Trinitarian foundations, articulate a theological synthesis of the biblical revelation concerning the topic. Though it can’t address every related issue, we’ll seek in this essay to provide a succinct outline of a Christ-centered, gospel-shaped and biblically-informed way to approach the topic. Let’s begin by addressing a vital point: The church is not the kingdom of God.

The church is not the kingdom

Though not entirely separate, the church and the kingdom of God are not the same, and must not be confused. Since Jesus is Lord of both, believers (members of the church) do belong to the kingdom. However, they cannot participate in the kingdom in the same way they participate in the church, because the fullness of the kingdom is yet to come. In the meantime, the church operates within “the present evil age” (Gal. 1:4). During this “time-between-the-times” (between Jesus’ first and second advents), it does not seem that all things are in subjection to Christ’s lordship (Heb. 2:8). Therefore, the church’s basic orientation to the kingdom is one of expectation and hope, awaiting the coming fullness of the kingdom (Matt. 25: 34; Luke 22:18; James 2:5; 1 Thess. 4:15; 1 Peter 1:3, 13; Titus 2:13).

For now, the church gathers to worship the triune God. These gatherings include those who have been incorporated into the body of Christ by receiving, as a gift, the “down payment” (or “first fruits”) of the Holy Spirit. Believers are “sealed” with the Holy Spirit, who is given to them based on Christ’s finished work. Those indwelt by the Spirit have met the King and are enjoying daily personal fellowship and communion with God through the Spirit. In that way, they are experiencing the first fruits of the coming kingdom, which already has drawn near. They worship God in Spirit and in truth, receiving the fruit of the Spirit into their lives, and serving one another using the gifts the Spirit distributes to the body of Christ as he wills.

The promise made by Jesus of the coming of the Spirit to form and be with the church has come to pass. However, the promise Jesus made regarding the kingdom has largely not come to pass. So, during this present age, the church waits patiently and with great expectation, for Jesus’ bodily return to earth to usher in the kingdom’s fullness. Because Jesus is now bodily absent from earth, his kingdom is yet to come—his rule and reign are yet to be fully manifested here on earth. That fullness is only possible when he will be personally present to reign. Therefore, the church does not, indeed cannot, experience the fullness of Christ’s rule and reign here and now. That is why we pray, as Jesus taught us, “Thy kingdom come” (Matt. 6:10, KJV).

During this age, the church does not yet exemplify the total and final reality of the kingdom of God. Neither Jesus nor his select apostles expected that it would. Rather, the church is being continually sanctified by the ongoing ministry of the Holy Spirit in accordance with Jesus’ high-priestly prayer in John chapter 17. As Jesus noted in the parable of the wheat and tares (Matt. 13:24-30 KJV), the church in this age is far from sharing in the fullness of Christ’s rule and reign. The assembly of the church includes both believers (wheat) and not-yet-believers (tares)—even some tares opposed to Christ. However, the church does provide concrete (albeit imperfect) witness to Jesus, proclaiming the sure, future coming of his kingdom in all its fullness.

The kingdom: already-but-not-yet

Though the fullness of the kingdom is yet to come, it is present already in a limited way. Through knowing Jesus and being, by the Spirit, in a right relationship with him, the church experiences something of Christ’s rule and reign in this age. In this way, the church is said to be a “sign” (or “parable”) of the coming fullness of the kingdom of God. At the present time, the kingdom is mostly hidden, and so its coming fullness is the Christian’s hope. The church does enjoy fellowship with the King of the coming kingdom. It does participate (has “koinonia”) by the Spirit in the kingdom that is yet coming in fullness. That participation now is a sign—a real, actual pointer to what is yet to some. As a sign, it is not itself what it points to, namely the promised fullness of the kingdom.

The New Testament uses the idea of signs frequently. It speaks of believers having an inheritance, a down payment, the first fruits, and a sealing. As those living in the “time-between-the-times,” Christians do not yet possess in full what these signs portend—we don’t yet have what we will inherit, the full payment, the full harvest, or what is yet to be unsealed. Thus we understand that the church, being a sign of the coming kingdom, participates in the kingdom now in part, but not yet in its fullness. [2]

For Christians, the kingdom is regarded as an inheritance that will be received when Jesus returns and sets up the fullness of the kingdom. At that point in time (which Scripture calls “the end of the age”) all will necessarily recognize Jesus as Lord and Savior—even those who refuse to enter his kingdom (Phil. 2:9-11). At that time, all powers and authorities will be subservient to him and his goodness and grace (1 Cor. 15:25-28). Evil will be no more. Every tear will be wiped away (Rev. 7:17; 21:4) and all things will be made new (Rev. 21:5). Those who presently believe in Christ, acknowledging him as King and Lord of all, hope and pray for the coming fullness of his kingdom, and they look forward to entering it. As noted in Jesus’ teaching and throughout the New Testament, that coming is regarded as a future event, which will occur only at the end of the age. Meanwhile, believers participate in Christ’s assembly, the church.

The church: commissioned to proclaim, not be the kingdom

Jesus has commissioned the church to preach the kingdom of God as the world’s ultimate hope. Note that the church does not preach the church—instead it proclaims the ultimate hope of the church. Note also that the church is not commissioned to declare the church to be an ideal social or political entity. The church is not the kingdom and it ought not try to be or set up the kingdom.

The church has not been commissioned to try to establish an earthly ideal prior to Christ’s return. This is true whether we’re addressing the role of the church in society, or the church taking over the role of human governments. The gospel is not a message of humanistic idealism achieved with a little outside help from God.

Jesus and his apostles taught that the church must pray to God, asking him (not the church) to bring about the arrival of the kingdom on earth so that his will would be done fully on earth as it is in heaven. Jesus taught that his kingdom was “not from this world” (John 18:36, NET) and its coming is not something that can be observed (Luke 17:20). Thus the kingdom of God cannot be identified simplistically with any earthbound thing, event or pattern of events.

The kingdom of God does not arise from within this present evil age. It does not develop out of the systems within our fallen world. Rather it is given from above (by God from heaven) and comes to earth with Christ’s coming down from above, from where he now is seated in the presence of the Father. Until that coming occurs, the church acts here and now with hope and expectation as it waits with patience.

Following Jesus’ ascension and awaiting the sending of the Spirit, the disciples were counting on Jesus’ promise that the kingdom was coming (though Jesus had not told them when). Just before the ascension, they had pressed Jesus for the details, wondering if the kingdom would arrive immediately, perhaps with the coming of the Spirit. In reply, Jesus revealed three things about the kingdom of God:

  • That it was coming, thus indicating that it was not already fully present.
  • That the Spirit would definitely come to them soon, while the kingdom, in contrast, would arrive at an indefinite future time—a time unknown, even to Jesus.
  • That though the coming of the Spirit and the coming of the kingdom are related, they are not the same thing, and so will be manifested at separate times.

As we know, the Spirit descended on Pentecost and indwelt those who received him. That great event inaugurated the church, not the fullness of the kingdom. The church, rather than being the kingdom, is a “sign” of the kingdom, for in the church the King is recognized even if the extent of his kingship (his rule and reign, which constitutes the kingdom) is not fully evident to all here and now.

So, while the Spirit became present and active in a new way at Pentecost, the kingdom did not come—it was not set up in its fullness on that day. However, the church was brought into being that day and its presence on earth continues. The Spirit came but Jesus, the King, ascended.

In reciting the Lord’s prayer and otherwise, the church has always prayed for the kingdom to come. Doing so was in accordance with what Jesus taught his disciples, for the kingdom is a disciple’s ultimate hope. In hope, we long for Jesus’ kingship to be fully manifested, operative and experienced in all the world (Luke 11:2). Beginning with Pentecost, the church was clearly established on earth and could be observed. Believers clearly are participants in the church as members of the body of Christ, here and now (between the times). The same cannot be said about their participation in the kingdom of God.

Before the arrival of the kingdom in all its fullness, the church exists on earth in particular times and locations. In his letters, Paul addresses them as such: “To the church gathered at [name of city or region].” The church is the visible assembly of those incorporated by the Spirit into the body of Christ—those called and gathered for worship. They are also those who are then sent out to share, with Christ, in the Father’s mission to the world by the Holy Spirit. They fulfill this calling by proclaiming the King and his coming kingdom.

Notice that the church does not go out and proclaim itself. There is a distinction to be made here. The kingdom is the hope of the world. That cannot be said about the church. Instead, the church is a humble witness to (sign of) the kingdom. Yes, those who are incorporated into the church by the Spirit will experience something of the benefits of the kingdom now, though the kingdom is yet to come in its fullness.

The calling (vocation) of the church is not to be the kingdom, but to bear witness in word and deed to Jesus and to the hope of his coming kingdom. That hope will be fulfilled only when Jesus returns. The kingdom, which is hoped for, is not and cannot be seen here and now:

For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience. (Rom. 8:24-25, NRSV)

In the present age, the church with its members has a personal relationship with the Triune God that is centered on worship and witness. All that Christ has done for us is still being worked out in us as we continually hear the Word of God and by the continuous ministry of the Holy Spirit, who leads the church on mission, witnessing to Christ and his kingdom. As the body of Christ, the church, we have not reached the goal, but we are on the way. We know the Lord and receive from him his grace, peace, joy and comfort, even before the complete rule and reign of Christ becomes evident. As believers, we are in real, daily and dynamic personal relationship with the head of the body (Christ) by the Holy Spirit.

By God’s grace, the church as a community and as individuals is given the privilege of bearing witness to who Jesus is and to the hope of his coming rule and reign, which will range over the whole earth and the entire cosmos, establishing a new heaven and earth—something that has not yet occurred. It should also be noted that the existence of the church is part of that witness to what is yet to come, namely the kingdom of God. Lord, speed that day!


Endnotes

[1] Click here for a series of articles on the topic of worldview conversion in GCI Equipper.

[2] In part 2 of this essay, we’ll explore in greater detail how the church, in a limited way, participates now in the kingdom of God by embodying partial, provisional and temporary signs of the kingdom’s coming fullness.

August Equipper

Here are links to the articles in the August issue of GCI Equipper:

From Greg: Worldview Conversion
Greg Williams introduces a series on worldview conversion, facilitated by whole-life discipleship.

Worldview Conversion: What and Why
Ted Johnston defines worldview and shows how it shapes our sense of personal identity and ethics.

Healthy Church: Faith, Hope & Love Venues
Greg Williams begins a series on healthy church, looking at the venues where church health emerges.

Kid’s Korner: Back-to-School Blessing
Georgia McKinnon looks at conducting a back-to-school blessing service.

Prayer Guide: August 2018
Here are topics related to our GCI family to pray about each day in August.

RCL Sermons
Here are sermons for September that sync with the Revised Common Lectionary readings:
September 2, 2018
September 9, 2018
September 16, 2018
September 23, 2018
September 30, 2018

In case you missed them last month, here are the sermons for August:
August 5, 2018
August 12, 2018
August 19, 2018
August 26, 2018

Thankful for small church pastors

Though our congregations are small, the hearts of GCI’s pastors and facilitators are big—wide open to the lead of the Holy Spirit who forms and sends the church. However, because their congregations are small, some GCI pastors suffer under the unjustified perception that there is something wrong with them. Karl Vaters seeks to correct that misperception in a Christianity Today article, where he notes that

there are millions of small church pastors doing great, kingdom-building work with little or no budget, little or no facilities and little or no salary. Yet every day they bear as much, if not more pastoral burden as their full-time big church counterparts. All without recognition for the extraordinary sacrifices they make (not that they’re expecting any). They teach the Word, pray for the sick, comfort the hurting, visit the forgotten and more. Often while putting in 40 or more hours at another job to pay the bills. (Click here to read the full article.)

We in GCI are very grateful for our pastors (they are superheroes in our book!). We encourage you to join us in the Home Office in praying for them. May God bless each of them, and through them bless our congregations as we seek to fulfill our vision of Healthy Church.

Worship in GCI congregations

Here is information about GCI’s standard approach to worship found on the GCI Resources website.

The worship of God is central to the church. Through its worship services, GCI seeks to glorify God and edify those who attend by proclaiming the gospel through Scripture reading, preaching and singing; the administration of the sacraments (baptism and the Lord’s Supper); praise and intercession in prayer; and the giving of offerings.

Gospel-focused worship pattern

Along with many others in the body of Christ, worship in GCI follows the Christ-centered and gospel-shaped pattern of the Western Christian calendar as detailed in the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL). This pattern of worship is organized around a weekly celebration of the gospel (see the recommended order of services below) that is typically held on Sunday, the day the risen Lord Jesus was first encountered. As shown in the diagram and list below, the worship pattern then includes several annual celebrations that highlight key aspects of our Lord’s life and ministry along with other key aspects of the gospel.

(source)
  • Advent (four Sundays preceding Christmas)
  • Christmas eve and Christmas day
  • The season of Christmas (Christmas through January 5)
  • Epiphany Sunday
  • Transfiguration Sunday
  • Ash Wednesday
  • Lent (Ash Wednesday through Palm Sunday)
  • Holy Week services:
    • Palm Sunday (celebrated as Passion Sunday when there are no Maundy Thursday and/or Good Friday services)
    • Maundy Thursday
    • Good Friday
    • Holy Saturday (Easter Vigil)
    • Easter Sunday
  • Easter season (Easter through Pentecost)
  • Ascension Sunday
  • Pentecost Sunday
  • Trinity Sunday
  • All Saints’ Sunday (Sunday after All Saints’ Day)
  • Christ the King Sunday

Liturgies for church services & ceremonies

To assist congregations in following its standard worship pattern and content, GCI publishes RCL-synced sermons in GCI Equipper (click here to access) and the liturgies linked below for worship services and church ceremonies.

Flexibility granted

GCI congregations may adapt the denomination’s standard liturgies to accommodate local customs and needs (though the basic formats and content should be followed). Congregations may also adapt GCI’s standard pattern of worship, though all should provide services that celebrate Jesus’ birth during the Christmas season and his resurrection during the Easter season. It is then recommended that the other key events in Christ’s life (see the list above) be celebrated in a weekly worship service at the designated time of year.

GCI congregations may hold their primary weekly worship service on any day of the week, though Sunday is the norm. Also, congregations may determine how often to offer the Lord’s Supper, though it should be offered no less than quarterly, and at least once during Holy Week. Offering the Lord’s Supper every week is recommended.

In making decisions concerning adaptations to GCI’s standard worship pattern and liturgies, congregational leaders should seek divine guidance, understanding that worship is the divinely created response to the glory of the triune God revealed in Jesus Christ. Here is a suggested order of services (click the image to enlarge):

June Equipper

The June issue of GCI Equipper was published last week. Here are links to its articles:

From Greg: Pilgrimage of the Faithful
Greg Williams looks at the seasons of change and movement in our lives and compares them to the faith-filled journey of Abraham and Sarah.

June Prayer Guide
Here are topics from our GCI family to pray about each day in June.

Worship in Spirit and Truth
Santiago Lange looks at the controversial but important topic of worship.

Kid’s Korner: Fun in the Son
Georgia McKinnon looks at the busy summer season in children’s ministry.

RCL sermons for June 2018
Here are Revised Common Lectionary-synced sermons for July:
Sermon for July 1, 2018
Sermon for July 8, 2018
Sermon for July 15, 2018
Sermon for July 22, 2018
Sermon for July 29, 2018

In case you missed them, here are sermons for June:
Sermon for June 3, 2018
Sermon for June 10, 2018
Sermon for June 17, 21018 (Father’s Day)
Sermon for June 24, 2018

The challenge of church renewal

Several GCI congregations are going through a process of church renewal (in some cases involving re-launching). Some of the challenges encountered along the way are addressed in the ChurchLeaders.com article, 9 Reasons Church Revitalization May Be a Serious Faith Challenge.

Knowing that the renewal/revitalization process is necessary and challenging, GCI’s Home Office staff, in partnership with the U.S. Regional Pastors (and the Regional Directors elsewhere), offers support in the form of training and consulting, along with resources posted on the new GCI Resources website. For assistance, contact your Regional Pastor/Director. For information about any of the resources on the new website, email info@gci.org.