We Christians regularly talk about “the kingdom”, but in my observation, we’re not often very precise about what we mean, and I think this causes us trouble from time to time.
When we say “the kingdom”, we could possibly mean anything between the full domain over which God is king, or that tightest circle of God’s fellowship. And I think we might do ourselves a favor—even if it causes us cognitive work we’d rather not put out—to see if we can be more diligent in saying exactly what we mean. And there’s probably no context where this might make a more useful difference in our lives than in our discussion of whatever it is that our various camps mean when we say “the church”. I observe that for a great many, it seems to be the strong belief that church=kingdom. But my question to that is this:
1. Which part of “the kingdom” is “the church”?
If in its greatest sense, “the kingdom” is the entirety of God’s domain, then certain the churches fall under that, just as do the NFL and the USA and, say, Pizza Hut. But I almost never hear any Christian using “the church” in this sense. No, it seems they are almost always referring to something much closer to God than Pizza Hut—something in which he is much more interactive and in direct control—something that more closely reflects his grand virtue.
Now, at this point, I should say that there are certainly some Christians who think that God is in control of every little thing that happens, even at Pizza Hut, so I don’t mean to write them out of this article, for it’s an important question. For example, it raises the question of whether God made Billy spill the marina sauce on the floor yesterday, or whether it was a result of Billy’s lack of care in handling the container, while using the free will God gave him, under the influence of the gravity that is built into this Universe. Is God involved in this scenario? Certainly. Is he the direct cause of the sauce spilling on the floor? Again, some would say he certainly is, but more seem to have a reasonable doubt about whether God had to be directly involved in it. Indeed, there’s a logical difficulty with the assumption that he did. If we hold God directly responsible for the spilled marinara, then how is he not directly responsible for Satan deceiving Eve in the Garden?
There’s no way I can solve that debate in this article, so I’m going to assume from here forward that the camps who say that God does not directly cause every event among humans have got it right. I’m going to assume that there’s a difference in what goes on in God’s own throne room, and what goes on in the far reaches of his domain, where he does not take a hands-on approach to running everything that happens.
And I’ll support this assumption by asking a second question—one that’s hard to answer wrongly without getting ourselves into some logical trouble:
2. If God is indeed directly responsible for what happens everywhere at every time, then how is Pizza Hut any less God’s “kingdom” than is Grace Luthodist or First Basbyterian?
Yet even among those who take the view that no thing happens unless God himself has directly made it happen, if you listen to how they use kingdom language, you’ll find them frequently making distinctions between what is “the kingdom” and what is not. Do they not, for example, talk about how their life “in the kingdom” is better than it was before they were “in the kingdom”? Well, how were they not “in the kingdom” when they were an atheist working at Pizza Hut?
I hope you see what I mean by now—the messy and imprecise way we use kingdom terminology. And I’ll take a minute to show that in at least one sense, God doesn’t seem to consider everything to be part of his kingdom. Consider this saying of Jesus:
41 The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will gather out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all law-breakers, 42 and throw them into the fiery furnace. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. 43 Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. He who has ears, let him hear.Matthew 13:41
These bad guys are gathered “out of his kingdom” and thrown “into the fiery furnace”, and meanwhile, the righteous who are left “in the kingdom” go on in happiness. Does it seem to you that in this passage, Jesus considered the place in the “fiery furnace” to be “his kingdom”, or separate from “his kingdom”? Logically speaking, it seems he is at least making some sort of distinction between places in his kingdom—some of them being a better place to be than others. Right?
Where all this becomes particularly relevant is where many use kingdom terminology the most—when talking about “the church”. Now, some take an exclusive view of their own particular church (or denomination), thinking it “the one and only true church”, while others view their own church as a member church of some global body of congregations/denominations that all make up God’s worldwide church (God’s “kingdom”). Even so, it will be difficult to find someone who does not think that some churches do better than others, and even that some are surely not pleasing to God. So it appears that if they still hold those displeasing churches to be part of God’s “kingdom”, they do recognize that there must be places in “the kingdom” in which God’s will is not carried out very well. And some, of course, will take a hard stand in some cases, and will declare a certain church or denomination to be not a part of “the kingdom” at all—which just brings us back to the question:
3. Isn’t everything part of God’s kingdom?
Well, yes, it is, but no, it’s not. This is because we clearly have at least two ways of defining “the kingdom”. Again, I hope this is becoming very clear to you by now.
One the one hand, it would seem that our highest view of “the kingdom” is one in which God’s will is done, while our lowest view is one in which God’s will is not done—or not done often enough to please God on the whole—or, perhaps, where, regardless of what all is done, some of what is done is so egregious to God that he rejects them on the whole for it.
And some will be more comfortable than others making judgments about such matters, while others will think that to make such judgments is the business of God and God alone. But I do note that there’s a difference between what one might say in this regard, and his own mental habits in how he thinks about such congregations or denominations. I say this because it’s very easy to develop a my-camp bias about churches. I grew up in a popular denomination, and by the time I was in elementary school, I was pretty sure not only that my denomination was better than all the others, but that my congregation was better than the other congregations of the same denomination in the same town! Now, how did a school kid learn such a view? Was it solely from my own mental work, or was I being influenced by a common attitude among the members? (Kids can pick up even on subtle attitudes!)
Now, if we have some terraced view of God’s “kingdom”, in which the highest level is where God’s will is done the best, then what does that say about our own congregations? Is 100% of what is said, done, taught, and believed there in line with God’s will? If not, then where does that leave us? Does that disqualify us from being in “the kingdom”, just as many of us may think that some certain church down the road is surely disqualified on account of its own departures from God’s will?
The Problem of Authority
One highly relevant consideration is this: If we say that our own congregation is “the kingdom”, then it’s not a far stretch to assume upon the congregation (or upon its leadership, at least) some God-given authority to do whatever it is doing. For example, I find it quite a popular idea among the churches that “God appoints the leaders”. And from that assumption, it follows that God wants the members to follow the leaders. But this raises the very practical question of whether they are to be followed even when they are in the wrong.
At this point, someone will break in and say, “Of course we’re not to follow them when they’re in the wrong; we’re supposed to follow the teachings of the Bible.” And to this, there may be a hearty “Amen!”, and a general sense that their conviction in the matter is sound, and is surely pleasing to God. We like that idea that this church is “God’s kingdom”, and that God is in control of it. Indeed, we love to quote the passage that says that “Jesus is the head of the church”! But this raises the question all over again:
4. If Jesus is the head of the church, does that mean that everything that goes on there comports to Jesus’ will and agrees with his teaching?
And here’s another worth pondering:
5. If what a church is doing is not pleasing to Jesus, who is responsible for that? Is this Jesus’ responsibility? Or are the members responsible? Or is it just the leaders’ responsibility?
Well, that last set of questions raises yet another area where we may tend to be rather sloppy and vague in our view of things. Perhaps we’re not 100% certain that we want to know those answers! I have seen some congregations that seem to think something they would never say out loud: “If Jesus wanted us to be any different from how we are, he would have fixed us by now.” With such an attitude, we would naturally consider that we are pleasing God in every way. But is there any such guarantee of this to be found in the scriptures? Of course, not!
Meanwhile, someone else—even the rare member of one of these very same congregations—might well admonish the congregation, “If this is Jesus’ kingdom—if he is truly the head of this church—then how dare we not exert ourselves to do what is right in his eyes in this matter?!”
And who could successfully argue that they ought not exert themselves to do better? To me, such an argument sounds insane. Yet to some, it will sound quite responsible and godly and spiritual. They might say something like “Trying to please God by our own efforts is an exercise in vanity, and mature Christians know better.” And these two views represent quite a difference in philosophy. How can they both exist in the same “kingdom”? Can we both be right with God on the same question, while holding contrary views?
Of course, some will view it all as a “work in progress”. And there’s certainly something to what they’re saying, for none of us is perfect. But aren’t we supposed to be becoming perfect, as Jesus told them in his Sermon on the Mount?:
Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.Matthew 5:48
If we’re supposed to attain to some sort of perfection/completeness/maturity, then there has to be somewhere a standard for that perfection. There has to be some sort of pattern or rule or set of particulars to be attained. And there’s no indication in the Bible that each believer was supposed to come up with his or her own set of standards! And how various Christians everywhere handle the question of what the right standards should be is all over the place!
Regardless, whatever our view of “the kingdom” and our place in it at this moment, don’t most of us have in mind some notion of leveling up in the future? Whether we’re in a camp that is awaiting a rapture of all believers, or whether we simply have in mind our own natural deaths, doesn’t we expect that someday, we’ll make a move closer to God’s inner circle? And if so, there’s more for us to consider:
6. If being in Heaven with God is rightly to be considered as going to a higher level in his kingdom—to a closer proximity, nearer to his command center—then what should that mean in how we think about our current place in “the kingdom”? Do we not make a distinction between our current position and the position we would have in Heaven with God? And should we?
If we see some leveling-up in our future, then this must mean that we are not now on the same level we’ll be on in the future. Right? Even if we think that that leveling-up is a sure thing, assuming we continue in the faith, we still recognize that it has not literally happened yet. It may be “as good as done”, but we can reasonably see that it is not yet done, for we are still here on this Earth. Right?
This raises the question of the already-but-not-yet language (ABNY) that the Bible writers used on occasion. They were certainly looking ahead to what had been promised for the faithful, and sometimes wrote as if it was already in play. But this doesn’t mean that they thought it was actually so; it was a literary device used to express the certainty of it, provided they would remain faithful, “enduring to the end” and “overcoming”. The First-Century Christians were part of an phenomenal fellowship, to be sure, but they knew full well that they had not yet taken hold of their heavenly inheritance. And that brings me to this passage:
and you will receive a rich welcome into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.2 Peter 1:11
Weren’t they already in “the kingdom”? Well, yes, in one sense. But in another sense, the answer was a resounding No! It was yet to be received. They were yet to be welcomed into it. Even though they were part of something very special on the Earth, they still had some leveling-up to do.
Here’s the way the author of Hebrews put it:
28 Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe, 29 for our “God is a consuming fire.”Hebrews 12:28
We see that they were “receiving a kingdom”, and that it had not yet happened already. And this is worth pondering:
7. Should believers today still be looking to level-up to that eternal kingdom, or has something changed since 2 Peter 1:11 was written, such that that “eternal kingdom” has now arrived on Earth, and all believers are part of it?
8. If we are already in that “eternal kingdom”, how should we explain that we aren’t yet perfected? Should we simply act as if we are already perfected? Or should we keep our present imperfect reality firmly in mind?
Consider this further context from the Hebrews 12 passage above. This is some more already-but-not-yet language, regarding their imminent receiving of that promised “heavenly Jerusalem”:
22 But you have come to Mount Zion, to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem. You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly, 23 to the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven. You have come to God, the Judge of all, to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, 24 to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.Hebrews 12:22
Does that line that I put in boldface describe us? Have we already been “made perfect”? (HINT: Say “No”.) If not, then are we currently already in that “Mount Zion”, that “heavenly Jerusalem”?
I think it’s pretty clear that we are not, but to hear the way that some Christians use kingdom language, it may not be very clear what they believe on the question. Let’s look again at Hebrews 12:28, which comes a mere four verses after the passage we just considered:
28 Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe, 29 for our “God is a consuming fire.”Hebrews 12:28
Those Christians had yet to receive whatever “eternal kingdom” the writer had in mind, just as they had yet to be “made perfect”. And this leads us to another question:
9. Is it fair for us, then, to distinguish between different levels in God’s “kingdom”, with some being better than others? Are some closer to God than others? Are the inhabitants of some of those levels more advanced or perfect than the inhabitants of other levels?
It is hard to imagine any believer who would answer “No” to anything asked in question #9. But even so, I think I see a pattern by which a great many believers are not very good at making such distinctions in their routine use of kingdom language. A great many have been taught that church=kingdom, but are they taught to be very careful when interpreting the kingdom language in the Bible? Or do they import into their understanding of “the church” things that the Bible writers/speakers would say about Heaven, but not about their churches?
I’ve certainly seen it happen. And it’s an easy trap to fall into. In our church business, we can assume upon ourselves the full authority of God’s throne room—as well as the full infallibility of it! We can become usurpers of heavenly authority, even assuming ourselves to be impeccably under God’s direction, when we still have our own free will and our own fallible human minds in play. And if we’re like most people, we may have no idea just how many bad assumptions and errors we have made—and are still making—as we go about the business of church, or even in our own personal study of the scriptures. Many hold church offices that don’t seem to have existed in the New Testament times, as did neither many of the modern church practices and doctrines. But is there a widespread sense of being careful to keep to the original doctrine and practice?
Or is there not instead a widespread sense that not only are we authorized to “do church” today, but that it is an ever-evolving thing, and that we’ll know how to administer the evolution of it?
Here’s a cognitive bias I identified a few years ago. Please give it some consideration:
“If I were wrong about this, I would know it.”
It has a few variations, too, such as these:
- If I were wrong about this, I would know it.
- God wouldn’t let me be wrong about this.
- My preacher wouldn’t let me be wrong about this.
- God wouldn’t let my preacher be wrong about this.
- Because I want to be right about such things, I must have arrived at the right answer on this question.
It is famously known that at Pizza Hut, they make some errors from time to time. And I believe I have successfully argued that Pizza Hut definitely falls within “God’s kingdom”, at least in the broadest sense of that term. Are not all the believers in the churches also capable of error, just as are the executives and employees at Pizza Hut? And are not even the official decisions of those congregations and their denominations (if any) also capable of error?
Of course, they are! Indeed, what may have been the most egregious error of all time was made by a guardian angel of God’s own throne! Consider God’s words to Satan, whom he calls the “king of Tyre” in this extended prophetic and condemning passage:
Ezekiel 28:11 Moreover, the word of the Lord came to me: 12 “Son of man, raise a lamentation over the king of Tyre, and say to him, Thus says the Lord God:Ezekiel 28
“You were the signet of perfection,
full of wisdom and perfect in beauty.
13 You were in Eden, the garden of God;
every precious stone was your covering,
sardius, topaz, and diamond,
beryl, onyx, and jasper,
sapphire,[b] emerald, and carbuncle;
and crafted in gold were your settings
and your engravings.[c]
On the day that you were created
they were prepared.
14 You were an anointed guardian cherub.
I placed you; you were on the holy mountain of God;
in the midst of the stones of fire you walked.
15 You were blameless in your ways
from the day you were created,
till unrighteousness was found in you.
16 In the abundance of your trade
you were filled with violence in your midst, and you sinned;
so I cast you as a profane thing from the mountain of God,
and I destroyed you, O guardian cherub,
from the midst of the stones of fire.
17 Your heart was proud because of your beauty;
you corrupted your wisdom for the sake of your splendor.
I cast you to the ground;
I exposed you before kings,
to feast their eyes on you.
18 By the multitude of your iniquities,
in the unrighteousness of your trade
you profaned your sanctuaries;
so I brought fire out from your midst;
it consumed you,
and I turned you to ashes on the earth
in the sight of all who saw you.
19 All who know you among the peoples
are appalled at you;
you have come to a dreadful end
and shall be no more forever.”
This raises a rhetorical question that ought to serve as quite a warning to us:
10. Wasn’t Satan also in God’s kingdom when he turned against God?
The answer has to be “yes”. Right? How can you not be in God’s kingdom if you’re one of his own guardian angels, created higher than not only humans, but than most of the other angels, too? So, if Satan can fall from a good relationship with God, can’t we do the same, even if we are a member of a church? Indeed, we can! And that’s why there are so many warnings like this in the Bible:
11 These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us, on whom the culmination of the ages has come. 12 So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall!1 Corinthians 10:12
11. Has “the church” in our generation been somehow elevated beyond the possibility of being at odds with God?
There are many, it would seem, who assume that “Yes” is the right answer to this question—even as members of camps who are pretty adamant that the other camps have got it wrong and are themselves fallen in some sense. But is any such promise or prophesy about a time of infallibility to be found in the scriptures? If so, somebody please send me a reference, for I have never found it in all these years of study.
I think there’s a prevalent arrogance in play for many when it comes to church=kingdom today. And it’s not helping matters that so many of us use kingdom terminology in such a loose and imprecise manner. Some years ago, I dropped the church=kingdom idea altogether, except in in a sense that’s much closer to the sense in which it is also true that PizzaHut=kingdom. After reading The Day America Told the Truth, and some of the Barna “State of the Church” reports, and some 30 books on the psychology of rationality, such as the ones pictured here,
…I began to realize that the amount of bad thinking we do and errors we make is troublingly high, and is wholly inconsistent with a world in which the very thoughts of believers are somehow guided by God in real-time to be consistent with God’s own view of things. And while many Christians would deny it if you asked them point-blank whether they believe such a thing, you’ll frequently find them hinting that they believe it, even if they won’t come right about and say so. It’s another one of these fuzzy areas of belief, where we may not actually want to know the truth of the matter. It’s fun to pretend that God has our back when it comes to thinking errors and doctrinal errors, just as it’s fun to over-estimate our closeness to God “in the kingdom”. But we are still on this Earth, and not in his immediate presence—even if his immediate presence is a place to which some number of us may be ultimately headed.
Some camps, particularly among the Preterists, are under the fuzzy impression that not only are all the Bible prophecies fulfilled, but that they are all fulfilled on the Earth and among the living believers here. They revel in considering “the church” to be “the kingdom”, yet when they describe what all benefits they think they get as members of “the kingdom”, it all adds up to a picture that is less impressive to me than what seems to have been going on in Jesus’ ekklesia in the First Century! For example, the way I see it, there are no apostles today. Nor are there any more letters from Jesus, such as were written to seven particular congregations in Asia Minor in the second and third chapters of the Revelation. And there are other differences, too, though surely, some would dispute them. (For example, I believe that prophecy and visions have been “sealed up” See Daniel 9:24.)
It’s just too easy for us to assume that “because I’m in the kingdom, my beliefs are right.” But look at how many billions of believers think that they, too, are in “the kingdom”, and yet some of their beliefs contradict some of ours! Even if you yourself understand everything just right, it would appear that millions and millions of people you consider your peers (if you do) in “the kingdom” have got some things quite wrong! And shouldn’t this be counted as quite the spiritual emergency?
Generally speaking, I think that our global church culture is greatly puffed up in such things. I think we have grossly overestimated just how high we may be up those levels of the kingdom, or how close in we may be to the center of God’s circle of influence. We can pretend all we like that God himself has decided just how our churches should be organized, but at the end of the day, there’s no escaping that they are, at least to some degree, human institutions. Yes, we could debate endlessly on the particulars of this, but unless you’re delusional, you have most certainly seen instances in which “the church” has done things that are certainly not godly and wise. They are simply not infallible.
And that brings us to my last main question in this post:
12. Is your church infallible in its doctrines, beliefs, and practices? If not, then is it right to be thinking that “the church” is close in to that inner circle of God’s “eternal kingdom”?
I’m not writing this merely to argue about words, as some may assume, but to help guard our attitudes. If we think we’re “all that”, as they say, when we are not, then we’ve got some serious weaknesses in play. Consider Paul’s admonition to the believers in Rome:
3 For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, …Romans 12:3
Notice that he doesn’t say that thinking highly of oneself is bad; what was bad was thinking “more highly” than was justified with “sober judgment”. If you are a believer in God, you have certainly moved closer into his circle of influence than are those who do not believe. And this is surely a good thing. But if you then, on account of your belief, count yourself among those in his inner circle, I believe you have fall into a great trap of arrogance. If I am 1,000 miles from God, and you are only 999 miles from God, you can boast that you are indeed closer to God than I am, but will you see yourself as a food who is 999 miles from God and still counts himself among God’s inner circle?
Indeed, I know of some in the “Imager” camp who fall into this trap. For example, one lady even told me that she herself is a member of God’s “divine counsel” (see Psalm 82). And I asked her seriously whether she could provide me with a copy of the minutes from the most recent Divine Counsel meeting. She could not, of course, and thought my request silly, but the whole thing highlights the fact that while she seemed to be thinking it was literally true that she is a member of the divine counsel, there are certainly some ways in which her experience falls short of the most literal expectations we might have about it. So again, it’s that fuzzy thinking in play. “I’m on the Divine Counsel—but not really—but I am—but it hasn’t happened yet—but it has…”
As it turns out, the Bible and its sayings can make quite an attractive playground for those who aren’t accomplished when it comes to diligently and skillfully parsing out ideas and distinctions. The already-but-not-yet kingdom language is particularly dangerous ground for such people to play on, for it not only yields lots of opportunity for interpretive errors, but offers opportunities for puffing ourselves up with “already” ideas about ourselves when we may still actually be in “not yet” mode.
Surely, there is a sense in which every created thing is “in God’s kingdom”, and surely there is a sense in which we are not yet “in God’s kingdom”. And both senses are used in the scriptures. This calls for discernment, therefore, and hasty or proud people are apt to make some serious mistakes in how they manage all this in their minds.
Many different camps—with greatly differing doctrinal positions and practices—have fallen into this hubris. I’ve been working hard for many years now to get out of that trap and to stay out of it, but who knows whether I’ve gotten completely free. I know that I’m no longer impressed with people’s my-camp boasts about their churches, and I’m not a member of a congregation myself, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t fall into the common error of overestimating my role or my place or my knowledge, skills, and abilities. I’m certain I still have pride that I don’t see. At the very least, I can be glad that I now see the error in this bias:
“If I were proud about this, I would know it!”
But seeing the error in a position, and seeing when you’re committing the error are two different things!