“The language of the kingdom was used to effect a quiet transfer from the Gospel about Jesus to a programme based on the ideology of the progressive capitalism of the United States… This shift is easily detected from our vantage point fifty years later. It is less easy to be aware of similar shifts in our own time.” (page 33)
The middle section of Lesslie Newbigin’s 1981 book Sign of the Kingdom is entitled, “The Theme in its Biblical Perspective”. There is too much material to summarize it all, so we will focus this post on two of the corrections which Newbigin offers; to (1) our tendency to equate Kingdom with our own political ambitions; and (2) to equate it with church growth. Both of these result in us trying to bring or build the kingdom by our own efforts, rather than relying on God.
“It is by a firm grasp of the New testament teaching about the Spirit that we shall come to a right understanding of the relation between Church and Kingdom. We will not come to a right understanding by simply trying to find a middle way between two obvious errors—the error of identifying the Church with the kingdom so that everything concentrated on the growth and prosperity of the Church, and the error of separating the Church from the preaching of the kingdom so that we are left with a mere programme.” (41)
Both points of correction are required because we have shifted away from “the language of the Bible, which always points to the personal presence and action of God … into language which points to programmes of our own” (35).
Putting our faith in political action
Newbigin doesn’t excuse Christians from the necessity for action for justice in economic and political affairs but, to find our Biblical mandate, he asks that first “the Gospel story be interpreted by means of its actual background and presuppositions” (30).
When we do this, we find that it is the Spirit of God himself who brings transformation, and He does so primarily by His work and witness through His church: “The human words and deeds of the Church will have provided—here and there—the occasion for that work; but the work itself is always a work of the Spirit, a miracle that goes beyond human contriving.” (42) And the Spirit’s actions in the church are, themselves, signs to the wider world of the healing God himself will ultimately bring to the whole creation when the Lord Jesus returns. In that way, the church is a living witness to the Kingdom, “a living community in which there is already a foretaste of the reality of the Kingdom, a present experience of its joy and freedom.” (42)
But instead of focusing on God as the primary actor, the Church has tended to focus in on itself and its own actions. We have tended to de-emphasise passages that speak of God’s activity in our world, such as God’s promises to bring justice and freedom. Newbigin provides examples like Psalm 145 and 146, and warns:
“When this language is translated into abstract nouns…a subtle but profound shift has been made. The biblical language is totally centred in the reality of the living God—his faithfulness and kindness. The other kind of language leads quickly into an ideology which is centred entirely in one’s expectations about the possibilities of political action.” (36)
Looking back at the politics of the church in the 1920s, he asks, “Why was that era so eager to talk about the coming of the kingdom but so very reluctant to speak of the second coming of Jesus? Why so ready with the prayer ‘Thy Kingdom come’ but so reluctant to pray ‘Come, Lord Jesus’?” (32)
One reason was that “The biblical language [had] been for so long interpreted in a purely private and pietistic sense divorced from the realities and the obligations of political life” (36). This, in turn, led the church to put their faith in the ideologies of the time, as seen in the quotation which opens this post; Jesus may be the saviour of the soul, but progressive capitalism was the saviour of the real world. From there, “the introduction of the name of Jesus [was] seen as something divisive and sectarian, while the message of kingdom was seen as all-inclusive” (32).
“When abstract nouns replace the biblical language about God’s just and loving rule, this is what happens—and the same is true whether these nouns are such as were popular fifty years ago (‘social progress’, ‘civilisation’, ect.) or such as are popular now (‘liberation’, ‘justice’, etc.). The content of the preaching of the Kingdom can never be any such concepts; it can only be Jesus himself, incarnate, crucified and risen.” (42-43)
Putting our faith in “Church Growth” strategies
In Acts 1 the Disciples ask, “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?”, to which Jesus responds, “It is not for you to know times or seasons which the Father has fixed by his own authority…” On this, Newbigin writes:
“We are not dealing here with a programme, a campaign, a promotional ‘drive’ for which the techniques of high-pressure salesmanship or military planning will be appropriate. Nor are we engaged in the support of a ‘good cause’ about which it is possible to be optimistic or pessimistic. The first kind of misunderstanding is characteristic of those who have worldly power and wealth behind them; it is abundantly illustrated in material emanating from the American ‘Church Growth’ agencies. … It is not possible to be either optimistic or pessimistic about the sovereignty of God! It is simply a fact. … Our attention is directed to God himself. He alone is king. What is called for is total trust which—whether in success or failure—simply places all its hope in him; which accepts the promise: Fear not, little flock, it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” (35)
The Lord Jesus continues, “…But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be my witnesses…”. This, Newbigin reminds us, is not a command, but a promise!
“Witness is not a burden laid upon the Church. It is not part of the law. It is gospel, gift, promise. We misinterpret the whole thrust of the new Testament when we convert this into a law, a burden laid upon the consciences of Christians.
. . .
How is the promise related to the question? The question is about the Kingdom; the promise is about that which is the foretaste, the first-fruit, the arrabon of the Kingdom—namely the gift of the Spirit.” (37)
Even at Pentecost, mission begins, not with a decision by the church on the basis of a command, rather “it begins with something which happens to the church … people of every race and language come running to ask, ‘What is going on here?’, and the Church is required to answer” (38). Throughout Acts, “It is the Spirit who takes the initiatives: the Church has to learn to follow.” (39)
As Newbigin writes elsewhere, “Where the church is faithful to its Lord, there the powers of the kingdom are present and people begin to ask the question to which the gospel is the answer.” (The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, 119)
“[The Kingdom] is not the Church’s ‘cause’ or ‘programme’. It is, quite simply, God’s reign. What is promised to the Church is the arrabon of the kingdom, the Spirit whose presence is the witness to the kingdom, and who, in sovereign freedom, goes before the Church, leads the Church into the fulness of the truth, achieves the communication which the Church’s own words cannot achieve, keeps the Church within the love and power of the Father, and brings ever new peoples to the confession of Jesus as Lord.” (40-41)