Church: The Church, the Kingdom, and Human Government


Introduction

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, in turn, has 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 of God

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 Holy 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 yet. 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 that are 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, by the Spirit, being 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 Holy 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!

The church is called to witness

As noted already, there is an “already-but-not-yet” aspect of the kingdom of God. Though it has already broken into the world, its fullness is not yet seen. Though Jesus is now Lord of all, it does not yet appear that all things are subject to his rule and reign (Heb. 2:8, ESV). Though Christ’s victory is complete, it is not yet fully apparent—it has yet to be fully uncovered (revealed).[3] As Christians, our calling (vocation) is to witness to the reality of Christ and his already-but-not-yet rule and reign (i.e., his kingdom). We provide that witness first by living in a worship relationship with God through the gracious mediation of Jesus and the ministry of the Holy Spirit, all under the authority of Scripture (Eph. 2:20). We then gather to proclaim the fact that Jesus is King of kings and that his rule and reign is assuredly coming in all its fullness (Acts 1:4-9). In this way, the church becomes a beacon of the hope that will be realized when Jesus returns to earth at the end of this present age (2 Tim. 4:1).[4] Concerning this witness provided by the church, note three things:

  • The witness of the church is partial, temporary and provisional (more on that below).
  • It serves as a sign (parable or pointer) of the rule and reign of Jesus (Acts 5:12).
  • It points forward to the consummation that is yet to come when Jesus returns (Act 2:22). In that way, the witness of the church is like the earthly ministry of Jesus, which did not set up the fullness of the kingdom. Instead, Jesus pointed forward to a future coming of his kingdom.

Through the earthly ministry of Jesus (including his death, resurrection and ascension), the kingdom was inaugurated, though it has yet to be fully consummated (realized). Because that consummation is yet to come, we wait with expectancy, hope and patience (Rom. 8:25). However, our waiting is not passive, for we are called to the mission of witness—the ministry of declaring Jesus Christ and his coming kingdom, so that others may come in and participate now in his church.

Our mission as the church is to declare the kingdom, not to set it up or to substitute for it. Nowhere does the New Testament teach that the church’s witness will gradually and inevitably turn into the kingdom. Were that the case, the church would cease being a witness (a sign) and turn into the reality to which the sign points. That the church’s witness will expand in the world is implied in Scripture, even assumed. However, that expansion should not be confused with the full manifestation of the kingdom and the coming of the new heavens and earth.

Don’t confuse the church and the kingdom

It is a mistake to confuse the church and the kingdom. Such confusion sets up unfounded expectations of the church and leads to disillusionment and bitterness concerning either the failure of the church or, even worse, the failure of God to accomplish through the church what we wrongly expect of the church in this current “evil age” (Gal. 1:4; 1 John 2:8).

Scripture teaches that, when he returns, Jesus will bring the kingdom in all its fullness to earth. In the present age, prior to the return of Jesus, God grants to the church the privilege of being a sign that points to the coming kingdom. The fact is that the church fulfills this mission of witness imperfectly. As Jesus indicated in the parable of the wheat and tares (Matt. 13:25-30, KJV), his church will not be perfectly pure in this age. The book of Acts and the Epistles, along with the record of church history, bear witness to this fact. The imperfection of the church contrasts with the perfection of the kingdom, in which there will be no mixture of good (wheat) and evil (tares). Evil will have no place in the kingdom of God. Indeed, evil has no future. This reality is secured by the resurrection and ascension of Jesus, along with Jesus’ promise that he will return with power to put an end to all evil and to vanquish death and all suffering (Rev. 12:10).

The nature of the church’s witness to the kingdom

As a sign (embodiment or parable) of the kingdom of God in the present fallen world, the church’s witness will always be partial, temporary and provisional:

  • The church’s witness is partial. It is unable to display the full range and depth of what God’s kingdom will be like. What the church does and says will only indicate a limited part of what the kingdom is about. The church will not be able to point to every dimension of the kingdom equally well. The witness of the church, as important as it is, will not bring about the completeness of the kingdom. Instead, it points beyond itself to the fullness yet to come, bringing forth anticipation and hope in the hearts of those who, in faith, look forward to the coming kingdom.
  • The church’s witness is temporary. As the church embodies signs of the kingdom, those signs will often only last a little while then wear out, become degraded, sometimes even corrupted. As beneficial as this witness is, it cannot be sustained indefinitely.[5] New forms of witness will always be needed as the old ones are forgotten, fall away or become no longer viable or relevant.
  • The church’s witness is provisional. It is not the reality, though it is a sign pointing to the reality—the coming kingdom of God. In that way the church’s witness engenders hope that exceeds what the church can accomplish here and now before Christ returns and evil is vanquished as all things are made new.

Though partial, temporary and provisional, the church’s witness is vital. In obedience to God’s commands, the church bears witness to its King and his coming kingdom, knowing that it is Jesus Christ who has promised that the kingdom of God will come. Sadly, the church has often turned aside from this calling, failing to offer the world partial signs of the kingdom’s coming reality, thus failing to be a provisional beacon of hope to the world. It has often settled for becoming much like the surrounding culture. Instead of witnessing to the kingdom, the church has, at times, tried to make itself the kingdom—it has tried in vain to establish the fullness of the kingdom on earth now. In making that mistake, the church has assumed for itself a task that is reserved for Christ, becoming in its own eyes an end in itself, thus falling into the sin of idolatry and often compromising itself in the use of worldly power to achieve an impossible ideal.

The kingdom is not human government

We have seen that the church is not the kingdom. Now we need to see that human government is not the kingdom. Just as the church does not evolve into the kingdom (despite misguided attempts by a few church leaders to bring about that evolution), human government cannot evolve into the kingdom (again, despite attempts in that direction). Scripture makes it clear that God’s kingdom is not a human kingdom.

Human government does have an important, though limited, purpose in God’s providence. This is seen in Jesus’ teaching regarding distinguishing between what belongs to Caesar and what belongs to God (Mark 12:17). It also is seen in the way the apostles interacted with the Roman government of their day (e.g., Acts 4:19, Rom. 13:1-7). In this age, human government has a limited purpose defined by God and has been assigned limited authority derived from God. Many don’t recognize that purpose (with its limitations) but the church must.

By God’s decree, the purpose of human government is to maintain fundamental social order and human justice, seeking the common good within the limits defined by God. No human government can rightly regard itself as absolute. Rather, all exist under an absolute that transcends human rule and reign. No human government has absolute rights over any human being, since all human beings belong to God. Humans are creatures of God, not of any human ruler.

It’s also important to understand that human government is limited in the good it can accomplish. Why? Because humans are unable to banish all evil and to prevent evil’s perpetual temptations. Human government cannot heal and transform the human soul, it cannot reconcile alienated human beings, and it cannot undo or redirect the past. No human government can make all things right—they are unable to renew and restore all things, including the past. Therefore, the church must not expect human government to solve all of humanity’s problems. No human government can turn itself into or otherwise bring about the kingdom of God by being the perfect, ideal government on earth before Jesus returns.

Nevertheless, the church should expect some good to come from human government. Keeping in mind the limited responsibility that God gives it, the church should remind civil leaders of the range of authority they should exercise for the common good. The church should also warn civil leaders to not neglect the responsibilities that go with their authority, and it should speak out if government exceeds the boundaries of those God-given responsibilities, especially when acting as if they have absolute authority and are answerable to no higher authority than themselves—whether that authority be God or, if not God, a moral standard which all governments ought to abide by.

Though human governments often are unaware of their God-given purpose and limited range of responsibilities, that lack of awareness does not eliminate the truth. One of the church’s tasks is to bear witness to human government concerning this truth. That is what we find the church doing in the New Testament (see Acts and Romans). In bearing witness, the church must be realistic in its expectations of human government. In this present evil age, no government will be perfect, and none will establish the ideal human community. All human governments, like the citizens they are called to serve, are endangered by evil. They rise and fall, they come and go.

No human governments (together or individually) will ever be able to bring about the kingdom of God. Christians should not believe that human governments can do that, thereby confusing human government with the kingdom of God. Only God can (or should) be worshipped. Worship of any human leader or government is idolatry. Forgetting this was the huge mistake made by much of the church in Germany during the rise of the Nazis in the 1930s and 40s. In that dark time, most of the church in Germany surrendered itself to Hitler, believing that the greater good of God’s kingdom on earth would thereby be created. This happened in large part because these Christians mistakenly believed that Hitler could establish God’s ideal on earth—the kingdom of God. Because they believed that, they also believed that the great end they envisioned justified any means used to bring it about. They were terribly mistaken.

The reverse is also true. The coming of the kingdom of God will not amount to the installation by God of a perfect, ideal human government. God will not raise up a human-led government to serve as his kingdom on earth. Rather, God will reign through the Holy Spirit fully manifested in every human life being lived out in gladness and freedom in and through all relationships and activities. God himself will be their light. God himself will banish evil. God will end all suffering and resolve all regrets of the sinful past. God will reconcile all things and right all wrongs. In God’s kingdom, righteousness (right relationships) will not be legally imposed or socially enforced. Rather, righteousness will flow unimpeded from God through human hearts and minds and (figuratively) out through their hands and feet.

In the kingdom of God, there will be no pride, arrogance or temptation to self-justification. All barriers in the way of fully receiving all from God and passing it on to others will be torn down. The kingdom will be fully manifested, not externally, but from within and among all those who come under God’s rule and reign—all who enter God’s kingdom when invited, leaving behind all other kingdoms, all other loyalties, all other priorities. Citizens of God’s kingdom will be the true children of God who, for the first time, will experience true freedom to the full.

The church should not seek to substitute for human government

The church must not try to turn itself into an earthly government in this time-between-the-times. It also must not try, through the agency of human government, to build the kingdom on earth. The church must never seek to displace and take over the vocation of human government. The church is not going to bring in the kingdom, and it is not going to become God’s ideal form of earthly, humanly mediated government.

Neither the church nor the kingdom amounts to the installation of human government. In the kingdom of God, Jesus himself, by the Spirit, will rule and reign in human minds and hearts in a new heaven and earth. It is this renewal of all things that will constitute the coming of the kingdom. Though Jesus will not turn his kingdom rule over to its human citizens, those citizens will share (participate) in his rule and reign, and do so perfectly, by his word and Spirit. At that time (and not before) it will be clearly manifested that Jesus has indeed “overcome the world” (John 16:33). We will reign under and with him, sharing in his kingly victory.

In the meantime, awaiting the coming of the kingdom, the church is called to bear witness to the world, including its various human governments, concerning the Lordship of Jesus Christ and the coming kingdom of God (Col. 2:10; Eph 3:9-11). It is called to do so by being an embodied sign of the hope of the coming kingdom. That hope will not be presented as involving the development of a human government ruling and reigning perfectly. Though the church will bear witness to the limited but good purpose for human government (and speak out when governments fail in that purpose[6]), it will not confuse human government with the kingdom or with the church.

The church, in its witness, will support and respect human government and contribute to its best practices. However, the church, when needed, will also critically engage government when it exceeds its God-given, limited boundaries. In that witness, the church must never abandon its God-given, Christ-founded, Spirit-empowered vocation of worship and witness by which it serves as a beacon of hope in this present evil age. Lord, give us courage to be your witnesses in this world!

Accounting for the distinctions

So far in this essay, we’ve noted important distinctions between the church, the kingdom of God and human government. When these distinctions are understood and properly accounted for, avenues are opened for the church to bear appropriate witness in the public square. In taking advantage of that opportunity, the church must keep clearly in mind the following five points:

  1. The church in its witness must never give ultimate or unquestioned allegiance to any political or social ideology, or to the absolute rule or reign of any person or human institution. It must not idolize any humanly imagined ideal, and it must not justify evil means to accomplish the ideals promoted by ideological zealots. Instead, the church must carefully discern what limited good government (be it local, regional, national or international) can achieve without causing more harm than good (Romans 13:1-7). The church must not be seduced by idealistic dreams, especially ones that demand realization “at any cost.” It must not be surprised that in this fallen world there will often not be complete or total solutions to our human problems, nor will there be a perfect solution to a particular problem that has all benefits and no downsides. By worshipping God alone and resisting all idolatries (including the idolization of human ideals and ideologies), the church will remain free to be the church, fulfilling its vocation in worship and witness under the word of God, both living and written.
  2. The church must not be distracted and misdirected from its calling of worship and witness by attempting to build the kingdom or to establish in this present evil age a church-ruled government among those who do not yet believe. Instead, the church must stay on message, faithful to its calling to urge people everywhere to put their trust in Jesus, worshipping God alone, and repenting of any efforts to give ultimate loyalty to any other king, kingdom or ideology. The church must proclaim Jesus Christ, who calls for unconditional faith, hope and love for him, and it must proclaim Jesus’ kingdom—his coming rule and reign in a new heaven and new earth. The church, therefore, should promote living here and now, under the Lordship of Jesus Christ and in the light of that secure future hope.
  3. The church must retain its independence from any secular authority. It must not come under the lordship of any person or human authority. It will give up its life first for the sake of the gospel, as God enables. It will retain its responsibility for its members who out of freedom become incorporated into the body of Christ. No one will be compelled by force to remain part of the church. The church will remain free to exercise proper, compassionate and wise discipline of its members. It will retain its freedom to nurture, teach and train its own leaders according to its own standards under the irreplaceable, unsurpassable and final authority of the word of God. Moreover, the church will retain its freedom to order its own worship and life together. It will resist all governmental encroachment and violation of its God-established calling, not for its own sake, but for the sake of its mission to the world, lived out directly in worship and indirectly in its wider witness.
  4. The church must engage in hopeful and truthful evangelism that refuses to use any underhanded, manipulative or deceptive ways of proclaiming the truth of the gospel. It will do so in order that others may receive the grace of God and enter the joy of being transferred from the kingdoms of darkness into the kingdom of the Son. The church must use only those means of proclamation that give people freedom to respond out of their hearts and minds before God. Faith, hope and love for God cannot be externally imposed—they cannot be coerced or bribed. The basis for the church’s proclamation must be the truth of the gospel, which, when needed, will include warnings concerning the consequences of rejecting the gospel (but pointing out as consequences only those things clearly stated in Scripture, rather than using wild, fear-based speculations). The church is dependent upon the often behind-the-scenes, unseen ministry of the Holy Spirit to open eyes and soften hearts to prepare people to be open and receptive to the gospel of Jesus Christ.
  5. Scripture tells us that as part of being in but not of (conformed to) the world, God’s people are to advocate for the common good. We see this in the examples of Joseph and Daniel who contributed in practical ways to the foreign nations in which they were exiled, while maintaining devotion to God. We also see this in the command God gave Israel to seek the welfare of the cities in which they were exiled (Jer. 29:7). Note also that the apostle Paul exhorted Christians that, as they “have opportunity,” they should “do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers” (Gal. 6:10). Finally, note what is said in Matt. 5:45; Luke 6:33-35; 1 Pet. 3:11 and Heb. 13:16. An important way the church advocates for the common good today is by declaring through actions and words that all humans, by virtue of being God’s image bearers, have an inalienable right to justice (right relationship). Christians can also assist those who affirm this right, but lack an understanding of its true Source.

Being the church in a pluralistic culture

Two corollaries to the fifth point (above) should be noted. First, Christians can honestly and forthrightly promote societies and governments that defend the right of all people to spend their lives seeking truth, goodness and beauty, and the ultimate Source of those values. To seek this God, who is revealed in Jesus Christ, is a task given to all people, as declared by the apostle Paul in one of Athens’ public squares:

From one man [God] made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us. (Acts 17:26-27)[7]

When it reaches out with humility, respect and freedom, the church can help people (even those who hold views and moral convictions in conflict with Christianity) seek and discover truth and life, and the true object of worship. Members of the church do this by first listening and coming to understand, then by looking for opportunity to share their own journeys and convictions concerning the faith, hope and love given them by grace through the gospel of Jesus Christ according to Scripture.

The second corollary to the fifth point is that as Christians, we should resist attempts to close the public square to honest, respectful and humble interchange, especially when it involves excluding people whose voices are already marginalized. Everyone who values an equal right to justice under the law, and the free exchange of beliefs and ideas (religious or not) should be welcomed in the public square, no matter what the basis or lack of basis they have for their viewpoints.

As Christians, we can, in good conscience, advocate for pluralism in the public square that is descriptive rather than prescriptive. While descriptive pluralism respects all viewpoints, prescriptive pluralism excludes all claims to ultimate truth (seeing them as mere human constructions that are valid only for certain individuals or groups). Descriptive pluralism serves the common good and allows the church to freely and openly fulfill its mission of worship and witness.

As Christians, we believe there is only one way to a right relationship with God—through the grace and truth of the Lord Jesus Christ, who alone is the Way, the Truth and the Life. His name alone indicates the eternal, personal and particular source of salvation. He alone is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29). Though we are firm in this belief, we see in the New Testament that God, in his providence, leads persons over time along many pathways to Jesus. Therefore, we should respectfully and patiently allow room for God to draw people to himself, through Jesus, by whatever means he chooses. Until Christ returns, descriptive pluralism in the public square will continue to be a necessary and good way to provide a place where all people, no matter their background or point of view, can have opportunity to encounter the Source of all truth, goodness and beauty.

In a truly pluralistic society, all who value freedom and show respect and humility toward others are welcome in the public square, while ideologues who seek to control, manipulate, threaten or shut down public discourse are resisted. A truly pluralistic society makes room for all to seek what is true and good, and thus contribute what they have to the public square. As Christians, we have good theological reason to promote descriptive pluralism within the public square and to support the governments and institutions that uphold this pluralism. We know that the triune God is patient and kind, making time and space for us to seek him and know him, and for the church to proclaim salvation in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, so that all might reach repentance and know and worship the living God.

Conclusion

We conclude this essay noting that the church must maintain proper distinctions between the church, the kingdom of God and human government. Doing so is vital to the church staying true to its God-given vocation of worship and witness, and to avoiding being compromised by any attempts to misuse human authority over the church. The church should engage in the public square and also help maintain the public square—one that seeks the common good and provides a place for all to seek what is true and good, ultimately, all the way to its true Source.

Within the public square, the church should seek to provide a faithful witness to the sure hope of the gospel of Jesus Christ without being compromised by false hopes offered by humanistic ideologues and the often less-than-good-and-right (and sometimes evil) means they use to justify and attempt to bring about their idealistic ends. The church should maintain its biblical and theological, Christ-centered worldview of creation, fall, reconciliation and final redemption, and clearly proclaim this good news. In doing so, it must neither underestimate the power and deceitful nature of evil that is still influential in the world, nor pull back from its calling to proclaim the ultimate redemptive power of God in Christ to overcome evil and the ultimate hope of all things made new.

Finally, maintaining the biblical distinctions and proper relations between the church, the kingdom of God and human government enables the church to humbly and patiently embody here and now temporary, partial and provisional signs of the nature, character and sure hope in the coming kingdom of God. Keeping clearly in mind that Christians are to serve as witnesses to Christ and his kingdom as they wait patiently for Jesus’ return will keep the church from using faithless means and underhanded techniques to bring about some sort of idealized church. Instead, through its worship and congregational life, and through its engagement with civic society (the spheres beyond the boundaries of the church) the church will faithfully live out its calling to be the body of Christ on earth as it provides embodied signs (parables) of the kingdom and its King. It will do so in season and out of season, in good times and in times where there is resistance and even persecution.

As it lives out its calling, the church will be a beacon of hope in a lost world—a channel of saving grace to all made ready and willing by the ministry of the Holy Spirit to acknowledge Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior over all of life, over all of history. Come, Lord Jesus!

Endnotes

[1] GCI has a series of articles on the topic of worldview conversion and the related topic of whole-life discipleship in GCI Equipper. The series begins at https://equipper.gci.org/2018/08/from-greg-worldview-conversion.

[2] As we proceed, 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.

[3] In Greek, the first word and title of the book of Revelation is apokalypsis (from which we get the word apocalypse). It means to uncover or to reveal.

[4] For the clear understanding that the kingdom of God is the future hope of God’s people, see Matt. 13:41-43; 24: 14; 26:29; Luke 19:11; 22:16-18; John 18:36; 1 Cor. 15:24; 2 Tim. 4:18; Rev. 11:15.

[5] Even Jesus’ raising of the dead was not permanent. The persons (e.g., Lazarus) that Jesus raised eventually died again. These resurrections (really resuscitations) were signs, and Jesus did not raise everyone from the dead during his earthly incarnate ministry. Jesus’ resurrection, however, is permanent. His death is once (and for all). It is the reality to which the signs point.

[6] See the Barmen Declaration issued by the underground Confessing Church in Germany at the time of the Third Reich of Hitler and the Nazis. That document stands as a modern witness against the abuses of governmental authority and the acquiescence of any church to that abuse, as in the case of the so-called “German Christians” of the Reich Church of the time.

[7] See also Isa. 55:6, ESV (“Seek the LORD while he may be found, call upon him while he is near”); Acts 15:17, NRSV (Paul speaking about God’s purposes towards the Gentiles proclaimed by Amos, “So that all other peoples may seek the Lord”); Matt. 6:33 (“Seek first his kingdom and his righteousness”) and Rom. 2:4, NRSV (“Do you not realize that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?”).

Related resources

  1. For a more extensive essay by Gary Deddo on the topic of the kingdom of God, click here.
  2. For a policy statement from NAE concerning the church’s advocacy in the public square, click here.

 

Author: Gary W. Deddo

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