Monday, November 12, 2012

The kingdom of God or the Church?

When denominational leadership starts advising by the use of unnatural dichotomies such as “We must remember that we don’t serve the church — we serve the kingdom,” deep and painful theological problems lie ahead. According to the Presbyterian News Service, the unnatural dichotomy was uttered by Rev. Herbert J. Nelson, Director of the PC (U.S.A.)’s Office of Public Witness. In an article, Elasticity of spirit, written by Bethany Daily, one learns that the advice was given during the Presbyterian Moderator’s Conference.

Nelson was undoubtedly speaking of the Kingdom of God—so we should explore the Kingdom in relationship to the Church. But first some other thoughts. Nelson was speaking of the problems the PC (U.S.A.) is having as church after church leaves. He offers an analysis and a solution. I agree with the words of his analysis but not his meaning. And I am horrified at his callous disregard for empty churches, undoubtedly left so by congregations who were not allowed to take their property with them as they exited the denomination.
What I see as Nelson’s analysis is:

The PC(USA) has fallen to the temptations of outside pressure and needs to answer the call to engage in kingdom thinking.

Yes, the PC (USA) has fallen to the temptations of outside pressure. If one lingers on the More Light Presbyterian site, reading and then following the links they often end up at secular sites such as The Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation and The National Gay and Lesbian TaskForce.[1] The secular organizations are pouring money and resources into denominational groups seeking to further the LGBT agenda.

Nelson’s ideas about the outside pressure fits with his praise of one particular presbytery executive he spoke with, as the PNS author states:

He [Nelson] spoke about a recent conversation he had with a presbytery executive about churches that have left the PC(USA). That pastor looked at the possibilities that that situation brings and told Nelson how the empty church buildings are now being used to distribute school supplies to children in need.

“They had a vision for restoring the integrity of God’s work on behalf of the PC(USA),” he said.

What might happen if other empty church buildings were used for tutoring centers, medical clinics or social service agencies?

This sounds good and charitable but it is about a building which once held a congregation that lost their church property. The empty church has been turned into a school supply distribution center. It is appalling that one should hear praise that houses of worship are becoming social service centers instead of places where the word of God is preached.  But this is the problem that I began with, Nelson’s insistence that Presbyterian moderators do not serve the Church but instead the kingdom of God. 

In George Eldon Ladd’s book The Gospel of the Kingdom, he uses the parable that Jesus told of the nobleman who after leaving his vineyard with caretakers went away to obtain a kingdom. Ladd writes:

We read in Luke 19: 11-12, “As they heard these things, he proceeded to tell a parable, because he was near to Jerusalem, and because they supposed that the kingdom of God was to appear immediately. He said therefore, “A nobleman went into a far country to receive a basileia and then return.’” The nobleman did not go away to get a realm, an area over which to rule. The realm over which he wanted to reign was at hand. The territory over which he was to rule was this place he left. The problem was that he was no king. He needed authority, the right to rule. He went off to get to get a “kingdom,” i.e., kingship, authority. The Revised Standard Version has therefore translated the word “kingly power.” [2]

Ladd explains that the kingdom of God is defined as God’s power, his will, his authority. The kingdom of God is also the kingdom of Christ. His authority, power and rule, occurs in the midst of humanity because of his redemptive work. The church, of which Christ is Lord, proclaims Jesus’ redemptive work, which is the good news. Proclaiming the kingdom-God’s rule and redemption in Christ is the work of the Church. The two are intertwined. While the kingdom is not the church, one cannot serve the kingdom of God unless one serves the Church, because there God’s power, rule and authority are proclaimed and made known to the world.

The kingdom is present now in the Church—and the Church’s existence and message in the world is why the enemy rages so harshly—that is why the saints do battle. In our union with Jesus Christ we are a part of his kingdom—we share in his death, suffering and resurrection. The kingdom will be complete at the coming of the King.

“For he rescued us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.” Col. 1:13-14.

[2]George Eldon Ladd, The Gospel of the Kingdom, reprint, (Grand Rapids: WM. B. Eerdmans 1973) 20-21.


Debbie said...

I find myself completely surprised by Nelson's comments. First, I am amazed that he was allowed to use the word "kingdom," when those of us of orthodox belief have so often been admonished to say "reign" instead, in order to avoid genderism. But I guess the word "reign" doesn't work as well in this situation! Very interesting.

But beyond that, there are as many empty church buildings as there are precisely because the PCUSA has been stubbornly REFUSING to serve the kingdom rather than the church. If all that the PCUSA cared about was to serve the kingdom wherever it may be found, then it would have been perfectly happy to dismiss a congregation, along with its buildings, to any other denomination, as long as it was doing the work of God. But no--those buildings must only be used for PRESBYTERIAN work--for the work of the church, not for the work of the kingdom.

So I guess this doesn't actually fool me. It sounds good at first blush but doesn't really mean anything more than trying to save face.

Debbie Berkley
Bellevue, WA

Viola Larson said...

Yes I was surprised that he didn't use kindom which some have insisted on. And I took the not serving the church to mean the church universal. Funny, how words can be twisted when people are not honest about what is really happening.

Neil D. Cowling said...

These are musings which may or may not be worth pondering.

I think the point is well taken that the PCUSA is left holding a bag of empty buildings. I think that unfortunate and acknowledge that we could have done that a lot better. We decided to be hard nosed about property in order to uphold a principle found in the trust clause to our detriment.

There is, however, a bit of confusion in this blog entry. I first noticed it in the title. “The kingdom of God or the Church?” It may seem picayunish to point this out but why did you capitalize “church” and not capitalize “kingdom?” And why did that change in this sentence “Nelson was undoubtedly speaking of the Kingdom of God—so we should explore the Kingdom in relationship to the Church.” Then to pile confusion on top of confusion I read “Nelson was speaking of the problems the PC (U.S.A.) is having as church after church leaves.” That is a clever turn of phrase but it makes me confused. Are we talking about “church” or “Church”?

Then we find the phrase “church building” and not “Church building.” In my view, if there is no “Church” in a building then it is just a “building” so it matters not to me what kind of beneficial programs get run in it. The Church of which I am pastor is the Kirk of Our Savior. But I do not confuse who belongs to “the Kirk” with the address on the sign in front of the building.

I am sure you know the ancient dictum “Extra ecclesiam nulla salus” (Outside the Church there is no salvation). I believe that because I think it is only inside the Church that we know what salvation is. But it also raises the question, in terms of your blog, “Is the Kingdom coterminus with the Church?”

Viola Larson said...

Neil I may have messed up some- but basically I meant the capital C for the Church universal, the small one for churches in particular. I may need to go through this and make sure that is what I did. But now I have a CPM meeting to go too. Thanks for the question.

Viola Larson said...

Sorry, I didn't see your last question. God's rule is everywhere, but only in the Church are his subjects deliberately obedient. And here I am speaking of the true Church which we cannot always know.

Anonymous said...

"but only in the Church are his subjects deliberately obedient."


Viola Larson said...

Anonymous do not post without giving your name and city.