Sunday, September 6, 2009

"A Different King of Kingdom"--Greg Boyd

This message (audio available here: on the blog page) is part of a series that Greg Boyd taught a while back in connection with his book, The Myth of a Christian Nation: How the Quest for Political Power is Destroying the Church.” This book and series of messages was chiefly responsible for, as Greg himself states: “approximately 20 percent of my congregation (roughly 1000 people) leaving the church.” The topic of the relationship between the church and government is a polarizing issue, and this message only adds fuel to the fire. But I find much (not all) of what Boyd says to be refreshingly Biblical.

While I don't always agree with Greg Boyd, I do appreciate his courage to challenge the politicized Christianity that is so prevalent in our day. For far too long Christianity in America has been identified with particular political parties, specific political/social policies and an ethical/moral distinctive rather than with the Lord Himself and the Kingdom that He has inaugurated. Oh, we have no problem attaching the name of Jesus or the character of God to our political/social positions, but our identity as “Christians” in this country is seldom (if at all) associated with the Gospel or the Kingdom of God but rather with political ideals and moral orientation. We seem to have lost our “first love” and have replaced it with a “love of the world” that manifests itself in a “nationalism” and political activism that in no way resembles the Kingdom that Jesus taught. For Christians to be identified by the world as a particular political party, or with specific political/social policies and ethical/moral persuasions rather than (or, at best, even before) being identified with Christ and His Kingdom is simply unbiblical—it’s “not the way it’s supposed to be”!

I’m not saying that as Christians we should stick our heads in the sand and have nothing to do with the direction of our nation or the promotion of moral excellence that God calls for. We should be good citizens of this country while recognizing that we are ultimately citizens of a better country, a “city” whose builder and maker is God Himself; fundamentally, we are citizens of the “Kingdom of God”. I realize that there is a fine line between living for Christ in the world while recognizing that we are not of this world, even as the Kingdom that we belong to is not of this world. But we must surrender the temptation to equate our Christianized “American way of life” with that of the Kingdom of God. It’s not!

The Bible speaks of two kingdoms: the Kingdom of God/Christ (light) and the kingdom of Satan (darkness). The kingdom of Satan is associated with all the kingdoms of this earthly “worldly realm” in distinction from the Kingdom of Christ which is associated with the Kingdom of Heaven, the Kingdom that is “not of this earthly realm” (see John 18:28-38), though it will one day and forever rule over all the kingdoms of earth (Rev. 11:15; Isa. 9:6-7, Isa. 11, etc.). As Boyd points out, however, at this time we must not confuse the two. Until Jesus returns in the consummation to reign over all of creation, the kingdoms of this world are distinct from the Kingdom of God. Only when Christ returns and the creation enters into its own redemption will the kingdom(s) of this world be transformed into the kingdoms of Christ (though our cultural mandate as “image-bearers” is still in effect as we work with God to transform lives and promote “shalom” in this world). Until then, however, the Kingdom of God is in this world but not of this world, and it’s made up of people from every tongue, tribe and nation (Rev. 5:9-10; 1Pet. 2:4-10; Gen. 12:1-3 with Galatians 3:6-9; etc.). Constantine's "kingdom" was no more the Kingdom of God than is America or Iran or Nazi Germany.

I think Boyd is correct in principle but I think he goes a little too far with the dichotomy between the two kingdoms. As I stated above, there is a distinction between the Kingdom of God and the kingdom(s) of this world that Boyd rightly points out; and Boyd’s overall point in emphasizing the preeminence of the Kingdom of God over against the kingdom(s) of this world and our identification as Christians with the one over against the other is very important to remember. Every nation on this earth, every government that rules a particular people group is part of the “worldly realm” and therefore a part of Satan’s “kingdom of darkness”. There’s a sense in which we as Christians have a “dual citizenship”; but our ultimate residence and loyalty is to Jesus, not “Caesar”. We are called to be “light” and “salt” in this dark and dying world and by our lives and activity in the world we should be promoting righteousness and Shalom. We must be faithful to our calling in both kingdoms.

But is there no sense at all in which we can see the Kingdom of God working within existing “worldly” kingdoms? The Kingdom of God is, at the present time, a “realm” that is distinct from the “worldly” realm, but in a very real sense it has broken into this world by the very fact of the incarnation and then the work of the Spirit as He builds God’s House. As Christians, we exist in both kingdoms. As “new creations” in Christ, we belong to the New Creation that is the Kingdom of God; a Kingdom that is made up of people from every nation under heaven and whose paradigm is not with political or social policies, but with light and life. And even though our lives are even now hidden with Christ in God, yet we also live in this world and live within the framework of “worldly kingdoms” that exist within the paradigm of darkness and death. But as “new creations” do we not have any influence in this world that would cause the Kingdom of God to be noticed more within one existing “worldly rule” than another?

As one writer put it, “Can't we see in-breakings of the coming (and present) kingdom (of God) here and now, better in some places than others?” Is the Kingdom of God, which is a present reality here on earth now, not able to be communicated in any way by existing “worldly” governmental activities? As Christians not only influence but also find vocation within existing governmental structures, isn’t it possible that aspects of the Kingdom of God would be visible and operative? Is the dichotomy so great that there can be no resemblance at all between the Kingdom of God and a kingdom(s) of the world?

As I understand Boyd, he suggests that there isn’t. While rightly causing us to consider the radical difference between the Kingdom of God and the kingdom(s) of the world, Boyd doesn’t seem to leave room for the work of the Spirit to transform culture. Of course, he would disagree with this and rightly so. His ministry is a strong voice in encouraging Christians to reflect Jesus by reaching out and engaging the world; to feed the hungry, to house the homeless, to help the helpless, etc. In other words, Boyd is quick to advance the practical outworking of our Christian calling and its effect in the world. And if we are to mirror Jesus to the world, then our efforts should, in some measure (however small or seemingly insignificant), transform culture. After all, Jesus Himself transformed culture in a huge way.

But isn’t “government” a part of culture and a legitimate means to help effect cultural change? Why should we assume that our efforts within culture at large are manifestations of the Kingdom of God operating in the world but not so our efforts within governmental structures? Boyd seems to think that the dichotomy between the kingdom(s) of the world and the Kingdom of God is so tight that the Kingdom of God can never be witnessed in any way within any existing worldly power. I can’t go that far.

I empathize with Boyd’s concern with contemporary “American” Christianity’s muddling of the distinction between the Kingdom of God and the kingdoms (governments) of the world. We seem to think that if we “fix” the government, then the world and our lives as Christians will be better. That may be true. But unless we manifest the Kingdom of God and show people the way in, what does “better” really mean? I believe there is a balance here that allows us to remain faithful as citizens of the Kingdom of God while at the same time working toward expressing this Kingdom within the kingdoms of the world.

Of course, that begs another question…which I leave for you to contemplate.