Scot McKnight gets the kingdom all wrong

By Alan Bean

“Social justice outside the church is not biblical justice or kingdom work. It is social work. Fine, that’s a good thing. But let’s not call this kingdom work.”

So says Scot McKnight, author of “The Jesus Creed: Loving God and Loving Others“.  McKnight has no beef with works of justice performed outside the church, it just doesn’t qualify as kingdom work.  (You can find an extended treatment of his remarks in this Associated Baptist Press article.)

McKnight believes in justice, especially the kind of justice that mattered to Jesus.  But that’s just the problem, few churches share his passion.  Take the issue of mass incarceration, for instance.  Over the past four decades, churches have adopted a law-n-order, lock-’em-up stance.  We wanted to be on the side of the angels, and that meant supporting law enforcement force the bad people (particularly drug dealers) off the streets.

And it wasn’t just white suburban churches that drove into this ideological ditch; black churches, by and large, have allowed a valid concern with public safety to overwhelm Christian compassion for the last, the least and the lost.

As a result, most Christian churches have either ignored the mass incarceration issue, because it didn’t impact them personally, or have actively endorsed unjust policies.

We did the wrong thing for the very best of reasons, but we did the wrong thing.

So what is Jesus supposed to do?  Give up on justice because the people who use his name aren’t interested?  The kingdom of God isn’t the church, and the church isn’t the kingdom of God.  If Christians won’t do kingdom work, Jesus will turn hang out with non-Christians who share his concerns. 

If the least and the lost are in prison, Jesus is in prison.  The life of the kingdom is enmeshed with the life of the jailhouse.  Those seeking justice for criminal defendants and prison inmates will get tangled up in the kingdom whether they like it or not.  They may not be religious.  They may be anti-religious.  But if they’re working for justice they are working with Jesus.

That is the point of Jesus’ parable about the good people who refused to attend the kingdom feast because they had more pressing priorities.  The poor and the lame and the outcasts are rounded up and herded into the banquet hall.  They aren’t asked if they wish to attend.  They must attend.  They are the guests of honor.  If you don’t like Jesus’ guest list, your options are limited. 

People with kingdom priorities honor Jesus even if they don’t want to.  People who renounce kingdom values are relegated to the outer darkness where men (and women) shall weep and gnash their teeth.  They may be quoting Scripture and signing their names to orthodox creedal statements, paying Jesus elaborate methphysical compliments and praying three times a day, but they are still in the darkness. 

Jesus doesn’t care about your religion; Jesus cares about the kingdom.

2 thoughts on “Scot McKnight gets the kingdom all wrong

  1. I think there is such a thing as “natural justice”–that human beings have a sense of whether situations are “fair” or not, presuming they don’t have a stake in it, and they have the pertinent information, etc.

    Scot McKnight seems in the article to be comparing work on justice in the World to Christmas pageants, music and drama groups, marketing and other distractions from the Church’s heart, of faith in Jesus Christ. Sometimes these things can be helpful in building fellowship, but entertainment can overtake the sense of worship and that feeling of participation and union we find so spiritually satisfying, and carry with us when we leave.

    Any one who is working for peace and justice in the world is helping the inbreaking of the Kingdom, for sure. The advantage that Christians have is that we know that the tiny beginning of the Kingdom is already here, within us, and so we have hope, and the Church, and our faith in God through Jesus Christ to support all of us, and each one of us, when the work gets too frustrating and pointless. It can be very disheartening to lose an election, lose a community to eviction and demolition, lose friends to illness or worse. We have more than friends or comrades to back us up; we have Jesus with us, and we know that for the Kingdom to come, as JD Crossan said: “God will not do it without us, and we cannot do it without God”. So we do have an advantage over our fellow workers for justice and peace in the world because we have our faith and hope in Jesus, and his society of peace and justice to come.

  2. First, thank you for responding to Scott McKnight’s assertion.

    While McKnight is speaking as an “insider” looking outside, his view is dimmed (perhaps blocked) by an inability to reside as an “outsider” and to see himself looking back out. Only God has the capacity to view the true thoughts, intents and actions; to discern true justice making (shalom-making). There is another important distinction.

    From my understanding of Paul Tillich’s systematic theology, and my own reading and exegesis, the “latent” (yet to be revealed) church resides among people in and among whom God is working. We can not with clarity discern where and how God is working. We can see God’s working (emerging shalom) by the love demonstrated (and felt) among people in a “manifest” (now visible through its actions) church.

    Therefore, since we cannot see as God sees, and if we believe that whoever is not against us is for us (Mark 9:40), and if we agree that “the kingdom of God” occurs in imperceptible ways and places (Luke 17:21, and if we agree that we are not able to see ourselves as “others” see us, then it is good that we affirm and rejoice in the relational power of “lovingkindness” (chesed) demonstrated among people; and, to speak the truth in love and stand firm against — both acts of justice — those who assert unilateral, dominating, vengeful power over another human being.

    There is much more,but I will stop here.

    Once again, than you for taking the role of “other” in reflecting back to Mr. McKnight an image that he may be able to see.

    Finally, as a dually trained social worker and pastoral theologian, I am delighted to see these kinds of dialogues and rejoice when the “latent” church becomes “manifest” through its relationally revealed acts of justice/righteousness and lovingkindness.

Comments are closed.