My Evangelicalism: God is Out There, Too

Way back in the day, like a million years ago in internet years, by which I mean three weeks ago, I posted an outline of the kind of evangelical I want to be (My “Evangelical Manifesto“). Here is another point I’ve been thinking about, and it’s probably connected to yesterday’s post on social justice.

6. Evangelicals Can Celebrate the God Who Is At Work “Out There”. Too often evangelicalism slips into fundamentalism by imagining that the mission of God is about bringing everyone out there into the safe walls of our communities, because the church is the place where the reign of God is being made manifest.

In my ideal world, this is correct, or at least mostly true.

The church is the bride of Christ. It consists of the prophets and teachers who have been entrusted to make the word of the gospel known to the nations. It is the place on which the Spirit has been poured so that the presence of God and the reality of life in the resurrected Christ might come to all.

But on the other hand, the church is not the kingdom of God. One of the surprises of the New Testament is that the reign of God is too capacious to be contained within any one people, even a people so diversely defined as the church.

One of the most important stories for our understanding of the mission and dominion of God is the Good Samaritan. That story is so powerful because it undermines even our own expectations about how the reign of God works, though we’ve been so dulled to the story through repetition and exposure that we too often miss it.

Jesus is talking to a scribe about what must be done to inherit eternal life. How do I live the life that will confirm me, for all eternity, as an insider, one of the people of God? Love God and love neighbor.

Ok, but who, then, is my neighbor?

Jesus tells a story in which a priest keeps Torah–by avoiding an unknown dead man on a heavily trafficked road. It is a story in which a Levite preserves his cleanliness so that he can continue loving God by serving the temple and loving neighbor by keeping up the worship of God.

And it is a story in which the outsider, the Samaritan, not only shows mercy, but thereby shows himself to be the loving neighbor. The thing that must be done for eternal life bursts beyond the bounds of the people of God. The person not defined by Torah, the person who will not be restrained in his love–even by the word of God–is shown to be doing the thing needful for inheriting eternal life. The outsider is the insider. The story is turned on its head.

In evangelical Christian circles we continually face the temptation to demarcate the people of God by means of the truth we hold dear. We are tempted to say that, because we are the insiders, ours is the community to which you must look to know how God is at work in the world.

But the story of the Good Samaritan (as part of a larger biblical narrative) tells me differently. It indicates to me that we are always going to be faced with the possibility that God is at work beyond our walls. We are always going to confront the reality that someone who does not profess that Christ is Lord is going to be a more faithful-looking embodiment of the coming kingdom that we are. We might have to have our eyes opened to the needs of the world around us and what it looks like to love, by our non-Christian neighbors.

And in such cases, the evangelicalism I want to be a part of will not pretend that we do what we do and say what we say simply because we got it from the Bible. My evangelicalism will say that I watched my neighbor and was humbled then to learn what it is to love.

21 thoughts on “My Evangelicalism: God is Out There, Too”

  1. Daniel,

    You make a bit nervous, not in pointing out the ramifications for evangelicalism in the Parable of the Good Samaritan, but in too sharp of a distinction between church and kingdom. It seems to me you almost see church and then in a completely different sphere the kingdom of God.

    I don’t dispute some evangelicals think God’s work and evangelicalism are almost identical, with a few exceptions. Kingdom is a now and not yet manifestation on earth of God’s true society, etc., and the church is the term Paul uses for that social manifestation. I don’t equate kingdom and church, but I’d like us to expand our sense of church. Well, you see my direction of thinking…

    I see what Jesus calls kingdom (in its realized sense) to be more or less what Paul sees as church. The two are not talking about the same thing entirely, but both see a concrete, earthly manifestation of how God’s true society is to work, and Jesus used kingdom (which had a larger and embracing eschatological shape) while Paul used church (which had a more pneumatic, concrete manifestation in the now) for that earthly manifestation.

    I grew up with the largely Reformed sense that kingdom is the big idea and church the little idea. I tend to see this now more in terms of linguistic preference: how Jesus talked, how Paul talked. The more I study kingdom in the Gospels the more I see a concrete earthly society, and the more I study Paul’s sense of church the more I want to see it in bigger terms than we often do.

    Thoughts?

  2. Thanks for pushing me here, Scot.

    In my own recent thinking on this I have been thinking that the better place to go for Paul’s equivalent to Jesus’ kingdom proclamation is not the church but, instead, the new creation.

    When I see Jesus inaugurating the reign of God, I do see the formation of a people who are supposed to continue his Spirit-empowered ministry, but I also see that there are surprising manifestations of the kingdom beyond the people formed to follow him.

    God is king over all, and is bringing that reign to bear on the world through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. There is a community that is formed in submission to that reign, but I see the church and the community of Jesus’ followers as one large part of that reign, while the sphere over which Jesus is Lord cannot be contained by it.

    I think that we agree a good deal on the importance of the church, and how it is to be both a manifestation of the reign of God and a continuation of Jesus’ ministry of bringing that reign to bear on the earth.

    But the church, it seems to me, consists of those who know and acknowledge Jesus to be Lord over all, while the kingdom and new creation are each in their own ways confessions that Jesus is Lord over all things, even those things (and persons) who lie beyond the sphere of the church.

    How does new creation fit with how you’re thinking of this? And, perhaps part of the difference also is this: do you see “kingdom” being more or less contained to the sphere in which there is faithful response to God’s reign? I am answering no to this second question, and that might be why I’m hesitant to make the church-kingdom equation.

    1. Daniel, I’m rather with Scott on this. I think kingdom language in the NT has to do fundamentally with how God deals with his people under eschatological conditions: judgment, protection, deliverance, vindication, etc. It has implications for the nations but is oriented towards Israel.

      But this sovereign (and basically historical) action on God’s part is for the sake of the enduring existence and witness of the church as ‘new creation’, as a counter-narrative to injustice and violence and immorality and idolatry.

      This is not to say that God is not at work in the world outside the church, just that this is not really what kingdom language is about (as I understand it).

      I tried to explain the distinction a while back in a post addressing what I saw as confusion in Tom Wright’s book Simply Christian on the matter. It may or may not be helpful. In any case, you’ve provoked some good thought.

      1. Those are helpful clarifying thoughts, Andrew. Thank you. I completely agree with the first paragraph. I’ll take a peek at your assessment of Wright and maybe write some more here. I think that the implications of what it means for God to be at work, oriented toward Israel but for the world is one of the recurring differences in how we understand the implications of the Christ event for the NT writers. I’ll definitely have more to say about that when I get to the end of your book!

  3. Daniel, you say that jesus forms a community, but says the kingdom is bigger. But that seem to be a critique of the scibes and/or wrong jewish expectations. But once paul pushed past jewish exclusivism, which is often the basis of jesus’ critique, you no longer have to separate community and kingdom.

    1. So Geoff, is Jesus Lord of the cosmos or just Lord of the church?

      My sense is that both Kingdom and New Creation declare that God is Lord over all.

      Yes, he is Lord of the church; yes, he is Lord of my heart.

      But, there is a larger sphere of reality that says, “God is King, Jesus is Lord,” and this is true of the whole cosmos, not just the church or the community of followers. Kingdom, it seems to me, is a way to talk about this larger reality.

      1. yes, I think you are right, I probably shouldn’t utterly conflate the two.

        but i would add, and i think this matter of difference is the difference for me, while Christ is Lord of the cosmos, only those in the church can know this to be true, and therefore only those who are conformed to the mind of Christ can see him at work beyond the church.

        The order of being (Christ is Lord of cosmos) is not the same as the order of salvation (one comes to know that Christ is Lord of the cosmos because one sees his Lordship on display in the church–for the world). This distinction is so often ignored.

        In another way, like Augustine’s conversion, you can only retroactively discern that God has always been at work in the world (beyond the church or Israel) because you have already been transformed.

        I bring up conversion because i feel like this is the category that is missing when we talk about the relation of Church and world, kingdom and church, kingdom and new creation. Certainly I don’t want to emphasize individualism against (may it never be), but rarely do we bring the idea of a shift from one to the other. Often people want to draw the lines but never examine the permeable border.

          1. I think Scot, Daniel, Andrew, and Geoff–fun to interact with all of you here–are on the right track in noting the diversity of terms within the New Testament. But, of course “kingdom of God” is used numerous times by Paul; “ecclesia” is on Jesus’ lips in Matthew; and “new creation” is relatively rare (2 Cor 5:17; Gal 6:15; Cf. Rom 8:19-20).

            What I hear all of your affirming rightly is both the concrete and eschatological connotations of all three of these terms. The consensus theological perspective is to like Daniel make “new creation” or “kingdom of God” the broader sense and “ecclesia” the smaller narrower sense. Lesslie Newbigin’s formulation is standard in this respect: “the church is the sign, and instrument and foretaste of the kingdom of God.”

            But we have to be careful here because this can lead to what Scot is worried about–a reductionist understanding of the church. Canonically consider especially in this regard the references to the church in Ephesians and Colossians which are known as particularly exalted depictions of the church. Yoder likes Eph 3:10 “His intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms.”

            And theologically consider that in the Gospels, “He is the kingdom” (Barth, CD IV.2. p. 658 following Tertullian and Origen). And in Paul, the church is the body of Christ–thus “Jesus Christ is the community” (Barth, CD IV. 2. p. 655). Barth goes on to qualify these statements but a reductionist perception of the church has to wrestle with this.

            But, as all of us agree, Daniel is certainly right to appreciate the Good Samaritan story. This is a constant temptation for the church to be the priest and Levite of Luke 10–what Barth calls “sacralisation” (IV.2 p. 669-670) or abstraction (IV.3 p. 813) or neglect (IV.3 p. 825) or “patronising” (IV.3 p. 827). (I give you these references because they are so good–Barth preaches it).

            Still, Barth notes that humanity outside the people of God is generally “confused”–though he notes a few exceptions: Melchizedek, Abimelech, Jethro, Baalam, Rahab, Ruth, Janel, Hiram, Naaman, and Cyrus (IV.3 p. 691). Therefore we are to be open to seeing God in the secular / pagan but not especially optimistic about it.

            1. I’m a little late to the party, but I think this discussion of church and Kingdom is one of the main points of contention between the ways people are currently negotiating theology, ecclesiology, etc. We have to use these terms and ascribe them very particular meanings even as we know they are far more nuanced in the narrative of Scripture itself.

              Two brief bits of response: first, though I see the possible danger of shrinking our idea of the church, I don’t think it equals the danger of inflating our idea of the church. Perhaps it is because I have been reading mostly postcolonial theology of late, but I am far more nervous about a totalizing view of the church than I am a more nuanced and narrow view. The church is not the Kingdom but the signifier (as Newbigin says). And the church works best, and is at its most faithful, when it takes up a humbled approach to its place in the world. In my opinion that is always what the story has told us, and modern history has only confirmed it.

              Second, just because I feel it needs saying, Barth can say all he wants that humanity outside the people of God is somehow more “confused,” but we must not forget that Barth also spent half his life having an adulterous affair with his assistant. To set up that boundary is to lower the grave importance of needing to be consistently watchful of our own actions, despite our place within the church. (and because of it, as our example to the world)

              1. Glad you jumped in, Danielle–you can show up for these parties whenever you want!

                I resonate fairly strongly with that second paragraph. On the one hand, I do have a high ideal for the church to live up to, but on the other I see that the reality of what it has done in the world has more often than not fallen short of its eschatological identity. My good friend and African American colleague at Fuller won’t let me forget that people on the margins need the government because the church has been too happy to provide legitimation for the status quo. That scares me, humbles me, and draws forth these sorts of reflections on the kingdom being bigger than the church, and the reign of God coming near through surprising vehicles and in surprising places.

  4. Kirk: I like what you write in answer to Scot. I think it fits with previous things I’ve written about OT Israel not being all of God’s presence in the world at that time, and so the transition to the church not being quite the kind of thing envisaged by the New Perspective. Also, not all of OT Israel, nor all those professing ‘faith’ in Christ, are part of the Kingdom. Thus, Torah did not define those of the kingdom, and the vital change was not Torah to Faith, but faith was always the definer, Torah being, to put it starkly, merely ‘oracles’ (Romans 3.2), or information.

  5. I’m not perfectly comfortable saying Paul’s view of the kingdom is the same as the church either. I especially think of times he refers to it as something the saints will inherit, or the fact that community seems to exclude the environmental/creation dimension to God’s reign, as Daniel noted. This is why I generally still prefer to think of the kingdom as a better integrating motif for theology too, contrary to some more recent thought on this issue (Grenz, Franke).

    As to your original post Daniel, I too fail to envision the “otherness” of the kingdom far too often. The only thought that lurks in my head though is that in some sense, when the kingdom of God is appropriated outside the church this means the kingdom will have come and left from some places/people. Don’t know if that made enough sense, but basically it is temporary and not permanent in it’s expression in some cases. Of course this hinges on one’s view of soteriology.

  6. I have experienced this, and have felt this same humility when I see other parts of the church doing things “wrong” (especially in social justice and mercy) to good, redemptive ends. I realize that in my desire to do things the best possible way, sometimes I neglect actually doing them. All the good theology and best practices in the world are not worth anything without compassion and action.

    I lean toward equating the kingdom with the new creation, with the world put right. The church is a part of that, even the centre of it, but not the whole.

    1. I think you hit the nail on the head when you said this, Kristen: “All the good theology and best practices in the world are not worth anything without compassion and action.”

      That very thought has led me to start reevaluating even how I assess what makes for “good theology” and “best practices.”

  7. Daniel,

    Great post. I have also been thinking lately that new creation (more than the church) in Paul’s teaching seems to parallel more closely Jesus’ teaching on the kingdom. What would be helpful is to hear your thoughts on the relationship of the church to the new creation in Paul’s thought. Is the church primarily a manifestation of new creation that demonstrates the presence and effects of the reign of Christ in a particular society? Is it an embodiment of new creation as the new dwelling place of God where heaven and earth now intersect in a new way as the Spirit dwells in and among this new community? Is the church primarily a vehicle that is bringing new creation to bear on earth – like an instrument of implementation? Or is it simply a foretaste of new creation – a present signpost that is shadowy and pointing toward a fuller future reality? Maybe something else?

    As far as I can tell, the church is all of these. But I would love to hear your thoughts about how Paul understands this connection between the church and new creation – especially if that undergirds your broader thinking on the relationship of the church to the kingdom of God.

  8. Daniel, Amen! What you are saying is that God’s wider mercy is evident in passages that speak of the ‘outsider’ as part of God’s best representatives of his kingdom. I expect to see millions of non-Christians in God’s future. This is what the already/not yet kingdom means to me, but then again maybe many of the not-yetters are alreadiers.

  9. The theme of the outsider exceeding the righteousness of the insider is a theme that scripture returns to frequently. Rahab vs Achan, Jonah-Ninevites, John 9 with the blind man who sees and the Pharisees who don’t, and here with the Samaritan. I freely acknowledge that some of my pagan acquaintances are reflexively more merciful than me. Big heaping barrels of hot coals are a permanent fixture on my head. Sometimes I fear that I will be the unfortunate character in one of these parables.

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