#7 The Kingdom of God is More about Society than about Individuals

WESTERN CHRISTIANITY, AND IN in many ways Western thought in general since the time of the Enlightenment, has generally focused more on individuals than on society. Christians, especially in Protestant and even more in evangelical Protestant forms of the faith, have primarily interpreted the message of the Bible in individual terms.

Part of the problem with those of us who read the Bible only in English is that the word you is both singular and plural—unlike Greek and many other languages in which there is clear differentiation between you (singular) and you (plural). I became aware of this particularly as I began to read the Bible in Japanese.

In spite of being able after seminary to read the New Testament in Greek, to a degree, I usually just read the English translation for devotional use and even for sermon preparation before going to Japan. But as I began to prepare sermons in Japanese, over and over again I noticed passages that I had always thought of as speaking to individuals were, indeed, speaking to a group of people, a community, for you was clearly plural in Japanese just as it is in the Greek.

The Societal Nature of the Kingdom of God

A kingdom (or nation or community) is made up of individuals, of course, but it is primarily a group of people united under the ruler or under a common government (as in the case of a nation) or around shared life concerns (as in the case of a community). But a kingdom (or nation or community) is more than just a collection of individuals. It is (or they are) a society, and it is important for Christians to recognize and to acknowledge the societal nature of the kingdom of God, even though it often has not been understood in that way.

As I have already mentioned, Western Christianity has usually placed far more emphasis on individuals than upon society. The individualistic interpretation of the Bible emphasizes that God loves me, Jesus died for me, I can be saved through faith in Jesus, and when I die I will go to Heaven. And, to be sure, that is an important part of the Gospel message—but it is certainly not the only important part.

Emergent church leader Brian D. McLaren has importantly emphasized this point in recent years, but, unfortunately, many Christians don’t seem to have gotten the point yet. One of McLaren’s books is The Secret Message of Jesus.[1] The “secret message” that he elucidated shouldn’t have been so secret, for Jesus was rather clear about what he taught. It became “secret” only through centuries of misinterpretation or neglect of Jesus’ central teaching. And what was that teaching? It was about the kingdom of God, and that kingdom was populated by people who formed a community of faith. Citizens of God’s kingdom live in a new society now.

The kingdom of God is not only societal, it is also political—which is only to be expected: every society has a political dimension. (An online dictionary says that politics is “the complex or aggregate of relationships of people in society.) The second chapter of McLaren’s book is “The Political Message of Jesus.” There he stresses that the kingdom of God is “a new political and social and spiritual reality” (p. 16). It is the realm where the will of God is done “on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10).

In the fifth chapter, I made mention of the so-called Social Gospel. In spite of some now-obvious weaknesses, that movement, which was in full swing more than a century ago, made significance emphasis on the societal nature of the kingdom of God. We must take care not to misunderstand or neglect to see the importance of that dimension of the teachings of Jesus.

The Earthly Nature of the Kingdom of God

Not only has the Western understanding of the kingdom of God often been individualistic, it has also often been other-worldly. By “other-worldly,” of course, I mean that it has been more about life in Heaven rather than life on earth.

This is the idea that has often, for good reason, been criticized by those opposed to Christianity. For example, there have been many critics who have objected, again for good reason, to the Christian idea of “pie in the sky by and by.” That was the kind of thinking that some, and perhaps many, slaveholders used in the nineteenth century to mollify their slaves. And to some degree the same kind of thinking was used by white Christians to keep African-Americans satisfied with their inferior status for a century following the end of the Civil War.

Martin Luther King, Jr., alludes to that sad situation in his powerful book Why We Can’t Wait.[2] In 1963 in Birmingham, Alabama, “the most segregated city in America” (p. 36), King met with many groups in the city. He writes, “To the ministers I stressed the need for a social gospel to supplement the gospel of individual salvation.” He also says that he rejected religion which “prompts a minister to extol the glories of Heaven while ignoring the social conditions that cause men an earthly hell” (p. 54).

Throughout his book introduced in the previous section, Brian McLaren emphasizes that “the secret message of Jesus isn’t primarily about ‘heaven after you die.’ It doesn’t give us an exit ramp or escape hatch from this world; rather it thrusts us back into the here and now so we can be part of God’s dreams for planet Earth coming true.”[3]

What is the basis for this emphasis on the earthly nature of the kingdom of God? For one thing, the words of Jesus. Think how the very first public words he spoke according to the Gospel of Mark was, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news”(1:15). And we can assume that those who did repent and believe in the good news were then and there “citizens” of that kingdom.

Both Matthew and Luke record what has come to be known as the “Lord’s Prayer.” In Matthew’s slightly longer version we find the familiar words, “Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (6:10). Given the Jewish proclivity for parallelism, saying one thing in two different ways, we see here that for God’s kingdom to come means the same as for God’s will to be done, and to be done on earth as well as in heaven.

But didn’t Jesus say on one occasion, “My kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36)?[4] Unfortunately, those words have often been thought to mean that Jesus’ kingdom is not in this world, but that is not what he said. He declared that his kingdom is different in nature, not in location. Jesus spoke to his disciples directly about that difference:

You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many (Mt. 20:25-28).

Truly, Jesus’ kingdom is not of this world, but it is in this world, at least at this present time.

Living In and Working for the Kingdom of God Now

In a more recent book,[5] Brian McLaren tells about a trip he took to Bujumbura, the capital of Burundi in East Africa, in 1994. There he attended a conference where most of the participants were from the Tutsi and Hutu tribes from Rwanda as well as Burundi. There were also guests from Uganda and eastern Congo. “Their homelands,” McLaren writes, “were a random sample of the most violent, poverty-stricken, and dangerous countries in the world” (p. 18).

McLaren goes on to tell how the people at the conference talked particularly about “the metaphor Jesus used again and again to convey his essential message: the kingdom of God.” They “described God’s kingdom in terms of God’s dreams coming true for this earth, of God’s justice and peace replacing earth’s injustice and disharmony” (p. 21).[6]

At the end of the second day of that meeting, McLaren noticed one of the African women seemed to be somewhat ill at ease. He talked with her through a translator, and this is what she said to him:

Today, for the first time, I see what Jesus meant by the kingdom of God. I see that it’s about changing this world, not just escaping it and retreating into our churches. If Jesus’ message of the kingdom of God is true, then everything must change. Everything must change (p. 23).

Thus, McLaren found the title for his new book, and the logical step forward after his writing The Secret Message of Jesus.

Surely, one of the true things that everyone needs to know now is that the kingdom of God is more about society than about individuals and is about now as well as the future. So many people have been passive bystanders and inactive spectators in the presence of grave injustices and the woeful lack of shalom in the surrounding society. But that needs to change.

Christians have, for good reason, long placed great emphasis on church growth. That emphasis has been both on increasing the number of local churches and strengthening churches already in existence, causing them to grow in numbers and in effectiveness. On the mission fields around the world, most evangelical mission organizations including the one with which I was affiliated for nearly four decades, the primary emphasis has been on what is called “church planting.”

In the last decade or two of my missionary career, though, I came more and more to see that the goal of missions should be the expansion of the kingdom of God and not just church planting or church growth. That was partly due to the fact that I was an educational missionary, and the type of missionary work I had been called to and had engaged in for decades was gradually being phased out by my mission board.

To the present, I still consider leading individuals to faith in Christ and to active involvement in a local church to be of great importance. But that is not the only thing we Christians (or missionaries) should be interested in. And to the extent the church becomes a group of people who are focused on their own needs and the preservation of the institutional church of which they are a part—as, unfortunately, it does sometimes—emphasis on the church can actually become a barrier to the expansion of the kingdom of God.

Ideally, of course, every local church becomes an outpost for the kingdom of God and sees its primary purpose of existing for witness and service to others rather than for its own self-preservation and aggrandizement. It has been said that the Church is the only society that exists for the benefit of those who are not its members. That statement, attributed to Archbishop William Temple, is definitely a good expression of the inherent nature of the Church.

Existing for the sake of others, of course, means primarily to exist for the sake of the kingdom of God and for the expansion of shalom, the primary characteristic of the kingdom of God as elucidated in the previous chapter.

Working with Others for the Kingdom of God

Is it possible for those who are not Christians, and maybe even for those who do not believe in God, to work for the kingdom of God? Yes, I think it is, even though those who are not Christians certainly would not use that terminology. Not only is it possible, it happens all the time. If shalom is the primary characteristic of the kingdom of God, then all who help to expand shalom in society are working for the kingdom of God whether they realize it or not. They may not do all that is needed and they work from different motives, but lack of doing everything needed and acting with different motives should not detract from the positive and helpful things that they, in fact, do.

One of the best examples is Gandhi, known around the world as Mahatma (“Great Soul”).[7] Gandhi certainly knew about and was influenced by Christianity. He acknowledges the influence of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount on his thinking. One of his closest friends was C. F. Andrews, a priest in the Church of England who lived and worked in India for more than three decades.[8] The non-violent means Gandhi used for decades in seeking to ease poverty, expand women’s rights, build religious and ethnic amity, end untouchability, increase economic self-reliance, and achieve freedom and independence for India are, undoubtedly, related to the kingdom of God.

If Christians during Gandhi’s day had been more Christlike, things would have been different. When the noted Methodist missionary E. Stanley Jones met with Gandhi he asked him, “Mr. Gandhi, though you quote the words of Christ often, why is it that you appear to so adamantly reject becoming his follower?” Gandhi replied, “Oh, I don’t reject Christ. I love Christ. It’s just that so many of you Christians are so unlike Christ.” Then he went on to say, “If Christians would really live according to the teachings of Christ, as found in the Bible, all of India would be Christian today.”[9]

So even though Gandhi did not become a Christian, it is undeniable that he personified and enacted many Christian values. And since the lives and living conditions of so many people of the vast sub-continent of India were improved by Gandhi’s activities, can we not say that even though he would not have explained it in these words, he was indeed working for the kingdom of God? Moreover, his influence extended to those who were confessing Christians, such as Martin Luther King, Jr.

King knew by his Christian training and, perhaps we can say, Gandhi knew intuitively that the kingdom of God is more about society than about individuals, and they are two of a multitude of examples of people, professing Christians and non-Christians, who lived by Christian values and worked meritoriously for the expansion of the kingdom of God and for shalom, the chief characteristic of that kingdom.

[1] The subtitle of McLaren’s book, which was issued by the W Publishing Group in 2006, is Uncovering the Truth that Could Change Everything. McLaren (b. 1956) was the founding pastor of the Cedar Ridge Community Church (in 1986) and first became known nationally through the publication of A New Kind of Christian (2001), a theological novel.

[2] First published by Harper & Row in 1963. The page number in the text is from the Signet Classic edition (2000).

[3] The Secret Message of Jesus, p. 183.

[4] These words are from the New International Version, and they are identical in the King James Version. The same sentence in the NRSV is rendered “My kingdom is not from this world.”

[5] Everything Must Change: Jesus, Global Crises, and a Revolution of Hope (Thomas Nelson, 2007).

[6] “God’s Dream,” or some variation of the phrase, has increasingly become the metaphor of choice for the transformation of the world. McLaren has used the term frequently rather than the usual “Kingdom of God.”

[7] Mohandas Gandhi (1869-1948) has been one of the best known and most revered people of the world since the time of his tragic assassination.

[8] Charles Freer Andrews (1871-1940), born in England, became a teacher at St. Stephens College in Delhi, India, in 1904. In 1914 he went to South Africa and convinced Gandhi to return to India; the two became very close friends. Andrews did not lead Gandhi to become a Christian, but he certainly had great influence on the Indian activist. Gandhi’s affectionate nickname for Andrews was Christ’s Faithful Apostle, based on the initials of his name, “C.F.A.”

[9] “Mahatma Gandhi and Christianity,” Christianity Today (online article posted August 14, 2008). Jones (1884-1973) was born in Maryland and went to India as a missionary in 1907. Like Andrews, he also became a close friend of Gandhi and wrote a book published under the title Gandhi: Portrayal of a Friend (1948).