The Kingdom of God In The Transition Zone

What is meant by the kingdom of God?  The investigation of this subject could fill volumes of theological treatises—in fact, it has.  The scope of this blog is not broad enough to explore all the biblical and theological nuances of this important subject.  Instead, I will draw upon the writing of Stanley Grenz to offer a biblical framework for understanding the kingdom of God as it is widely understood within the Anabaptist tradition.  To understand this presentation it is important that we be able to differentiate between de jure (in principle) and de facto (in fact) rulership.

Lying behind the Bible narrative is the idea that as creator, God is de jure monarch; the kingship belongs to God by right.  Because God created everything, God possesses the right to rule over all creation.  Consequently, the entire universe is the kingdom of God or the realm of God’s dominion de jure.  In principle the entire universe constitutes the realm over which God exercises kingship.  According to the biblical drama, however, what is true de jure is not yet fully de facto.  God has given human the privilege and responsibility of acknowledging his rule.  In our sin, however, we have rejected the kingship of the Creator.  Thereby we have erected an enclave of rebellion in which another—Satan—appears to reign.  As a creature, this de facto ruler is a usurper, for he does not possess the right to rule that is God’s alone.

The biblical story focuses on Jesus who came as the bearer of the claim of God to rulership and the one who embodies the kingdom of God.  Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection demonstrate God’s claim to rulership.  Through his exaltation, Jesus has been installed as Lord of the universe.  This demonstration of God’s rulership entails the demand that all persons acknowledge God as sovereign.  Some obey that demand—confess Jesus as Lord—and thereby enter the kingdom of God.  Similarly, as the principles of the kingdom permeate human society, the kingdom of God is also present. 

The biblical drama of the kingdom climaxes by moving from the past and present to the future.  Although the kingdom is here, this presence is partial and not yet consummated.  For this reason there remains a future, eschatological aspect of the kingdom.  One day all persons will acknowledge the lordship of Jesus (Philippians 2:10-11).  Likewise one day the principles of God’s kingdom will be universally actualized in the new human society that God will inaugurate.  At that time, what is God’s by right (de jure) will also be true in fact (de facto).  The entire universe will be the realm of God’s rule.

In short, the kingdom of God is both present and future…Hence, the kingdom is a “sphere of existence” in which people are called to live.  It is an incorporation into God’s powerful invasion of our world.  As such it consists in doing the will of God (Matthew 6:10; 7:21-23), and it demands a radical decision (13:44-46).[1]


The Kingdom and the Church

What is the nature of the kingdom in relation to the broader context of the kingdom of God?  To draw upon Grenz’s assertion, the church is a community of persons who have placed themselves by faith into the “sphere of existence” where God is acknowledged and obeyed as sovereign.   As such, by confessing Christ’s Lordship and by obeying his teachings they (as community) become a sign of what life will be like in the future when God’s de facto rule is firmly and forever established over all creation.  This links ecclesiology to eschatology.   The identity of the church is directed toward the ultimate and unavoidable consummation of God’s kingdom. Again we refer to Grenz:

In contrast to all platonic conceptions which look to the eternal past, the dynamic understanding suggests that the church is constituted by its future destiny as related to God’s reign.  Believers enter into covenant with God and each other so that they might be an eschatological community, the fellowship that pioneers in the present the principles that characterize the reign of God.  Hence they point the way toward the kingdom.

Consequently, the identity of the church in the world does not focus merely on bringing into the fold those whom God elected before the creation of the world.  Rather, at its heart is the goal of modeling in the present the glorious human fellowship that will come at the consummation of history.  The church, therefore, is a foretaste of the eschatological reality that God will one day graciously give to his creation.  In short, it is a sign of the kingdom.[2]

The Church as Community 

When New Testament writers referred to the assembly of the church they used the Greek word ekklesia.  When they referred to the characteristics or attributes of that ekklesia, however, they most often used the Greek word koinonia.  We will examine the meaning of this word as we seek to understand the nature of the Christian community.

Koinonia—The Nature of Christian Community

Contemporary Christians have been rather casual in their interpretation of the word koinonia.  For many it simply means fellowship in the sense that a congregation has a pot-luck supper or occasional church picnic.  In its New Testament usage, however, koinonia means something much more profound.  The word means “to share in,” “to be in communion with,” “to be in partnership with.”[3]  What is the foundation of this “sharing,” “communion,” and “partnership?”  It is the community’s covenant with God.  By grace human beings are brought into a relationship with God.  This relationship is then extended toward others—especially those in the household of faith who share in that covenant with God.  Bill Leonard puts it like this:

The relationship which characterizes koinonia  is closely related to that of covenant, involving a dual partnership with God and others persons. Koinonia begins in a relationship with God…The community of the church is based on the common union which Christians share with Christ.  The church, therefore, is a spiritual koinonia gathered around Jesus Christ.[4]

This assertion draws us to the role of the Holy Spirit as the one who consummates the work of the triune God.  Koinonia exists in the ekklesia only as a result of the Spirit’s presence.  To elaborate on this theme, Grenz summarizes the grand sweep of God’s purpose in creation.

The Father sent the Son in order to realize God’s eternal design to draw humankind and creation to participate in his own life.  In conversion, the Son gives us the Spirit, who causes us to be the children of God.  But this filial status is exactly the relationship the Son enjoys with the Father.  Through conversion, therefore,  the Spirit—who is the Spirit of the relationship between the Father and the Son—constitutes us as brothers and sisters of Christ.  Thereby he brings us to share in the love the Son enjoys with the Father.  Through the Spirit, we participate in the love that lies as the heart of the triune God.[5]

Koinonia, then, is not simply one concern or aspect within the church’s wider ministry—it is central to its very nature.  Only when the nature of its community is truly marked by koinonia can a congregation honestly call itself church.  Only when the nature of the community is marked by genuine koinonia does the community serve as a sign of the kingdom.[6]  The church is to be the very embodiment of koinonia—it is the very embodiment of the love and relationship at the heart of the triune God. Koinonia, therefore, is a nonnegotiable characteristic of Christ’ Church.  The grace that is received from Christ must be offered freely to others.[7]

Expressions of Koinonia in the Church

We have defined koinonia as the nature of the ekklesia.  We have also rooted koinonia in the work of the Spirit to bring individuals into community through their conversion to the Lordship of Jesus Christ.  If this definition is correct, then how is koinonia expressed in the life of the church?   For many in the contemporary church, koinonia is nothing more than that feeling of affection one has for fellow church members during the Sunday morning ritual of the “passing of the peace.”  For the Anabaptists, however, there must be concrete expressions of this koinonia. 

Anabaptists have taken for their model the expression of koinonia found in the Book of Acts:

Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day. They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.  Everyone was filled with awe, and many wonders and miraculous signs were done by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved. (Acts 2:21-47 NIV)

All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they shared everything they had.  With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and much grace was upon them all.  There were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned lands or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone as he had need.  (Acts 4:32-35)

To understand how koinonia expressed itself in the early church, consider the manifestations of fellowship, partnership, communion, and sharing asserted in these passages.  We are told that the believers were “together.”  They had “everything in common.”  They “sold their possessions” and gave to “anyone who had need.”  They met daily (not weekly) for worship “in the temple courts.”  They shared meals together “in their homes.”  None felt jealous, envious, or taken advantage of—instead they had “glad and sincere hearts.”  The Book of Acts makes it clear that the sharing of one’s home, one’s possessions, and one’s very life were visible expressions of the spirit of koinonia in the church. 

When the Holy Spirit came upon the early Christians, they were liberated from selfish greed.  They were more joyful in giving than receiving.  Why?  For at least two reasons.  First, sharing was a natural response to the love they had come to know and experience in Jesus.  Second, they understood that the properties in their possession were not their own, but had been entrusted into their stewardship.  Ultimately their possessions were really God’s possessions—since they had placed themselves of the sphere of God’s sovereignty.  By sharing their possessions, then, they illustrated their claim that Jesus Christ was their Lord and revealed their fellowship to be a sign of God’s kingdom. 

As is well known, this vision of a koinonia church—of a Christian community that functioned from a community of goods—has been gradually lost in wider Christendom.   What developed in its place was an institutional and sacramental church.  Nevertheless, pockets of this expression of koinonia have remained throughout the centuries—to one degree or another.  In monasteries the communitarian model of the early church remained—a continual protest against a secularized church.   For many centuries groups like the Hutterites have modeled this lifestyle in their communities of faith.  In Latin America one of the most important aspects of “basic ecclesial  communities” has been the community of possessions and a rejection of materialism.  In many respects, base communities are contemporary expressions of Anabaptist ecclesiology.[8]  Other expression of this ecclesiological perspective can be seen in religious communities such as Church of the Messiah, Koinonia Partners, Patchwork Central, Sojourners, and Voice of Calvary.[9]

The Purpose of the Church

We have defined the church as an “eschatological covenant community.”[10]  By this we means that the church is an assembly of those who have been called out by God to be God’s covenant people, placing themselves under God’s authority in order to be an eschatological sign of the consummation of God’s kingdom.[11]  Stanley Grenz summarizes this description of the church, saying:

It consists of a people in covenant.  This covenant people pioneer in the present the principles that characterize the future kingdom of God, thereby constituting a sign of the divine reign.  As the covenant people who anticipate the future consummation of God’s intention for humankind, the church is a community.  The fellowship of believers seeks to reflect for all creation the nature of the triune God himself, namely, the love between the Father and the  Son which is the Holy Spirit.  In short, the church is the eschatological covenant community of love.[12]

With the nature of the church thus established, it is now necessary for us to define the church’s purpose.  As a community with a specific identity given it by God, it stands to reason that the church would also have a divinely appointed purpose. 

To understand the purpose of the church we must first explore two preliminary topics.  To begin with we must examine God’s purpose in creation. In addition we must also examine God’s purpose in human history.  These two issues are foundational to understanding God’s purpose for the church.  We’ll look at these topic in the next blog in this series.

[1] Grenz, Theology for the Community of God, 619-20.

[2] Ibid., 623-624.

[3] Bill J. Leonard,  Layman’s Library of Christian Doctrine, vol. 12, The Nature of the Church, 43.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Grenz, Theology for the Community of God, 629.

[6]Ibid., 624.

[7] Bill J. Leonard,  Layman’s Library of Christian Doctrine, vol. 12, The Nature of the Church, 44.

[8] Thomas N. Fingers, Christian Theology:  An Eschatological Approach, 243.

[9] For a wonderful expose on these five intentional religious communities read Luther E. Smith, Jr., Intimacy and Mission:  Intentional Community as Crucible for Radical Discipleship.  (Scottdale, Pennsylvania:  Herald Press, 1994.

[10] Stanley J. Grenz, Theology for the Community of God, 604.

[11] Stanley J. Grenz, The Baptist Congregation:  A Guide to Baptist Belief and Practice. (Valley Forge, Pennsylvania:  Judson Press, 1985), 19. 

[12] Stanley J. Grenz, Theology for the Community of God, 633.

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