Saturday, October 16, 2010

Extension of the Kingdom?

At the risk of appearing like an old fuddy-duddy, I am going to go ahead and comment on this and this.

Let me start out by saying I think buying mosquito nets is a fine thing to do. I think mosquito nets are very valuable in certain areas of the world in that they protect from life-altering and sometimes fatal diseases. I have no issue at all with mosquito nets, people raising money for mosquito nets, sending mosquito nets to people who need them and can’t afford them, etc.

Here’s the problem I see. One commenter says, “Thank you for the opportunity to take action for the extension of His kingdom!”

Now admittedly, I am no scholar, but I am racking my brain trying to come up with something from the Bible about mosquito nets and the extension of the kingdom.

And I am totally blank.

The closest thing I am coming up with is the fly in Isaiah 7:18 and the locusts in Joel. I think there were some hornets back in the conquest, right? These were sent by God as judgment though, and I am thinking that it is not our job to try to stop the judgment of God. And I am thinking that while mosquitoes are, generally speaking, the result of the fall, they are not expressly the judgment of God on Central Africa (or anywhere else).

Obviously, I speak with a bit of hyperbole and satire, and some of you will be rankled by it. But seriously, in what sense can buying mosquito nets (a perfectly good thing to do) be labeled as an extension of the kingdom. I would argue that such can be said only in some vastly distorted view of the kingdom.

When Jesus came to “extend the kingdom” so to speak, he did it by preaching repentance and belief (Mark 1:14-15), not by buying mosquito nets.

And this leads to my point: We have a severe misunderstanding of the kingdom going on in modern day evangelicalism when we confuse the pursuit of the kingdom with the pursuit of social justice. Jesus did not come primarily to pursue social justice but to redeem sinners who have repented and believed and then to institute a kingdom of social justice.

Stunningly absent from some treatments of social justice is the fact that Jesus didn’t heal everybody, didn’t feed everybody, didn’t build houses for everybody (or anybody that I can recall, except for the ones in heaven). Jesus didn’t address racism. In fact, in one sense, he somewhat encouraged it (cf. the Syrophoenician woman and the Greeks at the festival to whom he refused to talk, though with the advent of the church, those ethnic distinctions are gone).

Buying mosquito nets, or feeding people at a soup kitchen, or running an addiction center, or fighting poverty and racism are all good things to do. But they are not “kingdom work” and they are not based on the ministry of Jesus because Jesus didn’t do those things.

Can you imagine someone standing up for social justice and saying this:

Listen folks, we know Jesus didn’t feed everyone. In fact, he fed very few people comparatively speaking (5000 and 4000). In fact, he prevented some people from eating when he cursed the fig tree so that it didn’t produce any more figs. We know he didn’t heal everyone. In fact, he let some people die. We know Jesus didn’t build houses for people. In fact, he himself didn’t even have one. In fact, almost all of his miracles were done only for those who already believed on him.

But we are going to follow Jesus and have food centers, and medical centers, and house-building groups, and mosquito net-buying groups because, bless God, we want to be like Jesus and we want to show people the love of Jesus and maybe these people will see these works and come to believe on Jesus.

Of course you can’t imagine that because Jesus didn’t show people his love by doing those things.

The point is that you can’t preach “incarnational ministry” from the life of Jesus because Jesus didn’t do what the incarnational people are talking about doing. When he helped the hungry, it was by a miracle, not a food pounding or a Thanksgiving soup kitchen. When he helped the sick, it was by instant healing, not a free clinic to give people medical advice and a seven-day round of antibiotics. So if you want to be “incarnational” like Jesus was, go do a miracle. Not one of the phony TBN miracles, but actually heal someone, or feed 5000 hungry men in your city with a loaf of bread and can of tuna.

I have no problem with food pantries, soup kitchens, rescue missions, medical centers, or the like. I think they are things we should do, probably more often than we do. I think we should have great concern for hurting and hopeless people. But let’s not blame that on Jesus. Jesus did none of those things in the way that people are saying we should do them.

I think this is one place (among others) where the missional idea goes off track. It assumes (wrongly) that we are to follow the ministry pattern of Jesus in social issues. But the NT simply does not bear that out. Jesus gave no command for it. The epistles give no command for it. There’s little NT evidence for the church’s widespread pursuit of social justice in society. The emphasis is on preaching Jesus, calling people to repent and believe, and then go and live like they repented and believed. There was no call (and no apparent attempt) to reform social structures and eliminate social ills. It simply isn’t there.

We need to go back and realize that the reason for the kingdom postponement (however your particular eschatology might shade that) is not because there was a failure of social justice in first century Palestine. It wasn’t because there weren’t enough blog sites raising money to buy mosquito nets or build schools, or enough people raking their neighbor’s leaves and picking up trash on the street in order to be like Jesus.

The postponement of the kingdom in the gospels is because of the lack of belief and repentance in the Messiah. That is why Jesus said, “This kingdom will be taken away from you and given to a people producing the fruit of it” (Matthew 21:43).

So my caution to us all is to be wary of pretending that social justice pursuits are the extension of the kingdom. They aren’t. We should pursue social justice. We should not think that it is kingdom work in this age.

Listen, I am not in favor of social injustice. I don’t want there to be poor and hungry people, racism, sickness, and mosquito-driven malaria. I just don’t see that Jesus came to save us from that.

We should be interested in the communities that we live in because, among other reasons, we have to live in them. Personally, I like it when my street is filled with decent people who treat others with respect, help others in need, watch out for each others houses and properties. I like it when medical help is readily available, when poor people can get food assistance in times of legitimate need, and when race barriers are being broken down.

I am not against any of these things. I am for them.

But that’s not kingdom work.


Scott Buchanan said...

Hmmm, while you're right that the mosiquto nets don't somehow "extend the kingdom," I think you're being a bit unfair with the biblical case for social justice. If you get a chance, read Keller's new book on justice when it comes out in a month. I've read the first chapter, and if the rest is anything like it, he does a great job of presenting a biblical case.

Larry said...

Thanks Scott.

I am familiar with Keller and have read his first chapter (as well as other stuff he has written on this). I think there are some significant theological problems with it. For instance, notice the scarcity of NT epistolary interaction. He has very little. Why? Because the epistles, written to the church, do not make the case that Keller is trying to make. He has to go to literature written for someone else to make that case. Notice to that the passages he cites for authority are given to a nation, not to individuals, per se, and certainly not to the church. Furthermore, the OT economy in Israel was entirely different than modern day church. I think this OT/NT confusion I think sows the seeds that damage his argument.

However, having said that, I tried to be clear in this post that I am not against social justice in anyway. I think we should work towards social justice, to care for widows, less fortunate, etc without subsidizing very kinds of laziness.

Two caveats I offer:

1. It is not "incarnational," meaning that we are not following in the pattern of Christ when we do this. Christ did something entirely different. His work was not like what is being encouraged today.

2. It is not the mandate of the church corporately. There may be some level of action by the corporate church in carrying this out, but it is not a mandate for the church.

Thanks again for reading. And feel free to clarify for me where you think I am missing the boat here.