The older I get, the less time and tolerance I have for pure theory. When I was younger, I enjoyed discussing, even debating, theological and philosophical concepts and ideas purely for their value as intellectual stimulation. Not so much anymore.
At age 63, I no longer have time to ponder a lot of theoretical possibilities and abstract concepts that have little or no direct and practical application to my daily life as a disciple of Jesus Christ. That includes many of the assumptions upon which my once-well-defined systematic theology was based.
Oh, I still have opinions and positions on most theological concepts; I just don’t intend to devote a lot of my remaining time to defending my point of view to my critics or trying to change the minds of people whose perspective differs from mine. The potential for that endeavor to result in division and ill-will is simply too great. And hardly anything is more important to me these days than unity among the people of God and within the body of Christ.
I have made so much of this point lately that I was left defenseless when a friend emailed me after a discussion in which I had waxed eloquent on the subject of the church as the agent of the Kingdom of God. “How does that work out in practice?” he asked. “Is there some guiding principle that will help me, as a church leader, to measure the effectiveness of my church as an agent or outpost of the Kingdom?”
It’s a fair question, and one that I have thought about a great deal in the past few months. Here’s where I come out on this matter, at least for now. The key to understanding and implementing the concept of the church as the agent of the Kingdom of God, I believe, is found in Jesus’ words in what we traditionally refer to as “The Lord’s Prayer.”
Many of us recite this prayer at least weekly. I say the words of this prayer twice a day, as part of Morning and Evening Prayers. Until recently, however, the full impact of one simple phrase in the prayer had completely eluded me. That phrase is “as it is in heaven.” Here’s the context, from the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 6:9-10).
9 “This, then, is how you should pray:
“‘Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name,
10 your kingdom come,
your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
It now seems clear to me that, when Jesus uttered the words “(may) your will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” He was elaborating on the request he had made just previously, i.e. “(may) your kingdom come.” That is, in the phrase “your will be done…,” He was letting His disciples, for whom He was dictating this prayer, know what He meant when He instructed them to pray that the Kingdom would come.
In other words, I believe that Jesus was giving them (and us) a way of knowing if God’s Kingdom had really “come” to the earth in any appreciable and discernible degree. The Kingdom has come on earth when God’s will is done here even as it is done in heaven.
Here, then, is the practical application of this important Kingdom principle. Before we make any decisions, before we take any actions, before we enact any policies—whether as individuals or as a church community, whether as leaders or members—the most important question we can (and must) ask is: Does this decision or action or policy reflect and exhibit and exemplify the will of God on earth in the same or similar fashion as it is reflected, exhibited, or exemplified in heaven?
Here’s another way to think about this. When Jesus returns to the earth, the Kingdom (i.e. the rule, the reign, the authority) of God will be present and visible in all its fullness. Every aspect of that future Kingdom will reflect the character and values of the King. Human interaction will be governed by love and justice, mercy and grace. Inequality, injustice, cruelty, greed, poverty, and the like will have no place in the Kingdom.
The church is the agent of the future Kingdom in the present culture. The character and values of life within the church, the community of Kingdom people, should reflect the character and values of the King, even now. Attitudes and behavior unacceptable in the Kingdom to come must be intolerable to citizens of the Kingdom now.
Will lying or cheating or stealing be part of life in the future Kingdom? Of course not. Then those practices, even if they seem necessary as a part of doing business in the “real world,” have no place in the life of a citizen of the Kingdom.
Hatred, bigotry, greed, insensitivity to injustice and inequality—none of these attitudes will characterize life in the future Kingdom. Therefore, they have no place in the life of a Kingdom citizen now.
So, Christian leader, perhaps this is a good example to follow the next time your church establishes its annual budget. As the agent of the Kingdom of God, does your church really need to enlarge its facility or improve its technological capabilities, or enhance the level of comfort for its attendees if that means there will be no money available to assist a struggling ministry in another community or to enable the development of a new outpost for the Kingdom?
Is it really prudent for a church, as the agent of the Kingdom, to increase the salary of its already-well-compensated clergy if that means that no resources are available to help extend the influence of the Kingdom by underwriting a new church plant?
In short, if it is something that reflects the character of the King and is an example of the will of God being done on earth as in heaven, then the church, as the agent of the Kingdom, ought to do it. If it reflects an attitude or a behavior inconsistent with the character of the King, if it is something that will have no place in the Kingdom to come, then the church, as the agent of that Kingdom, should steer clear.
It’s just that simple.