Kingdom and Christendom

Following up on my previous post, which argued that Christians ought to get over their messianic attempts to “transform the culture” and simply live in the Church as God has required them to do, I began to mull over the difference between Kingdom and Christendom. Are they identical? If they aren’t identical, what is the difference?

It is a common thing to hear Reformed people say things along the lines of “The Kingdom is wider than the Church.” The implied message of these comments is that Jesus rules over the whole earth and not just the Church. But, of course, the Church is the place in which this reign is manifested. Saying “the Church is the nursery of the Kingdom” gets closer to the truth, but it doesn’t quite get us there.

Because Scripture identifies the Kingdom and the Church. To speak of the Kingdom is to speak of the Church, and to speak of the Church is to speak of the Kingdom. Revelation makes this point clearly, where the Church-Bride is identified with the “Kingdom of priests,” (Rev. 5:9). It is also clear from Israel’s Messianic expectation, and the sort of Kingdom Jesus was establishing in His earthly ministry. He traveled over Israel pronouncing the imminent arrival of the “good news of the Kingdom.” But what did He and Israel expect? The establishment of a new community, with a restored priesthood. As I have extensively argued, the Sermon on the Mount is an announcement of the way of life in the Kingdom, which Jesus intended to be understood as the announcement that He was organizing a New Israel around Himself as the New Temple, a New Priesthood to serve in the eschatological Temple. All of that has to do with a new community of the people of God, a new priesthood, the establishment of the Church.

This isn’t to say that Jesus’s session on the throne in heaven does not have cosmic reach or cultural implications. But it means that the Kingdom is the place where this reign is exhibited, and the Kingdom is the Church. That is, Jesus’s reign is seen in the Church, not in the wider world.

So where does this leave us with regards to Christendom? Christendom, in contrast to the Kingdom-Church, is not the Kingdom at all, but rather an implication flowing from the Kingdom. The rivers of Eden flow out of the Garden into the world. If Christians live together in community long enough, they will begin to influence their non-Christian neighbors. They will establish a “Christian culture.” Over the course of generations, this culture will become a civilization – Christendom.

So far I have no problems. Where Christians are faithful, rulers will attempt to rule, and people attempt to live, under generally Christian laws and cultural expectations. This is to be expected, and this is not the problem. The problem is when the Church becomes accustomed to this cultural situation and begins to mistake those wider, general cultural institutions for the Kingdom. The trouble starts when the Church begins to confuse this wider situation with the Church and the Kingdom itself. To be supportive when a culture wants to more closely adhere to God’s vision of justice is fine. To mistake these wider cultural laws and customs as identical with the life inside the Kingdom-Church is not fine.

Because nation-states are not the Kingdom-Church and are made up of both those within the covenant community and those outside the covenant community, they can never perfectly and identically reflect the faithfulness of the Church. That much is inevitable. To become the chaplain of such a culture, however good some of its reforms might be, is to cease to be the Church as an alternative polis and to become just another well-intentioned support for the well being of the nation-state.

It seems to me that most of the issues facing the evangelical Church today stems from this fundamental confusion. The idea of a conflict between liberals and conservatives within the Church is nothing but a confusion, the misapplication of modernist categories on a situation that does not fit those categories.

What we’re actually dealing with is a conflict between those who have assumed that Christendom is identical with Kingdom and those who believe they are not identical. The conservatives who rush to “reclaim the old traditions” and “restore the foundations of Western Christendom” are the ones guilty of confusing Kingdom with Christendom. Their work is not so much an effort to preserve the Kingdom as it is an effort to resist the loss of Christian privilege in our culture. They have become so accustomed to having the wider culture as an ally that they have forgotten what it means to be the Church on her own, a Church-Kingdom without the inherent privilege of being favored by law and custom.

The job of the Kingdom, however, isn’t to resist the loss of Christian privilege in the wider culture. The work of the Kingdom is to be an alternative polis, a rival city to the city of man, a community that lives and reveals the reign of Jesus. This does not mean fleeing the world, but it will mean rethinking the Church’s strategies.

Perhaps if we did what Yahweh required instead of trying to save the world and restore Christendom, we would possess a life the wider world might want to imitate.

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