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Social justice vs. kingdom work: Full text of McKnight remarks and McCarty response


Charlie Sells from the Holland Park Church of Christ in Simpsonville, S.C., and Adam Brewer from the Monrovia Church of Christ in Alabama sing during the National Conference on Youth Ministries. (Photo by Bobby Ross Jr.)

New on The Christian Chronicle’s website is this story from the National Conference on Youth Ministries:

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — Love Jesus.
Tolerate the church.
At a time when Americans’ confidence in organized religion has hit a 40-year low, that mindset seems particularly prevalent among younger Christians.
At the recent National Conference on Youth Ministries, Scot McKnight — one of the keynote speakers — challenged what he described as the modern tendency to lift up social justice efforts as “kingdom work.”
“It’s like a tsunami, beginning to overtake the church, and the church is losing significance in local communities because Christians are devoted to changing the world through the political process,” said McKnight, a prominent evangelical New Testament scholar and popular blogger.
Showing compassion, feeding the homeless and working for peace are good causes, but kingdom work involves introducing people to Jesus and his church, McKnight told 285 youth ministers from Churches of Christ in 30 states.

Read the full story.
Posted below are the full remarks from McKnight as well as the response by James William McCarty III. Please forgive any typos, particularly in the case of McKnight’s remarks, which are a quickly typed transcript from an audio recording.
Scot McKnight at NCYM

Here’s the major idea that is reverberating around the United States. And it’s also reverberating in a lot of cultures where the church has played a significant role. And that idea is this: the church is naughty and the kingdom is nice. People today love the kingdom but are embarrassed by the church.
My friend, Dan Kimble, wrote a book called, “Jesus, But Not the Church.” He could have written, “They Love the Kingdom, But not the Church.” The kingdom – and this is where I want to zero in and drill down in our session this morning – the kingdom has come to mean good things Christians do in the public sector, usually involved in the political process.
So, five and six years ago, when I was lecturing at a university – I’m now teaching at Northern Seminary in Lombard, Illinois –  six years ago, when I was lecturing, I would say to my students, “You think kingdom work is voting for Obama.” And some of them would say, yeah, that’s kingdom work. And I would say, just to get their attention, that has nothing to do with the kingdom. 
But in our culture today, kingdom has come to mean good things Christians do in the public sector. It has nothing to do with the church. Church things are things Christians do in the church sector. So the kingdom and church are not connected. 
So kingdom has come to mean social justice. I wonder what the word ‘social’ in front of ‘justice’ means. Where did we get this idea? Does the Bible know a distinction between social justice and justice? No, it doesn’t. 
There is one justice.  The words of the Hebrew (he mentioned three) – and these are the poles of the idea of justice. 
In the New Testament, justice is connected to righteousness and to justification. It does not know the category of social justice. 
For many people, kingdom means social justice. It means peace and it means compassion. It means walking as two of my students are doing right now, walking from Cape Town to Alexandria, raising money for water. That’s kingdom ministry. 
Kingdom then, in our culture, has been flattened into an ethic, an ethic of justice, an ethic of peace, an ethic of doing good in the public work.  I want you to know that when we flatten kingdom to an ethic, we lose the game.  We deny the essence of the gospel. I hope I have your attention.
I know that as youth ministers, you see the potential of getting students involved in justice causes. It’s the woman of Proverbs 8. It’s a seductress of the gospel, believe me.
Most importantly, we now have a young generation of Christians not on board officially.  The kingdom theory is devoted to changing the world through political processes while neglecting the centrality of the church.
Believe me, this is a current that I’ve watched in 40 years of ministry. It is like a tsunami, beginning to overtake the church, and the church is losing significance in local communities because Christians are devoted to changing the world through the political process.
Now, I have to back off, because doing good in society is a good thing. Doing social justice, whatever that means, is a good thing. Being compassionate is a good thing. And working for peace in our world is a good thing. But we do these things because we’re Christians and disciples of Jesus.
But these things are not kingdom work. Peter talks about these things in First Peter. He uses the Greek word … to do good things. And those are public deeds of benevolence done by Christians because they’re good people and because they’re Christians. But Peter would never have called that kingdom work.
A student came to me after class one day and she said that her sister was doing kingdom work. I’m a professor, so I like to pick fights. How we’ve learned how to pick fights as professors, we ask questions. And we do it with Mona Lisa smiles on our faces so that the student can’t figure out what we’re really thinking.
So I said, she is? Tell me what she’s doing. And I gave that poker face of Mona Lisa. And my wife is a psychologist, so I’ve learned to do it in another way, so I’ll say, So I hear you saying that your sister is doing kingdom work. Now I’ve won.
I’ve done everything right, and now she responds. And she says, yes, my sister’s doing kingdom work, because she’s working for Mayor Daley in the inner city for the homeless. And I said to her, is that what Jesus means by kingdom? Yes, she said, that’s kingdom work.
I didn’t have a whole lot of time, so I quickly brought the conversation to an end, and I said to her, that’s not kingdom work, that’s good work. She said, no, that’s kingdom work. And this conversation with this young student has been going on with me for five years, and I haven’t gained one inch of ground in her world. It’s still kingdom work.
So I often ask the question this way: Did Gandhi do kingdom work? Now, I hope you know who Gandhi is. Gandhi brought down colonialist powers in India, and he worked for peace. Is that kingdom work?  For many people today, friends, that’s kingdom work. I want to contend with you that the New Testament does not know what we’re talking about when we say Gandhi is doing Kingdom work. 
Is your local Bible study, when you gather together with people, kingdom work? If you struggle with saying it is, we need to go back to the New Testament. 
Is a worship service on Sunday morning, when you sing, with or without instruments – I live in a world where that doesn’t make any difference – but I have to tell you, I love to be with Churches of Christ without instruments, because you can sing so well.  You like to do this. (laughter) 
I like it when instruments are there because the instruments are louder than the voice that I use and then I don’t have to listen to the ugliness of my voice.  So I could never be Church of Christ ‘cause I could never sing. 
Is worship service on Sunday morning kingdom work? That’s the question we need to ask. I want to suggest to you this morning that the most profound act of kingdom work that you do in your local church is when you celebrate Eucharist. That is kingdom work. 
And until we see that as kingdom work, until we embrace that as kingdom work, we’re not biblical Christians. 
The seductress of the political process is the seduction of power and we are powerless Christians who like to feel power, so we get involved, we get deeply involved, to feel the power, and we think we’re accomplishing something when the most significant thing we can accomplish is to share bread and grape juice, if you’re Baptist, or wine if you’re Episcopalian.  Good wine, if you’re Episcopalian. 
Jesus did not serve grape juice. So for all the teetotalers, be biblical. I saw this wine bottle here, and thought, whoa, there’s some changes going on.  Next thing, we’ll have drums and guitars and stuff like that. 
The kingdom is nice, and the church is naughty. My aim this morning is simple. I want to contend that you cannot be committed to the kingdom unless you’re committed to the church.  Your commitment to the local church is the sum total of your kingdom commitment. 
So I want to raise the star of the church in the local community as where kingdom work is embodied for this world. In your local church, with those people that you have to worship with, with those people who are really difficult to love, with those people who are struggling financially, it is far too easy to give money to people in Rwanda and think we’re doing kingdom work and deprive people in our local church who are in need of financial support, who are in need of jobs. 
And our funds feel so good when we do things for the world. And it’s the seductress of Proverbs 8. We are called to follow Jesus and to follow Jesus is to go straight to the church. 
I want to read with you this morning a text from Matthew chapter 16, where Jesus addresses our question. These lights are made for Church of Christ preachers who evidently don’t need notes or a Bible, ‘cause it’s really dark up here. So I’m gonna do my best.  I may have to tip my iPad up so that I have light enough to be able to see. 
When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea-Philippi, which is in the northern parts of Galilee, he asked his disciples – I love it when Jesus asks questions.  Don’t ever ask Jesus a question, because he will deconstruct it. But it’s nice when he asks a question. 
The problem is, he asks a question like a psychologist. You answer and it becomes a Rorschach for him to see right through what you’ve asked. Who do people say the Son of Man is? Or, who do people say that I am? 
They replied – this is like a Gallup poll.  Some say you’re John the Baptist.  Some people believed that John the Baptist had come back to life. John the Baptist … he was living out a new life in Jesus. Others figured Elijah, because they knew the promises that Elijah would come again. And others, Jeremiah, or one of the prophets. 
But what about you, Jesus said.  Who do you say I am? Notice, who do you say – Jesus wants lips to give expression and to label who he is.  Simon Peter answered, You are the King – that’s what Messiah means – the king, the son of the living God.  Son of God is also a word for king. 
Jesus replied – now this is only found in Matthew – Blessed are you Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in Heaven.  I tell you that you are Petros – Peter, the Greek word for rock – and on this rock, I will build my church.  That’s why Jesus came, to build the church.  And the gates of Hades will not overcome it.  Hades is seen as having gates that hold in the powers of evil, and the forces of darkness.  The gates of Hades are strong enough that they cannot be – the powers cannot overcome the gates and attack the church.  But all nations come down. 
When Peter said this, Rome was invincible.  The Forum was a marvel.  The coliseum was magnificent. But if you take a trip to Rome today, the coliseum is little more than a museum filled with pigeons.  And the forum has marvelous buildings that now are dust and rocks.  And Rome, the invincible, has gone down.  All nations will come down, but the church will last forever. 
And Jesus says to Peter, I will give you the keys of the kingdom of Heaven, which makes him the first Pope.  You’re supposed to laugh about that.  (joke about Roman Catholics)  Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in Heaven, and whatever you loose on Earth will be loosed in Heaven.  He ordered his disciples not to tell anyone that he was the king.  I’d like to reflect for a few minutes on this text. 
The first thing I’d like to say is that the options that they gave were not big enough.  They gave the options of John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah, one of the prophets, heroes of the faith.  And in synagogues, and in temple histories, we tell the stories of the great prophets.  There were monuments and tombs around Jerusalem decorating the ministries of the prophets.  But Jesus is more than a prophet. 
For the kingdom crowd who equate social justice with the kingdom, Jesus is a prophet.  And they call their Christianity prophetic Christianity.  Jesus is more than a prophet.  Those options were not enough.  Prophetic Christianity is not enough.  Prophetic Christianity is a cloak and when you remove the cloak, you find progressive western liberal politics. 
And that suddenly becomes prophetic because these people criticize the powers that be, and they create Occupy movements, and feel good about creating justice.  But Jesus is more than a prophet. 
The second point I would like to make is that the answer is big enough.   The answer is that Jesus is Messiah.  There’s a story in Israel’s story that reverberates and dominates and controls and shapes and guides and mentors the entire Old Testament. 
It is the story that God rules and that someday He will rule in this world and He will not need a king.  I love, I think partly because it’s so neglected, 1 Samuel 8.  And I know you all know exactly what’s in 1 Samuel 8.  You have your Bibles memorized.  1 Samuel 8 has this incredible story of Samuel coming to God and saying, they want a king.  Israel, the nation, wants a king, because they want to be like other nations.  They want an empire.  They want to participate in the political process. 
And Yahweh’s response to Samuel is alarming.  It’s sort of the response of ‘be careful what you ask for, ‘cause you just might get it.’  And God says, It’s okay, Samuel.  They’re not rejecting you; they’re rejecting me.  But we’re going to give them a king. 
And that first king was the Pete Rose of the Bible story, the Barry Bonds of the Bible story. Saul, who collapses, and then God raises David, and He says, I didn’t want them to have a king because I want to be their king.  But we’re going to make David a prototype of the way I will rule through these people. 
And over time, the story unfolds, and then Jesus becomes that king.  Jesus is the king of the story of Israel that comes to completion in Jesus, the way an Apple computer completes the story of the manual typewriter.  Everything a manual typewriter wanted to be when it was a little kid is what an Apple computer is, an iPad, and iPhone, whatever. 
That’s who Jesus is, all that this story of Israel wanted to be and more.  And he is the Messiah.  And Peter says, I think you’re the Messiah.  You’re the Messiah.  HE labels Jesus with the right title.  And when they said, Messiah, all these ideas come to completion: Israel’s story, temple, Torah, land, citizens, boundaries, the place of God in this world, the covenant.  It all comes to completion in the story of Jesus and it means that Jesus is the king of Israel with a new citizenship of people who will acknowledge his rule.  When Jesus is the Messiah, kingdom will always mean more than social justice.
A third observation that I make about this text is that the answer was more revolutionary than Peter even realized.  Now we have to skip ahead to verse 21.  Now after Peter has come to the incredible realization that Jesus is king – and I have to tell you, I have to think about this because this is my job – but I think about this a lot, far more than I should.
What was it like for a Galilean in Galilee along the shores of the Sea of Galilee in a place like Capernaum, to look at Jesus and say, You’re the Messiah.  What was it like to be in Caesarea-Philippi, an embodiment of Roman colonization, in the land of Israel, the land that God had given to the Israelites but they did not control, what was it like to be in Caesarea-Philippi, which, now is little more than ruins, but it is clearly the ruins of a very significant site that combined the Roman empire with worship of pagan gods – what is it like to stand in that area and say, Jesus, I think you’re the Messiah.
This is a revolutionary statement.  I applaud Peter for this.  He had no idea what Messiah really meant.  So after Jesus leads Peter to label him properly, Jesus goes on, and Matthew’s record has it this way: From that time on – now that he’s Messiah – Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem – and they’re thinking, of course, and we’re going to be right there with you, and you’re going to sit on a throne like Abe Lincoln in Washington D.C. in the Lincoln Memorial, and we’re going to be all around you.  And we’re gonna be running the show.
But Jesus had to go on, and he said that he would suffer many things at the hands of the elders, the chief priests, and the teachers of the Torah, and that he must be killed, and on the third day be raised to life.  What a carnival.  So Peter took Jesus aside – he’s the majo domo of the apostolic band, and he began to rebuke Jesus.  Jesus, he’s saying, haven’t you read the Bible?
Messiah’s rule; they conquer, they win, they’re victors.  What do you mean ‘suffer’?  Never work, he said, this will never happen to you, not as long as I have something to do with it.  And Jesus turned and said to Peter, the man who had just labeled Jesus as the Messiah, Get behind me Satan.  You are a stumbling block to me.  You do not have in mind the concerns of God but merely human concerns.
The answer is revolutionary because now if we connect Messiah to kingdom, we now have two more connections.  Messiah has to be connected to cross and resurrection.  Kingdom can only be understood when it’s connected to Jesus as king and it is the Jesus who ruled by way of crucifixion and resurrection.  So the cross is the pattern for ruling, for genuine perceptions of the kingdom of God.
The kingdom has now been deconstructed and reconstructed and totally reshaped and now it can’t mean the western census of liberalism and self-reliance which is at the very essence of western liberalism.
Instead, now, it is submission to God, who came into our world and identified with us at such a level that he dipped into the depths of death.  He took death, power, and stripped it through the resurrection and now we serve a resurrected Lord and kingdom is connected to the message of the resurrection of Jesus over death.
Kingdom and social justice simply don’t mix well in our culture.  So, social justice overtakes gospel and we compromise at every turn.  So the right answer – and this is my fourth observation – the right answer that Jesus is Messiah, reshaped by cross and resurrection, leads to the right implication. And that implication is that Jesus came to establish a whole different social order.  He calls it here Ekklesia – the church.
Not there is something that is powerful in this text.  Jesus says, I came to build the church.  The gates of Hell will not prevail against it.  And there’s an inextricable between church and kingdom.  What happens in the church happens in the kingdom.
The kingdom is here, perceived, largely as future.  The church becomes the present embodiment of the kingdom.  And the church will have a direct continuity from this world into the next world of the kingdom of God.  Church is the only place kingdom work can occur, because it’s the only place where Jesus is Lord.  A
nd you can only have kingdom when Jesus is the Lord, because a kingdom is about a king.  And the king is Jesus, and where he rules, there is kingdom, and where he doesn’t rule, there is not kingdom.  Work in the world can never be kingdom work.  I don’t expect many of you are going to agree with me, but I’m right.
Look at how these texts work the idea of kingdom, and you will never find kingdom in the NT referring to Christian action in the public sector.  And I want you to start paying attention to emails and blogs, and every time this happens, raise a red flag in protest.  Even if you don’t win, protest.  We need to send a message that the church is where the kingdom is today, not in the public sector.  Now you probably want me to give you a story, because this is church of Christ, and you have such great preachers.  So I’ll give you a little one.
In 1983, my wife and I returned from doing doctoral studies in England at the University of Nottingham, with Jimmy Dodd (?).  I had a couple months from the time we returned and found a place to live before I began to teach at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School as a NT professor.  And we had no income.
So I tried to paint a little bit, and I didn’t make much money painting, but it got to where if I painted, I wouldn’t have time to do lectures.  And people in our church knew about this.  And they took care of us, and they came by our house with bags of groceries.  And for six weeks, we lived off of other people.  That’s kingdom work.  That’s when God’s people take care of God’s people.
So there is, what Paul says in 2 Corinthians 8-9, equality.  That is kingdom work, when we take care of our own in the household of faith.  We establish a beachhead of presence of the kingdom of God in this world, and people say, My, how they love one another;  My, how they take care of one another.
That’s the kingdom of God in this world.  And when we spend all our energy in the political process, we lose energy for the local church, where the kingdom is working.  In our church, at Redeemer Church in the North Shore, in Highland Park, we have baby showers, and people give lots of money for new moms and dads because they have babies.  They give lots of money so that they get off on the right foot.  That’s kingdom work.  That’s kingdom work, because God’s people are taking care of God’s people.
The funds are being used to foster the fellowship of faith in our local community.  Try to raise money for social justice and you’ll be successful.  Try to raise money for evangelism, and you won’t have any interest, because we’ve become intoxicated with social power and social justice, and we’re losing contact with what kingdom work really is.
A final point I’d like to make is that the Messiah’s people – a final point about Matthew 16 – don’t think I’m done yet – the Messiah’s people have been entrusted with the keys. This is an amazing statement.  I will give to you, Peter, keys of the kingdom.  What you bind and what you loosen will be bound and loosened.  And we have the opportunity – this is like the parable of dragnet, where we throw the net into the water, and we pull it in, and we pull in all the fish.
And when we get up on the shore, we separate kosher fish from non-kosher fish.  Catfish are thrown right back in the sea for the Gentiles to eat in the Decapolis.  But the Jews are going to eat Tilapia, which is called St. Peter’s Fish in the Sea of Galilee, which is pretty clever. And when you open them up, there’s coins in their mouths all the time.  (laughter)  So, this is what our job is, as we fish and bring people in, some to judgment and some to redemption, so we are called to have the keys to the kingdom.
And that means we get to declare redemption in Jesus Christ and those who submit to Jesus as king participate in the kingdom, and those who rebel against the king are cast out of the kingdom. That’s what our responsibility as having the keys of the kingdom.  The Pharisees presume that they have keys, but Jesus has taken the keys from the Pharisees and he’s given them to the disciples and they now get to be the ones to declare redemption and judgment in this world.
Yes, I know that the kingdom is nice, and the church is naughty, but that is really bad theology.  The church is the place where the kingdom is manifested in our world today.  The kingdom is more than an ethic, because Jesus is more than a prophet.  The kingdom is about embracing Jesus as the king, as the Lord, as the Messiah who saves, and then suddenly, the kingdom makes sense for the people of the king who do the will of the king.  Kingdom work is about telling people about King Jesus.  It is telling the story of Jesus.
It is about summoning people to live under and before Jesus as the king.  It’s about summoning people into the church as the place where God’s redemptive work is now alive.
My favorite story of the gospel is the Chronicles of Narnia.  Probably most of you like that story.  But I think it can be reduced to these basic factors: Watch Narnia, or watch Aslan roam, his big paws landing on the toes of Narnia, Peter and Susan, Edmund and Lucy; it’s awesome.  But then we watch the story and we see Aslan captured and put on the stone table and tied, and Aslan dies.  But as we watch the stone table, and we look at Aslan, suddenly, thunder is reversed, and the stone table cracks, and Aslan is back alive again, roaming in the land of Narnia, and we hear him roaring.  Do you like that story?  That’s a good story.  That’s the gospel story.
When that story’s over, C.S. Lewis doesn’t say, Now receive Aslan into your heart.  He doesn’t say that.  You know what he does?  He creates in you and in me a desire to get on that lion’s back and put our face in his mane.  Isn’t that right?  And a lot of you have got pictures of Aslan in your bedroom, or you did, and then you got married, and you had to put away childish things.  I had a picture of Narnia.  I had a picture of Aslan.  My kids had pictures of Aslan and then they grew up and got married and didn’t have them anymore.  So we have all these pictures in our basement.  But that’s the gospel story.
We tell this story about Jesus and people say, I like that story.  And that’s what preaching is all about.  That’s kingdom ministry.  We are beachheads in our local community.  We are witnesses to the king.  We tell people about Jesus.  We say, Come hear about Jesus.  If they come to your church and they don’t hear about Jesus, you failed your community.
We need to get people interested in Jesus.  The central question of evangelism in the New Testament is not ‘are you a sinner’, and it is not ‘where will you go when you die?’  I know you’ve heard this; it’s wrong.  Believe me, you can trust me.  The central question of evangelism in the New Testament is this: Who do you think Jesus is?  That’s the question that Jesus led his disciples to for years, and finally popped the question. And when they answered it right, they were entering into the kingdom of God because they had labeled Jesus as Messiah.  Call people to Jesus.
Sitting in the back – here’s how the story works.  I had a student come into my office before classes began one year.  And I was teaching at North Park at the time, and I was teaching an Introduction to the Bible class.
And every student at North Park University had to take Bible, and 50% of our students were not Christians, which means open game for evangelism about the Bible.  So a Hindu student comes into my office.  She says to me, ‘I can’t take your class on Introduction to Bible because it’s against my religion.
My wife’s a psychologist, so I said to her, ‘Do I hear you right, that you can’t take this class because it’s against your religion?’  And she said, ‘That’s right.’  And I said, ‘Well, this is a course that is required and so you’ll have to take it.’  She said, ‘I can’t take it, because my parents say it’s against our religion.  I can’t take it.’  So I ramped up my argument.  I didn’t ask the question, Do I hear you – I said, ‘Our board mandates that every student who comes to this school has to take this class.’  She said, ‘It’s against my religion.  My priest says I can’t take it.’  So I just said, ‘I’m your professor and you’ll have to take it.’
She got really mad, she bundled up her stuff, and she walked out the door.  She walked across the hallway, and I saw here say something to someone – I heard it.  Because my wife is a psychologist, I’m snoopy.  So I walked over to the edge of my door and I stuck my ear out the window.
This is what she said to my colleague, Victoria: Dr. McKnight just gave me permission not to take Introduction to the Bible because it’s against my religion.  And my colleague, Victoria, said, ‘No, he didn’t honey.  He can’t.’  So, first day of class comes along, and there she is, in the back row, with her hands like this, looking down.
For two weeks, she sat like that – didn’t take a note.  She didn’t take the quiz.  I thought, alright, I can give F’s.  The 3rd week, her head was up.  The 4th week, she was interested.  In the 6th and 7th week, she was more than interested, and she came to me and she said this – I will never forget these words – ‘I find Jesus really interesting.  Can I take your course on Jesus?’
And I thought, there it is.  Jesus is all we’ve got to offer.  We tell people about Jesus, that’s what we do.  And we tell people that he’s the king, Messiah, he’s the Lord, he’s the savior.  And they get interested in Jesus, and they come to our church and they don’t hear enough about Jesus.  So give them Jesus, because this is the refreshing stream, this is the living water, this is the bread that gives life, this is the resurrection and the life that we have to offer.  Because we have the keys to the kingdom.
So I want to urge you to get this right.  The kingdom is not about social justice.  You can support Obama or you can support Sarah Palin – I don’t care who you support.  Vote for Jesus.  Vote for the church.  Not in the ballot box; with your life and with your time.
And when you get those youths in your ministries, lead them to Jesus.  Get them intoxicated with Jesus.  Tell them stories about Jesus.  Show them how the apostles, Paul and Peter, told the story of Jesus, and it was changing the world, and how their lives were transformed, and they saw people coming into contact with God, and they were creating a fellowship, a fellowship like no one had ever seen in the Roman Empire before; A fellowship where Jews and Gentiles were at the same table.
Now some of the Jews had a knife in their pocket for full conversion, because they believed the Jews were a cut above the rest. (laughter)  Now, that was not the message.  Paul said, we’re going to fellowship together, and we might discover that shrimp doesn’t taste so bad.  But it’s difficult for some of us; leave us alone.  But we are gonna work together.
We create a fellowship of unlike people that sends off a message of the redemption of God in this world, and that’s the kingdom that Jesus embodied at table fellowship.  That’s what we’re called to do.  Intoxicate your young charges with the praise (?) of the gospel, about Jesus.
Point them to Jesus and tell them that the church is where all their energy should be dispelled in this world.  That it’s the church where the work of God is being done in this world.  I think that’s pretty clear what I had to say, and I’ve run out of time, and I’m done, and I don’t know how to finish, so I’ll just stop.

James William McCarty III response:

I hear what he’s saying but think he’s speaking to the wrong audience. There may, indeed, be Christians for whom a commitment to social justice has replaced a commitment to a local church or the Church at large. However, I think he’d be hard-pressed to find a significant number of those people within the churches of Christ. Rather, the historical lack in the churches of Christ has been deep commitments to those aspects of the faith that go beyond what is done in Sunday worship.
The people he has in mind, it would seem to me, would be certain streams of the mainline churches rather than members of the Churches of Christ. Even our most social justice oriented ministries tend to remain deeply tied to the life of a local church or churches.
For instance, Made in the Streets, a ministry that serves homeless children living in Nairobi slums, attracts college students from colleges and universities across the United States who see serving with the ministry as a way to serve the kingdom through a justice ministry.
However, life at MITS revolves around the life of the Kamulu Church of Christ as much as it does the ministry center in the Eastleigh slum. I simply do not think the problem Scot identifies is one which is widespread in the fellowship of the churches of Christ.
My second thought is that Scot is right, he really has no idea what social justice is because he seems to think that it is only, or primarily, about politics.
Rather, most social justice ministries tend to exist in the civil society sector, and are often tied to churches. And he is simply wrong that “social justice…compassion…and peace” are “not kingdom work” (p. 2). How one can read Luke 4:14-30 or Matthew 25:31-46 and not discern that a part of kingdom discipleship is doing justice and compassion and peace is baffling. And, if they are a part of kingdom discipleship it is hard to see how they are not a part of kingdom work.
The idea of social justice arose when Christians in the industrial age who ministered in poor congregations, like Walter Rauschenbusch in New York’s infamous Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood, tried to apply the biblical vision of justice, best encapsulated in the OT in the notion of shalom and in the NT in Jesus’s phrase “the kingdom of God,” to the social structures (like exploitative employers and conditions in the slums that grew around industrial age factoreis) that made and kept them poor.
In ministering to their congregations they realized that traditional ministries of mercy, like soup kitchens, were insufficient to serve the people in the congregation. In the biblical vision of shalom these ministers found the resources to work for fair and just working conditions, for example, for their members. In creating a society that was more just these ministers embodied Jesus’s claim that in the kingdom the poor receive good news and the oppressed are set free.
Scot claims that working on behalf of the homeless is not kingdom work, but that Bible studies, Sunday worship, and especially Eucharist (the Lord’s Supper) are kingdom work. Why this stark bifurcation?
I agree with him that the latter things are kingdom work but I see no reason for thinking that the former is not. I would agree that kingdom work is not confined to the former, but I know very few Christians who would say serving the homeless is kingdom work but observing the Lord’s Supper is not. Again, I’m not sure who he’s talking about, but these people don’t really exist in the churches of Christ.
And this is where Scot gets into big trouble. He says, “Your commitment to the local church is the sum total of your kingdom commitment” (p. 3). And it is here that he overstates his case. If he wants to push those Christians who have replaced a commitment to the local church with work on behalf of the homeless then he is in the right. If he wants to say that serving the homeless in a nonprofit or through local politics is inherently not kingdom work he is horribly mistaken.
Allow me to share a story: At a church I once worked at there was a clothing bank for the homeless staffed by church volunteers. However, the church shut the bank down because the volunteers got tired of cleaning the room because “those people just throw stuff around and don’t show respect for the room.”
Now, in Matthew 25 Jesus makes it pretty clear that clothing the naked is kingdom work, and when churches choose not to do that kingdom work because it is inconvenient those Christians who rightly see this call of Christ are right to do it wherever they can. It is not just “good work” as Scot says, clothing the naked is clearly kingdom work.
Finally, Scot is right that Jesus is more than a prophet and that prophetic Christianity “is not enough.”
However, he is wrong that prophetic Christianity “is a cloak…[for] western liberal politics.” Sure, there are times when this may be the case. However, occasional abuse does not warrant total dismissal of the prophetic strand of the Christian tradition. Prophetic Christianity is not in all times and in all places nothing more than progressive politics. At its best it is much more than that; at its best it is the annunciation of the Kingdom of God breaking into the world in all places. Yes, in the Church, but not only there.
So, when he says that “work in the world can never be kingdom work” (p. 7) he is badly mistaken. Christians find God calling them to work in all kinds of places and to heavenly vocations not located in the act of preaching or teaching Sunday school. Teachers, counselors, service workers, nonprofit employees, parents, and even politicians can follow God’s call on their life in their daily work. And answering this call is not merely good work; it is kingdom work.
I doubt that Scot thinks that people have no God-given vocation outside of the church, but it seems in this presentation that that is the case. If so, I worry that Scot’s vision of the Kingdom is far too small to match the size of the Kingdom of God which encompasses all of creation and all of life. For, as Scot says, where Jesus rules there is kingdom (p. 7). And, as we Christians confess, Jesus is Lord of all creation.
The one thing I would add to what I already sent is this:
Inasmuch as Scot identifies a phenomenon that is true (which I, again, am doubtful of in churches of Christ), the appropriate response, it seems to me, is not to claim that justice work is not kingdom work.
Rather, it is to push local churches to be the spaces in which it is possible for Christians to do that kind of kingdom work rather than, in the example of the homeless ministry I mentioned, forcing discipleship-oriented Christians to look to places outside of the church to do that work.
The problem, in short, is more a problem of churches not doing all that kingdom work is than individual justice-seeking Christians mistaking what and where the kingdom is.

  • Feedback
    […] and more critical. The Chronicle has since published the article about the event, and included a link to Dr. McKnight’s full address and my full response on their blog. For convenience I’ve included my full remarks below. However, I encourage you to read his […]
    Justice Work is Kingdom Work: My Response to Scot McKnight « James W. McCarty III
    February, 5 2013

    In 2011 I turned on the radio and a Baptist pastor, who had just written a new book on youth dropouts, was asked “Why”. His answer, “40 years of youth ministers”. We are now raising the second generation of youth who have very little Bible knowledge.
    A brother told me that in 2011 he had visited 100 congregations in the western USA. 3 were teaching lost souls and baptizing; 97 were dying
    The Lord’s church in America is dying!
    ken hargesheimer
    February, 6 2013

    I continue to be impressed with the quality of your reporting. Have you looked at doing “special projects” via http://www.spot.us/ ?
    Ed Dodds
    February, 6 2013

    In response, I believe that McKnight is correct in what he is attempting to communicate, but I think that the fact that he was speaking to alive audience may have caused him to muddy his message a little bit. From my reading, he seems to be saying that social justice, that doing things for those who are needy and oppressed, are good things to do and that they are informed by our faith in Jesus: �But we do these things because we�re Christians and disciples of Jesus. But these things are not kingdom works.�

    McKnight is trying to draw a distinction between doing good works and doing Kingdom works. From reading him, it appears that he is trying to say that Kingdom work, being involved in things and practices that further the Kingdom of God and make disciples of Jesus, have their basis in the church, specifically the local church: �Your commitment to the local church is the sum total of your kingdom commitment.� He is advocating a type of �social justice,� or caring for the needy and attempting to foster justice in the social and political spheres, that is initiated by, supported by, and inseparable from local churches. He is saying that true Kingdom work is everything that the local body does in order to worship God, submit to His will, and carry out His purposes. This includes things like outreach, compassion projects, and lobbying for changes in political and social life, but also includes praise and worship, preaching, observing the sacraments, Bible study, and community within the body.

    In the main, he is arguing against a separation between �social justice� and church, saying that many Christians feel there is a such a separation and that there should be simply because organized religion, especially Christianity, is so unpopular with American culture.

    In my opinion, I believe that McKnight is basically correct, but that he is not communicating his points well in this article. He is trying to address the effects of the pendulum swing that has taken place in American Christian culture, where the focus has switched from an inward focus to an outward focus. The problem is, to focus on either one exclusively is to miss the point.

    Of course God wants us to do good works for those who are suffering in society. Of course he wants us to be concerned with and to do what we can to alleviate poverty, suffering, and injustice. However, we must do these things with the right motivations. We need to be doing these things to spread the name of Jesus and to bring others into a saving relationship with God. Good works, in and of themselves, are meaningless without this. As such, I completely agree with McKnight that the �social justice� concerns of American Christianity must be wedded to the mission and purpose of the local church. I think that McCarty reads too much into McKnight and is accusing him of saying things that he actually did not say. He did not say that justice and peace and compassion are not kingdom work. He did not say that working on behalf of the homeless is not kingdom work. What he said is that doing these things without the overarching purpose of bringing the Good News to those who are suffering means that it is not Kingdom works, but simply good works. Additionally, he is saying that Kingdom works must, by definition, be undertaken by God�s chosen representatives of His Kingdom, the church: �The church is the place where the kingdom is manifested in our world today.� If a Christian is completely separated from a church, and indeed spends his time in �kingdom work� bashing organized religion and the church in general, then he is not engaging in true Kingdom work because they are tearing down His bride.
    And, by the way Ken, I am a youth pastor.

    Adam VanGorp
    February, 6 2013

    I do not know where to begin. However, I know me. I know that once I get started, I will have a hard time stopping. If there is something that I say that is wrong, I would like to know. One thing is for sure. I am glad that people are looking at this hard.
    To give a little background of myself. I have gone from being held in high esteem as a youth minister from a Christian college with a pedigree of elders, to being throw out of churches and treated like a second class Christian if I was allowed to stay (scriptural divorce. I was thrown out of churches just for merely mentioning my marital status as divorced. Currently, I am remarried, and I do have a good home congregation, overall).
    Honestly, as youth ministers (paid or not), we have made mistakes that I now realize. Being on both sides of the fence (I left the church for a few years) I can see why people are leaving.
    One, we are teaching programs (social justice), not Christ. There is nothing wrong with helping others. I am very much for that. However, (again, I have been on both sides of the fence when it comes to benevolent programs), In many, many of the programs that I have been involved in over the years, I rarely heard or seen anything to promote Christ and what he did for me or be seriously interested in the individual souls, All I hear is maybe a mention of who we are and where the church building is located. In that sense, did we really uplift Christ? Or as the question was asked repeatedly, were we really doing the work of the kingdom?
    When I was on the receiving end of a program (when I was lost), I saw was a work that physically benefited me, but not spiritually. I saw the spiritual benefit in those that were in the church working for the program. In the end, I walked away discussed because I felt like it was more for them and not for my lost soul. (Note: Being on the “good” side with the church, I was just as guilty for doing this. However, even though I have been once lost and then found my way back, because of the way I have been treated, I feel that my Christian credibility is gone, and feel that it is too late for me to serve in any good capacity in the church.)
    Second, we give our youth spiritual candy, and not meat. We teach them love, mercy, and forgiveness. A) We do not teach the hard things like sin, accountability towards God, and responsibility of their own spiritual actions whether to do good and did not, or to turn away (or help them know how to turn away) from the mistakes they made against God. There has to be a balance. Also, We do not teach them the hard issues that the youth will face now, and WHEN THEY ARE ON THEIR OWN AS ADULTS (this is were we lose the most people is the 18-25 age group). B) We have set up this “good church environment”, and the youth do not want to share their struggles, their sins, and their problems either to the minister or the other youth members. At best, they do not want to damage the good thing that is going for others, or at worst, they fear that they will be thrown out because of disrupting the “good church environment.” I mentioned this once, to prove my point. I asked one youth group if they have a friend in the youth group that they can turn to, and talk to about anything (the good, the bad, and the ugly) in their lives. Out of 20 youth, only two raised their hands. They were sisters. Shouldn’t we be turning to each other first and not people of the world? Shouldn’t we, the first place, as Christians be comfortable in talking about all aspect of our lives (our fears, our struggles, our sins), not the last place?
    As a result, I have seen teens suffer silently, and silently left the church because they were scared to disappoint ______ (you fill in the blank). I have seen teens walk away because they felt like it was not personal, and others not seriously care about them nor the person next to them. Also, some felt like the classes and the services were more of a pep rally, then something personal to help them grow. I have seen at least one teen told not to come back again because the “Christians” did not know how to handle the teen’s situation when she did ask for help and forgiveness. I have seen teens leave their faith as soon as they moved out because they were like plants surrounded by a multitudes of weeds. They were spiritually choked to death. They did not know how to defend their faith, because we did not prepare them to even survive, let alone succeed. Many were Christians that grew up in the church from birth.
    Where you go from here (because we are all ministers of/ambassadors for Christ, [or at least I hope you think you are]), I don’t know. I hope that you can think of things that can help yourself and the congregation to individually teach Christ to others as well as continuing helping their own personal belief, and also help them be “fertile soil” for others.
    Also, to help have a church environment of trust, truth, and love to where the individual (both Christians and non-Christian) can comfortably be who he is (and can be) as a Christian or grow to know Christ, like a child to a family (Christian), or a lost son who has gone far away and wants to come home (non-Christians).
    I need to stop. I have said too much. Again, if I am wrong in anything that I have said, I would like to know. Thank you and God bless.
    Andrew Norris
    February, 6 2013

    Andrew, I agree with you that the youth, as well as adults, need the church to be a place where we can really share what is going on in our lives – and be accepted after we share.
    I’ve known people who have had to go to CR (Celebrate Recovery)to be able to share those things in small groups, away from the larger church.
    The church should be like CR. These programs are held in churches. So, perhaps that’s how we merge social justice and the Gospel.
    It seems that Paul told the Corinthian church in public a long list of how they used to be. It seems to me that they knew who he was talking about. That list wasn’t too nice. The Corinthian church for all its faults seemed to know each other well. That’s why “disfellowshipping” the man in sin worked. He missed it.
    The small groups I’ve been a part of start and stop after a set “40 days.” So, you just get to the point of knowing and sharing, and then they stop. The continuity is lost.
    I think we have to reach out to one individual and mentor them. Perhaps we need to spread this in the church the same way we would spread the Gospel outside the church – one person at a time.
    Perhaps the mentoring an older adult paired with a youth? We segregate too much in the church by ages, I believe, and ignore Paul’s teaching to Timothy for older women to teach younger women.
    The “big things” we do for the community are helpful for meeting physical needs. However, they don’t seem to be effective in reaching the individual people with the Gospel. We still need to pick someone out of that large mass to work with helping them and leading them to Christ.
    Jesus fed the crowds – large groups – and met their physical needs. However, we see the changes happen when he taught one-on-one (woman at the well, Zacchaes – going to his house and having dinner, etc.)
    I don’t think we can give up on either way of reaching people if we want to follow Jesus.
    On a side note: The transcripts above would be easier to read with some paragraphing added. It’s too easy for the eye to lose its place.
    Eva P. Scott
    February, 6 2013

    <blockquote>On a side note: The transcripts above would be easier to read with some paragraphing added. It�s too easy for the eye to lose its place.</blockquote>
    Done.
    Bobby Ross Jr.
    February, 6 2013

    There is no distinction between ‘kingdom work’ and ‘social justice’.
    There is no following of Jesus without advocacy for the outcast. Understanding the meaning of the incarnation compels us toward the women and men around us and drives us to affirm their dignity.
    Liberation is the work of the kingdom. Social justice is the work of the kingdom. Women’s equality is the work of the kingdom. Respecting the dignity of LGBT persons is the work of the kingdom. Feeding the poor, clothing the naked, and release of the captive are the work of the kingdom.
    Taking communion each week is meaningless if we don’t understand why we take it. In the communion service we take the body of Christ so that we may be the body of Christ in the world. Being Christ in the world is impossible if we have no good news for the oppressed.
    Scott Lybrand
    February, 6 2013

    There are many good things here, but none top the last few paragraphs where Sarah Campbell states that it’s not an “either/or” thing but a “both/and” thing.
    Social justice, following Jesus, AND the church should ALL go hand in hand and be intertwined.
    Trey Morgan
    February, 7 2013

    First, I want to say I am a Scott McKnight fan and feel much enriched by nis writings. And I say “Amen” to Scott McKnight’s concern that we must not confuse “kingdom work” with merely “doing good things.” The gospel is a out Jesus the Crucified and Risen King and the transformation He brings to individual lives – and the redemptive community – the Church – that grows out of that. And the transformative power is in Jesus and his gospel. Social programs and political “solutions” have no such transformative power.
    But I also say “Amen” to McCarty’s analysis of McKnight’s remarks:a) Most churches of Christ that I know are the wrong audience for this McKnight’s. b) I think, it seems tome that, in this presentation, Scott creates an artificial separation of social action and kingdom work. King Jesus said “all authority as been given to me in heaven and on earth.” So the reign of and work of God are hardly confined to “church activities” alone.
    c) McKnights point is very important and much needed – but at the same time, it seems to be “over-stated.”
    Thanks for the great thought provoking discussion.
    Luynn Anderson, San Antonio, Texas
    Lynn Anderson
    February, 7 2013

    (in response to) Scott Lybrand,
    There is a huge difference between social justice and kingdom work in society today, as we see it. Take the Kony campaign, for example. Is that kingdom work, or is it social justice? What about medicare, is that kingdom work or social justice? Or the women’s rights struggle, was that kingdom work or social justice? McKnight’s point is that society and even Christians have blurred the lines to the point that we miss the mark on making Jesus central.
    Being Christ in the world means nothing if we have no good news PERIOD, not just for the oppressed. See I think McKnight hit a nerve when he said it’s not JUST about the oppressed, it’s not JUST about serving, it’s not JUST about doing good stuff, but the centrality of Jesus both drives and sustains anything we do, and if it’s not there, it’s not kingdom work. Feeding the homeless is merely giving out food and doing a service if not done in the name of Jesus. I think Trey said it best below you, in that it all has to be intertwined. Gandhi did great stuff, but we can’t say it was kingdom work. It was a social movement.
    Lynn, I agree with everything except for the last part (c). Social justice downsizes kingdom work solely into the box of helping the oppressed and misses the boat on all the rest. Young Christians see people like Shane Claiborne and think, “I’m not truly serving if I don’t give up everything, live in a commune, and take care of the lower class citizens.” And he does good stuff, no doubt, but what about the role of the church? What about taking communion together? Unfortunately, Scott and Lynn, this generation sees social justice and NOT the church as the means by which they will do Kingdom work, when in fact both are completely necessary and equal entities and components.
    Charlie
    February, 7 2013

    A friend pointed me to this article, and I’m grateful she did.
    After reading McCarty’s response and the various comments, I think McKnight’s fundamental point wasn’t stated sharply enough and his exposition permitted multiple rabbit trails to follow.
    I think McKnight said:
    Kingdom works are good works on behalf of others which originate and are carried out
    1. as a deliberate response by a Jesus-follower,
    2. in conscious obedience to our Master’s guidance,
    3. in order to make his Reign known,
    4. through the overt witness of the Church,
    5. for the increase of God’s reputation in the world.
    Or, more succinctly: There is an essential difference between doing good works like Jesus did (Gandhi could do this) and doing those same good works in Jesus’ name (Gandhi could not do this).
    If this was McKnight’s essential point, I don’t think he and McCarty (and other commenters) are that far apart.
    Perhaps David Augsburger makes McKnight’s point more clearly:
    “One can be familiar with the Jesus story, be an admirer of Jesus as a uniquely self-aware yet selfless person, know a great deal about the historical Jesus, be taught a helpful perspective on who Jesus is from the practice of a religious faith, and love Jesus in an experience of personal piety, yet fail to enter the encounter of discipleship in which one recognizes Jesus not as the popular, the mythical, the devotional, or the civilly religionist, but as the one who said ‘come and die.’ Only when one encounters Jesus as Jesus will one feel the rush of surprise. ‘You’re not Jesus Christ. You’re JESUS THE CHRIST.'”
    David Augsburger, _Dissident Discipleship_ (Brazos Press, 2006), pp. 24-25.
    Peace and all good.
    Brandon Fredenburg
    February, 8 2013

    Scott McKnight�s comments regarding kingdom work are baffling for an urban minister embedded in the city of Memphis serving individuals living in poverty. During the week I serve through a nonprofit and on Sunday mornings I preach the gospel in the church (assembly) and teach Bible class on Wednesday night. Our church serves each other as well as those in the community. In addition, there are two youth ministers who work with me in the nonprofit whose specific jobs are reaching unchurched teens and leading them to Jesus so that they can become churched.
    Each day, the two youth ministers work with youth in an after school program in an apartment complex. Some of the students struggle with reading and of course, they also have trouble reading the Bible. We intentionally help them with reading so they can do well in school, but also so they can read the Bible. They don�t know about Abraham, Moses, Joshua, or the prophet Samuel. In the apartment complex (public sector?) they are taught the Bible. What we do is intentional and strategic. The youth are hungry; therefore, each afternoon we feed them a meal and give them a snack. We know their families, teachers in school, and the issues they face in life. While all of them are not in a church youth group, the youth ministers are their ministers. I wonder if this might qualify for biblical house to house ministry? Some we are able to connect to the church and others we are not.
    As the coordinator of the National Urban Ministry Conference, I am familiar with many of the urban ministers and workers around the country and many that I know do not serve saying, �I am doing social justice.� And even if they do, they serve based on what Jesus said he was about when he read from the prophet Isaiah in the synagogue (Isaiah 61). We model the �Jesus� we see in Scripture. Modeling what those of us in urban ministry call being �incarnational� or Jesus �in skin.� We serve based on the people we encounter in the church and in the �hood.�
    A while back The Christian Chronicle did an article on River City Ministry. I have sat during lunch at their facility and ate with the homeless and listened to the gospel being taught in this nonprofit. Many of these homeless individuals come to Christ. Kingdom work?
    Here is a brief story: Last year, right before the Christmas holidays, it was daily devotional time with the youth. We were all standing in a circle and one of the elementary aged children asked that we pray that their utilities get turned on. No gas, water, or electricity was on in their apartment. So we prayed. A few days later a church paid the utility bill and that same elementary student thanked God in the next circle that their utilities were on.
    On this coming Monday, when the youth are gathered in a circle saying what they are thankful for and one of the youth leads them in prayer, I won�t be wondering whether or not we are doing �kingdom work�; I will know that we are following Jesus by fulfilling his mission of making disciples.
    Jim Harbin
    Urban Minister, Memphis TN
    Jim Harbin
    February, 9 2013

    Jim,
    Thank you. This is what I was trying to say earlier. There is nothing wrong with helping others. However, for most congregations that I have been involved in, it seems to me that benevolent programs were the only focus in trying to reach the lost outside the 4 walls of the building. However, most of the time, Christ is never or rarely mentioned.
    In the end, who benefited? The only people that I saw that benefited were the persons who had a physical need met, and the persons who were spiritually edified in working in the benevolent program. However, did Christ benefit from it after all that He did? Only the people that are in the programs can answer that question. However, if not, why not?
    Jim, I am glad for the work and to hear, “the poor hearing the gospel” (Luke 6:22). May God bless you and all the others that work with you in the work that you do. (I Cor. 15:58).
    Andrew Norris
    February, 10 2013

    I am concerned about the division of social justice and church mentioned in the article. I am visiting around in part because I was not getting opportunities to serve in the last local church I attended. I have had to deal with too many egos whose focus is being “right” as the expense of being scriptural. I find that in talking to people, so many have been turned off by “church” that they stay away.
    I love getting and making opportunities to serve as a volunteer. Praying with a waitress who confides in me that her brother’s meth addiction has caused financial difficulties for her family or volunteer work I have done with missing and abducted people brings me more a sense of getting “it”. I still mention my faith to those people, but in a way that I hope includes instead of excludes. Telling people they are lost is hurtful because I have had people tell me I was lost and going to hell because I disagreed with their opinion. We want people to want what we have in our relationship with God. If one studies the Bible, our walk should be included in our doctrine. It makes sense because at most, people spend about 5 hours a week in a worship assembly and the rest trying to be light in the way we live away from the assembly.
    Johnny Mullens
    February, 11 2013

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