Kingdom Theology (in Colossians and Philemon)

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The reality of two kingdoms, the kingdom of Christ and the kingdom of this world, stands out in Col. 1:13. These kingdoms are as different as light and darkness. The fact of two kingdoms is generally recognized in Christian circles. Yet there is no uniform answer on how we should understand these two kingdoms and how participants in the kingdom of Christ should relate to the kingdom of this world. A theology of two kingdoms was a key element in the sixteenth-­century believers church efforts to restore faithfulness to the NT. That perspective deserves serious attention as the church in each generation seeks to be intentional about the relation of the church to the culture of its world.

In the Anabaptist version of the doctrine of two kingdoms, "the kingdom of Christ was characterized by peace, forgiveness, nonviolence, and patience. The kingdom of the world, or Satan, was strife, vengeance, anger, and the sword which kills. Government belonged to this kingdom of the world" (Klaassen, 1981:244).

The believers church perspective on kingdom theology can perhaps be understood best by differentiating it from other views of kingdom relationships. Historically and currently, we can see the following alternate kingdom theologies:

1. In the state church that developed in the fourth century, the two kingdoms meld into one entity. In the Constantinian synthesis, as it is called, the kingdom of this world adopted the church; thus a clear distinction of kingdoms was obliterated. The nature of the church changed as all citizens were included in the newly defined kingdom of Christ. This view of the church, commonly identified as corpus christianum, dominated the picture for more than a millennium, and it continued beyond the Reformation.

Nationalism, in which the church is given a favored place but regarded to be in the service of the state, is a modern example of the state attempting to swallow the church for political advantage. Rhetoric about separation of church and state does not change the priority of the state over the church.

2. As a reaction to worldliness in the church, some took a strategy of intentional withdrawal in the form of monasticism and asceticism. However, most considered that kind of separation from the world as the exception rather than the norm for all Christians; those who took that route were called saints.

3. Muhammad, six centuries after Christ, established himself and the Muslim movement with a kingdom view that can be called triumphalism. He rejected Christ's way of the cross, suffering, and redemptive love; accepted the offer of an army; and effectively used political and military power in a campaign of triumph according to his perception of the kingdom of God. The manner in which the kingdom is to be established is a crucial issue between Christians and Muslims.

The Crusades, carried out in response to Muslim conquests, revealed the same mentality. Church and state together engaged in the "Christian" cause of fighting for the faith and against the pagans

4. One view recognizes the fact of two kingdoms, but sees them nearly on a par. In this view a Christian is equally a citizen of Christ's kingdom and a citizen of the nation-­state. The result is a double standard of ethics. What one could not do as a private Christian (e.g., take human life), one is expected to do if so ordered by the state (e.g., kill as a soldier). In seeking to avoid the tension between the two kingdoms, the result is a somewhat schizophrenic Christian identity.

5. Another historic view of the kingdoms has the church using the power of the state to enforce the values and morality of the church in society as a whole. Methods of coercion, violence, and conquest, which characterize the kingdom of this world, have been not only condoned but utilized and blessed in the service of the church's cause. While enjoying the protection of the state, the church seeks to legislate and impose its values on the world's citizenry.

6. A common "solution" is the attempt by some to separate private and public existence. The individual in private life adheres to the rules of holy living that belong with the kingdom of Christ, but in public life the ways of "the real world" are accepted as normative. The idea of accountability in a discipling community is virtually foreign to this view of the two kingdoms.

7. A "chaplaincy" stance aptly describes what the church's relationship to society has often turned out to be. John H. Yoder explains the analogy:

Whether in industry, in a university, in the military, or in the feudal prince's court from which the term is derived, the chaplain is called to bless the existing power structure. He is given this place by the authority in power; he is supported by that authority and in turn will put the stamp of divine approval upon what is being done there. His social posture is defined by this renouncing the liberty ultimately to challenge the selfish purposes of the community which he serves and for which he prays at proper times. For him thus to stand in judgment upon this community would be first of all to condemn his own service to it, for his own ritual and moral support of that community's doing in the name of religion is itself the strongest claim the community makes to righteousness. (1971:119)

This chaplain role, which Yoder goes on to critique, grows out of a Constantinian understanding of the kingdoms.

8. A separatist attitude characterizes another category of kingdom theology. This designation is not to be identified with the separatist versus established-­church dichotomy in sixteenth-­ and seventeenth­-century England. Rather, it refers to a colony or isolationist concept. Those with this attitude are not anarchists, but choose to be nonparticipants in politics. Government is viewed as legitimate, but the church is not to be involved in such things. They say to the state, "We want to be left alone. We will not tell you how to govern. We choose not to vote, except maybe on wet­-dry issues." This view assumes that God's standards are quite different for nations than they are for the church.

9. Some, with a popular and relatively modern view, see the kingdom of Christ as almost totally a future reality, and thus not of significant concern for Christian living in this dispensation. Such persons understand the church to be distinctly different from the kingdom. They consider the kingdom of this world to be real, dangerous, and under judgment, and they seek to escape from it in the rapture. Also, they tend to bypass the teachings and example of Jesus in the Gospels as not relevant for the church now.

10. Social activists are absorbed in making this world a better place; they represent a kingdom theology that assumes the kingdom of this world can be repaired. For them, social change takes priority over personal transformation. In reaction to that overoptimism, some have excluded all social concern from their agenda and concentrate on saving souls.

11. Many who accept the name Christian seem to be oblivious to the existence of two kingdoms, and they ignore or deny any fundamental tension between the kingdom of Christ and the kingdom of the world. This is especially true for those living comfortably. The result is a more or less unconscious accommodation to the values of the kingdom of this world. However, Christians living under oppression, deprivation, and misery can readily understand a two-­kingdom theology. Many of them are finding the analysis of liberation theology and its hope attractive, even though some Christian liberationists may use violent methods for change.

A two-­kingdom theology based on Christ and the NT resurfaced in the sixteenth century in the Anabaptist movement. It continues to provide a distinct alternative to the diverse kingdom understandings sketched above. Several pertinent features give shape to the believers church understanding of the two kingdoms:

1. There are two kingdoms. The distinction is in the acknowledged lordship of Christ. The confession "Jesus is Lord" is the watershed, and it is a political statement as much as it is a religious one.

2. God is sovereign. We live in a universe, not a "multiverse." The dualism of two kingdoms, with the accompanying tensions and clashes, is played out under the sovereignty of God. Even the kingdoms of this world serve the purposes of God (e.g., Jer. 25:8­14; Rom. 13:1­7).

3. The church of Christ is not identical with the kingdom of God/Christ, but neither is it totally different. Although the kingdom of God/Christ is the bigger reality, the church is the primary locus of the reign of Christ.

4. The kingdom of Christ is present as well as future. Being transferred into the kingdom of God's Son (Col. 1:13) is a present experience, a partly realized eschatology which is a foretaste of more to come. A qualitative continuity between the present and future phases of the kingdom means that the love and peace that characterize the future kingdom are to be the ways of the present kingdom as well.

5. Participation in the kingdom of Christ profoundly affects the view of history, the value system, social ethics, and the view of nation­states (e.g., the kingdom of Christ is supranational in character). Members of this counter kingdom bear certain identifying marks. These are listed by Menno Simons: holy living, brotherly love, witness, and the cross/suffering (cf. J. Yoder, 1969:263-­271).

6. Conformity to Christ necessitates a more­or­less radical nonconformity to the kingdom of this world and its ways. The believers church is convinced that the church is to be visible, that there is an identifiable and measurable boundary for the kingdom of Christ, and that the church is to be searching for tangible distinctives. Culturally dated external marks have often been adopted and later discarded. In spite of the limitations of historic attempts, faithful kingdom living seems to require a conscious nonconformity to the world while living out faith in a given culture. Until the truly radical nature of the kingdom of Christ is seen and accepted, the church too easily adopts an accommodationist attitude toward the world. For the church to be the church in the world, it will need to proactively structure life according to obedience to Christ as Lord. This means neither uncritically going with the world's flow nor automatically going an opposite direction, although it often turns out that the ways of Christ are an inversion of the ways of the world. (See The Upside-­Down Kingdom, Donald B. Kraybill.)

7. Mission is an integral factor in kingdom living, more important than self­-preservation. As John H. Yoder writes,

The political novelty which God brings into the world is a community of those who serve instead of ruling, who suffer instead of inflicting suffering, whose fellowship crosses social lines instead of reinforcing them. This new Christian community in which the walls are broken down not by human idealism or democratic legalism but by the work of Christ is not only a vehicle of the gospel or fruit of the gospel, it is the good news. It is not merely the agent of mission or the constituency of a mission agency. This is the mission. (1969:274)

To what extent the church can or should be involved in matters of justice, be a prophetic voice to the political and economic systems of this world, and seek to influence change for the better—these are disputed issues. Since Christ is already head over all powers and authorities (Col. 2:10), his kingdom is not confined to the church. Hunger, misery, abuse, infanticide, and human bondage are contrary to Christ's heart and kingdom wherever they occur.

While some Christians limit their ministry in the world to responding to symptoms, others sense their mission to address systemic causes of human misery. William Wilberforce is one example of a believer working within the political system to bring an end to slavery in the British Empire. By carefully critiquing both goals and methods, and by guarding against identifying causes and movements with the kingdom of God, some Christians maintain that they can avoid going beyond the line of compromise and that they must be involved. (E.g., Completely Pro-­Life by Ron Sider advocates political influence.) The view of the cosmic Christ in Colossians challenges the position that the church should concern itself only with spiritual matters. Reducing suffering and helping people have a better life— this is only a part of what Christ's peacemaking and reconciliation envision, but they are a part of the agenda of Christ's kingdom. (Cf. P. Yoder, Shalom.)

In summary, for the church to apply NT kingdom theology to its life and witness will mean coming to understand itself (1) as a distinct and viable alternative to the kingdom of this world, (2) as an example of the transforming and reconciling power of Christ, and (3) as Christ's presence in the world to announce his kingdom and denounce the powers of darkness.

Ernest D. Martin