Scot Mcknight’s latest book, Kingdom Conspiracy: Returning to the Radical Mission of the Local Church, takes on contemporary understandings of the “kingdom of God” and offers his own. He initially sets up two straw men: 1) the social justice loving “Skinny Jeans” kingdom, full of millennial youngsters who (according to McKnight) simply focus on working toward the “common good,” and 2) the heavy thinking, not-so-pragmatic “Pleated Pants” kingdom, associated with scholarly theologians, typified (according to McKnight) by the kingdom interpretation of “God’s rule.” It is rightly pointed out that, at least in so far as they are generalized, these two exaggerations (they are exactly that) don’t learn from the other and have both, in fact, missed it altogether. McKnight offers his understanding of “kingdom” as a proper balance of “definition” and “doing” in its appropriate context. The problem here is that McKnight does not bridge the gap between the straw men, but, if we are to only consider these three perspectives, creates a third point on a triangle, in the center of which the actual kingdom of God may be found.
The most hammered and significant point McKnight makes concerning the kingdom of God is that it is the church, noting no distinctions between the two and arguing a great deal against those who have differing perspectives about how the may indeed be referring to two distinct things, the most common being that the church is a part of the kingdom but is not the kingdom. He argues that anything done without the sole purpose of trying to convert someone to Jesus, and consequently coming to that end, is not “kingdom work,” rather it is only “good work.” It is also to be understood that anything outside of corporate, local church work is not kingdom work—individuals cannot do kingdom work; kingdom work is only the work of the church (because they are the same thing). McKnight attempts to work out a number of nuances, but never satisfactorily equates “kingdom” and “church,” but does continuously remind the reader of the equation to further his larger work.
Admitting that a kingdom needs a king, people, land, and law, McKnight offers the following: Jesus = King (sufficiently noted in Scripture); church = people (by definition); wherever a Christian is standing = land (no support offered, only a claim and never mentioned again); law/Torah = the Sermon on the Mount (no support offered, only a claim, though used later in the book). However, even after acknowledging all of this, even if in passing, he keeps coming back to “kingdom = people = church,” arguing throughout the book from this perspective.
Ironically, McKnight, through arguing against other perspectives, provides much support for perspectives contrary to his own. On a number of occasions he contradicts his own conclusions, yet fails to see it, even to the point of writing that “the kingdom is the church, and the church is the kingdom—that they are the same even if they are not identical” (206). I preordered book hoping to use it for a course I’ll be teaching, but even though there is a lot of good stuff here (I really appreciate his work on varying assumptions of the kingdom that was to come by those before and during Jesus’ life, especially by not shying away from apocryphal texts to illuminate the culture of a particular time in history), there’s just too much inconsistency and unhelpful material to include it in the required reading. However, if I were emphasizing an extended exercise in critical reading and wanted to increase the level of debate, I think this would be a great book to critique.
McKnight shows his hand at the end of “Appendix 2: Kingdom Today,” wherein he takes on liberation theology and notes the real intent of writing the book: to oppose the “social gospel.” Perhaps a shorter and better book could (should) have first been written to this end, but it likely would not have garnered the attention a book about “Kingdom Conspiracy” would have for marketing and sales. I recommend reading at least chapter 13 of Ken Wytsma’s book Pursuing Justice: The Call to Live & Die for Bigger Things for a well-articulated argument and explanation of the controversy between “social justice” and “social gospel,” which may be helpful in better understanding the positions of fellow brothers and sisters in Christ as it concerns “good work” and “kingdom work.” There ought not be an equating of “kingdom” and “social justice,” but there can also be no separation. (My review of Ken’s book may be found here.)
As a whole, I cannot recommend this book to just anyone, though I would certainly use parts of it. Just as McKnight, in support of his own arguments, often cites N. T. Wright and Christopher J. H. Wright, both theological giants and neither of whom would in my estimation concur with McKnight’s conclusion, I would cite McKnight in support of my own while knowing full well he would not agree. We both believe in our Lord, Jesus Christ, bringing his love to others through pacifism and peacemaking, and desire others to want the same. May all our efforts be for the glory of God and the furthering of his kingdom, even if we disagree on its definition.