In this issue’s letters section, we print correspondence from Rev. Douglas Kuiper, who questions the propriety of identifying church and kingdom. I did that in my four editorials entitled, “A (Sharp) Pastoral Warning to Students in Christian Colleges” (Oct. 1, Nov. 1, Nov. 15, Dec. 1). I said, “The kingdom is the church.” In the letters section I briefly answer Rev. Kuiper. I take opportunity in this editorial to address the question more fully.
At the heart of his letter is the question, “Is the word is the right word to use when speaking of their (church and kingdom) relationship?” The editorials said: “The church IS the kingdom.” Rev. Kuiper suggests that this identifying church and kingdom may have been a figure of speech in which the editor “overstates the case to make his point.” That was not my intention.
The question is: If the two are not to be identified, how does the biblical reality ofchurch relate to the biblical reality kingdom? Must we instead use phrases such as “is like,” or “leads to,” or “is one of the many tools by which is established…”? No, for the church has connected church and kingdom with the wordis.
Before I explain, it will be helpful to be reminded of a couple things:
First, the editorials that made this identification of church and kingdom warned against a very serious error, namely the view that Christ’s kingdom is far broader than the church, is far more important than the church, is to be established also by means that the church cannot use, and that its most important manifestation may be in Christianized politics, Christianized economies, Christian works of art, etc. Really, the kingdom is this world-Christianized, this-world transformed. Although the church may be at the center of it, the church is only a small part of it. I am thankful that the questioner and his question do not take issue with the essential warning of the articles, because the youth in many Christian colleges are bombarded with the call to “establish the kingdom” by service projects, community development, political action, and social justice efforts; but they are not called to establish the kingdom by zealous activity promoting the true church. We must let nothing muffle this warning, even if there remains some difference on the matter before us in this editorial.
Second, the letter may leave the impression that the view that identifies church and kingdom is my personal opinion. The view is my opinion, but it is not my view. The editorials expressed the view of a large part of the Christian church during the entire new dispensation. I showed that this is the explicit teaching of the Westminster standards, of many theologians of stature, and is at least implied in the Three Forms of Unity. The neo-Calvinists concede this in the defense of their view. Badly understating the truth of the matter, one of them admitted, even if somewhat condescendingly: “Some Christian traditions…have equated the kingdom of God with the church.” Thus, in this editorial I do not defend as much as I try todescribe the view and explain why the church would have connected church and kingdom with the word is.
Third, Rev. Kuiper’s question mentions a distinction, sometimes made and often misunderstood when describing the church, between visible and invisible. (The misunderstanding is aggravated when we sayvisible church rather than church visible.) These are not two different segments of the one church, but two ways to view the church, two aspects of the church as church: she has a visible existence and life and an invisible existence and life. When I speak of church I am not referring to one or the other aspect. I simply mean the church as the catholic body of Jesus Christ manifesting herself in instituted congregations. This church is also in heaven, of course, but I do not believe that this will make a difference in explaining the identity of church and kingdom.
Fourth, it is my judgment that at times we have too narrowly defined the kingdom as “the spiritual rule of God,” or at least have left the impression that the concept kingdom is exhausted by the idea of “rule.” (And I wonder whether this narrow definition has caused some to conclude, “The kingdom is not the church.”) If one had to make a choice of only one among all the elements that make up God’s grand kingdom, perhaps this is the best one. But the profound concept kingdom defies a definition in one short phrase. So, rather than take sides in a debate over whether the kingdom is “primarily” rule, or realm, or something else, I instead list its elements that help us understand the identification of kingdom and church.
As I write, Christmas approaches. Luke 1 is open before me. The angel’s beautiful promise to Mary about her Son reads, “And he shall reign over the house of Jacob (the church) forever; and of his kingdom there shall be no end.” Notice the Hebrew parallelism, made clearer by putting the one above the other, in which thesame reality is expressed in two different ways:
And he shall reign over the house of Jacob forever;
and of his kingdom there shall be no end.”
The house of Jacob/Israel (the church) is the here called the kingdom.
What is it about the church that makes it God’s kingdom? Consider the real possibility that everything about kingdom can be applied to church. At the end of this list that follows, ask if there is anything about kingdom that has not been explained as belonging to God’s church. The same reality is being described, at one time with the word church, at another time with the word kingdom, emphasizing different aspects of the reality of God’s precious work in Jesus Christ.
I start with citizens because more than one has asked: “True, the members of the church are members of the kingdom; but doesn’t the kingdom consist of more than the people in it?” The answer is, “Yes, the kingdom has a King, law, blessings, and more.” But we may begin speaking of membership: the kingdom’s citizens are the church’s members. The kingdom does not have more citizens than the church has members.
More to the point, church members are described as kingdom citizens. God depicts Old Testament Israel in Exodus 19:6 as “a kingdomof priests.” He describes the New Testament church in the same way. When the apostle Peter helps the young New Testament church mature in the consciousness of her identity, he quotes Exodus 19:6: “Ye (church!) are a…royalpriesthood….” That is, “You, New Testament church, are that kingdom of priests.” The church is the kingdom.
Most important in a kingdom is the king. The head of the church is King Jesus. The head of the church-body is described in terms of royalty. At Jesus’ ascension and exaltation as King, when God put “all things under his feet” (the language of royalty), God gave Him to be “head over all things to the church” (Eph. 1:22). The head of the church is king of that kingdom.
Kingdoms are also realms. This kingdom’s realm is circumscribed by the boundaries of the church. One enters this kingdom by spiritual translation (Col. 1:13), by regeneration (John 3:5). The sign of this spiritual translation into thekingdom is the church’s sacrament of baptism (LD 27:73; Tit. 3:5). Then, when the baptized member publicly professes membership in this kingdom realm, he confesses faith and is admitted to all the privileges of a church member.
Herman Hoeksema sometimes speaks of kingdom as “rule.” However, at the beginning of his treatment of the petition “Thy kingdom come,” he defined kingdom, even in terms of its main idea, as “realm.” “The kingdom of God as to its main idea is the commonwealth in which God is King, in which He is known and acknowledged, loved and freely obeyed, by willing subjects, as the only Sovereign of all, whose Word is law, written in the hearts of all the citizens of the kingdom.” This is the realm of the church.
Like all other kingdoms, God’s kingdom is also ruled by a law—the Word of the King in Holy Scripture. The Old Testament made plain that the kings must rule according to the written Word of God. Today, King Jesus governs His kingdom by committing His Word as a sacred trust to the church. The officebearers speak and apply that law to her members. No one else has the duty to protect that Word, proclaim that Word, govern herself by the Word, but the church.
Unlike all other kingdoms, the power that rules God’s kingdom is grace. By “word and spirit” King Jesus enters powerfully into the hearts of His citizens. The power of His law is not outward, but inward, as His Spirit makes the citizens “willing in the day of His power” (Ps. 110:3). When the King works so, His law has a “kingdom dominion” over the believer. It breaks the dominion of sin and establishes a reign of grace (see Rom. 6).
All this is kingdom reality. It takes place in, and only in, God’s church.
To open and close the doors of this kingdom, the church holds keys. The gates of the kingdom are opened and closed by the special tools given exclusively to the church—preaching and discipline. Entrance into the kingdom is entrance into the church. Expulsion from the kingdom is excommunication from the church. Christ’s church has always understood that the kingly office of Christ is found in the church’s elders. The kingdom is the church.
The benefits Scripture describes as belonging to citizens of the kingdom, and the wealth promised each one, are found in the church’streasuries. These blessings are “not meat and drink, but righteousness, and peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost.” Kingdom riches are not found outside the church, nor are they distributed by any other institution than the church.
Listening to many neo-Calvinists today, though, one might think that Romans 14‘s righteousness is civil righteousness and its peace is harmony among the races. Pontius Pilate had better understanding of Jesus’ kingdom than that. Shrewd enough to see that Jesus’ kingdom was no challenge to the kingdom he represented—because it was a kingdom of a different sort—he said, “I find in him no fault at all.”
The church even expands, kingdom-like. Kingdoms extend themselves. Christ’s does. His territory grows. His citizens increase in number. More are added by conquest. This is the work of the church. “Church Extension Committee” could as well be “Kingdom Expansion Committee.” Preachers called as missionaries are Christ’s soldiers pressing the claims of King Jesus into territories where the church has not been established.
This is the testimony of Acts 1. Before Jesus’ ascension, He gave His disciples a 40-day “Capstone Course.” The subject: “Advanced Kingdom Theology” (Acts 1:3). The disciples, having grasped the doctrine and passed the course, spent the rest of their lives as preaching missionaries—making more disciples, ordaining elders, and establishing kingdom outposts (churches) worldwide. For 2,000 years the church has been building the kingdom by building the church.
The kingdom is the church.
The church defends her kingdom. As kingdom, the church has walls, watchmen, weapons, even warning-systems (“trumpet”-like). The church is always assaulted by other kingdoms. She protects herself by going to battle. The kingdom arms her citizen-soldiers—each of them—as Paul instructed the church to be armed inEphesians 6:10ff.
And in this kingdom, the underlying principle is truth. When King Jesus explained to Pilate the reality of His kingdom, He said: “Thou sayest that I am a king. To this end was I born, and for this cause came I into the world, that I should bear witness unto the truth. Every one that is of the truth heareth my voice.” The ruling principle of the kingdom is truth.
By now, we are not surprised that the pillar and ground of the kingdom’s truth is the church, “the house of God…the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth” (I Tim. 3:15).
The kingdom is the church.
“But is the kingdom never found outside of the church?” one may ask. “Are there no influences of the kingdom outside the realm of church? Does not one see evidences of God’s great kingdom elsewhere than among the people of God?” Those are legitimate questions. They may best be answered by differentiating between the kingdom itself and the influences and effects of the kingdom.
What appears to be the “kingdom” today outside the boundaries of the church may be understood by looking at David’s kingdom in the Old Testament. Under his reign, kingdom changed in two significant ways. First, the boundaries of the nation extended outward as the armies took possession of land God had promised them from the beginning. Second, David’s kingdom also exerted power outside of those boundaries. Foreign nations paid tribute. Pagan kings complied with David’s will. Peoples conformed themselves in some ways to David’s will. He subdued them. But we would not call the people in these nations “Citizens of David’s Kingdom,” the nations outside Israel’s boundaries “David’s Kingdom,” or their actions “Kingdom Actions.” None of them served David willingly, brought their tribute gladly, or loved His rule. They submitted because of the threat of David’s mighty armies. Even though the kingdom’s influences appeared outside of its boundaries, the kingdom existed within the boundaries of Israel (the church).
Today, there is contact between the kingdom of God and the kingdoms of this world—cultures and nations outside the church.
The relationship is hostile. The enmity of Genesis 3:15 continues to reveal itself. The church opposes the culture and nations, condemning them as evil; and these nations exalt themselves violently against King Christ.
Sometimes, in the goodness of God, the contact bears positive fruit. But the positive fruit is not some outward conformity to God’s laws. The positive effect is personal transfer of allegiance to the kingdom of God—membership in the church.
There is some outward conformity to God’s law by the influence of the kingdom’s citizens. Sometimes Christians serve in positions of civil government and establish laws for the land in harmony with God’s law. But it would be aninsult to King Jesus to call that law “God’s Kingdom,” or the country that has that law “God’s Kingdom,” or outward conformity to His law “God’s Kingdom.” Yet that is done today. We may be very thankful for that influence of God’s people in a nation. But that is not the kingdom of God. And especially when civil laws are made without any acknowledgment that they are the will of King Jesus (as in the USA) and are called God’s Kingdom, the King is insulted. Yet some neo-Calvinists call them God’s kingdom. The laws may be called many things (“selfishness” and “plagiarism” come to mind); but they ought not be called “God’s Kingdom.”
Outside the church is the rule of Christ’s power, comparable to David’s dominion of the neighboring nations by brute force. Within the church exists the kingdom in all its beauty and dimensions.
So if you college students are asked: “Where is God’s kingdom now?” point to the church. Love the church. Devote yourselves to the church. LetPsalm 137‘s confession be yours:
If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning.
If I do not remember thee, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth; if I prefer not Jerusalem above my chief joy.
(The editor of the Psalter had it right, too, when he entitled Psalm 137‘s speaking about Jerusalem’s kingdom, “Remembrance ofChurch Privileges.”)
And if any ask you what is the future of this kingdom, point them to the other side of the bodily return of Jesus Christ, when “the full perfection of (God’s) kingdom take(s) place, wherein (God) shall be all in all.”
Be busy as a Christian in all the spheres of life in which God calls you to live (perhaps more editorials are needed on this). But seek the kingdom and find the kingdom in His church.