The RCA and the Kingdom of God

I wonder how long the doctrine of the Kingdom of God has been disappearing from the RCA. Of course no one would deny the doctrine, but it’s hardly robust among us, and it hardly informs or inspires or directs us. Yet it is the single doctrine most characteristically “Reformed.”

The doctrine has had its variations among us. Orthodox Calvinists stress the “Sovereignty of God” and matters of divine election. Liberals and progressives stress the “Kingdom of God” in matters of social justice and Christian action. The very few Kuyperians among us try to do both.

We used to joke that our Lord came proclaiming the kingdom and all he got was the church. Our bias was that the kingdom was good and the church was, well, not so good. We have recently seen a recovery in the estimation of the church. Young people are open to parish ministry again, and pastoring is seen as a vanguard of ministry. But the connection between the church and the kingdom has yet to be repaired.

We have the raw material. I will never forget the 350th Anniversary sermon preached by Hendrikus Berkhof at Marble Collegiate to General. He called the church the “witness and the first-fruits of the Kingdom.” This was simple and powerful. He connected the kingdom and the church with the proper priority: the kingdom, and the divine necessity: the church. He had cast a vision for the RCA.

Our current Mission and Vision statement is profoundly deficient. Not only does it outdo Roman Catholicism by calling the RCA “the very presence of Jesus Christ in the world,” it never once mentions the Kingdom of God. That’s right, the doctrine of the Kingdom of God is absent from our Mission and Vision.

The tragic consequence is that the our Ten Year Goal both ignores the Kingdom and makes an idol of the church, directing all our resources to make more churches. This Vision did not come from God, and to say that it’s “God’s Call” is to take God’s name in vain.

The mission of the church is the Kingdom, not more churches. Yes, one can say, with Brunner and Newbigin, that the church exists for mission as a fire exists for burning, but the goal of the church’s mission is not itself. The so-called “missional” church paradigm is okay only if it’s in the context of the Kingdom.

This is apparent in the Great Commission itself, which is kingdom language front to back. “The gospel” which Jesus speaks of is nothing other than the announcement of the Good News of the Lordship of Christ. In the same way, the account of the Ascension in Acts 1 is all kingdom language, when Jesus gives his disciples his last instructions and marching orders.

In the last few years the mission of the Reformed Church in America has been collapsed into what we used to call “church extension.” We never explicitly deny such things as ecumenism, social witness, Christian action, education, and world mission — we just starve them. This is a function of no the doctrine of the Kingdom of God.

The problem predates the Mission and Vision statement. I first noticed the problem while doing a comparative study of the successive Orders for Holy Baptism in the RCA Liturgy. The earlier forms, through 1968, all lead with the doctrine of the Kingdom of God, while the forms of 1987 and 1995 do not. In fact, the 1995 form mentions the Kingdom of God only once, at the end, and doxologically, as something for the distant future.

I have argued elsewhere for defining Holy Baptism in kingdom terms. Here let me only suggest that our baptismal forms demonstrate that the Kingdom of God has declined from a priority to an afterthought, and from instruction to doxology.

Compounding the problem is the word “kingdom.” The more inclusive substitutes like “Realm of God” leave something to be desired. Maybe it’s time to renovate the Calvinist “Sovereignty of God,” but with more dynamic and narrative content. The word “sovereignty” is ungendered, its etymology is more personal than “realm,” and it’s more current in use than “kingdom.”

Beyond that, to speak of the Sovereignty of God is to remind the RCA of a Calvinism we need to remember. It would help us be less fixed on our size and our numbers. And to invest this Sovereignty with the kingdom message of Jesus in the gospels is to call us to what we are in mission for. It would be such a relief for the RCA to stop obsessing about itself, its size, and its numbers. We are not our own mission.

2 thoughts on “The RCA and the Kingdom of God

  1. Daniel, once upon a time (in “Meeting Each Other,” maybe) you wrote something about the difference between being a denomination and being a church. It seems to me that this echoes that. Maybe being a church instead of a denomination would allow us to focus on God again.We have young pastors wanting to be in the parish again, but the parish, in too many places, is tearing them apart, because too many parishes choose comfort and status quo over mission, and giving the parishes what THEY want, rather than what GOD wants, can, in the short term, produce the numbers that the denomination rewards. On the other hand, leading parishes through the transition into mission in a new world, often produces, in the short term, conflict and declines and abuse for pastors who are left flapping in the breeze.

  2. Thanks Dan, for this blog. It is indeed the ‘sovereignty’ issue that is at play in the CI discussion about the Church.Both the ‘who’ and the ‘how’ questions play a role.The ‘who’ question should indeed refer to the King of kings and Lord of lords. Jesus is ‘kyrios’ (ascertained by the Spirit) and is thus basileus, even as he taught us to pray “thy Kingdom come.’The ‘how’ question points indeed to ‘sovereign’ as an absolute, i.e. there can be no comparative or superlative according to grammar rules.But grammatology itself, since the advent of postmodernism, has irrevocably become relativistic. This is the postive role postmodernism plays with regard to theology: every absolute must inexorably bend. That is, it does not merely curve in upon itself but transcend toward the dimensionality (usually called the dialectic) of object-subject. The latter is not an epistomelogical problem, but an instance of a hermeneutical circle (sphere would be better) that is but another way of saying ‘space-time continuum.’The upshot is, that the struggle about sovereignty needs to be understood as the immanent reflection of creative divine sovereignty (the latter being a bit of a pleonasm…). This is, of course the reason that Calvin did cast the sovereignty of the earthly church in terms of a perichoretic dance of the executive, legislative and executive ‘branch’. “Carver thinking” recognizes the problemata, but here the solution is the highly heretical divide (and thus) conquer-by-fiat scheme of ‘power’ thinking. That this is implemented in a Reformed and Reforming Church is beyond irony!Yet these developments are but symptoms of the very problem you have stated so well. What we need is deeper reflection and self-searching as a denomination. Thanks, Dan, for bringing the discussions back to the theological nature of solutions to the challenges in which premodernity’s wisdom needs to inform the postmodern sitution to escape modernity’s trappings.Okke

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