When you think of the word kingdom, what do you think of? For many, the term conjures images of medieval knights, fair maidens, and castles inhabited by white-bearded monarchs. Or we imagine hard-fought epic battles involving mythological figures and creatures (think Gandalf and Gollum), or all these things in a favorite video game.

Now for some Christians, it is this otherworldly quality that makes the idea of the kingdom of God so attractive; other believers prefer a real kingdom, a here-and-now realm you can sink your teeth into. Some long for a far-off kingdom, while others seek a nearby kingdom: two visions in quiet competition with one another. Even though Jesus said that every kingdom divided against itself cannot stand (Mark 3:24), the truth is that his followers have been pretty nearly divided about the kingdom, especially in the past hundred years or so.

Let’s go back to the first set of Christians I just mentioned: those who see the kingdom of God as something falling outside of their own day-to-day reality. For these, it’s not that the kingdom isn’t real; it’s just that it’s real only on the inside. Such might agree with the 18th-century writer Louisa May Alcott when she writes, “A little kingdom I possess / Where thoughts and feelings dwell.”

Today we hear similar sentiments when people say things like, “The day I came to believe in Jesus is the day he set up his kingdom in my heart.” This conception of the kingdom as a personal reality may or may not rule out a corresponding objective kingdom reality, but the emphasis is on the soul, the interior life.

Other Christians identify the kingdom not as an internal reality at all, but rather as something public, something out there. Here, quite often, the kingdom becomes a social ideal, characterized by certain practices, values, and attitudes. Under this category falls a broad variety of approaches.

For much of Catholicism, the kingdom is closely aligned with the church; the concepts of ecclesia (church) and basileia (kingdom) become virtually interchangeable. As a result, for much of 20th-century Catholic thought, the kingdom is essentially a present-day concrete reality.

Meanwhile, for some strands of Protestantism, the kingdom of God is pointedly something other than the church, at least the church as we know it. For example, Brian McLaren poses the rhetorical question, “What if he [Jesus] didn’t come to start a new religion—but rather came to start a political, social, religious, artistic, economic, intellectual, and spiritual revolution that would give birth to a new world?”

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According to McLaren, when Jesus inaugurated the kingdom, the church was exactly what he did not have in mind; for McLaren, as for Walter Rauschenbusch before him, the kingdom is a social ideal awaiting realization within history. Despite the immense differences between these two visions, both conceive the kingdom principally as a social reality.

A third popular approach has been to associate the kingdom of God neither with the private realm nor with the public sphere but instead with future postmortem bliss. On this scenario, the kingdom has precious little, if anything, to do with the here and now; it is instead simply an otherworldly place where the faithful go to spend eternity. This pie-in-the-sky when you die may not be incompatible with the kingdom as a personal reality, but it is certainly at odds with the kingdom as a present-day social reality.

Though my overview of contemporary kingdom concepts may be incomplete, it is, I think, accurate enough. On the street level and pew level alike, there is a lot of confusion—and no small amount of unstated disagreement—when it comes to the kingdom of God.

Oddly enough, everybody continues to talk about the kingdom as if we are all talking about the same thing. I’m not so sure. In fact, if you listen carefully, you realize that most of the time we’re really not talking about the same thing at all. And if you’ve noticed this and it hasn’t bothered you even a little, maybe it’s because you’ve resigned yourself to a rather vague understanding of the kingdom. Maybe too many of us have resigned too early.

What’s gone wrong and what to do about it

The discrepancy in modern-day accounts of the kingdom of God is surprising, especially when you consider that our principal source is a single figure named Jesus. With a single authority on a single subject, you would think that there would be far more convergence than divergence of opinion.

True, there are patches of common ground among the views I have just described. But I wonder if the sharp differences in these positions don’t actually make the points of agreement seem inconsequential. Can these understandings of the kingdom, so drastically different in scope and detail, all claim equal validity as interpretations of Jesus’ teaching? It’s hard to see how.

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Maybe the problem is a lack of data. Most of us know stories, for example, where somebody communicated something as a one-off and then later posterity is left to interpret that isolated statement. A case in point: When baseball great Ted Williams passed away, two of his children produced a cocktail napkin on which the Hall of Famer had apparently signed off on his express wish to be cryogenically frozen after death—despite his earlier will stipulating his cremation. Unable to bear the thought of a perpetually frozen father, Ted’s oldest daughter brought the matter to court, arguing that a signed cocktail napkin was insufficient evidence that Williams wished to be preserved as a “corpsicle.” The court disagreed and, as a result, Ted is literally chilling out to this day.

By analogy, maybe the root problem of our kingdom confusion is that Jesus told us little about this kingdom, so we are in a situation not unlike that of the adult Williams children, coming to very different conclusions regarding Jesus’ intentions, all because he didn’t make himself clear enough while he was still on earth. But the problem is not too little data but too much, for the kingdom of God constitutes the mother lode of Jesus’ message. This becomes clear even on a brisk read of the first five books the New Testament.

When the Galilean began his ministry some 2,000 years ago, he began by preaching the kingdom (Matt. 4:17). In his departing words to his disciples as the risen Lord, he is again talking about the kingdom (Acts 1:6–8). And in between these inaugural and climactic events, we have a plethora of parables, sayings, and enacted dramas all explicitly or implicitly relating to the kingdom. The kingdom of God was not simply at the heart of Jesus’ agenda; it was his agenda. This much is clear. Explaining that agenda ... well, that’s the tricky bit.

But it is exactly Jesus’ central concern with the kingdom that forbids followers of Jesus to throw up their hands with a shrug and say, “Who’s to know about this whole business of kingdom? Does it really matter anyway?” There are two problems with this kind of agnostic thinking, fashionable as agnosticism may be these days.

First, hastily formed judgments along the lines of “Who’s to know?” do not strike me as the path of responsible, holistic discipleship—much less loving “the Lord your God … with all your mind” (Mark 12:30, par. Matt. 22:37). Second, because Jesus devoted himself so energetically to the proclamation of the kingdom, we ought to take the same kingdom seriously or at least make the effort to understand what he meant by it.

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Consider the alternative. If we are content to be cheerfully agnostic on the overriding point of Jesus’ message, what does that say about our commitment to Jesus’ other teachings? What does it say about how closely we are following? No, the work of understanding the kingdom of God is a holy obligation.

The importance of mission

There’s another piece that needs to be talked about. Let’s call this “the mission piece.” Just about everyone has a mission in life—whether they know it or not. For some kids, their goal is to fit in with their peers and to be liked. Growing older, they want good grades so they can get into a reputable college. Other young people are finishing up their college years and are hoping to land some kind of job so that they don’t have to move back home. Others are hoping to find Mr. Right or Mrs. Right, while still others are trying to work out their marriage with the person who once made a pretty convincing Mr. Right or Mrs. Right. Everyone has goals; everyone has a mission.

The same is true on a biological-family and a church-family level. Not that many families take the time to carve out a formal mission statement, but every family makes certain choices about how it spends money, uses its time, and resolves conflict. These choices inevitably reflect an implicit mission, with prior judgments as to what’s important and what’s not. The same goes for churches, although many churches do have their own specific mission statement. And like individuals and families, churches have their own goals. Those goals may be explicit or implicit, clear or unclear, flexible or static.

Goals may also be contested. In fact, in the normal course of life, they are almost always contested. For example, when my children were small, they never questioned their parents’ wisdom when it came to planning the family vacation. It was simply a matter of our saying, “This is where we’re going,” and—once safely strapped into their car seats—they just came along. Leading our family on vacation in those days was as simple as cutting butter with a hot knife. Later, when the boys entered their teenage years and developed their own perspectives, the butter was not cut so easily.

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The same analogies can be applied to church leadership. People of personal judgment and experience will inevitably push back now and then. But this is the nature of leadership. As Harvard’s Ron Heifetz puts it, “Leadership is the art of disappointing people at a rate they can stand.”

For Christians, this is exactly where clarity on the kingdom comes in. When Jesus announces the kingdom of God, he is introducing a reality that was meant to serve as a trustworthy compass for all we do in life. This comes as welcome news, especially in those moments when we need a tangible compass.

For example, you are a parent and your teenagers come with a proposal for an extravagant week-long vacation in some exotic getaway. (Full disclosure: For my wife and me, this has never—yet!—happened in our family.) One option is to say, “No. Your mother and father don’t want to do that. Too expensive. ’Nuf said.”

Another option is to say something like this within a clear set of values: “No. Your mother and father don’t want to do that. While we could afford this vacation in theory, as stewards of God’s finances, we believe that choice would not be in keeping with God’s kingdom priorities for our family. And if you want to know more, I would love to explain it to you.” When we work out kingdom theory in our heads, we can begin to apply it to our day-to-day lives.

The same principle applies to church leadership. Imagine a scenario in which you are the pastor of a church and a new member sets up an appointment to see you. The goal of the meeting, he says, is to see if the church could redirect more of its resources toward ministry X (you fill in the blank). The only problem is that the church budget, prayerfully drawn up to reflect the church’s mission statement, has already been set, and you know it is highly unlikely that any resources will be going to X anytime soon. You communicate as much.

“Okay, Pastor,” your parishioner responds, “I hear what you’re saying, and I will ultimately respect and submit to the church’s leadership. At the same time, I was hoping you could help me understand”—he leans forward and looks you right in the eyes—“just how does your church’s mission actually line up with the vision of the kingdom of God?” If it was me sitting in that pastor’s chair, I might have excused myself to the restroom, washed my already washed hands, and taken a moment to pray and figure out what to say next.

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As difficult as this member’s question may be, it’s a fair question. It’s a healthy question. And it’s exactly the question we want all God’s people to ask: What is the connection between the kingdom of our Father in heaven and what we are doing on earth? For those of us leading other Christians in any capacity whatsoever (and I suspect a number of people reading this fall into this category), we can only become more effective leaders by having a clearer vision of the kingdom.

This is not to say that achieving such clarity is an easy task. It is not. But Jesus never said that following him was a walk in the park. In fact, he said more or less the opposite. So we should not be surprised if this whole business of understanding the kingdom—much like the broader task of biblical theology—requires us to roll up our sleeves. We need to pull up a good reading chair and get ready to sweat—even if it’s only intellectual sweat. Are you in?

Nicholas Perrin is Franklin S. Dyrness Professor of Biblical Studies at Wheaton College. This article is an excerpt taken from The Kingdom of God by Nicholas Perrin. Copyright © 2019 by Zondervan. Used by permission of Zondervan. www.zondervan.com.

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