The Kingdom: Healing the Dualism of Personal and Social Ethics

Derek Morphew

Derek Morphew is a Vineyard writer, theologian and director of Vineyard Bible Institute, an online training school for leaders worldwide. Visit www.vineyardbi.org for more information on Derek's books, and on how to enroll.

John Wimber was known for many things, one of which was the emphasis on the kingdom of God as the coming of God's power in signs and wonders. This approach is now an established paradigm in the Vineyard movements. At a popular level that is often about as far as it goes. What is the theology of these networks? The answer is "the kingdom of God." What is the kingdom of God? The answer is "it is all about signs and wonders and spiritual power encounters." If one digs deeper into Wimber one will find an equal call to what he called "mercy ministry." It was not just about signs and wonders! Why and how did Wimber hold these two emphases together? The answer is, through a more profound, more than merely popular understanding of the kingdom. It is vital that the emerging networks of churches that have arisen from this theology, at both leadership and popular levels, continue to know and practice this more profound ministry of the kingdom.

This is important within the history of conservative evangelical churches, where there is a tendency towards selective obedience or dualistic ethics. While some parts of the church focus entirely on "spiritual" aspects of the Christian life, such as evangelism, conversion, personal sanctification, prayer and the spiritual disciplines, other parts of the church focus entirely on "social" aspects of the Christian life, such as compassion for the poor, community transformation, social justice and political advocacy. The former is often described pejoratively as "pietism" and the latter as "liberal" Christianity or the "social gospel." One can trace this dualism in the whole history of the church, and the evangelical church in particular. The subject has been addressed by Richard Lovelace in Dynamics of Spiritual Life: An Evangelical Theology of Renewal.

Lovelace gives a scholarly, yet non-technical, analysis of the elements of revival (which Lovelace correctly dubs normal "spiritual life"). The book looks at scriptural principles, examines past revivals, and establishes a theologically sound model for implementing the lessons learned from the scriptures & the wisdom of the past. Drawing much upon Jonathan Edwards, Lovelace proposes that the elements of revival are: conviction of sin, deep understanding of justification, movement of the Spirit, prayer, community, missions, & social compassion.

My own perception of the roots of this dualism is the conviction that Gnosticism is largely to blame. There is more Gnosticism in the church than meets the eye.

Those who lived through the apartheid era in South Africa will know the debilitating effects of such dualism with particular pain. Apartheid completely divided the witness of the church. The churches associated with the South African Council of Churches were at the forefront of public resistance to the system and perhaps partly out of desperation, almost succumbed to neo-Marxist ideology. The evangelical, Pentecostal and charismatic churches mostly succumbed to the ideology of the apartheid state, refused to confront the system and withdrew into "spirituality," not that such a withdrawal can be truly spiritual at all. Eventually the Rustenberg Confession became a cathartic moment where the whole church, "left" and "right" repudiated the system, confessed their own sin and committed themselves against the ideology and its socio-political agenda. Later The Evangelical Alliance of South Africa was one of many organizations that made confession to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission on their failure to make an adequate response to Apartheid. Those of us who lived through this time have a story to tell. The theology of the kingdom proved to be a wonderful source of sanity in this turbulent time.

What then is the kingdom of God?

The arrival of the rule of God in power

The kingdom of God is not simply about having "Jesus in your heart" or having his Lordship "within you", a popular definition based on Luke 17:21. Neither is the kingdom of God merely about the eternal rule of God "up there" in heaven where he is enthroned. The kingdom is an event. It is about God "coming" in the eschatological moment when the powers of the coming age break into the present, in Jesus, in Pentecost and in the history of missions, finally to be manifest when we arrive at the "end of the end." Jesus is the personified focus of this kingdom event. He comes announcing the kingdom and demonstrating the kingdom and then enacts the kingdom through his death, resurrection and ascension.

Within this context the duality of personal and social ethics is not conceivable. When John the Baptist sent his delegation, wondering if Jesus was really "the one" Jesus' reply was to evoke the language of Isaiah.

Jesus replied, "Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor. Blessed is the man who does not fall away on account of me" (Matthew 11:4-6).

Not only do we find the signs and wonders aspect (healing and the raising of the dead) side by side with the message to the poor, but the "good news to the poor" forms the climax to the signs of the kingdom. At another pivotal moment, when Jesus inaugurated his kingdom message he actually quoted Isaiah (Luke 4:4-20). Clearly Jesus viewed his mandate as somehow an enactment of expectations in Isaiah.

The rule of God as the arrival of the expected promise

Therefore to understand what Jesus meant when he announced the nearness, presence or coming of the kingdom takes us back to the promise, or growing expectation within Judaism. One can do this historically, as New Testament scholars do, by examining the subject in second temple Judaism, which involves a study of the literature, society and context of Israel during that time. Or one can more simply stay within the pages of scripture and study the Old Testament prophets.

The prophetic expectation

The expectation of the coming kingdom in turn has its context in the loss of the kingdom. This in turn causes us to ask, "what was it that was lost?" Most of these expectations grew out of the pain of the exile, the time of Yahweh's judgment. They longed for the time of Yahweh's forgiveness, return and the restoration from exile. They looked back at the golden age of Israel's zenith of power under David and Solomon when Israel lived in the good of the manifest rule of God. Even if this period was somewhat idealized by subsequent historians in Israel, the picture it paints is classic. It was a time when the rule of God was over all of life. It was spiritual and social, charismatic and theocratic, personal and corporate.

This picture of the kingdom also had roots. It was viewed as a repeat of the coming of Yahweh's kingdom in the exodus event. To evoke the exodus is necessarily to evoke the covenant relationship, which in turn is to speak of the law given at Sinai and the blessings and curses that follow from obedience or disobedience to the terms of the covenant. This subject is covered in Glen Taylor's work on Deuteronomy, which is important reading for those who wish to understand the biblical roots of social justice. There Israel is called to a better life than the life found in surrounding cultures and nations. The righteous laws and statues provide protection for the widow, the alien and the poor. The power of kings is to be subject to the rule of divine law.

Israel lost the kingdom and was sent into exile because the covenant relationship was compromised. Here again the nature of the loss was not dualistic. It involved spiritual adulatory and social injustice. The kings of Judah and Israel led the people astray to worship Baal and Asherah and used their power to abuse the poor.

All this is another way of saying that the kingdom is rooted in the Old Testament, which means it emerged out of Hebrew thinking, which is holistic, not Greek thinking, which tends to be dualistic.

The prophetic tradition of social justice

It is sometimes said that Israel has two kinds of prophets, charismatic early prophets, like Elijah and Elisha, followed by the later literary prophets like Amos, Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel and that it is these later prophets that developed the tradition of social justice. This is a mistaken opposition of ideas. All the prophets called Israel back to the covenant, even if they operated in different ways and some wrote while others did not. The context may have evolved from generation to generation but the fundamentals were the same. Israel was Yahweh's covenant people. This covenant was established as a result of the in-breaking rule of God through the exodus and conquest and resulted in a defined relationship of laws and statutes. The relationship was vertical and horizontal: with Yahweh in sacrifice and temple worship; and between the families and tribes in community. The prophets never divided their message between "spiritual" things like false worship versus true worship and "social" things like the lot of the poor and abusive wealth. If Israel was in a bad state it was always because these things worked together. The king who led Israel to worship foreign gods was the same king who abused his powers.

The Old Testament context of social justice and kingdom expectation is so important that a few paragraphs from a standard work on Old Testament introduction are included here to set the context. I have highlighted the recurring themes of true versus false worship and issues of social justice or socio-political factors. Notice how often the author mentions that the prophets related the covenant relationship to the contemporary social or political situation.

When Baasha died (886/85 B.C.), his son Elah reigned for two years, and then was assassinated in Tirzah by Zimri (1 Kings 16:9ff.), an ambitious charioteer commander, who then assumed the rule. Omri, the general of the army under Elah, was engaged in a campaign against the Philistines when Elah was slain, and on hearing the tidings he returned immediately to Tirzah. After the rule of only seven days, Zimri committed suicide, and the crisis that was precipitated led to a period of civil war. Four years later (880 B.C.), Omri gained control of the situation and established a new dynasty (1 Kings 16:23), the Bit-Humri (House of Omri) of Assyrian cuneiform records.

He moved the capital of Israel to the hill of Samaria, which had been unoccupied until this time, and built strong fortifications around it. He endeavored to offset the Syrian control of commerce by establishing and arranged a marriage between Ahab, his son and successor, and Jezebel, daughter of the king of Tyre….

Although Omri developed Samaria as a commercial center, the domestic and foreign policies of Omri were continued by his son Ahab (874-853 B.C.), who endeavored to strengthen his kingdom against ultimate Syrian invasion. …

His diplomatic links with Tyre brought the worship of Melkart, the Tyrian Baal, into vogue in Israel, and for this apostasy he was sternly rebuked by the prophet Elijah, who foretold a punitive drought and famine.

After nearly four years of this privation, Elijah demonstrated in a dramatic encounter with the priests of this orgiastic Baal cult the moral and spiritual superiority of the God of Israel (1 Kings 18), and as a result of the slaughter of the Baal priests he brought upon himself the fury of Jezebel. The state of the national economy was reflected in the corruption and enabled Ahab to obtain the vineyard of Naboth (1 Kings 21), an injustice that sealed the doom of Ahab and Jezebel. The prophet Elijah followed the example of Samuel in endeavoring to relate the will of God to the contemporary political and social situation. These two men were the early representatives of a prophetic tradition that was unique in the annals of ancient Near Eastern life.

Frequently the Hebrew prophets were commissioned by God from the ranks of the people, as with Elisha and Amos, to warn the nation of the punishments that would follow upon persistent wickedness. They were resolute in emphasizing the holiness of God, and their criticisms of contemporary morality were undertaken in an attempt to point the way towards a sound religious life for the nation.

The earliest prophets, Samuel, Elijah, and Elisha, conveyed their message by means of oral utterances, which were probably recorded fairly soon after the events themselves had occurred. But in the century following the death of Elisha, an important development in Hebrew prophetism took place with the rise of the literary prophets, represented by Amos, Hosea, Micah, Isaiah, and their successors.…

The great writing prophets preserved the traditional monotheistic faith of the ancient Hebrews in times when the obligations of the covenant were either ignored or forgotten completely. They emphasized afresh the major themes of the Mosaic law and related them to the contemporary scene. Their intense patriotism never clouded their vision of the Divine purpose for the Chosen People, and although they could grieve for the doom that would inevitably overtake their land and nation, they were never in doubt as to the ultimate triumph of good over evil.

If the return of Yahweh and the restoration from exile was to heal a nation with such problems it would therefore need to restore the vertical relationship, namely pure worship, divine forgiveness and healing (hence Isaiah's language of signs and wonders) and the social fabric of the nation (hence Isaiah's language of justice for the poor). The coming of the rule of God in power, manifest in Jesus, therefore necessarily involved both dimensions. Dualism was impossible.

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