Today I am thrilled to share Scot McKnight's responses to YOUR questions as part of our ongoing, reader-generated interview series. There are few modern-day biblical scholars who have influenced me more than Scot McKnight. His Jesus Creed blog was one of the first I followed religiously, and books like The Blue Parakeet, The King Jesus Gospel, and A Community Called Atonement remain among some of my most recommended. A professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, Illinois, Scot is a world-renowned scholar, writer, and speaker. He is the author or editor of fifty books and he writes and curates of one of the most popular evangelical blogs on the Internet. Scot’s newest book, Kingdom Conspiracy: Returning to the Radical Mission of the Local Church is already making waves, generating quite a bit of conversation online and among evangelical leaders and thinkers. Scot's responses are thorough and gracious. I hope you enjoy the conversation as much as I did.
From RHE: Scot, you're one of those writers/theologians/biblical scholars that keeps me in the evangelical conversation. Every time I think to myself, "That's it! I'm through with evangelicalism for good!" another interior voice says, "Well, Scot McKnight's an evangelical. If it works for him, maybe it can still work for you." So my question is: What would you say to young evangelicals disenchanted with the label because of all the political and social baggage that comes along with it? What does it mean to be an evangelical, and why might it still be worth identifying as such?
Rachel, I’m honored for you to say that about helping you see the breadth of evangelicalism.
Let’s agree that evangelicalism is almost uncontainable in a definition. But we can give a ballpark generic-package, lump-into-one-ball idea: evangelicalism affirms the necessity of personal faith in Jesus as Lord and Savior; it affirms the primacy of Scripture in forming beliefs and convictions; it affirms the centrality of Jesus’ life, death, burial, resurrection and rule.
Yet evangelicalism transcends its core beliefs and has a history of its people and that means there’s some sociology or social description in this term so that it refers to America’s Calvinist and revivalist and holiness and Anabaptist impulses. Some are very evangelical and some are barely.
I love that diversity and that breadth; there’s lots of room on evangelicalism’s village green. There’s so much to be proud of, too: So many people have been transformed by the gospel, so many moms and dads have become better parents and so many kids better kids and siblings; there are so many institutions formed – hospitals, schools, missionary organizations, NGOs, etc – and I’m proud to say this is my family. I’m proud too of how evangelicalism is shedding its anti-intellectual heritage and we are seeing scholar after scholar arising in so many fields, not just Bible or theology.
But we are all short-sighted so we remember what has happened most recently. How so? evangelicalism is now seen by many as Jerry Falwell and James Dobson and GOP orientations and that means political baggage is strewn around the platform. I’ll leave the progressive evangelical voice to the side, but it too has politicized the faith at times.
So I’ll tell you how I cope: I’m sometimes embarrassed by the in-bedded-ness of many evangelicals with Republican and Democrat politics. I’m embarrassed much more by its choice to aggrandize itself through the machinations of power and power-mongering and politicking and wooing and buying of voice and authority. I’m embarrassed that evangelicalism sought the way of culture war rather than the way of a cruciform-shaped life embodied in churches.
I cope by saying “I’ve got some crazy uncles and come crazy nephews and some crazy aunts and some crazy nieces.” I cope by reminding myself that I’m not all that good myself and that some see me as one of those crazy uncles or nephews. I cope by knowing that we all need the cross and routine celebration of eucharist by confession. I cope by saying we are broken and the brokenness will not end until kingdom finally comes. I cope by reminding myself that every group or denomination or affiliation has problems. No group has got it all right.
And I would urge this: For some reason, many who grew up in evangelicalism want to say they are evangelical when they are not. I don’t understand this. I know some folks who say they are evangelical and they are not remotely close but seem unwilling or afraid to confess aloud that they are no longer evangelical. There is more to Christianity than evangelicalism.
From Liz: I realize you are a parent and a grandparent. As I sort through my (primarily painful) experiences in evangelical settings, I feel very protective of my two young daughters. For the most part, we have avoided church, and on the rare occasions we attend, I don't allow them to go to the children's program because I don't want them to hear the same violent messages about God-ordained genocide and worldwide flooding that were so cheerfully recited to me as a child. As a parent and grandparent, how do you navigate evangelicalism and sort through the positive and negative ways it might impact your loved ones?
Our Bible tells those stories and I want my grandchildren to hear those stories. I don’t want to shield them from those stories. Those stories are part of our story if we are Christians who believe the Bible.
But I want them to learn that the sacking of cities in violence and the flooding of the earth leading to death is preliminary to the end of violence and the undoing of violence and the reversal of violence in the cross and resurrection of Jesus.
Liz, I don’t want to purge the Bible of anything. I don’t want to snip out any lines or verses. I don’t want to pull out my favorites and teach only those. I want the Bible’s whole story because that whole story, ironically, makes sense only by including each of those voices – the same voices that are alive and well in our churches today. I once made my case for this by saying it is the “blue parakeet” passages that lead us to think deeper about how the Bible works as a story leading to Jesus.
From Adam: Scot, you and a bunch of others I am aware of are moving toward Anglican ordination or at least membership. Do you think this is a broader movement or does it just happen to be a number of people on my radar? What do you think is drawing you and others toward Anglicanism?
Adam, good question, and sociologists will almost certainly tell us this number is marginal and not anything like a major shift. So it’s probably folks you are in contact with.
Now that question about drawing is interesting. I once did some research on why some evangelicals shift into Catholicism and I found that the emphasis on history and liturgy was one element. But this is what I hear when I listen to my fellow Anglicans: Many have tired of the constant upbeat drum beat of what’s new and what’s the next big thing and what we have just learned. Some have been wounded by church life as they know it among “low” church folks and perhaps most wonder if Sunday morning is mostly about a 45 minute sermon.
Many have learned that a lectionary-based and liturgy-shaped church service has amplitude, that a shorter sermon can get the job done, and that everything finally leading all of us to the cross and eucharist is the noblest way to complete our Sunday worship together.
But let me say this as most important: “church” is not simply about coming to a church service on Sunday morning. Church is a fellowship of believers who love one another, know one another, worship with one another, eat with one another, enjoy one another, struggle with one another, grow with one another, and … much more than even that. Fellowship, Adam, when done well will lead us to see our local church as the one for us, regardless of its denominational connection.
From RHE: In Kingdom Conspiracy, you argue that “kingdom” is the biblical term most misused by Christians today and you suggest that the term cannot be correctly applied outside the context of the local church. You begin the book by contrasting “skinny jeans kingdom people” with “pleated pants kingdom people.” Tell us what you mean by that?
Rachel, I have been listening for 20-plus years to how the term “kingdom” is being used by Christians. My book is a response to popular usage, not to the nuances among scholars.
I grew up in a kind of Christianity that did not use this term except perhaps for the millennium or for heaven itself. So kingdom for us was future. Then I read the Synoptic Gospels and then George Ladd and became convinced we need to develop a “kingdom” theology. I’d like to say my generation of evangelicals brought this term into the church with some enthusiasm, but I have been growing more and more concerned about two things:
- The misuse of the term (I mean “unbiblical” uses of) kingdom, and
- The diminishment of church by preferring kingdom.
So I have said a few things here and there in books but kept thinking people weren’t really hearing what I was saying. So I wrote a whole book about it, Kingdom Conspiracy.
So here it goes: In contemporary usage I hear “kingdom” used for two primary dimensions--for public sector social justice activism (I call this “skinny jeans” because a pastor told me a story about his social justice associates who wore skinny jeans) and for seeing kingdom as God’s redemptive power unleashed wherever that power is unleashed (again, I call this pleated pants kingdom because of the same story). It’s a fun image I play with.
I see both ideas – justice and redemptive power unleashed – as vital to any good biblical theology of kingdom but they both reduce kingdom. And they reduce kingdom at the expense of the church. Not all but the trends have been set.
Now I make these points about social justice kingdom and redemptive power kingdom only because of where I stand on what the Bible says about “kingdom.” The term has five elements: a king, a rule of a king, a people the king rules, a law by which the king reveals how to live as one of his people, and a land in which the king rules.
The first group tends to take the law, see justice as its core expression, apply it in the public sector (social justice), and then see that as kingdom work. But this erases Israel and the church as the people of Jesus’ kingdom and makes America the place of Jesus’ rule. And often enough it erases redemption too. Yes, this means at times progressives and at times conservatives are equating kingdom with America. (Let’s sit on that one for a while and think about it.)
The second group reduces kingdom to redemptive power and therefore it becomes a spirituality or personal salvation or healing or a charismatic moment or a social act that breaks through with God’s will or a cultural good that evokes God’s will now done on earth – and like the former view – out goes Israel and the church and we lose the dynamic of the kingdom.
If I can get one idea on the chalkboard it is this: a kingdom is a people ruled by a king. Those three elements, the core of the above five elements, all need to be present if we going to do kingdom work.
From Jonathan: How do I, as a committed member of a local church, get past my disappointment with the staff, past the hurts and harms this church has inflicted upon me, past my disappointment with the programs we offer and the missions we undertake and the focus of our service, and still be a productive member that helps the church fulfill its' ministry in our community? How best do I serve here?
Jonathan, I’m going to circle back and say I’ve touched on this already. First, we need to embrace Bonhoeffer’s quintessential observations in the early part of Life Together: we need to cease with our idealism about the church and embrace the reality of the church. It’s made of sinners like us who struggle to get their way and who resist what God wants and we are all in this struggle against God and one another and only when we surrender to the reality of the church do we embrace the church. It is a Christ-based and Spirit-formed reality designed for sinners to be welcomed in the presence of God.
But I know some have suffered sadly under corrupted toxic leaders; some have been abused in spiritual and emotional and physical and sexual and psychological ways. For these, the leaders and churches are culpable and stand guilty before God for their failures.
We are called to forgive and to embrace. Sometimes we are not capable of forgiving and we pray for God to give us more grace. Sometimes we are prepared to reconcile but the perpetrators refuse the light of truth; sometimes they are false leaders; sometimes they are toxic.
This means we sometimes have to abandon that local fellowship to find more grace. But we should abandon that fellowship only in the hope of reconciliation some day… I like to say the “first hour in heaven” will make all things right. Could be a tough opening hour in heaven for many.
So my prayer for you is that you will show a better way to the leaders, the way of grace and forgiveness and embrace and hope and transformation in the light.
From Ella: My Pastoral Theology professor brought to the table a statistic that only 2% of senior pastors in Pentecostal churches are women, even though the tradition has long allowed women to serve in high positions of ministry. 51% of the graduates from the local Bible college are women. Why do you think this 2% statistic is as low as it is?
I don’t know if your numbers are accurate, but let’s just say the numbers of women grads and women available are out of whack with numbers in leadership. Of that we can be certain.
Male authority establishing a culture.
Male authority sometimes justifying male authority by appeal to Scripture.
(I add: Yes, we at least need to admit that some of our brothers and sisters genuinely disagree with us on how to read the Bible about women and church ministries.)
Male authority that does not stand up for women, teach about women, tell stories of women in the church.
Male authority that does not intentionally seek change and cultural transformation and space for women who are called by God to preach and teach and lead.
Males and females who have, sometimes impatiently, turned this into a fight, into a culture war, instead of the grace of conversation over time as we each listen to God’s Word as the way forward.
From Rick: Why can't the Cubs win?
Wait til next year, and you will rise up and call me blessed.