The Kingdom of God is the central proclamation of the good news of Jesus Christ, and it stands in contrast with the fallen ways of darkness, sin, and oppression in the world’s empires. The Kingdom of God is more than a worldview, because it is a ontology (way of being), not just an epistemology (way of knowing). It is transformative. There’s a lot to it; it’s not just one shallow idea to add to a bunch of other, pre-existing ideas we have imbibed from the world around us. In fact, it is a theology – a rich, deep, theology that challenges what can be called mainstream theology in many ways and encourages us to return to the words and example of Jesus over and over again. It is also far more than theology as a field; it encompasses very real ways we engage with politics, sociology, culture, economics, and more.
The “Kingdom of God” is admittedly a very general term that has been adopted by Crusaders, nationalists, and dominionists like the “Kingdom now!” folks. Of course, we draw from the Anabaptist definition of the Kingdom, one that is not “sectarian” or denominational but that is in fact shared and professed by many faithful Christians throughout the ages. Anabaptists never came from a vacuum or existed in a vacuum – Erasmus and Karlstadt during the Reformation era and Dietrich Bonhoeffer in more recent times were highly influential in shaping Anabaptist writings. The Church Fathers and early church history have much to contribute, showing us that ethics, the pursuit of justice for the suffering, and a witness of peace are central to practical Christian living. Petr Chelchicky and Gottfried Arnold from the Bohemian Reformation and the Pietist movement respectively expressed very similar views in their time as do modern theologians/authors like Jacques Ellul, Stanley Hauerwas, N. T. Wright, and Michael Gorman.
“Anabaptists have no theology!” is a common attitude, even among Anabaptists (!). The idea is, if you want to get into “real” theology, you have to look up systematic theology or some formal system. The problem with theology as a field, however, is that it is dominated by a man-made system that has arisen from circumstances, contexts, and cultures with a very much Constantinian inflection, that is, from a context where the intermingling of the church and the sword of state power was not only a widely accepted, “given”, but expressly articulated as doctrine. To borrow a phrase from Walter Mignolo, a secular scholar of coloniality, traditional Protestant theology is very much a “master framework dressed in universal clothes.”
Imagine if there was a baker who made really, really good peach crumble pie. This pie became known throughout all the land. Everyone started copying the recipe. Soon, the word “pie” came to mean this baker’s peach pie recipe. In a couple of years, nothing else counted as pie, especially if it didn’t have the same cinnamon crumble topping, flaky base, caramel and pecan peach filling.
What we have in the field of theology is that one particular type of peach crumble pie has become the ultimate standard against which all other pies are measured. The less you resemble this pie, the less your pie is a real pie. In short, this is what has happened with theology as a popular and as an academic field.
Anabaptist theology (we shall read in Friedmann’s “The theology of Anabaptism“) didn’t follow the same traditional categories like soteriology (salvation) and eschatology (the future and end times). That does not mean that Anabaptists did not have any beliefs or teachings on those subjects, but that they expressed them in very different ways, sometimes using completely different words. They also emphasized and centered very different concepts like nonviolence/nonresistance (“gewaltlosigkeit“), something that mainstream systematic theology dismisses as peripheral to important doctrines like justification by faith.
If you were to measure an emphasis on the teachings of Jesus (i.e. Sermon on the Mount) and on discipleship up to the “sola fide” principle (justification by faith alone), you will find that they seem to come into conflict. I have come across the accusation that “Anabaptists don’t believe in justification by faith!” and therefore, “They are legalistic!”. You will also hear contentions like, “The Sermon on the Mount was primarily written to unbelievers and exists to convict people of sin”. The concept of obedience is anathema because anything that doesn’t fit in with the master framework, that doesn’t resemble the peach crumble pie, is not proper theology.
The contention is, in fact, that Anabaptists don’t follow the same unifying principles as their central logic and therefore are not “real” Christians who believe in the “real” salvation. By that standard, the early church wouldn’t be truly enlightened Christians either, because while they had the same Bible as we do, they didn’t organize their entire belief system and theology around the five solaes, T.U.L.I.P., or the Chicago Statement. They didn’t use the term Biblical Inerrancy and they weren’t fundamentalists.
“Only he who believes is obedient, and only he who is obedient believes.'”Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Cost of Discipleship
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in “The Cost of Discipleship”, writes from the perspective of a Lutheran. He bemoans contemporary understandings of faith “alone” that diminish obedience, discipleship, and Jesus’s teachings. He affirms and yet reframes Protestant theology, arguing that, even if you believe from a Scriptural perspective that we are saved by faith alone, that faith and obedience go hand in hand. Bonhoeffer argues that by making faith central as the only crucial element and pushing obedience to the status of an important-but-not-crucial afterthought (to avoid the accusation of salvation-by-works), many Protestants had commodified and devalued true, costly, grace. This had many devastating consequences in church life and on the world stage.
“Not a salvation issue!” and “Not important to the gospel!” have become concerning labels. Some have reduced salvation down to what needs to be done at the initial point of new birth, the gospel to the initial change of status from unsaved to saved. The Kingdom of God in its full reality is forgotten. Maybe it’s time we drew back the shades, let the light of the gospel stream in, and began to explore what this all means.
The point is not to make one particular theological “frame” or one tradition and its story the central and defining litmus test of “real” Christianity. We’re not trying to unseat one totalizing, man-made framework and replace it with another. But at the core of what it means to be a Christian is to be a disciple of Jesus – to center Jesus, to follow Jesus, to imitate Jesus, to become more like Jesus. If discipleship isn’t our primary focus… then what is? What else should be?
Theology can seem overly theoretical. It may feel irrelevant to the everyday life of a Christian. But, perhaps, that is the “peace crumble pie” definition of theology, the abstract version. Discipleship, on the other hand, means something to each and every one of us. In fact, if theology is the knowledge of God, then the central idea should be that “none may truly know [God] unless he follow
after Him with his life” (Hans Denck, early Anabaptist).
When we first envisioned the Kingdom Outpost, one of our primary goals was to simply have conversations and dialogue on subjects like nonviolence, Kingdom ethics, and political theology. These conversations are indeed happening, but mainly among scholars of theology and religion, published in academic books rather than books for general audiences, research articles rather than blog and social posts.
To bridge this gap, we will be starting a new series on the Kingdom Outpost, exploring a range of freely available academic articles and providing comments and study questions. Feel free to comment, provide feedback, and engage with the texts and questions!
Think of this series like an online course you can engage with at any time, in the format of an college seminar.
This Week’s Reading
The first article we will be looking is from the publicly available journal, Anabaptism Today. It was written by Dr. Toivo Pilli, who has researched not only Anabaptist and Baptist studies, but also Christianity under Soviet and Communist rule.
Main Question: What does it mean to center discipleship (the following of Jesus) as the central tenet of theology and practice?
- On a personal level, what does it mean to be a disciple of Jesus? What has discipleship meant in your life/story/journey?
- How are new birth/baptism and discipleship/following Jesus connected? How have they been connected in your life?
- What is a healthy and fruitful relationship between faith and obedience? Does the word “obedience” have positive or negative meaning to you? Why? How do we have a healthy approach to obedience as part of the Christian life, avoiding condemnation, fear, and perfectionism?
- How are we discipled in the context of the church community and brotherhood? What have been some of your experiences of growth and learning in relationship with fellow disciples?
- What does discipleship mean on a “public” front, regarding our interactions with others in society?
- The early Anabaptists viewed baptism as public profession and as membership in brotherhood, extending beyond merely an expression of inner faith and regeneration. What are healthy ways in which we can view faith as lived out in community? What are some unhealthy and destructive attitudes and dynamics to be avoided? How can we guard against condemnation, bullying, and other unloving dynamics that threaten our witness of love?
- The early Anabaptists wrote about suffering from a place of marginalization, impoverishment, and persecution. How do we approach the topic of suffering today, particularly as Christians situated in the West, while avoiding a persecution complex and blindness to the suffering of others? If we play a role in the suffering of others, how should we as disciples of Jesus respond? Where is Jesus located in our communities today, in His identification with the least and the lowest?