Last week, I asked the question of centeredness. You can’t be a Christian for any length of time and not hear someone talking about themselves or their church as being Christ-centered, Bible-centered, outreach-centered, Gospel-centered, and on and on. After a while, it gets confusing to people. I think this clash of centers also explains much about the condition of the Church today and why we can’t seem to see eye to eye on a lot of issues. Two people with two different centers of operation and experience are simply never going to be on the same page. In essence, they are operating out of two different worldviews.
All that may not be a bad thing, as variety is indeed the spice of life. But as any master chef will tell you, it’s one thing to understand how to mix spices tastefully and quite another to just throw anything into the pot. Our tendency to do the latter is one reason why lost people sample the stew that is American Christianity and wince.
What follows in this post is my opinion. Over the years, I’ve been everywhere on the map on this issue of center. And in each center I explored in the past, I found some glaring problems. Many of those problems stem from simple human nature and our tendency to latch onto one idea and run it into the ground. The idea itself is perfectly sound—under perfect conditions. But the last time I checked, the world wasn’t perfected just yet.
Rather than start with reasons why I think some of the other centers are problematic, I’m just going to come right out and say which center is the only one I think fully reflects what God desires for us. (Feel free to disagree!)
About the Gospel preached by the apostles and early Church:
And [Paul] entered the synagogue and for three months spoke boldly, reasoning and persuading them about the kingdom of God.
But when they believed Philip as he preached good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptized, both men and women.
In the four Gospels, Jesus references this center nearly 120 times. In fact, one would be hard pressed to find a subject He spoke about more often:
But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.
These twelve Jesus sent out, instructing them, “Go nowhere among the Gentiles and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. And proclaim as you go, saying, ‘The kingdom of heaven is at hand.’ Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, cast out demons. You received without paying; give without pay….”
But when Jesus saw it, he was indignant and said to them, “Let the children come to me; do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God. Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.”
But [Jesus] said to them, “I must preach the good news of the kingdom of God to the other towns as well; for I was sent for this purpose.”
To another [Jesus] said, “Follow me.” But he said, “Lord, let me first go and bury my father.” And Jesus said to him, “Leave the dead to bury their own dead. But as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” Yet another said, “I will follow you, Lord, but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” Jesus said to him, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”
And [Jesus] said to them, “When you pray, say: “Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come….”
“Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom….”
Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.
And even when Jesus was not doing the speaking, this is how His emphasis was portrayed:
And [Jesus] went throughout all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction among the people.
And why was the Kingdom so important to Jesus? Because it encompasses all that is seen and unseen. With a Kingdom center, nothing is ignored. It is a truth that maintains a fully systemic expression, not one centered in just one area. As such, it proves more immune to the problems of extremism that may back into a corner other views based on other, more limiting, centers.
A kingdom has a king, lands, work, and people. Those people work the land for the king and offer themselves to him as his subjects. They also interact with each other, sharing a collective purpose found within the kingdom. When a king is a good king, he is loved, honored, and obeyed, and his kingdom grows. And as the kingdom grows, the king’s subjects benefit, and he rewards those who faithfully serve him.
In a Kingdom-centered Christianity, the Triune God is honored as King, with those who have given their allegiance to Him comprising His Kingdom people. They do the work God has called them to do in the lands that the He has provided, and they proclaim the truths of the Kingdom and the King in those lands. In the Kingdom of God, He rewards those who serve Him ably, because He loves them and is pleased by their service to Him.
The Kingdom center is the only center that permits the full truth of the following passage without falling into extremes that miss the greater picture:
And behold, a lawyer stood up to put him to the test, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the Law? How do you read it?” And he answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have answered correctly; do this, and you will live.”
The lawyer correctly sums up the Bible, and Jesus Himself verifies his answer: love God and love your neighbor. The problem with many of the other centers is that their practice tends to diminish one or the other portion of that summation.
Take for example a commonly expressed center. When people talk about being Christ-centered, one has to ask what that center looks like if taken to its natural conclusion in an imperfect world. If history has shown us anything, it’s that the answer can only be monasticism.
Few people more devotedly pursued the Christ-centered life than the monastic mystics. Theirs was the sold-out expression of Christ-centeredness, verging on a mysticism few of us understand today and rarely see in America 2009.
But such a center, as practiced by these people utterly devoted to making Christ the center of everything in their existence, didn’t leave much room for loving one’s neighbor. Because, honestly, it’s hard to be that specifically devoted without losing something in practice. Especially when you’ve locked yourself away in a monastery so no one will bother your centering.
Many people who say they are Christ-centered really aren’t. And that’s not to say they are not devoted to Christ, only that their praxis never truly lines up with their devotion. If it did, I believe it would end up moving toward the monastic mystic lifestyle, where loving Christ is everything, while loving people by truly serving them in a Kingdom manner eventually winds up forgotten.
Most of the centers readers listed last week are beautiful and needed. Yet I would contend that they may be too sharply focused, more focused than what even Christ Himself preached.
By being Kingdom-centered, we are forced to look more broadly at what defines the Christian life. While that may be messier than some people are used to confronting, I believe the Kingdom center is the only center that holds in real life. It doesn’t allow us to choose a monastic existence or the social gospel. We can’t latch onto parts we like while ignoring those we don’t. Instead, being Kingdom-centered asks us to embrace a larger vision that is greater than the sum of its parts.
And that’s an enormous problem because so few Christians, Christian leaders, and churches in America comprehend the Kingdom. Despite the fact that Jesus spoke about it more than just about anything else, I can’t remember the last sermon I heard about the Kingdom of God.
We tend to shy away from the Kingdom because it’s so vast. It’s God, Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit, Heaven, Earth, angels, demons, you, me, us, them, grace, mercy, wealth, poverty, healings, miracles, prophecy, tongues, deliverance, peace, war, love, hate—it just goes on and on. It’s all wrapped up in one very big package that is hard for an adult to grasp (though the Scriptures claim that even children understand it).
Despite its enormity, we can’t excuse ourselves from the scope of a Kingdom center, because the Kingdom stretches all through history and into eternity.
When I look at the ending of the Scriptures, I see that God’s original intent for His creation is the same at its end as it was at its beginning. The difference is that evil has been utterly destroyed. The kind of Kingdom God created for Man in the beginning is, for the most part, the same kind of Kingdom we will see in eternity. The roles and relationships of God to Man, Man to God, and Man to Man are spiritually the same. There are kingdoms and sub-kingdoms. Work will exist, even in eternity, only it will no longer be under the curse. The Kingdom will persist.
All this is why I can’t see any better center than a Kingdom one. If that’s what Jesus focused on, then how can I focus on anything else?