Close, But No Cigar – A Brief Review of Ed Stetzer’s Subversive Kingdom
Ed Stetzer’s Subversive Kingdom is the best book I have read about church and mission from within a Soterian Gospel perspective. He says many good and important things. He unmasks typical evangelical shibboleths about things like growth, size, and being church-centric. I love his use of the imagery that the church is in “rebellion against the rebellion” and to be a “subversive” presence in our society. I think this is right on and I have used it in my own description of the church as “God’s Subversive Counter-Revolutionary movement.” Stetzer’s sense of the scope of subversion required of the church in North America goes farther and is more genuinely incarnational than any other evangelical treatment of the same I am aware of. He demolishes the idea that we are saved and simply pass time till we take our place in heaven (he calls this “the missing middle) and makes deft use of the New Testament’s “already/not yet” dynamic to demonstrate that a full-orbed participation in the mission of God in the world intrinsic to Christian discipleship. Stetzer stresses the importance, even necessity, of the church’s communal as well as individual mission. Sage suggestions for fleshing all this out are abundant in the last section of the book.
However, two things keep it from being a genuinely missional treatment of the kingdom. The first is that Stetzer’s gospel is soterian (Scot McKnight’s term), that is, focused on God’s saving us from sin and hell.
“The gospel is the good news that God, who is more holy than we can imagine, looked with compassion upon people who are more sinful than we would possibly admit, and sent Jesus into history to establish his kingdom and reconcile people and the world to himself. Jesus, whose love is more extravagant than we can measure, came to sacrificially die for us so that by his death and resurrection, we might gain through his grace what the Bible defines as new and eternal life.” (128)
A “King Jesus Gospel” (McKnight again), on the other hand, which undergirds a missional understanding of kingdom, church, and mission, is rather different. This gospel, the biblical gospel, is the announcement of all that God has done in and through Jesus Christ to reclaim and restore his creatures to their primal dignity and vocation as God’s image-bearers, royal representatives in creation, and overseers of its well-being and participant’s in his eternal purpose to have a community of creatures with whom he will live on his new creation forever.
The Soterian Gospel is centered on the “reclaim” part of this latter definition and makes it the whole of the story. The King Jesus Gospel asserts that God was up to bigger things in creation and that Jesus’ incarnation was about more than simply coming to die for our sins. Rather, his coming is part and parcel of God’s eternal purpose to be with us and thus, in saving us from sin, also restores us to this divine purpose which he has fulfilled and enables us to share in.
This leads us to my second concern. While Stetzer rightly critiques the default view of most in the evangelical world that the church is primarily a “vendor of religious goods and services” for their (potential) “customers.” Nevertheless, throughout the book he never questions the changes necessary in the structure and ethos of the church that alone can enable the many practices he so helpfully encourages us to undertake.
In other words, in my judgment, “we can’t get there (to where Stetzer wants us to go) from here (where we presently are as “church”). A missional church requires a rethink of all we have thought about and done as church as we have known it. Stetzer never undertakes or acknowledges this task. He leaves us then in the position of knowing better what we need to be about as church (God’s Subversive Kingdom), but without a church capable of acting on that new knowledge.
Stetzer’s book should be widely read. There is insight all readers can benefit from in it. As I said earlier, it is the best book I have read on church and mission from within a Soterian Gospel outlook. However, the flaws of that version of the gospel and the lack of the radical rethink of church required renders Subversive Kingdom finally unable to achieve its laudable goals. Like I said, close, but no cigar!