In one of the presentations at the Premier Digital Media Awards I attended last month, the speaker used a phrase about his project which has stayed with me. A group of coders spent a weekend trying to design computer and phone apps that could be used ‘for the kingdom and the common good.’ I was familiar with each of the terms (of course) but I don’t think I had ever heard them put together in this way before, and they struck me as a potent combination for thinking about ministry and discipleship.
The language of the kingdom ultimately has its roots in the sovereignty of God, and the dominion that he exercises over creation and which he delegates to humanity made ‘male and female’ in his image (Gen 1.27). But, because of human sin and failing, it quickly becomes a term associated with the distinctiveness of God’s people and God’s ordering of them in contrast to the peoples around them. Where other nations have kings over them, Israel needs no king because God is their king. But even when they ask for a king, this figure becomes symbolic of God’s distinctive rule, and ultimately becomes an anticipation of the perfect peace and justice that will come about when God himself visits his people, perhaps by means of an anointed ruler.
It shouldn’t be a surprise, then, that the language of the kingdom of God marks Jesus proclamation of his good news (Mark 1.15). Yet here the sense of contrast has been sharpened. Because God’s rule is perfect, and humanity is far from perfect, participation in this kingdom can only be attained by a process of change, or ‘turning’ or ‘repentance’—thinking again about how life can and should and will be lived. Jesus’ kingdom ministry in the synoptic gospels is marked by a clarity, power and authenticity in sharp contrast to the dullness and conformity of the scribes and Pharisees. It has a radical sense of inclusion about it, but one which involves change and transformation, so that sinners are ‘called to repentance’ (Luke 5.32). It also contrasts with the oppressive rule of Rome—though not quite in a way which sets this kingdom over against empire in a direct way.
In John, these contrasts are not so much spiritualised as made cosmic. Jesus’ kingdom is contrasted with the ‘ruler of this world’ (John 12.13, 14.30) who is overthrown by the triumphant sacrifice of Jesus laying down his life on the cross, in his death pouring out the water of life (John 19.34). And this cosmic contrast is continued in Paul. Although the language of the kingdom is not the controlling metaphor for Paul, it forms part of the clear binary of those who are ‘in Christ’ and those who are not, those who are no longer ‘what you once were’ (1 Cor 6.11). The old creation, dead in sin (Eph 2.1), under the control of ‘the flesh’, has now been raised to new life (Rom 6.4), is part of the new creation (2 Cor 5.17), walking by the Spirit (Gal 5.22) in anticipation of the transformation of the whole cosmos (Rom 8.19).
The language of ‘the common good’ has a quite different feel to it. It belongs to Catholic social teaching, originally developed by Aquinas in his Aristotelian re-reading of Augustine. (It also has a philosophical sense, connected with utilitarianism, but I am not sure that has shaped Christian use of the term.) But it, too, is rooted in a theological theme within the biblical narrative.
Alongside the focus on the distinctiveness of God’s rule over his people is a contrasting focus on God’s rule over all people. Some of the psalms have a surprising sense of God’s universal sovereignty; the ‘whole earth is the Lord’s and everything in it’ (Ps 24.1) and it means he can even make use of a foreign, pagan ruler like Cyrus to deliver his people (Is 45.1). We therefore find some OT texts, like Nehemiah, which focus on the distinctiveness and purity, and others, like Ruth, which focus on the inclusion of those from other tribes, peoples, nations and languages. Some focus on the uniqueness of God’s revelation of himself to his people, for example in the Ten Words (‘commandments’, Ex 20), whilst others focus on the universal availability of wisdom to all cultures, as we find in Proverbs.
Curiously, this contrasting theme also finds a place in the wisdom teaching of Jesus. In the Sermon on the Mount, which does focus on the kingdom of God and its priority, we also find an emphasis on the universality of God’s goodness poured out on all—he makes the sun to shine on the wicked as well as the good (Matt 5.45)—and this is to be the paradigm for our own ethic. We should treat all, good and bad, friend and foe, with equal charity since God does. This ethic appears to have been taken seriously by Jesus’ first followers too. Paul is concerned that we should be ‘at peace with all—as far as it lies with you’ (Romans 12.18). And Luke is at pains to remind us that, alongside persecution, the early ekklesia enjoyed the favour of all people (Acts 2.47). When he tells us that goods were distributed to all ‘as they had need’, he does not qualify that to limit it to believers only. The grace of God poured out and overflowed the boundaries that marked this distinctive community.
So these two terms contain contrasting and complementary ideas. Kingdom language focusses on humanity as fallen and in need of repentance, whilst ‘common good’ language focusses on our shared humanity and creatureliness. Kingdom language highlights the distinctiveness of the people of God, whilst common good lowers the barriers between believer and unbeliever. Kingdom language looks to the eschatological future; common good looks at our creation origins. Kingdom language offers an invitation to transformation; common good language offers affirmation.
Traditionally (and probably stereotypically), the evangelical tradition has tended to focus on the kingdom, on sin, repentance, discipleship and coming judgement. By contrast, liberal theology has more focussed on commonality, shared humanity, engagement with culture, and our embeddedness in society. Both have their strengths, and both their weaknesses. Recently, there has been a growth in concern amongst evangelicals and charismatics to ‘bless our community’, but this has looked more like a PR overture to evangelism than part of a theological vision. Language of ‘the common good’ might just provide that.
The two terms, then, can form a theological health check for our corporate ministry and even our own personal patterns of living. How much of our (my) time and energy are we putting into questions of discipleship and maturity as followers of Jesus, and how much into simple human flourishing and healthy patterns of living and relating? How much attention are we (am I) giving to the Advent hope we have in Jesus, and how much attention to our own creatureliness? In relations with ‘outsiders‘, how often are we affirming them as created in the image of God, and how often are we calling them to the radical transformation of the good news in Jesus?
In each area we need to be doing both/and rather than either/or—and in fact I wonder if we can ever do one half of these effectively without doing the other half with equal enthusiasm.
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14 thoughts on “The kingdom and the common good”
Thanks Ian, that’s a really helpful precis of an issue I wrestled with in writing my dissertation on church schools as mission in muti-faith contexts. Wish you’d written it this time last year! I found Volf (Exclusion and Embrace; Public Faith) and James Hunter Davidson helpful in trying to frame an approach.
For me the issue is that secular liberalism is predicated on, amongst other things, conflict (different beliefs will produce conflict therefore we have to create rules for public behaviour and debate to minimise it); whereas the Kingdom is predicated on love of one’s neighbour and love of one’s enemies (we usually ignore the latter but I believe it is Jesus’ antidote to the problem secular liberalism seeks to address with its undefined and self-defeating concepts of tolerance, freedom and respect – which actuallly end up putting all other worldviews on a secular liberal Procrustean bed). Christians of all people should be able to offer a positive alternative vision and practice. That we don’t is to our shame. But don’t get me started on the legacy of Christendom!
Thanks Greg. I think that is the first time I have been accused of not writing *enough*…!!
Ian this is really helpful and helps me to explore my suspicions of Common Good ideas, especially when I come across people who are so inebraited with this perpective that they think it is just ‘right’. I had already noticed that such peopl tend to have little eschatology or collapse it into ideas of social or political progress. But I’m not sure the Common Good is a ‘liberal’ idea. As you say it is a creation/affirmation idea and as such fits closely with catholic ideas of the value of natural law and the ethical preference for the ‘naturalness’ of the divine command in personal, sexual and (in this case) social ethics. A good eschatology of course both challenges the current order and affirms creation (as Paul does in Romans 8 and the millenium idea does in Revelation 20). In this I think eschatology and the Common Good should be pointing (to some degree) in the same direction.
Thanks for commenting Mark!
Yes, I think that’s why most biblical theological outlooks find ‘natural theology’ approaches problematic, since they don’t take into account the other theme in Scripture of fall and the kingdom breaking in.
I think this does connect too with what Greg mentions about Christendom; if the Church as institution controls secular power, then there is little space either for considering the fallenness of the current order or the longing for eschatological restoration.
This chimes completely with my reading and writing of this week. Malcolm Brown’s book of this year, he confesses at the end, is not really about Anglican Social Theology but it opens up the possibility that the Common Good is a mission focus that all three traditional wings of Anglicanism might be able to agree on. It has the universal appeal based on creation for anglo-catholics, the liberal engagement with society and evangelicals might actually begin to mean they do want to help people, rather than just help them enough to have a relationship enough to tell them the gospel.
That’s interesting. But do you think Malcolm does enough to emphasise the kingdom and discipleship dimension within Anglicanism?
It is certainly there…
(And do you fancy writing a review of it for the blog…?)
Just as the Old Testament never resolved the tension between the particular and the universal (the God of Israel and the creator of the universe) so neither has the New Testament resolved the tension between the few and the many. What are blessings of discipleship when (as you point out) the rain falls on the just and the unjust. God is someone who cares for every sparrow and his infinite love is therefore presumably no less for every human. This unresolved tension will resurface anew for every generation.
Thanks Richard–but I am not sure in what sense the tension is ‘unresolved’ in either Testament?
The God who invites us into distinctive relationship with him is the one who will renew the whole creation—but that renewal is not forced upon those who won’t accept it…
Hi Ian, My first ever response to you, I learned from this posting. It spoke into an irritation generated by hearing people speak about ‘building God’s Kingdom’ and ‘leaving the world a better place for the next generation’. I hear this as a spiritually glossed version of the myth of progress. That myth has taken a few hits at various levels in the last 100 years but is still seems voiced in prayers I hear. I wonder if another link between Kingdom and the common good is the connection between personal transformation and social transformation. The transforming power of God’s Kingdom to be enjoyed by all flows from the transforming work within individual hearts. This implies a priority familiar to evangelicals among others and why so many common good plans flop. However while personal transformation through repent and believe does not always flower into ‘common good’, history would seem replete with examples of when it has, especially in Britain.
Thanks for commenting Francis—welcome to the blog!
Hi Ian – thank you for picking up on the language we use at Kingdom Code (I was the bloke you heard use the phrase at the Premier Conference). I thought it might be helpful to the discussion to explain why we use this language in our context.
We recently ran a hackathon for Christians in technology – an intense 48 hour design and coding sprint. This was part of a global initiative called Code for the Kingdom. The mandate was to build apps and technology that nurture or proclaim our faith (some built prayer apps, St Helen’s Bishopsgate came as a team and built a sermon app for AppleTV, in Indonesia a team built an app for the Amazon Echo device that reads the bible when given a verbal prompt) – we would call these ‘Kingdom’ apps. Others built apps to be used by the church to bless the wider world (a Tearfund team built an app to easily record by phone the impact of earthquakes on houses, and another team built an ‘AirBnb for regugees’) – we would call these ‘common good’ apps.
For us they come out of the same place – to know Jesus, to make him known and to demonstrate his love for all people. While I agree that some evangelicals can use ‘common good’ projects as a PR gloss on evangelism, ultimately each of these three elements are indivisible in authentic discipleship.
In case your readers are interested, there is a fun two min vid here of what the hackathon was like: https://youtu.be/7AjmaDsauVY and people can find out more about what we do at http://www.kingdomcode.uk.
Rupert, how fantastic that you picked this up—and what a wonderful and provocative phrase! Can you say anything more about its origins?
It’s just a phrase that came to mind in thinking about what it means to be encouraging Christians in technology. It seemed wrong to encourage our group simply to build ‘religious’ apps (while these are much needed and exciting things are being done in this area). We wanted to play our part and serve the wider world too – hence ‘Kingdom and the common good.’ And in an authentic and living theology, can you seperate them?
One more thing – Ian thank you for putting together that helpful theological overview – which we will share with the Kingdom Code members.