July 13, 2020

Fridays with Michael Spencer: September 23, 2016


Note from CM: Over the next season on Fridays, we will focus on some of what Michael wrote about the church and church-shaped vs. Jesus-shaped spirituality.

• • •

I am going to disagree in some fundamental ways with the following statement.

“My passion isn’t to build up my church. My passion is for God’s Kingdom.” Ever heard someone say that? I have. It sounds large-hearted, but it’s wrong. It can even be destructive.

Suppose I said, “My passion isn’t to build up my marriage. My passion is for Marriage. I want the institution of Marriage to be revered again. I’ll work for that. I’ll pray for that. I’ll sacrifice for that. But don’t expect me to hunker down in the humble daily realities of building a great marriage with my wife Jani. I’m aiming at something grander.”

If I said that, would you think, “Wow, Ray is so committed”? Or would you wonder if I had lost my mind?

If you care about the Kingdom, be the kind of person who can be counted on in your own church. Join your church, pray for your church, tithe to your church, participate in your church every Sunday with wholehearted passion.

We build great churches the same way we build great marriages — real commitment that makes a positive difference every day.

• Ray Ortlund

Someone is saying “You’re going to disagree with probably the most respected, spiritually passionate guy in the Christian blogosphere? You really are out in left field knocking down the fence.”

I am a big Ray Ortlund fan. I’m not on his level as a Christian or a minister, much less as a blogger. I’m not really here to disagree, but I want to respond to what is an important issue for me and many others in our pursuit of Jesus Shaped Spirituality.

1) A passion for a marriage is not at war with a passion for marriage. The two are related. A passion for the welfare of my family or the success of my vocation are derived from some larger, defining passion.

2) If my marriage should fail, would my faith in marriage vanish? If my children go astray, does my belief in the importance of parenting end? No. In both cases, I will find hope to move on, to encourage others, to garner wisdom and even to try again from love that is greater than even my love for my marriage or children.

3) If you care about the Kingdom, faithfully care for your church. I agree completely. But if your church ceases to preach the Gospel or compromises its purpose and mission for relevance and worldly success, what will be the larger framework that will allow you to know something is wrong? It will be a passion for Christ and his Kingdom, applied to a specific situation.

4) What concerns me is a tendency to sound like we are saying “the Kingdom (as far as you are concerned) = your local church and what it’s doing.” I do not believe this is the teaching of scripture, and I don’t believe sound local churches even leave this as an option. It is, to use Ortlund’s phrase, a destructive error.

5) I would go further. I don’t believe a Biblically sound church restricts service to the Kingdom to service/involvement in that particular local church. In my book, I’ll be calling this “church shaped spirituality,” and I’ll have quite a lot to say about it. Isn’t a church that is making disciples sending those disciples into the world? Isn’t the church the disciple-making, initiatory fellowship, but not the primary place where discipleship takes place?

6) Tithing to a local church, for example, is a practice that I can’t see being scripturally required in any new covenant sense. I was taught my entire life that God commanded me to tithe to my local church. Awareness of the larger needs of the Kingdom, of other ministries, of individuals and even of other causes supported by my church was always laundered through the “tithe to the local church” first rhetoric.

Shocker: I don’t trust many local churches to spend that much money in a kingdom-savvy way. Insurance. Utilities. Salaries. Facilities. With a percentage to “missions.” I can no longer believe that is how I, as a Christian, am to be a steward of my financial resources. My church should help me manage and spend that money by showing me many different ways I can make it count for the Kingdom and teaching me to be a Kingdom investor in all of life. They should teach me to see the world with Kingdom eyes and my resources through the priorities of Jesus, which include the local church but certainly isn’t restricted to it.

If an American church has 10,000 members, and they would all tithe, what would most of those churches do? Build bigger buildings and hire more staff to do more programs. Let’s support the church, but let’s not buy whiskey for proven alcoholics.

7) The Kingdom economy is one where the local church is a demonstration of the Kingdom, and the church prepares and equips Christians to live Kingdom-useful lives. That life can’t be restricted to a local church. The marriage analogy depends on an exclusive vow as the moral center of marriage. Only one relationship. That exclusive vow is with Christ, not with a local church.

8) Don’t accuse me of “either/or,” because I am not saying that in any way. Christians have responsibilities and commitments to their local churches, but that relationship is relative to 1) Christ, 2) the Kingdom of Christ and his purposes. The local church has a place and a role in the Kingdom, but that is relative to the ultimate claims of Jesus Christ and the call of all disciples to seek first the Kingdom.

9) The claim that “the church is the way disciples seek first the Kingdom” is a claim made by churches and church leaders. I think it has to be questioned, not because there aren’t great churches and pastors like Immanuel and Ortlund, but because there are worldly and compromised “churches” and “shepherds” as described in Revelation 2-3, Ezekiel, etc.

10) I greatly appreciate and affirm Ortlund’s words. There is a lot of wisdom there. I think he is expressing some things which many of us need to talk about in the context of our own rather different experience of church.


  1. the ‘Church’ ?
    is it a local building that needs $ upkeep and maintenance and provides a social club for some in the community
    is it a base from which to go out and nurture the whole community?

    • ‘the Kingdom of God’, a glimpse into the wisdom of God that is far above our own earthly wisdom

      do we see it as mysterious and silent ? And in faint glimpses and in the shadows,
      gently pointing us towards Christ?

      I think we are given some insight into the Kingdom of God in this Scripture:

      “Rather, we speak God’s wisdom, mysterious, hidden,
      which God predetermined before the ages for our glory,
      and which none of the rulers of this age knew
      for, if they had known it,
      they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.”
      (from I Corinthians 2)

  2. I was a Christian for 20 years before I really knew what the kingdom was. In my early years I heard all about the ‘church’ – I was in dispensational Southern Baptist churches (and we loved Paul too!). The ‘church’ is what God is doing now; the ‘kingdom’ will come when Jesus returns in the rapture. It wasn’t until I was in seminary that I really understood Jesus’ teaching about the kingdom (George Eldon Ladd’s ‘inaugurated eschatology’, though he may not have come up with that term). When I understood the kingdom, the gospels made much more sense (and so did Jesus, and dispensationalism went in the trash can).

    It also became clear why the gospels get so little attention in those churches and Paul gets it all – Paul is all about the ‘church’ (at least that’s what it appears until you understand the kingdom, and Paul) and Jesus ‘kingdom stuff’ is all about the future (e.g. C. I. Scofield’s famous comment about the Sermon on the Mount having no application to the church is a classic example of this thinking). And focusing on the ‘church’ keeps our attention inward (whereas the’kingdom’ has an outward focus) and supports an ‘us against them’ attitude (whereas the ‘kingdom’ is about being God’s people in the midst of ‘them’). Not a better plan to make the ‘church’ completely ineffective (and even offensive) in the world!

    • Like you, Greg, I was following Christ for over 20 years before I began understanding the Kingdom a bit better.

      And like you, I think Paul gets propped up a little above Jesus in some circles. Makes no sense. I’m sure even Paul himself would say, “Hey, don’t make my words the ‘gospel’! I’m trying to point you to Jesus!”

  3. Time is growing short. I find myself more and more losing patience with long, convoluted explanations of something that Jesus said we couldn’t get if we didn’t receive it like children. I’m guessing most children would not understand “inaugurated eschatology”. I certainly don’t. I do understand the concept of “seek ye first the kingdom of God” and that this kingdom is to be found within. I think most children could understand that if someone would bother to tell them. It’s too bad that the word “fundamentalist” has been totally trashed by folks who just didn’t get it over the past hundred years because I think I am more and more becoming a fundamentalist, someone concentrating on the basics at the core of Jesus’ teachings, basics that can be stated in a sentence and don’t need a shelf of books to understand. Jesus didn’t tell us to establish the kingdom, he told us to seek it first and foremost above all else. like a Great Commission, and to seek it within our heart. How that got translated into building the church as an institution is a long and sorrowful tale, a dead horse that we continue to flog with zeal, probably because it is a lot easier than seeking the kingdom within.

    • But, what does it mean to ‘receive the kingdom like a child’? In our culture, we dote over our children, and see them as innocent, trusting, and having ‘simple faith’. That is not how people in Jesus’ day saw children. They (and widows) were the most vulnerable people in society (and children were largely seen as assets, or sometimes nuisances). When Jesus says ‘as a child’ it’s probably not a call to a simple trusting child-like faith, but a willingness to become like a child, an orphan – vulnerable, possibly disowned by one’s family, becoming totally dependent on God and other believers (the new family). It goes along with his call to ‘hate’ one’s family, being willing to leave one’s possessions, and ‘take up your cross’. To become part of God’s kingdom in the first century often entailed those very things.

      One of the major problems with fundamentalism is that it reads the Bible as though it was written directly to us and we can just pick it up and read it like a newspaper. It was written to (and for) people who lived in a very different world, where words (even words like ‘faith’ and ‘grace’) had very different meanings than we often give them, and social structures (like the ‘biblical family’) were much different than ours The kingdom IS the core of Jesus’ teachings, so understanding that is key to understanding Jesus. Unfortunately, understanding Jesus’ world is essential to understanding the kingdom (that shelf of books). The people who heard Jesus, and to whom the Bible was originally written didn’t need that shelf of books since they lived in that world, and understood those things, but we do not (though we usually assume we do, and thus often get it wrong). N. T. Wright, ‘Surprised by Hope’ is a good place to get a handle on the kingdom, the thing Jesus talked about more than anything else.

      On the other hand, since the world of the Bible is so different from ours, and our understanding of it (and the Bible) is so uncertain, I have come to the conclusion that God must be far more generous in his grace than many of us think he is. If there’s a theology test at the pearly gates, we’re all screwed.

      • Greg, I think you are spot on about the view of children of ancient cultures versus our own. Have a quiver full of children, so that enough will survive childhood diseases to work the farm: that was the default position of agrarian civilizations. Children in a society that accorded few or no special protections to them, widows who became completely devalued at their husband’s death, the Lazarus unconscious outside Dives gate, these are what we must become to receive the Kingdom. Fortunately, I think we all will…

    • @Charles: most of what I read (when it’s not craigslist or the sports.. 🙂 ) is of the direct and simple variety: Brennan Manning, Ortberg, or E. Peterson… but isn’t there a time a place for G.E. Ladd, Tom Wright and (fill in your favorite…). Yes academia can be a room full of preening peacocks…. but can’t it be something better ?

      give yourself a hug… inhale….exhale….. love the brainyacks also….

      • I much prefer Manning, Ortberg and Peterson to any other folks who talk about what Jesus means to them.

    • –> I think I am more and more… concentrating on the basics at the core of Jesus’ teachings, basics that can be stated in a sentence and don’t need a shelf of books to understand.”

      A group of guys at my church is going through something called “The Gospel Primer,” and while I don’t agree with everything being presented, it does do a good job of getting us to think about “How would you describe the Good News to someone as simply and as succinctly as you can?”

      Yes, the Nones aren’t open to the lengthy intricacies of justification, sanctification, pre-trib/post-trib, etc etc. In one or two lines, what does the Good News mean to you?

      • In one or two lines? That’s tough, especially if you want me to do so without any theological or religious shorthand. Let me turn your question back on you: In one or two lines, without using any religious or theological or Christian shorthand, what does the Good News mean to you?

        • I meant that question to be more rhetorical and not necessarily addressed to you, but since you turned it around on me, here is what i kinda came up with…

          God loves me even though I rarely love Him back, and the Good News is that Jesus came as proof God loves me even though I rarely love Him back.

    • greg,
      Just remember that the Christians who lived a hundred or two hundred years after Jesus time did not live in the same world as those for whom the NT was written, either. They actually had less access to the historical context that produced the Scriptures than we do, lacking anything like an adequate concept of historiography, along with the research tools necessary for it. That means that shortly after its inception, the Church lost touch with the inside knowledge necessary to understand and interpret the Bible/NT. What does this mean for the centuries of Church life from that time to our own? There must necessarily have been more theological distortion and misunderstanding than there was truth in the historical Church’s thinking and life. This is quite alarming, if you think about the implications.

      • Robert, that is quite true, and quite troubling for me. I am wrestling with this very issue as I try to make my way forward in my faith. My fundamentalist friends (with whom I used to run) would argue that we must get back to that ‘pristine’ faith of the NT. But, if you read the NT letters, there never was a ‘pristine’ faith – it was contentious from the start. I think church history also shows there is room for evolution of the faith. Is what we find in the NT the final word? Probably not. Unfortunately the more I have learned the less I am sure of. Thus my remark above that if there is a theology test at the pearly gates I think we’re all screwed.

        This is where Peter Enns gives me some hope. He points out that the OT is the story of people wrestling with God and trying to understand their experiences. He believes (and I agree) that certainty on most things theological is probably impossible (in fact, doubt is not the opposite of faith; certainty is – his line and mine). What God wants from us is trust (or faithfulness, defined as trust over time) rather than theological certainty. Enns argues that the OT provides a much better model of faithful living than the NT (given the compressed time period of the NT). In reality I’m not far from Charles, but given my personality I need something on which to hang my hat. For now (like Charles) I’m just trying to be a ‘kingdom person’ (and figure out what that looks like, or at least what Jesus meant). 🙂

      • Robert, actual history does not bear out what you are saying. Jesus was crucified around A.D. 29, but the Apostle John died in A.D. 100 according to what I have read, John’s student Polycarp lived from A.D. 69 to 159, and Polycarp’s student Irenaus didn’t die until A.D. 202. Seems like plenty of one-to-one, face-to-face inter-generational access to historical context could have been available and passed down, especially for Christians living around the city of Smyrna.

        • Is there a record from the first centuries of Christianity of such historical awareness being passed down? For instance, did Christians of the third century in Rome know how first century Palestinian Jews interpreted their scriptures? Did they know what the cultural milieu of that era was? Were they familiar with the geography of the Holy Land, and understand what biblical references to features of that landscape would mean to first century Palestinian Jews and Christians? Is there any indication in secular or Church historical records that later centuries retained an extensive or even cursory understanding of these things?

        • The scientific study of history, sociology, linguistics, etc. are modern disciplines that were unavailable to the ancients when they were remembering even more ancient eras.

    • Charles, The phrase translated as “The kingdom is within you” is just as correctly translated as “The kingdom is among you”. In fact, modern scholars think the latter is more accurate.

      • Michael Bell says

        Actually, it is only correctly translated one of those two ways. We just don’t know which way is the correct one! 🙂

      • Yes, Robert, the phrase can intellectually be correctly translated from the Greek as saying that the kingdom is amongst us, as you have repeatedly brought up, and this can be corroborated with material understandings of the kingdom as church and sacrament and social justice. This is a free will choice open to all. If Jesus was trying to point us to where the connection and reconciliation with God the Father actually occurs and is experienced spiritually, within the heart, my question would be why would anyone deny this open door and refuse to go thru it by quibbling over words? Why would anyone reject the announcement of the good news proclaimed by Jesus and sealed with his death, and justify that choice on the basis of modern scholarship? Do modern scholars have a better understanding of spiritual matters than Jesus? I realize that people do this, intelligent people, it is quite obvious. People hold to this view tenaciously, probably would rather die than give it up, highly educated people with their fingers in their ears chanting la la la la la! Why? It boggles the mind. The kingdom of God is not a thing to be grasped and weighed and measured, it is to be entered into. Two thousand years and counting. Not holding my breath.

        • Is it really a spiritually backward thing to think that connection and reconciliation with God the Father is found in, and worked out through, relationship with my brother, my neighbor, my enemy?

          • Or to think that Jesus taught this?

          • It’s not backward at all, it’s how we learn. In my experience, attempting to love God and neighbor in my own strength and intelligence and understanding is what demonstrates and proves that it can only be done in the power of God that is only found within our innermost Being. In my view, the reason people resist going within so fiercely is because it involves dying to self, and the ego is usually willing to do anything to avoid this, and is fiendishly clever at it. Jesus said we have to die to live, and if we don’t, we die. People don’t want to hear this. Preachers don’t proclaim it, probably don’t want to hear it themselves. It’s the whole point to what’s called the Christian religion. Pick up your cross and follow me. Wait, wait, you call that good news? What about me? Where’s my prosperity? It’s inside, way inside. Not a popular notion, especially with Christians.

          • My own experience has been that going to my brother, my neighbor, my enemy, going outside of myself, is where and how I encounter dying to self.

          • >> My own experience has been that going to my brother, my neighbor, my enemy, going outside of myself, is where and how I encounter dying to self.

            Well, it sounds to me like we’re both on the same page, at least with that.

          • But it’s a messy death! I know that if I developed more inner peace and equanimity, and dealt with more of my inner problems, this death wouldn’t need to be a messy as it is, or as painful for everyone I inflict it on around me, wife, brother, neighbor, enemy included. Unfortunately, when I sit down to be still and meditate in recent years, I fall asleep as fast as when I go to bed. That bridge has seemed to be cut off to my crossing.

          • >> But it’s a messy death!

            Yes, sort of like crucifixion. It’s true that Jesus had achieved inner peace and equanimity already, but he had likely endured the kicking and screaming of his ego dying over and over before getting there. No easy way out, or the narrow gate as Jesus called it. Oh well. Even five minute sessions of contemplative meditation are better than nothing, and building up to twenty makes it even better if you can handle it. My problem has been maintaining the daily discipline to do it period. I have been experimenting for several weeks with listening to CD’s which combine guided meditation with sounds which help entrain the brain toward those levels of brain wave frequency which experienced meditators attain. The jury is still out but so far it seems to be helping.

            The problem comes with finding the right teacher or motivator or teaching that is most helpful to your own needs and situation, not an easy task, but one where prayer and spiritual discernment and good old common sense can find a way. There’s a lot of bogus teaching out there, both inside the church and in the world at large, and some is just for other people. Angels are standing by waiting for you to ask for help for your particular case, and aren’t about to cram it down your throat against your will. Things were a lot simpler last century, or so it seemed. Fortunately, God’s Spirit seems to still be on the job if we get out of the way.

  4. “The Kingdom economy is one where the local church is a demonstration of the Kingdom, and the church prepares and equips Christians to live Kingdom-useful lives. That life can’t be restricted to a local church. The marriage analogy depends on an exclusive vow as the moral center of marriage. Only one relationship. That exclusive vow is with Christ, not with a local church.”

    This statement is very close to my heart. Thank you Michael Spencer.

  5. I think maybe we Western Christians tend to compartmentalize our lives too much when it comes to the church and/or the Kingdom. What’s most convenient for us is a definite time slot and location where we can fulfill our obligations to God and then move on to the next item on our daily planner. It’s far too easy to keep our “church lives” separate from the other aspects of our lives and file away everything separately in our thinking. The church has become where we go and do certain things at certain times, and the Kingdom is a vague, etherial idea we cite as the source and justification for going to “church” places and doing “church” things.

  6. It seems to me that one of the big fallacies given is that when it comes to practical application of kingdom building behaviors, OF COURSE it will mean giving the local church a push in some way. Don’t think so: working to see the kingdom ‘on earth as it is in heaven’ can mean , and take of, a variety of forms and looks. This makes those whose profession is dependent on local church economies very nervous…… what about us ??? What about our (ultra important) program or initiative ? How will it get paid for if the sheeple don’t jump into the authorized go-fund-me FIRST, before paying for anything else ??
    These are NOT competing entities, but kingdom HUGE and most important…… local church : hopefully getting bigger , but in my mind, a subset…..a derivative…