The RCA and the Kingdom of God

I wonder how long the doctrine of the Kingdom of God has been disappearing from the Reformed Church in America. Of course no one would deny the doctrine, but it’s hardly robust in the denomination, and it hardly informs or inspires or directs us. Yet it is the single doctrine most characteristically “Reformed.”

The doctrine has had its variations in the RCA. Orthodox Calvinists stress the “Sovereignty of God” and matters of divine election. Liberals and progressives stress the “Kingdom of God” in matters of social justice and Christian action. The very few RCA Kuyperians try to do both.

We used to joke that our Lord came proclaiming the kingdom and all he got was the church. Our bias was that the kingdom was good and the church was, well, not so good. We have recently seen a recovery in the estimation of the church. Young people are open to parish ministry again, and pastoring is seen as a vanguard of ministry. But the connection between the church and the kingdom has yet to be repaired.

We have the raw material. I will never forget the sermon preached to General Synod by Hendrikus Berkhof at Marble Collegiate Church on the RCA’s 350th anniversary. He called the church the “witness and the first-fruits of the kingdom.” This was simple and powerful. He connected the kingdom and the church with the proper priority: the kingdom, and the divine necessity: the church. He had cast a vision for the RCA.

The denomination’s current Mission and Vision statement is profoundly deficient on this score. Not only does it outdo Roman Catholicism by calling the RCA “the very presence of Jesus Christ in the world,” it never once mentions the Kingdom of God. That’s right, the doctrine of the Kingdom of God is absent from our Mission and Vision. The tragic consequence is that the RCA’s new Ten Year Goal both ignores the kingdom and makes an idol of the church, directing all our resources to make more churches. This vision did not come from God, and to say that it’s “God’s Call” is to take God’s name in vain.

The mission of the church is the kingdom, not more churches. Yes, one can say, with Emil Brunner and Lesslie Newbigin, that the church exists for mission as a fire exists for burning, but the goal of the church’s mission is not itself. The so-called “missional” church paradigm is okay only if it’s set in the context of the kingdom.

This is apparent in the Great Commission itself, which is kingdom language front to back. “The gospel” which Jesus speaks of is nothing other than the announcement of the Good News of the Lordship of Christ. In the same way, the account of the ascension in Acts 1 is all kingdom language, when Jesus gives his disciples his last instructions and marching orders.

In the last few years the mission of the Reformed Church in America has been collapsed into what we used to call “church extension.” We never explicitly deny such things as ecumenism, social witness, Christian action, education, and world mission–we just starve them. This is a function of having no doctrine of the Kingdom of God.

The problem predates the Mission and Vision statement. I first noticed it while doing a comparative study of the successive Orders for Holy Baptism in the RCA liturgy. The earlier forms, through 1968, all lead with the doctrine of the Kingdom of God, while the forms of 1987 and 1995 do not. In fact, the 1995 form mentions the Kingdom of God only once, at the end, and doxologically, as something for the distant future. I have argued elsewhere for defining Holy Baptism in kingdom terms. Here let me only suggest that our baptismal forms demonstrate that the Kingdom of God has declined from a priority to an afterthought, and from instruction to doxology.

Compounding the problem is the word “kingdom.” The more inclusive substitutes like “Realm of God” leave something to be desired. Maybe it’s time to renovate the Calvinist “Sovereignty of God” but with more dynamic and narrative content. The word “sovereignty” is ungendered, its etymology is more personal than “realm,” and it’s more current in use than “kingdom.” Beyond that, to speak of the Sovereignty of God is to remind the RCA of a Calvinism we need to remember. It would help us be less fixated on our size and our numbers. And to invest this Sovereignty with the kingdom message of Jesus in the gospels is to call us to what we are in mission for. It would be such a relief for the RCA to stop obsessing about itself, its size, and its numbers. We are not our own mission.

Daniel Meeter is pastor of Old First Reformed Church in Brooklyn, New York.