Ed Stetzer’s Subversive Kingdom

The best thing about Ed Stetzer’s Subversive Kingdom is that it’s true. First, it’s true that Jesus has inaugurated the kingdom and that the kingdom has not yet eradicated all the competitors. Second, it’s true that the best way for Christians to live out the Kingdom of God vis-à-vis neighboring communities is as subversives. Neither hiding in our own little enclaves nor trying to conquer those communities through force of arms or legislation is the appropriate strategy.

In talking about the “already and not yet” aspect of the Kingdom Stetzer uses inauguration language and the D-Day imagery (D-Day was the decisive point of WW2 in Europe, but not the end of the war) without mentioning either Tom Wright or Oscar Cullmann. This is characteristic of the book as a whole. He shows broad familiarity with theology, biblical studies and missiology without the name-dropping and scholarly apparatus one would expect in a book written for academics. Rather, SubversiveKingdom is a popularization of important themes in recent theology It is thus of value to “ordinary” Christians.

The ten chapter book breaks down into three sections:

  • A Subversive Way of Thinking: In this section Stetzer provides his basic analysis of the biblical and theological case for seeing the Kingdom of God as subversive.
  • A Subversive Way of Life: This section delineates the personal development required for living as an agent of the subversive kingdom. A substantial part of this section is drawn from the Sermon on the Mount. I found this section to be the weakest part of the book, lapsing too often into repetition and sentimentality. The final chapter, on the elimination of Idols, was the strongest.
  • A Subversive Plan of Action: In this section, Stetzer turns to considering action plans for congregations. The strategy he proposes seeks to balance both evangelism and social action. He’s convinced that people need Jesus, apart from whom they will never experience deliverance from sin and death. He’s also convinced, however, that the church needs to demonstrate the reality of God’s kingdom through ministries that meet the practical needs of people in their communities and wider world.

Some modern evangelicals have marginalized the kingdom, focusing only on individuals coming to faith in Jesus. In their Christology they have too often imagined that the first thing Jesus did of soteriological value was dying on the cross. Stetzer doesn’t follow that route. Though he sometimes evidences too much individualism, he is strongly committed to the role of the church not only in mission, but in soteriology. He also counts Jesus’ incarnation as soteriologically significant.

I really appreciate how Stetzer, a Southern Baptist pastor and leader, writes for a broader audience than his own denominational family. His generous approach draws in other Christian traditions by looking to churches of many denominations for his examples of various ways of “getting it right.”

I have two primary critiques of the book. The first has to do with substance. Stetzer seems stuck on some modern assumptions. On p. 15 he writes, “Through Jesus’ teaching and preaching, he was proclaiming to everyone that they could be part of God’s agenda on earth by repenting and believing, that this ‘kingdom of heaven’ was primarily spiritual in nature.” This is related to where he later says (p. 35), “Some people love the perceived opinions and politics of King Jesus more than they love the King himself. Yet Jesus never promoted his politics, although he did respond to political questions.” We’re talking here about a king who has a kingdom. Saying this kingdom is “primarily spiritual in nature” (as opposed to what?) and that this king “never promoted his politics” is incomprehensible – unless we are forced to use modern understandings of “spiritual” and “politics.” Jesus wants to exercise actual authority in the public, external world. A spiritual/non-spiritual dichotomy won’t work; neither will the notion of a non-political king.

My second critique is more formal. I believe this book could use more careful editing. A couple of examples. Beginning on p. 33 Stetzer discusses the parable of the enemy planting weeds among the wheat. Jesus’ explanation indicates that the weeds are non-believers in the midst of those who believe. Stetzer concludes from this, rightly I believe, that “we are not responsible for weeding,” i.e., we are not called to go heretic hunting among the members to achieve a completely pure church. Later on, however, (p. 58) Stetzer evokes another weed metaphor, talking about the “‘weeds’ of pain, abuse, worry, and danger.” It would be clearer if he’d been consistent in his usage of the “weed” imagery. A second area in which closer editing would have helped is in some of the word choice. When he says (p. 60) that “Crack use was epidemic” “endemic” would have fit better. The other word choice that jumped out at me was on p. 100: “All too often the nearness of a particular subject matter can gauze it from careful notice.” Using “gauze” as a verb strikes me as odd.

Stetzer dedicates this book to “small church pastors” (though, oddly, only mega-church pastors provided blurbs for the front pages). Pastors of any size church that want to introduce their people to a broader conception of the kingdom, particularly one that presses past the too-popular notion that it is something far off, either in time and/or space, will profit from this book. It would be especially useful for small group studies.

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