A Kingdom Agenda vs. Institutional Maintenance (Jul 1992)

By Matt Dabbs

by Rubel Shelly
July, 1992

William Aramony headed United Way of America for 22 years. As leader of the nation’s largest charity, he was known as a creative, hardworking man. Somewhere during his career, however, he lost his way. As one writer put it, “power and perquisites apparently captured his soul” and he became “a man who lost his moral compass.”

His story in a nutshell is this: he violated the public trust by financing an extravagant lifestyle for himself with money people thought they were giving to help the poor.

Over a recent four-year period, he charged $92,265 to United Way for limousine services, $40,762 for Concorde flights across the Atlantic, $37,894 for 29 trips to Las Vegas, and $33,650 for trips to the home of a female friend in Florida. When forced from his position at United Way, he had the audacity to demand over $4 million from controversial pension plans he had set up through the agency.

What does any of this have to do with the church of God? What implications for church renewal? What warnings about our personal spiritual lives?

It seems that fallen human beings are always tempted to betray the holiest of causes by subverting them to personal benefit. Is it possible that churches have lost sight of their kingdom agenda for the sake of mere instiutional maintenance?

The kingdom of God is the reign of heaven in human hearts and lives (cf. Luke 17:20-21). Christians – even leaders – who embrace the world’s way of thinking and behaving have no share in the kingdom of God (Galatians 5:21). Yet we understand that the church is meant to be that entity through which the kingdom breaks into human experience. By our rescue from the “dominion of darkness,” God has “brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves” (Colossians 1:13-14).

The church’s calling is twofold. First, we are to pursue the kingdom of heaven. The church is charged with being an outpost of heaven’s reign n a world that lives in rebellion against God. Second, we are to model the kingdom before the world. By this means, we become light to a world still shrouded in darkness. The church offers hope to those who want an alternative to the things of this world that are hostile to God.

How often does the church realize its ideal? It bothers me that several preachers’ offices I have been in seem to have more management books than prayer guides, more sermon outline books than tools for personal study. It seems to abandon kingdom pursuit for preserving our own institutions when lectureships and journals are devoted to attacking brothers rather than exalting Jesus, urging conformity to received practice rather than promoting serious thought and responsible progress in communicating the gospel to our contemporaries. elders are merely doing institutional maintenance when a church’s life is dictated by a growling member who gives substantial amounts of money rather than by the larger body’s needs, protecting their status as power brokers rather than emptying themselves as servants to all.

Jesus called the church to be radically different from worldly institutions (Matthew 20:25-28). But there is too much of the world’s way of thinking among us. How do we measure the success of a church? We typically look to the “bottom line” – attendance, contribution, property. These things may be consistent with faithfulness; if it is necessary to compromise integrity to get or hold them, the kingdom of heaven passes by for the sake of institutional maintenance.

Robert Dale has put it this way in his To Dream Again:

“Some congregations my suffer from methodological tunnel vision by majoring on their church and minoring on the kingdom. These groups may ask too often, ‘How can we do church here?’ to the exclusion of ‘How can we bring God’s kingdom through this congregation?’ A kingdom dream will undergird our methods with a theology big enough to cure tunnel vision.”

Life by the world’s rules is focused on acquiring and keeping power over others. Leadership is conceived on the model of giving orders and enforcing compliance. Some form of “winning” is the obsession that lies behind all decisions, relationships, and actions.

One who does not know the kingdom of heaven must have the last word and push others around. He struts in victory and pouts in defeat. She is seldom honest with others and never with herself. He cries for himself but not for others. She wants to be heard but cannot listen. He is angry and finds fault with all things and all people. She forgives nothing and remembers every slight (real or imagined) that ever came her way.

The world is filled with non-kingdom people. They lie, steal, murder, abuse, and assault. And the church is overpopulated with them too. They impugn, bully, threaten, and disrupt. By such means, they maintain their cherished traditions and institutional structures.

Love and peace, kindness and gentleness, patience and joy, humility and goodness, self-control and righteousness – these are the features of a reality that comes from God. Yet they are not illusions. They are the ultimate realities of the kingdom of God. They put flesh on the two eternal marks of the church: love for God and love for others.

So we continue to pray “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” And we long to see passion for the preservation of human traditions give way to delight in the reign of God.

Rubel Shelly preached for the Family of God at Woodmont Hills in Nashville, Tennessee, from 1978-2005. During that time he also taught at Lipscomb University and Vanderbilt University School of Medicine. He holds a Ph.D. from Vanderbilt University, and is the author or co-author of many books, including The Jesus Community: A Theology of Relational Faith and The Second Incarnation. He presently lives in the Greater Detroit area where he teaches philosophy and religion at Rochester College. He is known as a community leader in Nashville and has served with such groups as the AIDS Education Committee of the American Red Cross, a medical relief project to an 1100-bed children’s hospital in Moscow called “From Nashville With Love,” and “Seeds of Kindness.”

He is the author of more than 20 books, including several which have been translated into languages such as Korean, Japanese, Portuguese, Italian, French, and Russian. He has published widely in religious journals. He is co-editor with Mike Cope of the online magazine New Wineskins. Shelly has lectured on Christian apologetics, ethics, and medical ethics on university campuses across America and in several foreign countries. He has done short-term mission work in such places as Kenya, the Czech Republic, Croatia, Bulgaria, and Russia. He was educated at Harding University (B.A.), Harding Graduate School of Religion (M.A., M. Th.), and Vanderbilt University (M.A., Ph.D.). He is married to the former Myra Shappley, and they are the parents of three children: Mrs. David (Michelle) Arms, Tim, and Tom. [RubelShelly.com]

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Profile photo of Matt DabbsThis author published 1584 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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