Back in 2009, I read something by Eugene Peterson in his book, The Contemplative Pastor, that really changed my perspective on pastoring. He called for the pastor, and by extension, all Christians, to consider a subversive approach to their ministry as agents of God's Kingdom. After explaining the frustration that he sometimes felt because his parishioners often did not understand the gravity of what he was promoting and that he wishes that he could just clearly get them all to fall in line with his spiritual authority, Peterson said,
Then I remember that I am a subversive. My long-term effectiveness depends on my not being recognized for who I really am. If he realized that I actually believe the American way of life is doomed to destruction, and that another kingdom is right now being formed in secret to take its place, he would be at all pleased. If he knew what I was really doing and the difference it was making, he would fire me.
Yes, I believe that. I believe that the kingdoms of this world, American and Venezuelan and Chinese, will become the kingdom of our God and Christ, and I believe this new kingdom is already among us. That is why I'm a pastor, to introduce people to the real world and train them to live in it. I learned early that the methods of my work must correspond to the realities of the kingdom. The methods that make the kingdom of America strong - economic, military, technological, informational - are not suited to making the kingdom of God strong. I have had to learn a new methodology: truth-telling and love-making, prayer and parable. These are not methods very well adapted to raising the standard of living in suburbia or massaging the ego into a fashionable shape.
But America and suburbia and the ego compose my parish. Most of the individuals in this amalgam suppose that the goals they have for themselves and the goals God has for them are the same. It is the oldest religious mistake: refusing to countenance any real difference between God and us, iimagining God to be a vague extrapolation of our own desires, and then hiring a priest to manage the affairs between self and the extrapolation. And I, one of the priests they hired, am having none of it.
But if I'm not willing to help them become what they want to be, what am I doing taking their pay? I am being subversive. I am undermining the kingdom of self and establishing the kingdom of God. I am helping them to become what God wants them to be, using the methods of subversion.
It is in this spirit and context that Ed Stetzer writes The Subversive Kingdom: Living as Agents of Gospel Transformation. This is an excellent book that I really enjoyed reading and it would make a great small group study for churches and groups of Christians contemplating how to faithfully live out the implications of Jesus' Gospel of the Kingdom in a hostile world.
Stetzer says that the world system is in rebellion against God's Kingdom, but he calls us to "rebel against the rebellion."
We live among a world system that, even though ultimately under the reign of a sovereign God, temporarily exerts a competing authority that seeks to enforce an unjust, unrighteous order on those it claims to rule . . . The world's illegal rebellion is illegitimate. It certainly feels real, of course - IS real - but it doesn't change the reality that God is still the ruler of everything. Though people may think they have rebelled, they have not - and cannot - ultimately escape the fact at King Jesus is still sovereign.
And though we feel outnumbered and highly unpopular at times by clinging to our Christian ideals, though we make ourselves subject to all kinds of criticism and misunderstanding by resisting the widely held opinions of our friends and neighbors, we can't help but recognize a tension that keeps us from followoing where the leader of this rebellion wants to take us. As much as we may feel obligated by our family histories, or as willing as we may be to at least consider the validity of these differing viewpoints, there's no common ground for us to stand on. Our aims are incompatible. As Christians, we don't join an illegitimate rebellion. Instead, we live for King Jesus in contrast to the world around us. We live in loyalty to the very One the world rebels against.
We're in rebellion against the rebellion.
Stetzer goes on to explain what the Kingdom of God is (the reign and rule of Christ in all of life in complete contrast to the ways of the world led by Satan) and our call to participate in it as a way of life. He says,
Being a Kingdom agent means becoming one who "loses his life" from a worldly point of view (Mark 8:35) in order to find true life for ourselves and to help rescue others who are chained in darkness, doubt, and cleverly disguised despair. It means representing God through his body on earth - the church - as he uses us to advance and expand his kingdom through Spirit-led, subversive ways.
Stetzer calls Christians to be "subversive" in the sense that we are not to grasp after power or control to force upon people the truth of God, but rather, we are to show up in people's lives and in the structures and assumptions of the world with truth, justice, mercy, and humility as we represent Christ by living out the gospel in all its precepts.
Stetzer calls us to 5 positions in a hostile world.
1. We live in rebellion against the rebellion. We rebel against the world system that is rebelling against God. We recognize that what the world is rejecting is actually the truth and we live in accordance with the truth by not accepting the world's assumptions.
2. We deconstruct our false view of the Kingdom. God has not called us to safety or to religion or to embrace the status quo of the ways of the world. We are not called to be consumers of religion but co-laborers with Christ in advancing His reign and rule in the world.
3. We live as agents and ambassadors of God's kingdom in small, subversive ways. The Kingdom of God is not some big, shiny thing that takes over the world by force, but rather, it advances in small ways among small groups of believers that are living out the Christ life through daily acts of obedience and mercy as they tell God's Story through their lives.
4. We show and share the love of Christ. We are to both proclaim and demonstrate the Gospel of the Kingdom. Proclamation and Demonstration are not several things but they show that the Gospel is not a matter of word only, but also of deed. And, that when we do good works we do them because of the life and message of Jesus. It is ONE thing, the Gospel of the Kingdom. To this, I say, "Amen."
5. We live our lives in a manner directed by (and empowered by) our King. All of life is to be lived in relationship to Christ with Jesus as Lord.
6. We wait for this lost, broken world to be completely fixed and reconciled to God. Things are not as they should be but Jesus is going to make the world right. We live with that hope and we bring that hope into our everyday lives by representing the ultimate reality of Christ's victory.
In this book, Stetzer has hit on most of the major themes of the ministry that I have engaged in for the past 15 years. This is not a scholarly book (though Stetzer is more than capable of that), but it is a treatment of how we should live out the Gospel of the Kingdom in common ways. Anyone could read this book and understand what Stetzer is saying and it is applicable to every Christian.
I don't want to necessarily pit one book/author against another, but if you read and enjoyed David Platt's excellent and incredibly popular Radical, you will find this book to touch on the same subject but in a more practical, doable way. Stetzer here answers all of the questions that I had from reading Radical regarding the "What next?" I liked this book much better.
Also, at different times in my blogging journey, I have reviewed books here and after reading Subversive Kingdom and writing this review, I am reminded of the benefit of that exercise. Hopefully, this will be the first book review of many in 2013 and it was a good way to start this feature up again.