By Robert P. Menzies –
This provocative and stimulating book highlights the central role that the church plays in God’s redemptive plan. Nugent brilliantly retells the biblical story, from creation to consummation, and describes how first Israel and then the church are called, as God’s people, to embrace, display, and proclaim God’s kingdom. Christians are not called or empowered to fix the world; rather, we are called to the special and unique task of displaying God’s kingdom through our corporate life and witness. This conclusion flows from the recognition that, “God cares for this world far more than any human ever has, and God has seen from his infinitely superior vantage point that our love for one another is the best possible approach for drawing all people to himself” (p. 195). It is also rooted in the biblical teaching on love. In a stunning summary, Nugent states, “Scripture teaches us to love fellow believers – not all humans in general” (p. 90). According to Nugent, we are called to display God’s kingdom through our witness as well as our loving relationships. This witness involves proclaiming the gospel, the announcement of God’s new creation that begins with Jesus and the invitation to participate in it. After a review of key New Testament passages, Nugent concludes, “These passages also make clear that verbal proclamation is central to Christian mission” (p. 107).
Nugent thus offers a powerful critique of visions of the church’s mission that feature making the larger world a better place (liberal social activism) or that present the gospel as a means of securing our place in heaven by escaping future judgment (traditional Evangelical theology and practice). Nugent calls the church to recognize its true vocation. We are called to be a priestly people, a people who through the quality of our life together display what it means to live under God’s rule. This is crucial, for the old order of the “powers” (both human and supernatural) is passing away and a new order, which has already been inaugurated by Jesus (especially with his death and resurrection), is spreading throughout the world. This new order, Jesus called it “the kingdom of God,” is the true hope and future for humanity and, indeed, for all of creation.
Nugent is to be commended for the clarity and power of his vision. His style is contemporary and engaging, but his content is prophetic. This book rings with prophetic power and challenges the church to reconsider its priorities. Nugent is ruthlessly biblical in his approach and continually calls the reader back to a God-centered, biblically informed view of the church. I especially appreciated the way that he challenges contemporary Christians to abandon unbiblical views that divorce following Christ from a commitment to the church, the body of Christ. Nugent also describes with clarity and vigor how the church is called to demonstrate a radical commitment to loving relationships within the body of Christ, and to proclaim with great boldness the gospel to those outside the body.
While this book is a powerful prophetic word to the contemporary church and exceptional in many ways, it is not without its weaknesses. First, Nugent might be criticized for advocating an over-realized eschatology with respect to the community life of the church and an under-realized eschatology with respect to other dimensions of God’s salvific work. Nugent repeatedly describes the main task of the church as displaying the life of the kingdom through the quality of its corporate life, but seldom acknowledges or mentions that these relationships will inevitably reflect God’s design in partial and flawed ways. Nugent seems incredibly optimistic concerning the church’s potential to display the glory of Christ through its corporate life and yet at the same time he is almost silent about other aspects of the church’s witness, like “signs and wonders.” The silence regarding physical healing as a sign of the in-breaking of the kingdom of God is particularly striking since this was an important aspect of Jesus’ ministry. The idea one gets is that the Spirit empowers our life together, but little else. This does not adequately reflect the ministry of Jesus or the witness of the early church as recorded in the book of Acts – a witness that often involves individuals (Philip) or teams of two (Paul and Barnabas) boldly proclaiming the gospel in unreached areas.
This leads us to the second weakness: Nugent’s view of mission is rooted almost exclusively in Pauline theology and largely ignores Luke’s contribution. It is true that Paul describes the gospel as an invitation to join a community that worships Christ and sees its life as rooted in Christ and His teaching. Yet, as we have noted, Luke highlights the fact that the Spirit also directs and inspires individuals to engage in the mission of proclaiming the gospel and establishing churches. The significance of individual calling and empowerment should not be forgotten or minimized while we correctly embrace the centrality of the church in God’s plan. Since Paul writes letters to churches and addresses specific, local needs within these churches; it would be shortsighted to limit our vision of the mission of God to his teaching on this subject. Luke has much to contribute to this discussion and we need to hear his distinctive voice. Nugent suggests that we should affirm the priesthood of all believers, but what of the prophethood of all believers (Acts 2)? God delights to call and empower individual believers to fulfill specific tasks. In our zeal to highlight the corporate dimensions of the church, there is the ever-present danger of dismissing or minimizing the significance of the individual’s call and vision.
Thirdly, Nugent advocates an eschatology that again seems to pluck one, although an admittedly important, string. He constantly emphasizes that our hope for the future is rooted in a renewal of this world. Yes, he acknowledges that the consummation of God’s plan will not take place without God’s dramatic intervention in Christ (the second coming). Yes, he helpfully highlights that with Jesus, the kingdom of God has already broken into our world. Thus, we now experience the power and life of the kingdom, albeit in a partial and incomplete way. However, Nugent largely ignores the fact that the Bible does speak of a future hope that cannot easily be contained by the transformation of this world. How are we to understand Jesus’ words to the thief on the cross, “Today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43)? The message of 2 Peter 3:10, “The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire…everything will be destroyed,” suggests more than a cosmetic makeover. So also the vision of “a new heaven and a new earth” (Rev. 21:1), juxtaposed as it is with a picture of Christ’s thousand-year reign that highlights continuity with this earth (Rev. 20), implies that our future hope cannot so easily be described as simply a restoration of this world. Nugent’s this-worldly focus makes his silence regarding physical healing all the more stunning. However, it perhaps helps explain why, while his picture of the church’s current corporate life represents a highly realized form of our future hope, other more other-worldly (non-concrete and non-corporate) aspects of our salvation (e.g., our sense of sonship; our intimate fellowship with God; experiences of God’s powerful presence) remain largely un- or under-realized in Nugent’s scheme. This leads us to our final point.
Finally, I could not help but notice how little emphasis Nugent gives to worship. Nugent is virtually silent about the church’s worship of the triune God unless one understands worship in a very broad, horizontal way: that we worship God through our love for one another. The vertical dimension of worship, which is such a fundamental calling of the church, is virtually ignored. One striking opportunity to highlight the importance of worship but that was missed occurs during Nugent’s discussion of the church’s kingdom-centered life. Nugent writes, “Where scarcity is rampant….They [Christians] will help one another out in tangible ways that ease the burden of poverty. Their joy in fellowship and witness will give meaning and direction to life” (p. 219). What about our joy in worship? This is one illustration of a pervasive pattern. One is hard pressed to find any reference to the church as a worshipping community in this book. So, I ask the question: Has a helpful and positive emphasis (we are called to follow Christ by becoming members of communities that reflect His resurrection life and kingdom values) eclipsed other important themes (e.g., worship, our personal relationship to Christ, our individual calling and empowerment, a future hope that transcends this world)? However one answers this question, Nugent’s book will provoke much-needed reflection on the nature of the church and its mission for years to come.