Proclaiming the Kingdom of God among Animists and Secularists

Presented at the Symposium “Distinctively Christian, Distinctly Mongolian” in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, on March 12, 2003

By Dr. Gailyn Van Rheenen

Their tenseness was apparent as they sipped tea at my house. They were wondering, “Will this missionary understand what we have come to explain?”  After circling the problem for some minutes, they stated, “Two of our children are possessed by spirits. They have been sick for almost two years now.  What shall we do!  What does Christ say about this?”  These questions were asked by Christians of the Kipsigis tribe in western Kenya.  Traditional Kipsigis believe that all spirits are ancestors and that unhappy ancestors frequently inflict harm through illness and even possession.  Ancestors, who at death are separated from physical bodies, become impatient when they are not called back into the realm of the living within a reasonable period of time or if decisions are made that destroy the harmony of the family.  The anger of an impatient spirit is greatly feared.

These beliefs were so foreign that I had no ready answers.  I lacked the theological understandings to comprehend spiritual beings.  The biblical message I taught had little to do with God’s cosmic work in defeating spiritual power.  My only response was, “Let us pray God Almighty to free the children of the spirits.”  This inadequacy led me to search for models rooted in biblical theology which would speak to those coming to Christ from animistic backgrounds.  It was evident that my Western theological framework, which had little to do with spiritual powers, was inadequate for teaching in animistic contexts.

The Inadequacy of Conversion Theology

Western individualism has greatly impacted the church throughout the world.   In this section we must begin with a brief description of this individualism and its impact upon evangelism.  This will lead to a biblical framework for teaching the Gospel.

Western Christianity stresses very strongly the autonomy and dignity of the individual.  The individual is considered more important than the group.  At an early age children learn to distinguish between mythings and your things.  As adults, they differentiate my rights and your rights.  Independent nuclear families mirror the culture as a whole: Each nuclear family does “its own thing” independent of the control of the extended family.  Elective democracy stands as the cultural ideal:  that is, each individual has an equal voice in government regardless of his understanding of the issues involved.  Praise and honor are given to the individual who achieves above his peers; certificates of achievement decorating the walls testify to his success.  Team sports are individualized with detailed statistics kept on each player.

Such intense individualism is foreign to most animistic peoples.  The Hopi Indians, also living in North America, consider all things as ours and seek what is right for the group. Teachers in such a society cannot praise the outstanding accomplishments of an individual student or give individual awards without causing severe cultural disruption. The Kipsigis of Kenya, although more individualistic than the Hopi, are also group-oriented.  They live in a face-to-face society in which relations are worked out within the extended family. The dead are understood as an extension of the family in the world of the spirits.  Within this context a missionary was justly rebuked for creating jealousy by publicly praising individual evangelists.  Severe cultural disruptions frequently occur when Western individualistic perspectives are projected upon group-oriented peoples.

Individualism is based on the belief that a person has within himself the power to succeed.  He needs no other powers or spirits, magic or wizardry to direct his life.  His success or failure depends on his own individual achievement.  If he succeeds, it is due to his human capabilities.  If he fails, it is due to his inadequacies.  An individual must make his way without reliance on social or spiritual resources.

Western individualism has become so intense that it has frequently undermined biblical Christianity.  “Myrights” and “my needs” become more important than God’s sovereignty and his wishes.

For the purpose of our discussion it is extremely important to note that individualism has critically impacted the message communicated in evangelism.  Emphasis is placed upon a person’s individual conversion.  Prospective converts are led to consider individualized questions such as “What must I do to be saved?”  “Are you saved?”  “Have you received Jesus?”  The emphasis upon the individual is shown by the stress placed on the personal pronouns “I” and “you” when asking these questions.  The human response to God is emphasized rather than the sovereign working of God in the world.

This individualized formulation of the gospel, called conversion theology, presents biblical truth about personal transformation.  But the focus is so narrow that it does not portray a holistic picture of God’s working in the world.  The nature of God and his mighty acts, God’s saving work through Jesus Christ, and the degenerative character of sin, which has severed the human/divine relationship, are communicated as pieces of a cosmic picture, not as an integrated worldview. These core theologies often become tangents rather than integral and indispensable parts of the core message.

Although Western Christians typically begin teaching non-Christians about personal salvation, they realize that other teachings are also required.  Consequently, they attach other teachings to their message of conversation.  Since they realize that those converted must be organized into a group, they attach the concept of church.  Frequently, one study brochure is developed to convert the individual and another to integrate him into the church.  Even this appended teaching about the church is understood individualistically: The church is an aggregate of individual Christians brought together to minister to one another and to worship God.

As Christian teachers see the newly converted struggle with sin, they belatedly tack on teachings about overcoming problems.  These sins concern marital fidelity, sexual purity, disciplining and training of children, ethics in the workplace, or achieving success in a stressful world.  Western Christians typically deal with the sovereignty of God when they reach the “overcoming problems” level.  Even at this level, God may be seen as a functional being, a “help-me god” that enables “believers” to solve their human dilemmas.  Such functional Christianity is rootless because it does not begin with the nature and working of God but with an understanding of God as One who meets felt needs.

Unfortunately, Westerners have tended to separate the reign of God from personal salvation.

Individualistic thought forms are diametrically opposed to animistic perspectives.  While individualists believe they can chart their own courses, animists believe that they are living in an interconnected world.  They are intimately related to their families, the spiritual world of gods, spirits, ancestors, and ghosts, with nature, and through mental telepathy to the minds of other human beings.  Thus the animist believes that it is impossible to live as an individual separate and apart from his extended family, spiritual powers, nature, or thoughts of other human beings.  Animists live in an interconnected universe.

The Christian way is also opposed to Western individualism.  The church is to be the family of God encouraging each other on the journey to heaven and encouraging others to join them on that journey.  The church is God’s counter-cultural community, which like the moon reflects God’s distinctiveness in the world.  Roberta Hestenes writes, “The Christian life is not a solitary journey.  It is a pilgrimage made in the company of the committed” (1983, 11).  A recurrent theme of early Christian writings is that spiritual nurturing took place within the context of Christian fellowship.  It was not an individual endeavor:

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. . . .  Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts.  They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people.

(Acts 2:42, 46-47)

Conversion theology is an inadequate model for converting animists because the focus is too narrowly focused on human decision-making rather than more broadly centered on God’s sovereignty over his world.

Biblical Foundations for Understanding Kingdom Theology

As I studied biblical theology within the Kipsigis context, I grew to believe that the focus must be upon God rather than upon the response of the individual.  I began to study a kingdom perspective–that God in Christ has broken into the world to establish his sovereignty and defeat the powers of Satan.  As a consequence, my preaching began to center on the nature and work of God.  This message had cosmic dimensions far beyond the conversion of individuals.  People were called to conversion on the basis of the mighty working of God in the world and discipled to reflect the nature of holy God.

The kingdom perspective is equally important in secular contexts.  Secularists have developed a way of thinking which has focused on humanity and diminished the role of divinity.  Human reason has replaced dependence on God as the center of cultural beliefs. Secularists, like animists, cannot understand the true reality of the world, e.g., that this world is God’s and all must acknowledge him and subject their lives to him.  They must hear again the narrative of Scripture describing the workings of God throughout history.  Their humanistic realities must then be reinterpreted and brought into line with the ultimate reality of the kingdom of God.

My aim is to show that a kingdom perspective is the “scarlet thread that runs through the biblical testimonies” (Moltmann 1981, 95) and that the goal of evangelism is to “initiate people into the kingdom of God” (Abraham, 1989).

The Meaning of Kingdom

The term kingdom means “a rule or reign, an exercise of authority.”  When applied to the reign of God in the world, the term means “the rule or sovereignty of creator God.” Beasley-Murray thus equates the terms “kingdom” and “sovereignty” throughout his comprehensive text Jesus and the Kingdom of God(1986, 74).  Ladd gives the etymology of the word kingdom from the Hebrew and the Greek.  He says, “The primary meaning of both the Hebrew word malkuth in the Old Testament and of the Greek wordbasileia in the New Testament is the rank, authority and sovereignty exercised by a king. . . .  A kingdom is the authority to rule, the sovereignty of the king” (1959, 19).

The synonymous parallelisms of Ps. 145:11-13 define the nature of the kingdom of God:

They will tell of the glory of your kingdom
And speak of your might,
So that all men may know of your mighty acts
And the glorious splendor of your kingdom.
Your kingdom is an everlasting kingdom,
And your dominion endures through all generations.

(Italics and underlines are used for emphasis.)

God’s kingdom is one of glory and splendor. The synonymous parallelisms equate the kingdom withpower, mighty acts, and glorious splendor.  The adjective everlasting describes God’s reign as being beyond the bounds of earthly time.  The noun dominion (control, sovereignty) is equated in the passage with the word kingdom.  God, therefore, “does not merely sit on a throne, but he reigns by performing mighty deeds. His rule is not static but is expressed in acts of power” (Ferguson 1989, 7).

The Lord’s Prayer also defines kingdom.  Beasley Murray (1992) writes that each of the first three petitions should be “understood as parallelisms, though with distinctive features:

“Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name,
your kingdom come,
your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.”
(Matthew 6;9-10)

The first petition “hallowed be your name” is not a petition for people to cease using God’s name irreverently but that “people should be in awe and acknowledge his holiness” (Beasley-Murray 1992).  The second and third petitions reflect that God’s kingdom “comes” when “his will is done on earth as it is in heaven.”  Kingdom, therefore, is the enactment of God’s sovereignty on “earth as it is in heaven.”   The term is inclusive of all the ministries of God in Jesus:  “preach[ing] good news to the poor[,] . . . proclaim[ing] freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18-19) as well as “mak[ing] disciples” by baptizing unbelievers and “teaching them to observe all things that God has commanded them” (Mathew 28:18-20).

The Church as God’s Distinct People of the Kingdom

Although the church reflects the rule of God in the world, the kingdom cannot be precisely equated with the church.  First of all, if reliance on God and development of his qualities are not reflected in the church then the church is no more than a human organization or social fraternity.  The church must rather understand itself to be the distinctive community formed by the calling and sending of God and reflecting the redemptive reign of God in Christ.  The church, from a biblical perspective, is a unique community in the world that is missionary by nature, created by God through the Spirit as both holy and human. “Convinced that God is working to create a distinct community to participate in his life for the sake of the world, the church seeks to be a visible community demonstrating God’s reign, inviting people to deny themselves and share in the communal life of God” (Love 2003).  “The church is the offspring of divine reign.  It is its fruit, and therefore its evidence” (Guder 98, 1998).  The function of the church is to “represent the reign of God.”  The word represent passively infers that “one stands for another” and actively indicates “the way a person may be given authority to act on another’s behalf or to care for another’s interests” (Guder 1998, 100).  The church, therefore, “represents the divine reign as its agentand instrument” (Guder 1998, 101).  The goal of church leaders, therefore, is not “to build and to extend” the kingdom; this is the work of God.  The role of Christian leaders is to “receive and enter” the reign of God.  “It is a gift of God’s making, freely given.  It calls for the simple, trusting act of receiving” (Guder 1998, 93-94).

God kingdom rule extends beyond the bounds of the church to the entire world.  He is the sovereign Lord not only over his church but also over all of his creation.  He is the Lord of lords, the King of kings, sovereign over all his creation.  Moses said, “Who among the gods is like you, O Lord?  Who is like you–majestic in holiness, awesome in glory, working wonders” (Exodus 15:11).  He is the God who can choose pagan kings as the instruments of his will (Isaiah 45:1).

An understanding of kingdom helps us to understand God as sovereign and the church as God’s community demonstrating and representing God’s reign.

The Roots of Kingdom Theology in the Old Testament

Old Testament kingdom passages confirm that the rule of God existed before the coming of Christ, the ultimate king, and the establishment of the church.

Although the word kingdom is seldom mentioned in the Old Testament, the meaning of the term has its roots there. The theme of “God, the ruling Lord” is a thread running throughout the Old Testament (Beasley-Murray 1986, 17).  Note the kingdom terminology of the following passage:

For God is the King of all the earth;
sing to him a psalm of praise.
God reigns over the nations;
God is seated on his holy throne,
The nobles of the nations assemble
as the people of the God of Abraham,
for the kings of the earth belong to God;
he is highly exalted.
(Psalm 47:7-9)

God is proclaimed King of the earth, reigning over the nations.  God is praised as “all the kings of the earth” gather to become the “people of the God of Abraham.”

This ruling Lord elected Israel to be his chosen instrument to reflect his kingdom nature to the world.  Abraham was blessed by God to be God’s kingdom blessing to the nations (Genesis 12:3).  God’s covenant with Israel was that they should be his “treasured possession” to serve as a “kingdom of priests” in the midst of the nations (Exodus 19:5-6).  As the Levites were priests of Israel, so Israel was to be a kingdom of priests for the world.  Isaiah pictures Israel as a chosen people to be God’s “light for the Gentiles” (Isaiah 49:6).  The covenant was given to Israel, not merely to bless Israel, but so that the Israelites might be God’s blessing on other nations.

Although Israel was God’s special kingdom of priests, God ruled over all nations.  Not only Israel but all nations were accountable to God for their sins (Amos 1-2; Ezek. 25-32).  God, who freed the Israelites from Egyptian captivity, also delivered the Philistines from Caphtor and the Arameans from Kir (Amos 9:7).  God gave Canaan to the Jews but also allotted the Moabites and Ammonites their lands (Deut. 2:16-19).  God sent the Jewish prophet Jonah to save the great Assyrian city of Ninevah.  The theme of Daniel is “The most high God is sovereign over the kingdoms of men” (Dan. 5:21).  “The Lord has established his throne in heaven, and his kingdom rules over all” (Ps. 103:19).

Israel, however, abandoned her priestly role and followed the gods of the nations around her.  By so doing, the Israelites forsook the kingdom of God.  Old Testament history portrays the failure of a chosen people to fully accept the rule of God because they were seduced by animistic practices (2 Kgs. 17:7-23).  Israel’s exile thus became a demonstration to the nations that God, the Holy One of Israel, punishes a disobedient, idolatrous people.

Old Testament prophetic writings also reflect the expectation that God’s reign would come in the person of the Messiah.  He would come announcing “peace” and proclaiming “Your God reigns” (Isaiah 52:7).  Ezekiel expressed the expectation that Israel and Judah would be reunited with God’s “servant David” as their king (Ezekiel. 37:24; cf. Ezekiel. 34:23, 30-31).  Daniel compares the kingdoms of the earth to the coming kingdom of God (Dan. 2, 7, 8).  He prophesies that God’s kingdom will “never be destroyed” but will crush all earthly kingdoms (Dan. 2:44; 7:13-14, 17-18).  The Messiah would be given “dominion, glory, and a kingdom, that all the peoples, nations, and men of every language might serve him” (Dan. 7:14).

These passages are only a brief sampling of the developing kingdom concept in the Old Testament.  The concept grew during the inter-testamental period to the point that that by the time of Christ people, after seeing his miracles and teachings, immediately wondered if he might be the Messiah (John 7:40-43).

The Emerging Kingdom in Jesus’ Ministry

With the coming of Jesus Christ the word kingdom began to designate God’s distinctive reign in his son.  In Christ God established a sovereign rule which would never be destroyed.

Jesus was born during a time of great messianic expectation. The Jews believed that the messianic prophecies would be fulfilled when God sent the Messiah to sweep away the wicked kingdoms of the world and initiate God’s final rule on the earth.  Jesus, however, did not come to destroy wicked human kingdoms.  He came to destroy Satan’s kingdom.  Ladd says, “The kingdom of God is here; but instead of destroying human sovereignty, it has attacked the sovereignty of Satan” (1981, 56).  Although the coming kingdom could not fulfill earthly Jewish expectations because Christ’s kingdom was not “of this world” (John 18:36), messianic anticipations served to draw thousands to hear John and Jesus proclaim the imminence of the kingdom. These expectations were part of God’s timing in preparing the world to receive his message (Gal. 4:4).

God’s rule in Christ was first announced by John the Baptist.  He was the first to proclaim “The kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt. 3:1-2).  Luke 16:16 defines that John is a dividing line between two periods: “The Law and the Prophets were proclaimed until John. Since that time, the good news of the kingdom of God is being preached.”  The term “until” (mechri) is used in an inclusive sense meaning “up to and including” John (Beasley-Murray 1986, 94).  John is the “man who formed the watershed of the ages, who bridged the gap between the period of promise and the period of fulfillment, and who by his proclamation opened a way for the kingdom of God” (Beasley-Murray 1986, 96).  When John was imprisoned, his ministry of introducing the kingdom concluded, and Jesus’ ministry began (Mark 1:14).

Jesus’ message is summarized by the statement “Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand” (Matt. 4:17; Mark 1:15; Luke 4:43).  The phrase “at hand” has connotations of both the present and the future. It means “`drawing near,’ `breaking in,’ `in process of becoming'” (Ferguson 1989, 24).  The synthetic parallelism of Mark 1:15 helps to clarify the meaning of “at hand”: “The time is fulfilled” is synonymous to “the kingdom of God is at hand.” The first phrase “looks backward, while the second looks to the present and future; the first announces the end of the old era, the second proclaims the beginning of the new” (Ambrozic 1972, 21-22).  Beasley-Murray thus interprets this passage to mean, “If the time before the kingdom is finished, the time of the kingdom has begun” (1986, 73).  In Jesus Christ, God initiated a rule that will never be destroyed.  When Christ the king came, the kingdom was both “coming” and “in their midst.

Because it addresses a Jewish audience with messianic expectation, Matthew’s Gospel emphasizes the kingdom.  The book begins with a genealogy designating that Jesus is “the son of David, the son of Abraham” (Matt. 1:1).  The messianic title “son of David” is used nine times to describe Jesus (Ferguson 1989, 20-21).  He was born “King of the Jews” (Matt. 2:2).  He told parables of the kingdom (Capter 13), used kingdom power to cast out demons (12:28), and taught principles of righteousness inherent in the kingdom (5:20).  His triumphal entry was seen as fulfilling the Zechariah 9:9 description of the Messiah’s coming.  Jesus died as “the King of the Jews” (27:11-42).  The concept of the kingdom is so dominant in Matthew that the word kingdom is used 51 times in this Gospel while only 18 times in the Gospel of Mark (Senior 1984, 237).   The concept of the kingdom of God pervades the very fabric of the Gospel of Matthew. The entire organization of the book is organized to explain this theme and appears to have “determined the course of [Jesus’] ministry” (Beasley-Murray 1986, x).

Matthew says that Jesus “went throughout Galilee, . . . preaching the good news of the kingdom” (Matt. 4:23).  Proclamation was accompanied by deeds which defeated the powers of Satan:  Demons were cast out by the power of God, and the sick were healed (Matt. 4:23-24).  Mark recounts that those who heard Jesus’ kingdom proclamation were told to “repent and believe the gospel” (1:15).  The Good News of the kingdom of God was now operative among them; it was now time to respond to the mighty acts of God in history!  With such expectations it is no wonder that thousands flocked to hear the proclamation of the kingdom from Jesus of Nazareth, who was acclaimed as the long-awaited Messiah of God.

Two Kingdoms in Opposition

The Gospels picture two kingdoms standing in opposition.  The kingdom of God came with power to defeat the dominions of Satan.  When Jesus healed a demon-possessed man, many Jews began to wonder if Jesus was the Messiah, the Son of David.  The Pharisees, becoming jealous,  claimed that Jesus was casting out demons by Beelzebub, the ruler of demons.  Jesus replied by describing two opposing kingdoms.  Beelzebub did not cast out the demons because Satan would not fight against himself (Matthew 12:22-27).  Then Jesus said, “But if I cast out demons by the spirit of God, then the kingdom of God is come upon you” (Matthew 12:28).  Deliverance from demon-possession demonstrated the emancipating power of God, which had entered the world to defeat the power of Satan.

In Matthew 12:29 Jesus gives the analogy of the binding of the strong man in order to carry off his property.  Satan in this context is the strong man; however, Jesus, the implied stronger man, is able to bind him.  When healing the spirit-possessed, Jesus entered the house of Satan, bound him, and took possession of his property.  This defeat of Satan was characteristic of Christ’s ministry.  He was breaking down the authority of Satan by entering his domain–a world controlled by his power (1 John 5:19).

It must be noted that the stronger man “first binds the strong man” before he “plunders his house” (Matt. 12:29).  Before God can take possession of a person, Satan’s power in him must be defeated.  “The plundering of the Strong Man’s house takes place only after he had been defeated” (Beasley-Murray, l986, 109).

The defeat of Satan during Jesus’ ministry was a foretaste of what Jesus did in breaking the chains of death and being raised from the dead (Col. 2:15).  The entire ministry of Jesus was characterized by triumph over Satan.  This has become a testimony to later generations that “He who is in you is greater than he who is in the world” (1 John 4:4).

Thus the kingdom was not only proclaimed by word but also by deed.  Jesus proclaimed the message of the kingdom while as he was casting out demons and helping the blind to see and the lame to walk (Matt. 11:5).  The kingdom in the New Testament is seen as the “dynamic activity of God, operative in, with, and through” Jesus Christ (Beasley-Murray 1986, 74).

Kingdom Perspectives in Early Christian Proclamation

The kingdom was also proclaimed in the ministry of the early church.  When Philip went to Samaria and “proclaimed Christ there” (Acts 8:5), his message was “the good news of the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ” (Acts 8:12).  Paul was said to have gone “about preaching the kingdom” (Acts 20:25).  His ministry was launched by the very nature of his conversion on the road to Damascus.  Christ called him to proclaim the gospel to Gentiles–“to open their eyes and turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God” (Acts 26:18).  Paul in Rome declared to the Jews the “kingdom of God” (Acts 28:23).  Pauline epistles proclaim deliverance “from the dominion of darkness . . . into the kingdom of the Son” (Col. 1:13).  Apostolic preaching was kingdom proclamation.

This proclamation of the kingdom is especially apropos in animistic contexts.  For example, Simon was a sorcerer in Samaria whose strength was so vast that he was acclaimed “the great power” (Acts 8:9-11).  Philip forcefully preached the mighty acts of God in defeating the powers of Satan–the message of “the good news of the kingdom and the name of Jesus Christ” (Acts 8:12).  Simon, most likely drawn by the demonstration of power that accompanied Philip’s message, believed and was baptized (Acts 8:13).  Even as a Christian, Simon could not resist seeking power.  He thought that Peter and John, apostles sent from Jerusalem to impart spiritual gifts to the new Samaritan Christians, were power brokers like the animistic practitioners of his tradition.  Simon, therefore, asking to buy the power of the “laying on of the apostles’ hands” (Acts 8:18).  Although he may have received apostolic gifts by Peter and John laying their hands on him, he also wanted the power to dispense these gifts.  He was equating the power of God with the powers of his animistic heritage.

Inaugurated Eschatology

In biblical writings about the kingdom there is an evident “tension between the `already’ and the `not yet.’ The kingdom has been inaugurated but has not yet been completed” (Osborne 1987). Christians, who have been “strengthened with all power according to his glorious might” in the present age, anticipate “the inheritance of the saints in the kingdom of light” (Col. 1:11).  They have “tasted the powers of the age to come!” (Heb. 6:5).  The concept that the kingdom is already in the world but has not yet been consummated is termed inaugurated eschatology.  The rule that God has initiated in Jesus Christ actively continues through those who believe in him and will be consummated at the end of the age (Beasley-Murray 1986, 80).

The parables of the kingdom make clear the nature of the rule of God in a world where the powers of Satan continue to exist.  The parable in Matthew 13:24-30 shows the tares and the wheat existing side by side.  The tares represent “the sons of the evil one” and the wheat “the sons of the kingdom” (vs. 38).  Because their roots have become intermingled, removing only the tares would endanger the wheat as well.  The focus of the parable is on the command “Let them grow together until the harvest” (vs. 30).  Jesus teaches that the good and bad are not separated in the present age.  This separation is the final work of God when he consummates his kingdom with judgment: The tares will be separated from the wheat and “righteousness will shine forth . . . in the kingdom of their father” (13:43).  This parable thus gives a reason for the continuance of Satan’s kingdom even though God’s kingdom in Christ is has come into the world.

Even though the kingdom of God has come, the kingdom of Satan continues to exist. Contrary to Jewish expectations, the arrival of the kingdom of God did not eradicate of the kingdom of Satan.

This concept of inaugurated eschatology compels the animist who is overwhelmed by evil forces to wait for God to act.  He knows that evil forces coexist in this world with forces of God.  He must not “consult the mediums and wizards” (Isa. 8:19) but “wait for the Lord” (Isaiah8:17) and turn to “the law and to the testimony” (Isaiah 8:20).  He must not “consult the dead on behalf of the living” (Isaiah 8:19).  A Christian of an animist heritage knows that the kingdom of God and the kingdom of Satan coexist in this present world and is able to differentiate the two.

Kingdom Proclamation in Animistic and Secular Contexts

Kingdom theology is appropriate for Christian proclamation in animistic and secular contexts for a number of reasons.

First, kingdom theology provides an interpretive model for explaining the world that is based on the Word of God.

Those who have come to Christ from an animistic heritage will understand that spirit propitiation and appeasement of both malevolent and ambivalent spirits and gods are of the realm of Satan; the worship of the awesome, majestic Creator is of the realm of God. Spirit possession, black magic, and witchcraft are of the reign of Satan; God protects the Christian from the malevolent use of all such powers in his kingdom. In the kingdom of Satan morality is relative, defined by society and by relations with ambivalent spiritual beings.  In the kingdom of God morality is defined by a holy God who expects his people to reflect his nature.  Kingdom theology, therefore, provides a holistic philosophy to help the animist understand the reality of God in the world.

Those who have come to Christ from a secular heritage have come to believe that the world is not a self-contained universe where humans operate autonomously.  Rather humans have been created in the “image of God,” in his “likeness” (Genesis 1:26-27).  As his creations living in his world, they should be, as John Calvin wrote, a “mirror reflecting God.”  Humans are not merely made “from the dust” but are also inbreathed by God to become “living beings” (Genesis 2:7).  Humans have been created with “consciences” which bear witness to the essence of the law although they may not have had God’s law (Romans 2:15).  The secularist, thus, must be persuaded to look at the world as God’s world.  God is the ultimate King ruling over his creation.  Human attributes and morality should, therefore, be defined by the divine nature:  “God is love.  Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in him” (1 John 4:16).  “Be holy in all you do; for it is written:  ‘Be holy because I am holy” (1 Peter 1:15).  The attributes of God are then formed in those who as secularists lived by their own rationality.

Second, kingdom theology introduces the reign of God.

This perspective equips believers to attack and defeat the powers of Satan.  By the power of Christ fetishes and altars are destroyed, satanic laws overturned, and the spirit-possessed healed.  God in his spirit protects his children so that there is no fear of magic or witchcraft.  A Christian’s relationship to God casts out all fear (1 John 4:18).  Above all, in Jesus Christ there is forgiveness of sins; so harmony with God and with his world is reestablished.  The church, like Jesus, actively confronts Satan’s powers in all their manifestations in order to bring people under the sovereignty of God.  Christians have the assurance that they will overcome because they have a greater power than that which is in the world (1 John 4:4).

This perspective enables believers to challenge secularists who attempt to live by their own might and power with little or no reliance on God.  The Christian teaches, “This is God’s world.  We must learn to trust him for all of our needs and praise him as the one Lord of the world.”  Christians humbly acknowledge that they know little about God’s world.  “For the foolishness of God is wiser than man’s wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man’s strength. . . .  Where is the wise man?  Where is the scholar?  Where is the philosopher of this age?  Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? ” (1 Corinthians 1:25, 20).

Third, kingdom theology makes no dichotomy between the natural and the supernatural.

Kingdom theology enables those from an animistic heritage to acknowledge that the encounter between God and Satan is actively taking place in this world.  God heals the sick, blesses and protects his children, and casts out spirits as manifestations of the kingdom.  God controls all facets of his world, both physical and spiritual.  No dichotomy should be made between these two realms. The missionary working in an animistic society must believe in the reign of God over all domains of life.

Kingdom theology, for those who have come to Christ from a secular heritage, enables them understand the interconnectedness of the natural and spiritual and to live in a trusting relationship with creator God.  God becomes to them the “I AM THAT I AM,” the ever-present Holy One reigning supreme over His world (Exodus 3:14).  As Christians from an secular heritage come to know God, they perceive God’s nature within his creation. “God’s invisible qualities–his eternal power and divine nature–have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made” (Romans 1:20).  “The heavens declare the glory of God!” (Psalm 19:1).  Human intelligence is not something that has evolved but a created essence belonging to God.

Fourth, while conversion theology is individualistic, kingdom theology is systemic.

It aims to Christianize the entire cultural system. Not only must the individual give allegiance to creator God in Jesus Christ, but the customs, mores, and laws which have been contorted by the influence of Satan must also be Christianized.  Ethics and morality thus become part of the proclamation of the kingdom of God.  For example, rites of passages into different stages of life must be made Christian.  When a child is born, he is blessed before God rather than having an ancestor called into him.  The coming-of-age rite will initiate children into Christian adulthood.  Prayers for God’s blessing upon marriage rites will mirror faith in God rather than having beer spit upon a traditional wedding band asking for ancestral blessings.  Birth, marriage, and coming-of-age rites must all demonstrate the nature of Christ.  During times of drought and famine, God, the giver of rain, is beseeched in prayer. The reign of Christ must be seen in every facet of life.  Those coming to Christ from animistic and secular heritages must declare God’s reign over every aspect of human life.


It is appropriate at this point to say, “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:9-10).  God’s kingdom comes whenever Christ is proclaimed, and people by faith accept God’s grace and become holy, loving communities of faith reflecting his divine nature.

Let us pray:  “O God, may your kingdom come ‘on earth as it is in heaven.’  May we receive and enter your kingdom acknowledging you as King of kings and Lord of lords.”

Sources Used

Abraham, William J. 1989.  The Logic of Evangelism. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.

Ambrozic, A. M. 1972.  The Hidden Kingdom: A Redaction Critical Study of the

References to the Kingdom of God in Mark’s Gospel. Catholic Biblical Quarterly-Monograph Series, 2. Washington: Catholic Biblical Quarterly.

Beasley-Murray. G.R. 1986.  Jesus and the Kingdom of God. Grand Rapids:  Eerdmans.

Bellah, Robert N., Richard Madsen, Wm. M. Sullivan, Ann Swidler, and Steven M.

Tipton. 1985.  Habits of the Heart. New York: Harper and Row.

Ferguson, Everett. 1989.  The Everlasting Kingdom. Abilene, Tex.: A.C.U. Press.

Guder, Darrell L. Ed.  1998.  Missional Church:  A Vision for the Sending of the Church

in North America.  Grand Rapids:  Eerdmans.

Ladd, George E. 1959.  The Gospel of the Kingdom. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.

________. 1981. The Gospel of the Kingdom. In Perspectives on the World Christian

Movement, ed. Ralph D. Winter and Steven C. Hawthorne, 51-69. Pasadena: Wm. Carey Library.

Love, Mark.  2003.  Unpublished Description of the Missional Church.  Academic

Committee of the Graduate School of Theology:  Abilene Christian University

Osborne, Grant. 1987. Classroom Lectures in “Missions in the New Testament,” DMS

321. Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, Chicago, Ill., July 13-17.

Moltmann, Jurgen. 1981.  The Trinity and the Kingdom. San Francisco: Harper & Row,


Senior, Donald and Carroll Stuhlmueller. 1984. The Biblical Foundations for Mission.

Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books.

5 Replies to “Proclaiming the Kingdom of God among Animists and Secularists”

    1. Thanks, Jimmy, for your reflections on this 2003 blog! I appreciate your insight. Note my more recent blog at on “Competing Worldviews: ‘Why Can’t You See the Gospel Like I Do?’” at I is part of the reflections about the Missional Helix in Chapter 13 of Missions: Biblical Foundations and Contemporary Strategies (2nd edition, Zondervan/Harper Collins). I think you would find this article and this book helpful on your journey. Thanks so much for your reflections.


    1. Ilene, thanks for the ask. No, it has not been translated into Spanish. I would love to find a co-worker with qualifications who might work with me and Zondervan/Harper Collins to do this. Do you have any suggestions?

      Also, tell me about yourself. Where do you live? How is God using you in His mission? Have you used the Missions text in equipping leaders? If so, I am developing notes for a Perspectives type course based upon the content of the Missions course.

      For the sake of His kingdom,
      Gailyn Van Rheenen

    2. Ilene, thanks for the ask. No, it has not been translated into Spanish. I would love to find a co-worker with qualifications who might work with me and Zondervan/Harper Collins to do this. Do you have any suggestions?

      Also, tell me about yourself. Where do you live? How is God using you in His mission? Have you used the Missions text in equipping leaders? If so, I am developing notes for a Perspectives type course based upon the content of the Missions course.

      For the sake of His kingdom,
      Gailyn Van Rheenen

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