Every two years, the Baptist-run Vose Seminary in Perth hosts an academic conference. The theme of the 15-16 August 2011 conference was ‘Beyond Four Walls’, with a focus on church and mission. The keynote speaker was prolific US New Testament scholar Scot McKnight, a self-identified Anabaptist.
In his opening talk, Scot claimed most Christians have reduced the gospel to either justice or justification. Christians on the left have mistakenly thought the good news can be reduced to social justice. Christians on the right have mistakenly thought the good news can be reduced to personal salvation in the form of justification. Scot called us to remember the gospel is found primarily not in Paul but in the first four books of the New Testament, all of them the one gospel, not four, but told by four different writers. The gospel cannot be reduced to Jesus’ death; it is the whole story of Jesus and it is Jesus’ announcement of the kingdom.
Scot began so many of his sentences with ‘As an Anabaptist’ that one of the first questions thrown at him from the audience was, ‘Why are you an Anabaptist?’. He responded, ‘Because I read my Bible.’ After the laughter subsided he explained that he thought the Anabaptist emphasis on discipleship and the centrality of Jesus was the right way to approach Christianity. He mentioned the strong influence Anabaptist theologian Ron Sider had had on him in his formative years. In a conversation I had with him, McKnight said that he saw himself as somewhere between Sider and John Howard Yoder. He finished off his answer to the question from the audience by saying, ‘And that’s why I go to a very Anabaptist church called Willow Creek.’ Willow Creek, a megachurch which invented ‘seeker-sensitive services’, is about as far from Anabaptist ecclesiology as I can imagine, although it has focused more on discipleship in recent years. The joke may have been lost on much of the audience, but he was acknowledging a dilemma which faces many Anabaptists in Australia and New Zealand – finding a church which fits our beliefs.
If Scot’s first talk offended many on the right, his final talk offended some on the left. He spoke of the increasing focus on ‘justice’ amongst his students and their belief that working with NGOs and politics to achieve social justice was ‘kingdom work’. Scot insisted that this was not kingdom work but social work. He called for unglamorous, quiet church-based justice: looking after the aged, the widowed, the poor within the church community, and constantly reaching beyond the boundaries to bring more people into the church. There were controversial words, but ones worth contemplating for those of us who tend to see social justice as kingdom work. Scot says his forthcoming book, The King Jesus Gospel, will explain his position better. It does need better explaining, and I think his words may have given comfort to people in the ‘do-nothing’ camp. But in part, he means what Yoder means in Body Politics, and that is that the church needs to embody justice to the world.