The parallel concepts of the church of God and the kingdom of God are both taught in the New Testament, first by the Lord Jesus Christ, and then by His apostles. Jesus taught extensively about the kingdom and its moral principles (including in what is called the Sermon on the Mount), while He simply and briefly introduced His church, the assembly of God, as an entity that He would form and build at a future time (Matthew 16:18). Upon providing a glimpse of the church to His disciples, Jesus gave to Peter the keys to the “kingdom of heaven” (or “kingdom of the heavens”, a more specific term than the “kingdom of God”). This meant that Peter had the responsibility to allow both the Jews and Gentiles into the realm of the kingdom, the sphere of Christian profession entered by baptism.¹ But it was Paul at a later time who received from the ascended Christ the fullness of the truth of the church He had already begun to build.
We ought not confuse the kingdom and the church. The lack of a good understanding of the principles connected with each of these concepts has allowed for sectarianism, worldliness, and legalism among Christians corporately, and has caused misunderstanding on more specific issues such as communion, assembly discipline, and baptism.
Pertinent to this discussion is the meaning of the term “Christianity”, which has been in common usage for centuries, although we don’t find it as such in the scriptures. We read the term “Christian” three times in the Bible, and in each case it refers to individual disciples who were given that designation by outsiders who evidently noticed that they sought to walk through this world in obedience to Christ.² But since “Christianity” is universally used to refer to the great world religion that has Christ for its founder (to speak as men of the world might), I would suggest this clarification of the term for the believing mind: The church of God is Christianity in its essence and in reality, while the kingdom is Christianity as to its ethics, and in responsibility to the absent King. When we speak of Christianity as a religion, we can sometimes also use “Christendom”, which is similar in scope to the kingdom of heaven, for we are referring to that mass of people whom God holds responsible as having been privileged to receive and enjoy Christian ethics or morality. However, when we speak of Christianity as that heavenly thing introduced by Christ and the apostles and much better than Judaism and the Law, it is really applicable only to those who by faith have received the gospel, who are actually members of the invisible church of God.
Here are some principles that apply to the church of God, that are not applicable to the kingdom of God, or the kingdom of heaven:
- The church is entered by believing in one’s heart the gospel of the grace of God, that Christ died on the cross for our sins, was buried, and rose again the third day, and is seated at God’s right hand (I Corinthians 15:1-4);
- It is invisible, in the sense that the reality of an individual’s faith in Christ cannot be seen by natural means, no matter their denomination or church-going habits (II Timothy 2:19);
- It is seen as a body, the body of Christ, with Him as its Head, never to be separated from Him (I Corinthians 12:12-13);
- It is known as Christ’s bride and wife, whom He has washed and cleansed both with the blood of His atonement, and by the water of the word of God (Ephesians 5:22-33);
- It is called into the fellowship or communion of the Son of God, of which the Lord’s Supper at the Lord’s Table is a sign that calls for vigilance in maintaining holiness among those who commune there (I Corinthians 1:9; 10:16-22; 11:26-31).
And here are a few of the principles of the kingdom, that conversely do not apply to the church:
- The kingdom of the heavens is entered by baptism, and the disciples were given the command to “make disciples of all nations” by Him who, as King, has been given “all power” in heaven and earth, and to baptize them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit (Matthew 28:18-20);
- It is visible, in the sense that those who have undergone Christian baptism at whatever age can be quantified and observed, and are considered responsible to practice Christian ethics as disciples (Matthew 18:22-35);
- It is a sphere or realm over which Christ is even now the rightful King (although He has not yet been manifested to the world as King), and all who profess subjection to Him are in that kingdom (Matthew 22:1-14);
- It may include true believers and false professors of Christ, and there is sometimes no way to tell them apart, so they are both allowed to go on side-by-side until the end of the age (Matthew 13:24-30);
- Little children are of the kingdom, it pertains to them, and that is true in a special way for the children of believing parents (Matthew 19:14; Mark 10:14; I Corinthians 7:14).
As a brief aside, let us just notice the difference in the designations “the kingdom of heaven” and “the kingdom of God”. The first is a dispensational term used only in Matthew where the Lord’s teaching has a particularly dispensational character, and the second is often used when referring to a sphere of moral privilege and responsibility resulting from the proclamation of the gospel, whether during the church period or not.³
The apostle Paul spoke to the Ephesian elders (in Acts 20:24-28) of having preached the “kingdom of God”, and then almost in the next breath, he encourages the elders to shepherd the “church of God”. While referencing both the kingdom and the church, he does not conflate the two, but allows them each their proper bearing in the context. It would not make sense at all to switch the two phrases in that passage, for the privileges and responsibilities of the kingdom are to be proclaimed to all men for faith to grasp, but the church of God, so near the heart of the Lord Jesus as its Savior, Head, and Bridegroom, is to be shepherded by the elders with all the tender care of that great Shepherd of the sheep.
More could be written on the subject of the kingdom of God and the church of God, but I will end with a few lines on the subject of baptism. The courageous Anabaptists of 16th century Switzerland saw the dead formalism of infant baptism as practiced in the Roman Catholic church and by the Reformers, and rejected infant baptism as an institution. They suffered much for that courage. But this they apparently did not understand, that baptism does not give one entrance into the church of God, and it is never presented that way in the scriptures. Baptism gives entrance into the kingdom, where the authority of the King is recognized, and many parents, on the initiative of their own faith, bring their households under that authority by baptizing their children. In this way, they make public their desire to raise and disciple their children as Christians, according to the moral requirements or ethics of the kingdom of God. We read in the Bible of several households that were baptized as households.* Indeed, how could a Jewish parent who got saved have borne thought of leaving their children on Jewish ground, while they themselves took the ground that baptism separated them from the guilt of the Jewish nation?° They would have had no inhibition against baptizing their children, for they had neither teaching that forbade it, nor a thousand years of ritualistic, enforced infant baptism to repulse their consciences.
There are very many godly believers who hold a strong “believer’s baptism” point of view, and their concerns as to the institutionalization of infant baptism and “baptismal regeneration”, as practiced and taught in the great systems in Christendom, are legitimate indeed. But the practice of baptism should never have been a reason for separation from fellowship or a cause of sectarian division among true saints of God, and it certainly should never have occasioned the persecution of those who refused to bow to its ritualism, for it is not given the weight of a foundation doctrine by the word of God. Even now, proponents of believer’s baptism and household baptists are able to go on together in happy fellowship in many places.
What ought to guide us in these matters of Christian practice and fellowship is a good understanding of the distinction that the Lord Jesus and his apostles made between the church of God and the kingdom of God. The Lord Jesus is the rightful King that heaven has received for manifestation in a future earthly kingdom, and He is also the Head of the body, the church, and we bring honor to Him in recognizing and acting upon all that the scriptures teach concerning Him, who is eminently worthy.
¹ See Acts 2:37-40 as to the Jews, and Acts 10:44-48 as to the Gentiles. See also Acts 8:12, where baptism is again connected with the proclamation of the kingdom of God.
² Acts 11:26, 26:28, and I Peter 4:16
³ For example: “The kingdom of God is come nigh unto you,” and “The kingdom of God is within you” (Luke 10:9; 17:21).
* Acts 16:15, 33; I Corinthians 1:16
° Acts 2:38-40; 22:16