Niebuhr Part 2: Christians in an “Immoral Society”

Last week, I analyzed the basic thesis and orientation of Reinhold Niebuhr in Moral Man and Immoral Society.[1]. This week, my intention is to deal the way in which his basic thesis is flushed out in certain chapters of MMIS. I do not want to repeat Niebuhr’s biography, but merely remind the readers that MMIS represents the early work and thought of this great thinker. Over the years, he modified his views. In particular, the evident Marxist and materialist bias of the early years is not prominent in Niebuhr’s later works, some of which I intend to eventually cover.

The Social Gospel movement of the early 20th century impacted the thought of the early Niebuhr. Although by the time he wrote MMIS the problems of the Russian revolution, and in particular its violence and descent into an abuse of power that Niebuhr found offensive, was beginning to disillusion Western Intellectuals, the full extent of the oppression Lenin and Stalin unleashed was not fully known. The gross inefficiencies of Communist economic organization, which would eventually doom the Soviet Union, was also not well known. In Western Europe, the economic stagnation created by the centralized socialist enterprises of Western European nations after World War II was not fully understood until much later, near the end of the 20th Century.

Finally, and most importantly, the impact of contemporary science and the end of the modern world-view, ie. seeing reality as composed of matter and force, and a Cartesian division between mind and matter, had not reached the point where writers like Niebuhr intuitively understood the distortion dualistic and materialistic thinking was making in their understanding of politics. This is a reminder that every generation is captured by worldview that is implicit in the way they see reality and can distort thinking about matters of importance. This is true of ours as well as prior generations. A fair reading of Niebuhr requires keeping these factors in mind.

The Source of Social Conflict

According to Niebuhr, the basic source of social conflicts and injustices is ignorance and selfishness. [2]Enlightenment optimism traditional held that education, both moral and political, would eventually overcome the social conflict and injustice resulting from human finitude and self-centeredness. Niebuhr recognized that this optimism was not warranted and concluded that education and increased reasonableness are not alone sufficient to overcome injustice and social conflict. [3] While human reason and our capacity to act rationality increases our ability to appreciate the needs of others and transcend our innate selfishness, there is a limit to the ability of moral imagination and sympathy to overcome natural human selfishness and class interest.

This is not to say that human beings lack moral capacity. Reason is not the only source of human moral intuition. Thus, Niebuhr writes:

Reason is not the sole basis of moral virtue in man. His social impulses are more deeply rooted than his rational life. Reason may extend and stabilize but it does not create the capacity to affirm other life than it is own.  [4]

Human social capacities are innate and do give human beings a desire to live in harmony with others, especially as concerns family life and those nearest to us.” [5] One sees in this quotation a recognition of the communal aspects of human life and their importance in social life.

While reason and education can broaden the innate moral capacity of human beings, it is not capable of completely overcoming the impact of personal selfishness, class interest, and social norms. This is particularly true where economic and class social advantages are concerned. The very sociability of human beings makes us inclined to support our own family, our own desires, and our own social group to the exclusion of others. Thus, human reason cannot achieve social harmony alone, for the irrational force of human Will to Power, and the limitations upon social reasons, make it impossible for human beings to create a fully just society. [6]

Religion and Social Conflict

The Enlightenment impacted both secular and religious thought. Progressive religious thinkers also became optimistic about the power of human reason to change human beings unjust human social institutions. This optimism was especially evident in the Social Gospel movement previously covered by these blogs. As early as MMIS, Niebuhr moves intellectuals towards a more realistic view of the role of religion in social change. Religion has a role to play, but it is limited.

Religion is fundamentally an orientation towards the Absolute (God), and that Absolute includes a notion of absolute justice and morality. In the case of the Christian religion that absolute is captured by the phrase, “God is love” (I John 4:8, 16). Faced with the absolute holiness and love of God, the Christian is faced with a sense of his or her own sinful inadequacy and failures to love. Thus, Niebuhr begins his analysis with the following observation:

If the recognition of selfishness is the prerequisite to the mitigation of its force and the diminution of its anti-social consequences in society, religion should be a dominant influence in the socialization of man; for religion is fruitful of the spirit of contrition. Feeling himself under the scrutiny of an omniscient eye, and setting his puny will into juxtaposition with a holy and omnipotent will, the religious man is filled with a sense of shame for the impertinence of his self- centered life. [7]

According to Niebuhr, there are two reasons why religion cannot completely fulfill its promise as a source of social change. First, religion deals with the relationship of people and communities with the Absolute. [8] As such, irreligious faith frequently causes those individuals to view as secondary the achievement of social justice. This is particularly evident in mystical or monastic religion where the physical world is denigrated or superseded by the spiritual world.

Secondly, as to the Christian faith, the religious ideal of absolute love can result in a sense of defeatism once it is recognized that absolute love is unachievable within the boundaries of human history, or a sense of powerlessness change the existing social order.

In my view, Niebuhr misconceives the nature of love as it functions in human society. While it is true that Christians proclaim that “God is love,” and a special kind of self-giving love revealed on the cross, this absolute self-giving love in no way creates a sense of defeatism as it is applied in political matters. To the contrary, the love of God is the strongest motive to remain involved in the business of social improvement. The defeatism, if any, is caused by the human propensity to expect too much too quicky and to be impatient with the slow process of wise and loving change.

The distinction between justice and love embedded in Niebuhr’s thought (and om the thought of many of his followers) misconceives the nature of justice. Justice is not something different than love. Justice is the practical application of love in finite and sinful human society. Because human beings are sinful and finite, human society reflects the finitude and sinfulness of its inhabitants. Under these conditions, justice will never be absolute because human love is never fully absolute. Instead, for the Christian, human society is in a process of translating the gospel of love into concrete forms. This is not just true in society. It’s true in the family, marriage, business, every social organization.

This leads to an analysis the role of eschatology in Niebuhr’s thought. The apocalyptic visions of various religions represent the emergence of an ideal society or situation for a religious group. This religious ideal is particularly evident in Jewish and Christian eschatological thinking. Marxism secularized that apocalyptic vision into an ideal society that can be achieved within history and justified the use of violence in the achievement of the “classless society”.

There’s no area of Niebuhr’s thought that is more likely to have changed over the years than this particular area. Although at the time of MMIS Niebuhr was aware that the Russian regime showed signs of substituting an oppressive political elite for an economic elite, the full implications of this revelation had not yet dawned on Niebuhr and others. [9]

Any attempt to forcefully create a perfect world within history is doomed and inevitably results in misuse of power, social violence and tragedy that one sees in 20th century Marxist and Nazi regimes. The propensity to use violence and distort a society in the search for social improvement is not the sole preserve of the upper classes, the middle class, or the proletariat. All classes, in fact all human beings, when placed into power abuse that power. Real social improvement is never revolutionary, but evolutionary involving the cooperation of all of a society.

The Morality of International Affairs

One of the most insightful and important chapters in MMIS has to do with the morality of international affairs. In this chapter, the perceptive social realism of Niebuhr is abundantly evident. He gives many examples to sustain this thesis that international affairs are inevitably selfish and self-centered.

Niebuhr sees the modern nation state as the central and most important social institution. [10] Families, neighborhoods, cities, territorial jurisdictions, business organizations, religious organization and other institutions all these are secondary to the central institution of the nation state. At this point I think Niebuhr makes an error that is endemic in modern thought. The modern nation-state is the result of a long process by which families gather together into tribes, tribes gathered into giving cities towns and other social groupings, and those other social groupings began to coalesce in such a way that the modern nation state was formed. Each of the fundamental levels are important. The greatest single error of the modern social theory is placing too much emphasis on the nation-state while ignoring the other social institutions that make it possible.

This being said, there is no question but what the modern nation state, and its relationship with other nations, and increasingly and its relationships with its own people, does not feel restricted by any form of common morality in its exercise of power. Interestingly, there is a movement to create international courts, the United Nations, and a variety of other institutions for the very purpose of moderating this facet of the modern nation-state. In my view, the movement toward the development of an international legal system may be motivated by a subconscious understanding that the currently existing system of nation states is morally and legally inadequate.

The problem is created by the fact that nation-states are unable to create a collective in which the selfish interests of the collective can be sought on a wider scale. [11] Naturally, the larger the nation state the more effective it is in seeking its own best interests to the exclusion of the interests of others. One particularly perceptive passage, Niebuhr quotes Washington’s dictum that “Nations are not to be trusted beyond their own self-interest.” [12] This was true in every age of human history, not just the modern age.

This tendency to act without concern for the interest of anything or anyone but the nation state results in a huge element of hypocrisy that cannot possibly be avoided given human sin and finitude. Niebuhr gives so many examples that it’s impossible to not realize that the United States has been guilty of this kind of hypocrisy in its history just as have other nations. However, it is important to recognize that there are certain actions which a democratic government cannot do if the voters believe that the action would be immoral or unjust. The final American unwillingness to participate in the Vietnam War is a good example of where a social moral judgment made impossible the continuing prosecution of the war. On the positive side, there’s no question but what the entrance of the United States into the Second World War, which was partially motivated by selfish and secular motives, was accompanied by the moral motive to defend democracy.

Finally, Niebuhr understands that it is impossible to fully ameliorate the selfish tendencies of nations by the use of international authority, which is never impartial and also is itself a source of hypocrisy and injustice. [13] International organizations are often under the control of dominant groups and are therefore used to undermine justice as often as support its extension.


I hoped to conclude these blogs as they relate to MMIS this week, but the book is simply too dense and difficult to permit that to happen. Next week, I will, by some means, find a way to conclude these blogs.

Copyright 2022, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Reinhold Niebuhr, Moral Man and Immoral Society: A Study in Ethic and Politics (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1932, 2001), hereinafter, “MMIS”.

[2] MMIS, at 23.

[3] Id at 34-35.

[4] Id, at 26.

[5] Id.

[6] Niebuhr is obviously familiar with Nietzsche and makes numerous references to the Will to Power and its impact upon human society in his work. In my view, this is an aspect of the early Niebuhr that reflects his materialism and an implicit division between the subjective ability of human reason to apprehend a moral course of action and a deterministic idea of how social groups work. Obviously, I disagree with this implicit bias of the early Niebuhr. See, MMIS at 35

[7] Id, at 54.

[8] Id, 52.

[9] Id, at 114. “In modern Russia a csass nt ve developing which dependd for its power not upon economic strength but upon the ability to manipulate political power.”

[10] Id, at 83.

[11] Id, at 84.

[12] Id, at 84.

[13] Id, at 110-111.

Niebuhr No.1: Moral Man and Immoral Society

Reinhold Niebuhr’s Moral Man and Immoral Society is an important but difficult book to review. [1] During my undergraduate and graduate years, this book was required reading. On both occasions, the book made an impact. I have since read it again and again over the years. Together with his monumental work, The Nature and Destiny of Man, Moral Man and Immoral Society represents the best example of an attempt to articulate a “realistic Christian political philosophy for the 20th Century” and the high point of what is sometimes called, “Christian Realism,” an attempt to articulate a political philosophy that is both Christian and realistic in its view of human nature and human institutions.

A short biography may be helpful. Reinhold Niebuhr (1892–1971) was born in Wright City Missouri, the son of German immigrants. His father was a German Reformed Evangelical pastor. Niebuhr attended Eden Theological Seminary in Webster Groves, Missouri, and then Yale Divinity School. He was eventually sent by the German Evangelical Alliance to pastor a small church in Detroit, Michigan. The church grew dramatically under his leadership.

In this pastorate Niebuhr was exposed to the poverty of the American industrial working class, which impacted his thought in profound ways. In 1928, Niebuhr left Detroit to become Professor of Practical Theology at Union Theological Seminary in New York. He spent the rest of his career at Union.

His experiences in Detroit and sympathy for the working man resulted in his initially embracing a strictly socialist philosophy, a view he eventually abandoned as he developed his mature Christian realism. Moral Man and Immoral Society represents the early Niebuhr and not his mature thought as worked out in, among other works, The Nature and Destiny of Man.

As his neo-orthodox theological view of the human person and God developed, Niebuhr was an important voice in emphasizing the fallenness of the human race and the moral frailty of human institutions. Niebuhr supported the Second World War and in opposed some of the more fanciful proposals of radicals before, during, and after the war. He influenced and supported such figures as the German theologian and martyr, Dietrich Bonhoeffer. From the 1930’s until his work fell out of favor around the crisis of the Viet Nam War, Moral Man and Immoral Society was recognized as a work of religious, philosophical and practical insight into the way in which Christian faith interacts with secular politics.

In the end, his work stands as the supreme achievement of American political theology.

As Francis Fukyama put it:

…. Niebuhr played an invaluable role during the tumultuous 1930s and 1940s by bringing Christians to terms with participation in the Second World War and later the Cold War. The Christian doctrine of sinfulness and the Fall meant, according to Niebuhr, the ever-present possibility of evil, which was all too evident in spreading fascist and communist doctrines. Moral action did not imply passivity in the face of sin, nor were leaders of communities bound by the same moral constraints as individuals. Though now primarily remembered for its tough-mindedness, Niebuhr’s book bears rereading to remind us that a realistic morality is not the same thing as amoral realism, that power, even in the service of justice, must recognize its own limitations, and that democracies were capable of their own kind of hubris. [2]

In recent years, his work has gained a new hearing among scholars and practical people alike, and there seems to be a bit of resurgence in interest in this ideas.


Niehbur’s book begins with a thesis that contains the genius and the limitations of his book:

The thesis to be elaborated in these pages is that a sharp distinction must be drawn between the moral and social behavior of individuals and of social groups, national, racial, and economic; and that this distinction justifies and necessitates political policies which a purely individualistic ethic must always find embarrassing.


Individual men may be moral in the sense that they are able to consider interests other than their own in determining problems of conduct, and are capable, on occasion, of preferring the advantages of others to their own. They are endowed by nature with a measure of sympathy and consideration for their kind, the breadth of which may be extended by an astute social pedagogy. Their rational faculty prompts them to a sense of justice which educational discipline may refine and purge of egoistic elements until they are able to view a social situation, in which their own interests are involved, with a fair measure of objectivity. But all these achievements are more difficult, if not impossible, for human societies and social groups. In every human group there is less reason to guide and to check impulse, less capacity for self-transcendence, less ability to comprehend the needs of others and therefore more unrestrained egoism than the individuals, who compose the group, reveal in their personal relationships. [3]

He goes on to say again:

As individuals, men believe that they ought to love and serve each other and establish justice between each other. As racial, economic and national groups they take for themselves. Whatever their power can command. [4]

For the early Niebuhr, as individuals, human beings are capable of acting from Christian love and morality. However, in groups, human beings act according to baser motives of social, class and national advantage. It is my view that the fundamental error the early Niebuhr makes is right at the beginning: his division between “moral man” and “immoral society.”

Distinction Between Moral Humanity and Immoral Social Institutions

I question whether this distinction was accurate in Niebuhr’s time, and it is clearly not true in the post-Christian America today. Niebuhr himself recognized the false impression his title gave (it was the idea of his publisher), and even quipped that he should have titled the book, “Immoral Man and Even More Immoral Society.” The fact is that the tendency to ignore moral motives is a part of human nature and a constant threat to personal as well as social morality.

In my view, the better view is that finite and self-centered human beings create limited, selfish and often unjust societies, which in turn create finite and self-centered people. This is why humility, a sense of social solidarity, wisdom, and the ability to show restraint are important to both individuals and societies.

Niebuhr was correct, however, in seeing that the reason societies can create a different level of injustice is because of the magnifying impact of collective activity. For example, it is unlikely that Adolf Hitler could have instituted anything like the death camps alone. But, if you combine a demonic leader with compliant architects, engineers, chemists, soldiers, police, and judges, death camps become a possibility. In other words, the difference in social and personal evil is not qualitative but quantitative. The old saying, “two hands are better than one” is true whether the deed be for the good or for evil.

This insight is important today, when we can easily see the multiplicative power of social evil. Niebuhr wrote at a kind of peak of the power of Western, Christian, Protestant civilization. He assumes that the majority of European and Americans believe that they ought to love and serve each other and in their personal lives do so to one degree or another. A bit of experience in the world shows this to be untrue. Individual people tell lies, seek their own advantage, serve their own interests and disregard morality just as often as do social units. The problem today is that both personal and social morality are compromised, and the Christian consensus that existed in the America of his day is largely absent.

Humanity and Human Society

Niebuhr begins by observing that human beings have had trouble from the beginning with their “aggregate existence”. Throughout human history, human beings have had difficulty living together without violence and social inequality. The advancement in science and technology that changed human economic and industrial capacity created little in the way of “social progress” to overcome human selfishness and the inequality it breeds.

The use of the term “aggregate existence” by Niebuhr betrays a Newtonian, mechanistic, atomistic notion of human society. Implicit in the term is the view that human society is not something that exists before, during. and after an individual life, but is “an aggregate” of individuals. In other words, human beings are social and political monads bound together by social force. [5]  This seems to me to be neither an accurate description of human society nor the individual human situation within society. Human society exists before individuals, molds individuals, and then is changed and enriched by individuals who act within that society while at the same time forming it. [6] We emerge from a social context of which we remain a part all of our lives.

Given Niebuhr’s initial views of the relationship between individual human beings and society, it is not surprising that he views individuals as capable of being driven by reason and morality, but social units as being fundamentally driven by the search for and use of power. In a society made up of individual human social units, the connective tissue is bound to be power, just as in Newtonian Mechanics, atoms are acted upon by force. Thus, Niebuhr reflects:

All social cooperation on a larger scale than the most intimate social group requires a measure of coercion. While no state can maintain its unity purely by coercion neither can it preserve itself without coercion. [7]

For the younger Niebuhr, at the root of human society is the Will to Power and the force of those in leadership exerted against a society to maintain order and social peace. Niebuhr does not deny that there are human factors involved in a healthy society, he sees those elements as in some ways finally subordinate to the application of power in society.[8]

Another interesting aspect of Niebuhr’s thought is the distinction he makes between power and justice. Instead of considering the use of power as the state’s means to create justice, he sees social power as used by dominant elements of society to maintain their privileges. Thus, in his thought love, power and justice are fundamentally different aspects of reality. Here again, I think Niebuhr makes a subtle error. There are many kinds of social power. There is the power of the military, of the legislature, the judicial power of the courts, the social power of morality, the power of teachers over students, the power of parents over children, and the religious power of religious leaders over their followers. All these “powers” are not necessarily or even customarily contrary to justice in a well-ordered society. They are in fact the means by which a just society is formed. The problem is not with power as power but with its use by human beings.

Love in all its forms is the communal relational power that binds these different powers together in a kind of social peace, and justice is the form love takes in law and society. Some of these powers are in fact aspects of love. The love of a parent for a child, of a teacher for students, of a pastor for their congregation, of judges for justice, of military leaders for their nation, sit at the center of their power. Love it seems to me sits underneath all the powers we see around us, and all of them are corrupted by its absence or limits. This notion is so important that it has been the subject of prior blogs and will be the subject of blogs to come.

This is also an area in which the Marxist influence is apparent in Niebuhr’s early years. Of all the powers in society, Niebuhr affirms that economic power is fundamental. [9] This is particularly true in an industrial civilization in which the military is subject to political leaders who themselves are servants of economic interests. It flows from this reduction of society and social power to economics that the fundamental character of society is a constant conflict over the division of wealth. According to Niebuhr societies are always in a perpetual state of conflict over the control and distribution of economic assets.


Despite his importance as a thinker, by the time of Niebuhr’s death, and even before, the limitations of his thought were widely perceived, and he himself had abandoned many of his earlier views, which is why it will be necessary to review his later works. More importantly, I think, is the fact that the world view that gave birth to Niebuhr’s Moral Man and Immoral Society was even by the time he wrote passing away. Several of the limitations are evident in this thought seem to me to be as follows:

  1. Moral Man and Immoral Society largely works within a division between the spiritual and moral (areas of freedom) and the material and social (areas of determinism). This leads him to underestimate the power of the spiritual and moral in public life.
  2. Moral Man and Immoral Society is excessively influenced by Marx and by his acolytes in 20th century academia. This leads to an unwarranted belief that social instruments of overt political power can create a more just society.
  3. Moral Man and Immoral Society is afflicted with a notion of power that is largely, though not entirely, in opposition to cultural, moral, and other non-material forces instead of a notion of power that includes them.

Moral Man and Immoral Society is in many ways the most important book of political theology of the 20thCentury. No public theology can ignore the accomplishments of Niebuhr, even when critiquing him, for his thought is the dominant voice of the 20th Century and is likely to remain so. Just as Karl Barth dominated Reformed theology and impacted all other theologies, so also Niebuhr dominates American public theology in a unique way and no public theology can ignore his importance.

Copyright 2022, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Reinhold Niebuhr, Moral Man and Immoral Society: A Study in Ethic and Politics (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1932, 2001), hereinafter, “MMIS”.

[2] Francis Fukyama, “Moral Man and Immoral Society: A Study in Ethics and PoliticsForeign Affairs ( (September/October 1997 ) at, downloaded June 13, 2022.

[3] MMIS, xxv

[4] MMIS, at 9.

[5] The word “Monad comes from a Greek word meaning, “one” “singularity,’ or’ unit” In metaphysics, the term “monad” is used to refer to the smallest unity of psychophysical units or force that constitute the universe. Leibniz began to use the word “monad” to refer to his concept of a fundamental unit non-material unit of existence. In theology, it is used as a term for God, the One. In political philosophy/theology, the term reflects the view that there is a fundamental unit (the monad) from which all other aspects of political reality get their own existence.

[6] We are not yet at the impact of process theology on political philosophy. However, the view that I am outlining is that is one in which human beings are part of a social experience and the flow of human society from which they emerge and the course of which the impact by the decisions they make in the actions they take. If the monadic view is atomistic and materialistic, the process view is organic and evolutionary.

[7] MMIS, at 3.

[8] Id. I tried to count the number of times Niebuhr uses the Nietzschean term, “Will to Power” and ultimately gave up. It sits at the center of his analysis in MMIS.

[9] MMIS, at 7.

Kingdom of God No. 3: God’s Intended Kingdom Renewed by Faith

For two weeks, we have looked at the Creation story with an eye towards the kind of Kingdom God intended for the human race, and what happened to that ideal when the sin and human foolishness entered the equation. This week, we are looking at what God has done and is doing today in the lives of people of faith to renew his original intention by creating his own kingdom in the midst of the nations.

The author, C. S. Lewis, created an imaginary vision of what might have been the case if we human beings were not warped by sin. In the second book of his famous Space Trilogy, Perlandra, his hero, Ransom, is taken to Venus to fight demonic spirits and those inhabited by those spirits in order to prevent Perlandra/Venus from falling under the power of the Dark Spirit, as has the Planet Earth. [1] Lewis, in a wonderful imaginative way, pictures what an unfallen earth and an unfallen Adam and Eve might be like.

In the end, his Adam becomes a great king and his Eve a great queen, living in fellowship with God and with God’s creation in wisdom, love, and happiness, in dependence on God. As we mentioned the first week, this is what God initially intended for the human race. He wanted to create a people to live in wisdom and love of God and others, gradually becoming more like God, drawing others and creation into that same relationship. He still does.

Unfortunately, human sin and brokenness, our anxiety and tendency towards violence and self-seeking prevente the human race from achieving its original destiny. As Genesis 3-11 unfold, the human race falls more and more deeply into the patterns of personal and social behavior we experience today. On the other hand, as learned last week, God has never given up on the human race or human history.

The Call of Abraham

The story of who God intends to go about creating his New Kingdom within the world and his new family of kings and queens begins in Genesis 12. Hear the Word of God to us today:

Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. “I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you shall be cursed—and in you all the nations of the earth shall be blessed (Gen. 12:1-3).

Today, we know much more about the implications of these words than Abraham would have known. When he first heard the promise, he was thinking about his desire for an heir, not God’s promise to make him a great nation. He was just hoping to have a son who could carry on after him. As to the part about being a blessing to all the nations, I suspect he barely understood what that might mean. Yet, the Bible records that

Abram went, as the Lord had told him; and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he set out from Harran. He took his wife Sarai, his nephew Lot, all the possessions they had accumulated and the people they had acquired in Harran, and they set out for the land of Canaan….” (Genesis 12:4-5).

Let us Pray: Eternal God, we ask now that you come into all of our hearts by the power of the Holy Spirit, that we might become your children, remade in the image of your Son, our Lord, Jesus Christ. Amen.

Step 1: A Decision to Trust and Obey

Abraham was born somewhere near Ur of the Chaldees in the Middle East almost 4,000 years ago. His father’s name was “Terah.” They were descendants of Noah, about whom we spoke last week. Today, Ur of the Chaldees is gone—a reminder that no civilization lasts forever.

Abraham was the leader of a tribe known is the “Iburu,” which in our speech is translated, “Hebrews.” The Iburu were what we would call “Bedouins,” a group of people related by blood and marriage, together with servants and slaves, which wandered from place-to-place tending sheep. They did not have an established nation, but wandered among the nations. [2]

Abraham must have been a fairly astute businessman. [3]  He had many sheep, and his shepherds relied upon him for their livelihood. As we meet Abraham, he is at the age when men in his culture (and ours) are inclined to be careful and conservative in business and in decision-making. They are older, experienced, near retirement, and thinking about their heirs. They no longer have time for mistakes or delay. In this respect, Abraham had a big problem. For all his success and wealth, despite the position he held among his people, he was without anyone to whom he could bequeath his properties and who would carry on his work.

Abraham lived in a world in which there were many gods. One day, he heard the voice the LORD God, promising he would be the “Father of Many Nations,” if only he would follow God in the life of faith. Abram decided to cast his lot with God, and so Abram obeyed God and went. This is important. Since the Reformation, Christians have often debated the relationship between faith and works. The word in Hebrew and its connotations really do not open the door for that kind of debate, for “faith” means “trust” and to trust means to act upon what one believes. Abraham believed God, trusted God, and obeyed God.[4]

There is an old story that illustrates this point. A man walks across Niagara Falls on a rope pushing a wheel-barrow. When he returns to the US side, he asks the crowd, “Do you believe I can cross Niagara Falls with this wheel-barrow?” Everyone says, “Yes.” Then he asks, “Who will get in the wheel-barrow and let me push them across?” No one responds. The Christian life means not only intellectually believing in Christ, but being willing to get in God’s wheel-barrow. In creating his new nation and people to bless the earth, God needs people willing to get into his wheelbarrow and risk.

Step 2: Patience in Wandering

Abram traveled through the northern part of Mesopotamia, then south along a well-established trade route until he reached Palestine, the land that we currently call, Israel. This was a long journey—600 miles or more—and just as dangerous almost 4,000 years ago as it is today. The journey was not completed at one time. As the author of Hebrewssays, Abram left “not knowing where he was going” (Hebrews 11: 8). Along the way, Abram stopped, grazed his sheep, and waited for God to show him the Promised Land and deliver the son of the promise. He had no idea whether the trip would last a week, a month, a year, or longer; however, I bet he never thought that it would last over a quarter of a century!

This reminds us that the life of faith requires patience. Trusting God is not a “one and done” kind of thing. Like Abraham, Christians have to follow God through uncertain times not just for a part of their life but throughout all of life. Christians have always faced difficult and uncertain futures. We live in such a time just now. As we face our uncertain future, we believe in God, believe in Christ as God in human form, the love and wisdom of God made human,  pray for the Spirit of God to enter our lives, read our Bibles, live in Christian community, worship, pray, and continue to believe in the answer God gives to our prayers.

Step 3: Recovering from Setbacks and Family Trouble

You might think that, because of Abraham’s faith and obedience, his life and the life of his family was easy or perfect. But, it was not. From the beginning, Abraham endured problems and setbacks. This gives us a third clue about how we can become true children of God—we can learn to recover from sin and setbacks and family trouble. We need resilience in the life of faith.

For example, in the course of the journey, Abraham eventually went as far as Egypt. Like all Bedouins, he was suspicious of what might happen in a foreign place. When Abraham arrived in the Land of Egypt, he was worried that the people of Egypt might kill him and others in order to acquire his wife, Sarai, who was beautiful. Therefore, he told her to masquerade as his sister. This turned out to be a mistake, for the fact that she was beautiful and unattached caused Pharaoh to desire her. He actually took her into his harem! God, who was protecting Abraham and Sarai, caused a plague to fall upon everyone belonging to Pharaoh’s house. When Pharaoh found out what Abraham had done, he gave Abram back his wife and expelled him from the land. [5]

His nephew, Lot, was also a problem. God had told Abraham to go and to take his household, which he naturally assumed included my nephew. Abraham was wealthy, and Lot was wealthy as well. As they traveled through a land in which there was little water and grazing land for their flocks, their herdsmen argued over water and grazing rights—and some of those arguments resulted in violence. Eventually, Abraham understood that the two families needed to separate, which they did.  Lot chose the fertile lowlands near the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. This turned out to be a huge mistake, for other groups desired this land, and the cities had an evil reputation and corrupted Lot and his family (See, Gen. 13:1-13). [6]

Finally, Abraham agreed with Sarai to have a child by her maidservant. This may seem morally wrong to us, but in Abram’s culture it was customary for a barren wife of a wealthy man to give one of her female servants to bear for her the child she could not have. [7] Of all his mistaken ventures, this was the most serious, because after the child was born, and especially after Isaac was born, Sarah and Hagar simply could not get along. Hagar was haughty towards Sarah, and Sarah was fearful of her position, and later of the position of Isaac, since Ishmael was the first son and would inherit the family fortune if something happened to Isaac. In the end, Abraham was forced to send Hagar and Ishmael away. [8]  Even today, the human race lives with the consequences of that choice. [9]

This part of the story reminds us of the consequences of sin, consequences that can have an impact long even after the lifetime of the person who falls short of God’s will. Since we all do sin and fall short of the glory of God, and since we all do make mistakes in life, we all have to live with the consequences of our decisions, not all of which are pleasant. This is a part of the life of faith. We have to learn to recover from our life mistakes.

God’s Faithfulness

Throughout Abraham’s wandering and wavering faithfulness, God was faithful. He constantly reaffirmed his promises to Abraham. [10] When Abraham despaired of the fulfillment of the promise God had made, God appeared in a vision and assured him that his descendants indeed would be as many as the stars in the sky (Gen. 15:1-6). He believed God; and it is at this time that the writer of Genesis relates, “Abram believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness” (Gen. 15:6). This verse points to the fact that, although Abraham was not perfectly obedient to God, he had faith and lived by that faith, and God honored that faith. [11]

When Abraham was ninety-nine years old, and had wandered in the wilderness a quarter of a century, God appeared and confirmed his covenant one final time. It was at that time that God changed his name from Abram, which means “Exalted Father,” as he was the father of my tribe, to “Abraham,” which means the “Father of Many Nations”. [12]

The author of Hebrews uses Abraham as the supreme example of faith. “Faith,” he says, “is the assurance of things hoped for and a certainty about things we cannot see” (Hebrews 11:1). He is, of course, talking about the things of God. Faith as to God is accepting and trusting the promises of God. Hebrews goes on to say:

By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going. By faith he made his home in the promised land like a stranger in a foreign country; he lived in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. For he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God. And by faith even Sarah, who was past childbearing age, was enabled to bear children because she considered him faithful who had made the promise. And so from this one man, and he as good as dead, came descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as countless as the sand on the seashore. (Hebrews 11:8-12).

We Christians are no different than Abraham. We live withn earthly kingdoms of one kind or another, but we look forward to a different kind of Kingdom, one whose architect and builder is God. Christ came, as we shall see, to institute that Kingdom. It is not a kingdom made by human hands we seek, but one made by God. It is not a kingdom separate from all the kingdoms of this world, but one that exists within those kingdoms as a source of wisdom, love and growth.


A large percentage of the East/West United States commercial traffic goes through Memphis, Tennessee. My former church was near IH-40, which is the major highway trucks use. Just after 9-11, we noticed a huge number of trucks carrying tanks, troop carriers and other items painted for desert warfare on IH-40. These caravans did not go on for hours or even days, but for weeks and months. The preparation for what became the Afghanistan and Iraq campaigns had begun. It was obvious, visible and reflected just how much preparation goes into something like a human military campaign. We all knew something big was about to happen. Secular governments, you see most often try do things in a big, obvious, and powerful way. [13]

God has a different way of doing things. We are told that he chose one man and his wife, both elderly and unable to have children, and asked them to believe that he would give them a child and a family which would change the world.It was unseen by the high and the mighty, but in due time their child, Isaac was born, and after many years another family was formed, and Jesus was born, also unseen by the rich and powerful of the day.

Copyright 2022, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] C. S. Lewis, Perlandra (New York, NY: Scribner, 1004).

[2] The linage of Abraham and his tribe are unclear from the archeological evidence. Some scholars feel that Abraham was associated with the “Iburu”. Others point out the similarity between the customs of other groups and the narrative of Genesis, including Sarah’s giving Hagar to Abraham. See, Norman Gottwald, Light to the Nations: An Introduction to the Old Testament (New York, NY: Harper and Row, 1959): 85-101. I have followed the Iburu tradition, but there are other possibilities. See, John Bright, A History of Israel 3rd ed (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Press, 1972, 1981): 67ff.

[3] It may seem from these verses that only Abram, Sarai, Lot and a few slaves. In other places in Genesis we see Abraham led 318 of his men to rescue lot (Gen. 14:13-16). Obviously, Abraham many families with him, together with slaves, and others.

[4] This last word, “Obey” is a connection between faith in the Old Testament and the Great Commission, where Jesus instructs his disciples to go into the world and teach people to obey (Matthew 28:16-20).

[5] This story is repeated in Genesis 20 as an event between Abraham and Abimelech, and again as a story about Isaac and Abimelech in Genesis 26. Critical scholars often point to the parallels as indicating a problem in the text, which could certainly be true. This, however, masks the fact that it is hard to believe that there is not some historical foundation for the stories. See, E. A. Speiser, “Genesis” in the Anchor Bible (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1964): 91-92.

[6] On two occasions, Lot had reason to regret his decision. First, the kings of the lands around the fertile area near what is now the Dead Sea attacked the place Lot was staying and he was captured. Abraham had to raise and army and rescue him (See, Gen. 14:1-16). Later, near the end of his wanderings, God sent his angels to tell Abraham that he was going to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, where Lot was then living. Abraham interceded for Lot and his family. In the ensuing destruction of the cities, Lot was saved, but his wife was lost and he was reduced to poverty and ultimately to living an immoral life. [6] In the end, Lot was one of those fundamentally good men who, through a small amount of moral laxity, destroy themselves—which he did. Today, Lot is seen as a type of man who is not evil or irreligious, but who lacks the integrity believers need to endure the pressure of a pagan world.

[7] The story is told in Genesis 16. Under Middle-Eastern custom, a wife could have a child through a maid and the child would inherit unless another child was born in the meantime, in which case the natural child inherited. See, John Bright, above, at 79.

[8] See, Genesis 21: 8-21 for the story of the casting out of Hagar.

[9][9] After Abram and Saria had wandered around in Canaan for a time without the promise having been fulfilled, Sarai suggested that Abraham have a child by Hagar, who was her Egyptian maid. In a purely human way, it seemed that this might be the way God intended to fulfill his promise. Of course, we now know Abram was totally wrong.

[10] After Abram and Saria had wandered around in Canaan for a time without the promise having been fulfilled, Sarai suggested that Abraham have a child by Hagar, who was her Egyptian maid. In a purely human way, it seemed that this might be the way God intended to fulfill his promise. Of course, we now know Abram was totally wrong. Finally, just nine months before Isaac was born, God sent his angels to visit him and to warn him about the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah (See, Gen. 18:1-33). He was sitting in Mamre under some very famous oak trees, when three men appeared. They told him that he would have son, but Sarah laughed (Gen. 18:13-16). By this time, Abraham was almost 100 years old, and could not believe that he could possibly have a child this late in life, even if Sarah were not barren. Nine months later, when he was 100 years old, Abraham finally had a son whom I named Isaac, which means “laughter.” Abraham had laughed when God promised me the child as did Sarah. God laughed at his lack of faith, and answered prayers thought impossible.

[11] Faith is an active trust in God and in the promises of God. As such, it has two components: (1) an intellectual component in which we hear and believe the promises of God and (2) a volitional component as we actively trust the truth of Christ we have perceived. See, R. L. Dabney, Systematic Theology 2nd ed. (St. Louis, MO: Presbyterian Publishing Company, 1878): 604-605. I am honoring the greatest Nineteen Century theologian of my alma mater, Union Theological Seminary. I could have cited many other theologians, ancient and modern.

[12] See, The NIV Study Bible 10th Anniversary ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1995): note to Genesis 17:5.

[13] In the series of blogs I am working on just now, I often make the point that this propensity for the big in American government is mistaken. In the weeks to come, I will be discussinging how modern and post-modern ideas should be moving us into a new political direction, one characterized by respect for what already exists, dialogue, and slow and moderate change.

Kingdom of God 2: The Confused Kingdoms We Create

Have you ever made a decision, started off on a course of action, and then suddenly realized that you made a huge mistake? I certainly have. Most of us have had that experience. When it comes to the human race, not only have some people rebeled against God and made bad decisions; but, from time to time, we all rebel and make bad decisions. This should not surprise us because after the story of Creation, comes the story of the Fall and of mistake after mistake by the human race. It is also the story of the mercy of a God of Love who never gives up on his creation.

Last week, we looked at the creation of the human race and God’s initial plan for the world and the human race. We were supposed to be God-connected, Christ-like, Spirit-Empowered humble stewards of a world of beauty, peace, and plenty. Instead, we tried to be our own god’s and became alienated from God and others, slaves to sin and brokenness.

Genesis 2 begins where Genesis 1 leaves off—with Adam in the Garden of Eden, naming the beasts and enjoying perfect fellowship with God. Then, to make man complete, God created a woman for the man to love and be loved by. The human family, the foundation of society, was created. Creation and the human race were off to a great start (Genesis 2). Unfortunately, before long the human race was tempted, rebeled against human limits, and Adam and Eve were cast out of the Garden into the fallen, hostile, imperfect world (Genesis 3).

As the remainder of the first chapters of Genesis unfold, the human race becomes progressively more entrapped by sin and brokenness until finally God sends a great flood upon the whole earth, rescuing only Noah and his family (Genesis 5-9). After the flood, the children of Noah returned to the ways that got the human race into trouble in the first place, until finally we are told they attempted to make themselves like God once again building a tower to the heavens (Genesis 9-10). Secular human history, you see, is a story of rebellion, violence, and sin.

Building the Tower of Babel

Today, we are looking at the strange story of the Tower of Babel. Hear the Word of God as it comes to us from the book of Genesis, Chapter 11:1-9:

Now the whole world had one language and a common speech. As people moved eastward, they found a plain in Shinar and settled there. They said to each other, “Come, let’s make bricks and bake them thoroughly.” They used brick instead of stone, and tar for mortar. Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth.” But the Lord came down to see the city and the tower the people were building. The Lord said, “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.” So the Lord scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city. That is why it was called Babel]—because there the Lord confused the language of the whole world. From there the Lord scattered them over the face of the whole earth.

Flawed Human Family

It is a fundamental part of Biblical history that, from the beginning, the human race disobeyed God and brought judgment upon the human family. The human race was  made in the image of God (Genesis 1), intended to rule over the earth in fellowship with God and one another (Genesis 2), but tragically unable to maintain that fellowship and dependency on God Genesis 3).

Here is how the Bible tells the story: Along with human freedom comes the freedom to choose, and the human race chose to disobey God. As a result, Adam and Eve had to leave the Garden. Though Adam and Eve sinned and were cast out of the Garden, and no longer enjoyed unbroken fellowship with God they enjoyed before the Fall, they prayed to God and remembered with longing their time in Paradise (Gen. 4:26). Adam and Eve, and every human being since, has had somewhere in their soul a deep desire to return to the innocence of the Garden and escape the power of sin. We desire to have healed our broken relationship with God, creation, and others.

Human beings have always understood that there is a price for sin and immoral behavior. The Jewish people also sensed that the human race required some kind of sacrifice to undo the impact of sin. The ancients understood that they were somehow alienated from God’s Love and Wisdom. Human beings, therefore, developed the habit of offering sacrifices, in hopes that the God they had angered might forgive them and show mercy. [1] Their sacrifices showed that that they believed in God, worshiped God, loved God and desired the blessings of God. They wanted to be restored to the fellowship they enjoyed in the Garden Innocence, and they were willing to sacrifice to restore that fellowship.

In time, Adam and Eve had a child, and Eve cried out, “With the help of the LORD I have brought forth a man!” (Gen. 4:1). Adam and Eve thought that their first-born son, Cain, might be the one who would undo the curse and crush the head of the Serpent who had ruined everything in the Garden (Gen. 3:17). A little later, they had another son, Abel. Interestingly, Cain’s name means, “Spear” and Abel’s name means “Breath”.

The story of Cain and Abel is a story of jealousy and murder and the rise of human violence. One lesson of the story is that Cain was a man of violence, but Abel was a man of faith in whom the breath of God was active and alive.After a time, Cain took some of his grain and offered it to God (Gen. 4:3), and Abel, being a shepherd, offered some of the first fruits of his flocks (Gen. 4:4). The LORD God, looked with favor on the sacrifice of Abel, but he did not seem to accept Cain’s sacrifice with the same degree of favor. [2] You may ask, “How did they know?” I can’t really answer the question, because this matter of God’s accepting a sacrifice or a prayer is something you either feel in your heart or you do not. [3]

What can be said with certainty, is that Cain was fundamentally a person of violence, and that violence erupted against his brother. We have seen in the past two weeks, abundant evidence that the Spirit of Cain is alive and well in our society. We have seen at least two senseless cases of mass violence, and deluded people sought their moment in the sun at the expense of the lives of others. Whatever else we may say about these incidents, we can surely see that that the corruption in Cain’s soul is with us today.

Flawed Human History

There are consequences to sin and to murder, and there were consequences for Cain and for the rest of human history. Cain, like Adam and Eve was driven out of his home because he had shed his brother’s blood (Gen. 4:11). The earth and soil were cursed as they had been cursed for Adam because of his sin. But, even judgement, God showed mercy. He assured Cain of his protection as he left the presence of the LORD as had Adam and went out to the Land of Nod, which means, “Land of Wandering”. [4] Cain became a wanderer, and the human race has been wandering ever since. [5]

Like Adam and Eve, Cain had children. The Bible records seven of them—a perfect number (Gen. 4:17-18). I only want to mention one, Lamech, who himself became a murderer and even bragged about it, saying, “I have killed a man for wounding me, a young man for injuring me. If Cain is avenged seven times, then Lamech is avenged seventy-seven times” (Gen 4:23-24).

From as far back as anyone can remember, the kingdoms of this earth, one way or another, have been established by violence and vengeance has been a curse upon the earth. One of the less attractive things we have seen about the current leadership of Russia is a habit of sending assassins to painfully murder those who have disappointed or opposed the leadership of the state. It is no coincidence that the same leadership has begun a violent and unnecessary war to extend its power.

Attempts to Be God

St. Augustine, wrote of the God-shaped void in every human heart—a void that makes us restless until we find our rest in God. [6] All of us experience that restlessness. I have and everyone I ever met has. Some people cover up their restlessness with pleasure. Others cover up their restlessness in a search for power. Some fill their God shaped void with pleasure. Some try to fill that void with possessions. Nothing short of God works

As far as politics and human society is concerned, the fall of the human race created a situation in which people tried over and over again to fill that void by being the rulers of creation without God instead of stewards of creation. The search for power is one of the enduring drivers of human history.

In the Bible, the story is one of increasing sin and violence, until God finally brought a judgement on the entire earth (Genesis 6). In the story of the flood, the human race is destroyed. Unfortunately, the children of Noah continued the same tradition as the children of Adam and Eve and of Cain. They tried to become God’s and create the same kind of kingdoms one gets when one tries to be God.

Finally, the human race continued their mistaken attempt to become little gods by building a tower to heaven, so that they could be gods themselves. God responded by disbursing the human race over the earth with many languages, in order that human beings have trouble understanding one another. (Some of speak the same language and still have trouble understanding one another!) We still suffer that curse. We human beings have trouble understanding one another—and we often do not even try.

Some scholars are critical of this story as evidence that the God of Israel was a petty and jealous God who wanted to deprive the human race of the opportunities to use its natural abilities. I do not see the story this way. What I think the story reflects and teaches is the inevitable chaos that we human beings create when we become proud and alienated from God—when we cease being stewards and try to become kings. Things always turn out badly. God wants us to use our natural abilities—in the way intended from the beginning.

A New “Pentecost Kingdom”

June 5 was Pentecost 2022, the Sunday on which we celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit on the early church. As we will learn in July, after the resurrection and ascension of Jesus, the disciples spent fifty days together in the Upper Room. Then, suddenly with thousands of vistotors present in Jerusalem for the Festival of Weeks, the Holy Spirit came upon them and they began to speak in tongues. Here is how the New Testament describes the event:

When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them. Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard their own language being spoke (Acts 2:1-6).

Pentecost is the day on which we celebrate the beginning of a great reversal of the ancient curse of the Tower of Babel. The Spirit of Christ began to unwind the ancient divisions of the human race symbolized by our inability to understand one another. Christians call it the “Birthday of the Church” because Pentecost symbolizes the emergence of a new Kingdom to be created by God. This New Kingdom is not an earthly kingdom born of violence, but a Heavenly Kingdom of peace born of love. It is not a kingdom of confusion and misunderstanding but a kingdom of love and patient understanding. It is a kingdom our society needs desperately to experience anew.


The theme for these last two weeks is the “Kingdom of God,” a theme we will continue to explore as time goes by. Even now, we can see that humanity is, by itself and its own power not capable of creating the kind of Kingdom in which all human beings are equal, in which the earth is a kind of garden to supply every legitimate need of the human race, and in which governments are just. The problem is never really the “system of government.”

In the next few weeks, I will take a short look at the political philosophy of Reinhold Niebuhr. [7] Beginning before the Second World War and until the 19760’s he represented a Christian political philosophy that did not forget the human condition and the way in which sin warps human beiges and societies. Interestingly, his thought was sometimes referred to as “Christian realism” to distinguish it from the sometimes overly-optimistic kind of Christian liberalism that the Social Gospel and various Christian liberal and utopian movements of his day.

I am not an uncritical fan of Niebuhr. His strength is that he could see at root our human problem,  the men and women who run every government, people who are unfortunately a great deal like us: selfish, self-centered, and given to acts of foolish pride. If there is to be a kingdom that fills the human need for justice, harmony, and peace, it will come not from our power, but from the power of God. It is the coming of that power that we celebrate on Pentecost. In this broken world, the people of God best serve our secular state when we are fully committed and active disciples—and when we live out the Gospel of Love and Wisdom in our own lives for all the world to see.

Copyright 2022, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] The story implies that sacrifices were already known at the time of Cain and Abel. Anthropologists believe that the practice of sacrificing to gods to secure their favor is nearly universal in human history. For a review of this phenomenon as it affects the Old Testament, see, R.K. Harrison, Introduction to the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1969): Part Six.

[2] The story dates from a time when sacrifice is already known. Hebrews were nomadic shepherds, and so some commentators have seen in this story the tension between farmers and nomadic shepherds—a conflict which has been explored from time to time in contemporary westerns which pit the farmer against the rancher who wants land to graze cattle upon. There may be some memory of this in the story, but it cannot be the basic point of the story. The story makes plain its basic point, which is the continuing and growing power of sin and violence in human history. See, Everett Fox, In the Beginning (New York, NY: Schocken Books, 1983): 21. “Although this story may well have originated as a tale of enmity between two ways of life (farmer and shepherd), or in another context, it has obviously been transformed into something far more disturbing and universal.”

[3] Theologians have thought a lot about what made my sacrifice less acceptable than Abel’s. I do not think the fact that Cain offered grain and Abel offered meat from his sheep is the reason. Cain gave what he had; Abel gave what he had. I don’t think it is because God prefers shepherds to farmers. God loves everyone. I think that the key is in the comparison between what Cain brought—some of the grain—and what Abel brought—the best part of the first fruits of his flock (Genesis 4:2-4). David W. Spicer, OSB in “Genesis” in Berit Olam: Studies in Hebrew Narrative and Poetry (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2003) 41. See also Driver in Westminster Commentaries Rev. & Enlarged ed (London, UK: Methuen & Co. 1926), 63

[4] See, E. A. Speiser, “Genesis” in the Anchor Bible (Garden City, NJ: Doubleday & Co., 1964): 30.

[5] It is significant that Cain cries out to God, “Today you are driving me from the land, and I will be hidden from your presence; I will be a restless wander upon the earth, and whoever finds me will kill me” (See, Gen. 4:13-14). As his father was sent from the Garden to wander upon the earth, so Cain will wander all of his days.

[6] St. Augustine, The Confessions of St. Augustine tr. John K. Ryan (New York, NY: Image Books, 1960): 43

[7] See for example, Reinhold Niebuhr, Moral and Immoral Society: A Study in Christian Ethics and Politics Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1932, 2001.

The Kingdom of God: Part 1

This summer, at Linwood Park, where I am one of the Camp Pastors from time to time, the theme is “the Kingdom of God.” In July, that theme is going to be at the center of the sermon series, as one of the pastors preaches from the Book of Acts. For the next three weeks, I am going to introduce the theme of the Kingdom of God from the Old Testament, hoping we will all gain a better understanding of the Christian notion of the Kingdom of God and our place within that kingdom.

In a way, the whole idea of a “Kingdom” is contrary the way we Americans think. We live in a democracy. We do not have kings. In the United States we have Presidents, Senators, Congress men and women, and judges, but no king. In fact, our Constitution forbids the giving of anyone any kind of title to nobility. [1] The founders of our nation did not want to create a new kingdom but something new in world history: a Constitutional Democracy.

This creates a real problem for Americans, because it would seem that God in some way is busy creating a kingdom on earth, a kingdom of peace, and he intends for there to be a king, a special kind of king, to rule over this earth in wisdom and love. If we cannot get that first notion into our minds, we will not really understand what the Bible is trying to teach us about the Kingdom of God.

The phrase “Kingdom of God” is used over 70 times in the New Testament – with the Gospel of Matthew alone uses the term about 30 times. As Christians, it is essential to understand the meaning behind this phrase which is often confusing for many Christians and non-Christians. Therefore, it might be good as we begin to give a short, easy to remember definition of the “Kingdom of God”: The Kingdom of God is that place and contains those people where God is in control, working his wise and loving purposes for the good of all human beings.

The Beginning of the Kingdom

Now, let’s dig a bit deeper. If you want to understand something, the first place to begin is at the beginning, which for our purposes is the creation of the world. In the opening chapters of the Bible, in Genesis 1-2 we see the world as God designed it to be. Hear the Word of God as it comes to us from the book of Genesis:

In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters. And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. And God saw that the light was good. And God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day (Genesis 1:1-5).

As Genesis tells the story, God goes on to create  the heavens, our world, and all the living creatures in the world.

The Bible begins with God creating a kingdom—the universe, our world, and everything in it. God is the author, the designer, the creator, and the lord of our universe and our world. In order to manage this world, God needed a creature who is something like God—endowed with intelligence, consciousness, and the ability to manage his creation. Therefore, as God completes his creation, the human race is created.

Human Race as Stewards of the Kingdom

Then, finally, on the sixth day God creates the human race. Here is what the Bible goes on to say:

Then God said, “Let us make the human race in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth. So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” And God said, “Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is on the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit. You shall have them for food. And to every beast of the earth and to every bird of the heavens and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.” And it was so. And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day (Genesis 1:26-31).

This brings us to the first point that we need to understand if we are to understand the kingdom of God and what it means for our lives. Our human capacities have a purpose and a goal. We are intended to be stewards of God’s good creation. This is true of everyone. Men and women. Old and young. Boys and girls. Rich and poor. Smart and less intelligent. Gifted and less gifted. Powerful and less powerful. All of us were intended to have a role in managing God’s kingdom and tending his creation.

Our position as members of the human race and stewards of God’s creation has implications for our behavior. As stewards, we have the responsibility to manage the creation, as the Bible puts it, “have dominion over it.” A good steward manages the master’s property, and that means working hard at it. However, a steward is not given the master’s property to waste it or consume it, or ruin it, but to improve it and manage it wisely.

Our first church was in a small, rural farming community in the third poorest county in Tennessee. I have always been glad we began in Brownsville.  Brownville was a farming community and there I learned to garden. I had to keep the yard for the manse that had drifted into disrepair and needed landscaping. The farmers helped me learn to landscape and plant a garden (and keep from killing all the plants). Frankly, it was a spiritual experience. I thought of Adam and Eve and our human destiny to be caregivers for creation every time I stepped out of my back door and went into the church building.

The lessons of my garden in Brownsville continue to bless my life today. When I think of ministry, I think of gardening. Now that I am retired and write a bit, I think of writing as gardening. (It is just as hard to get “weeds” out of a manuscript as it is a physical garden.) You and I are not simply “inhabitants” of God’s creation. We are its gardeners. God wants us to take whatever part of his garden we are blessed to be a part of and improve it. Our garden consists of the people and places God brings into our lives.

Discipleship as Stewardship

The physical part of caring for God’s creation is important. However, the spiritual and human part of caring for God’s creation is more important. We are all called to be stewards of the people and relationships God has placed in our path, our parents, our spouses, our children,  families, co-workers, friends and  neighbors. In fact, caring for people is the most important part of our stewardship.

Jesus told many parables, and a good many of them deal with the subject of being good stewards of what God places with us. Here is just one. In Luke 19:11-27, Jesus tells a story about a nobleman who went into a far country to receive for himself a kingdom intending to eventually return to his country. Unfortunately for this nobleman, the citizens of this country hated him and told the high king that they did not want him to be king (v. 14). Before leaving, the nobleman called in his servants and gave each on some money to invest for him while he was away.  Then he left to go and receive his kingdom.

When the nobleman returned, having received the promised kingdom, he called in the servants so that he might know how they had done with his money. The first came before him, saying, ‘Lord, your mina has made ten minas more.’ And he said to him, ‘Well done, good servant! Because you have been faithful in a very little, you shall have authority over ten cities.’ A second came, saying, ‘Lord, your mina has made five minas.’ And he said to him, ‘And you are to be over five cities.’ Finally, a third servant comes and admits that he did not invest the money, but kept it hidden, because he was afraid of his master.  The king was furious, and took from the man what he had been given. (Luke 19:21-26).

This is one of those texts that Christian rarely hear preached on except on stewardship Sundays. Interestingly, this parable is not about money at all. It’s about taking care of the people and relationships that God brings into our lives. Here’s the background. This parable occurs in Luke near the end of Jesus’s ministry, just before he enters the city of Jerusalem where he will be crucified and die. He is about to go home to God until the end of time. As Jesus is teaching, he is surrounded by Pharisees and Sadducees, scribes and leaders of the people. They oppose him and want to see that he is put to death. They all reject him.

In the parable, Jesus is the noble king. He is the one who has gone off into a far country to receive a kingdom, which he will get at the end of time when he returns as the Lord of the heavens and the earth. In the meantime, the people of God and the creation of God have been left in the hands of human leaders. This particular parable, it’s not likely the Jesus meant the Sadducees, Pharisees, and other leaders of the Jewish people. In the parable, the leaders of the people, and indeed all the citizens of the little country, reject the leadership of the nobleman (Jesus) who is going away. No, the servants are not the leaders of the people. It is almost certain that, in this particular parable, Jesus meant the discipleswhom he will be leaving  in charge of his kingdom in his absence. In other words, in this particular parable, Jesus is talking to you and me and about our stewardship of the Great Commandment and Great Commission until the end of time.

Discipleship as Investing our Gifts

This parable is a reminder that we all have been given some kind of ability to use for the building up of the kingdom of God. Not everyone has been given the same abilities. We have different abilities. Paul makes this clear in First Corinthians when he talks about spiritual gifts. He says, “Now, there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who empowers them all in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good” (I Cor. 12:4-7).

Paul does not say, “To the first apostles were given spiritual gifts.” He does not say, “To preachers were given spiritual gifts.” He does not say, “To Sunday School teachers were given spiritual gifts.” He does not say, “To those who speak in tongues were given spiritual gifts.” He does not say, “To elders and deacons and other leaders of the church were given spiritual gifts.” He says, “To each was given a manifestation of the Spirit for the common good” (v. 7). This means all of us. Just as we are all made in the image of God, we are all stewards of God’s creation. And, just as we all are disciples of Christ, citizens of his kingdom, we are all gifted with talents and abilities and assets to be used for the glory of God and for the perfection of this kingdom.


As I was writing this, I came across an article in the Harvard Business Review on the importance of leaders taking stock at least weekly of their progress, their goals, their successes and failures. What the writer was encouraging is as old as any kind of religion. In the Christian tradition, people like St. Ignatius Loyola have encouraged disciples to take time daily to examine themselves, to see where God has been at work in their lives and where they have failed to do the work God intended for them. In some Christian groups, people are encouraged to take time annually to reflect upon their lives in ministry.

Most of us go on vacation each summer to relax and enjoy ourselves for a while before we go back to our day-to-day lives. This relaxation is important. Just after God gives Adam and Eve dominion over the world and all that is in it, he institutes the Sabbath, so that they may learn to rest. We need time away to rest. While we are here resting and relaxing and recharging our batteries, we need also to reflect on our stewardship of the talents, gifts, and abilities God has entrusted to us. For, in our hearts, we know we are accountable for them.

Copyright 2022, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] US Constitution, Article 1, Section Nine, Paragraph 8 (1789). Article 1, Section Nine, Paragraph 8 reads: “No Title of Nobility shall be granted by the United States: And no Person holding any Office of Profit or Trust under them, shall, without the Consent of the Congress, accept of any present, Emolument, Office, or Title, of any kind whatever, from any King, Prince, or foreign State.”