What is the local church? Or, perhaps, what is the church? Is it a body of believing Christians? Is it all of God’s people, his temple? Do we “go to church” or are we “the church”? How does the church live within the political sphere? Are they truly separate entities? In Political Church, Jonathan Leeman makes a case for the political nature of the local church and argues that it is possible to be political and a Christian. In fact, everything we do is political. “The local church and its members constitute a political community that exists according to Jesus’ explicit authorization in Matthew 16, 18 and 28… The purpose of this political community, then, is to publicly represent King Jesus, display the justice and righteousness of the triune God, and pronounce that all the world belongs to this King. His claim is universal” (294).
Jonathan Leeman is the editorial director for 9Marks. He is an adjunct teacher for The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and currently serves as an elder at Capitol Hill Baptist Church. He has both an MDiv and PhD in theology, both undergraduate and graduate degrees in political science, and began his journalism career as an editor for an international economics magazine. Political Church is the third (?) volume in the Studies in Christian Doctrine and Scripture, edited by Daniel Treier and Kevin Vanhoozer, which brings together Scripture, Christian doctrine, and the issues of our day. Leeman, using biblical theology (here, the flow of the Bible’s storyline), looks at the overall storyline to understand how Christians should think about the political sphere, something which touches every sphere of life (just turn on the news or get on Facebook or Twitter).
The first two chapters asks what “politics” and “institutions” are. Because these two chapters are the most technical, Leeman gives his readers a “get out of jail free” card and tells them that they should “feel free to skip them” (32). They are technical, and I certainly didn’t understand a lot of the political language, but I was stretched and I think I have underlines on almost every page. “Politics” is “public-wide and coercive governance,” an “order-enforcing agency” (60, 61). The local church’s institutional authority is the keys of the kingdom (Matthew 16, 18, 28), and the state’s institutional authority is found in “the sword” (since they are, as Leeman argues above, an “order-enforcing agency”). Putting it another way,
institutions tell you how to act, and they give you opportunities to act. They help to define relationships, giving them purpose and direction. They even shape aspects of your identity. Consider just a few examples listed by the sociologists: marriage, the contract, wage labor, the handshake, insurance, the army, academic tenure, the presidency, the vacation, attending college, the corporation, the motel and voting.46 These are very different kinds of institutions, but all of them, in various ways, contain rules and opportunities for action, shape a relationship, and impinge upon identity. (108)
The state builds the platforms of peace and justice so that the church can “hang signs with Jesus’ name over right beliefs, right practices, and right people—the repenting and believing citizens of Christ’s kingdom” (15).
Chapter three looks at the politics of Creations, particularly that as governed and ruled by the triune God. The Christian’s God—the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—is one of a unified relationship and provides the basis for people to be committed to care for their close neighbors. Husband/wife, parent/child, employer/employee, and neighbor-to-neighbor are the relationships that make up the fabric of society. There are relationships of affirmation and submission. “Good government works according to principles of righteousness, justice and love; and good government works best when ruler and ruled are perfectly in sync” (153).
Chapters 4-6 cover the Politics of the Fall, the New Covenant, and the Kingdom. The “the local church is a political institution because it has been authorized by a King to borrow and wield his own office keys for declaring who is and who is not a citizen in the ‘age of new covenant’” (295). The local church is an extension of God’s kingdom; it is not God’s kingdom, but an embassy for it. It “represents one nation inside of another nation… and it protects the citizens of the home nation living in the host nation. Embassies do not make people citizens of a home nation, but they do formally affirm who is and who is not a citizen of the home nation” (296).
Just as Jesus was ‘under’ the authority of Pilate and submitted to his decrees, Christians are not higher than their governments and must submit to their decrees. However, just as Jesus’ kingdom was elsewhere, Christians are members of the Creator’s kingdom, and he has given them a particular authority to preach the gospel, make disciples, and display love, peace, justice and righteousness. Everyone worships something—either God or idols. Christians are ambassadors for God (2 Cor 5.20); they mediate his covenantal rule to the world around them and call them to submit to Christ the King.
The volumes in this series are more advanced than what I usually review, and one should have some knowledge of the political sphere to get the most out of this book. But yes, I do recommend it, especially because Leeman works through the Bible’s covenantal storyline. “The church’s life is held together by justification by faith alone, the most powerful political force in the world today for flattening hierarchies and uniting one-time enemies” (14). You may not be a political expert, but you will benefit from reading Leeman’s work. It is slow work, but it is a rewarding read.
- Series: Studies in Christian Doctrine and Scripture
- Author: Jonathan Leeman
- Paperback: 448 pages
- Publisher: IVP Academic (March 26, 2016)
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