Jonathan Leeman’s Political Church: The Local Assembly as Embassy of Christ’s Rule is a detailed study of the interaction between Christianity and the public sphere. Leeman’s central thesis is that the church, as the local assembly, acts as an embassy–a political place in which Christ’s rule on earth is present.
The book is broken up into 6 lengthy chapters, each building on the last, as Leeman argues for his thesis. The first two chapters address the questions “What is politics?” and “What is an Institution?” From there, Leeman builds on politics of creation, the Fall, the New Covenant, and the Kingdom.
One of the most critical areas of the book is that there is no such thing as a totally neutral ground from which to build a political system. There is no religiously neutral political philosophy. To make the case for this central point, Leeman draws extensively from people like William Cavanaugh and Stanely Hauerwas. Essentially, the point is that because one’s religious beliefs (or alleged lack thereof) govern, effectively, all areas of one’s thought, one cannot excise them without effectively abandoning those beliefs, thus going against them. There is much more to this argument, but it is one of the many fascinating areas Leeman highlights.
Exactly how does the church act as an embassy for Christ? The sixth chapter, “The Politics of the Kingdom,” presents a number of fascinating insights into this question. Leeman takes a deep look at the notion of the “Keys of the Kingdom,” drawn from Matthew 16 (334ff). This discussion draws from multiple commentaries and spans questions from “what is the church?” to “how ought we perform church discipline?” to whether the church ought to function as a kind of civil magistrate. These kind of deep questions permeate the pages of Political Church such that readers will want to spend a great deal of time poring over the text and reflecting on the points therein.
There are a few areas worth critiquing in the book. First, much discussion time is spent on the notion of how exactly God’s covenant went from old to new covenant, but this all plays out on a kind of amorphous theological backdrop such that it is difficult to determine exactly what Leeman is saying. Is he pushing a kind of dispensational theology? At points it seems so, but other times it does not. Because the theological point here is not central to his book, Leeman doesn’t give readers enough to see where he’s coming from, particularly in chapter four’s (The Politics of the Fall) discussion of different covenants.
Another difficulty is, admittedly, drawn from a minor point in the book. Leeman states explicitly that, “if membership in the new covenant requires both the activity of the Spirit and the assent of the individual to God… then membership in… the church… should… be restricted to those who give their assent. To place infants born into a ‘Christian’ nation onto church roles misidentifies God’s presence, reputation, righteousness and justice…” (272). On the one hand, his notion that membership in the church requires both the Spirit and assent is explicitly tied to his understanding of the body of the church as a political one. On the other hand, although he stresses that exact point, it is never clear exactly what that means in terms of justification. This takes us away from the purpose of his book, but given statements like these it seems clear that justification is at least some part of what he is referring to. Justification is the work of the spirit, saving people who are dead slaves to sin who cannot free themselves. But if that’s the case, then his objection to infants being placed on church rolls seems to fall apart, for although infants cannot express consent, that does not seem to be required for the doctrine of justification. As a Lutheran particularly, I affirm that infants may have faith, because faith is a gift of the Spirit rather than an act of humans. Yet even here, Leeman might object noting that he is speaking in political terms rather than in the terms I am using.
A final difficulty is with Leeman’s reading of Luther’s Two Kingdoms model. Although he does avoid the most egregious misinterpretations of Luther on this point, Leeman argues that Luther’s model turns God’s people/not-God’s-people into church/state or Word/state. Then, he argues that the Bible and the church have words for those who are not God’s people as well and the state rules over God’s people (274-275, for example). But this is not what Luther’s model entails. It’s not that church/state on Luther’s model never interact; indeed, Leeman’s own conception seems to be extremely close to the core of what Luther was getting at in his doctrine of Two Kingdoms. He constructs it around the idea that there are two ages rather than two kingdoms, and that there are two kinds of life- secular and eternal (275). Yet even this speaking of two ages ultimately comes back to noting that there is “present simultaneity of the ages,” leading one to wonder how far from “two kingdoms” that exist simultaneously Leeman’s own argument truly is. This does go beyond Luther, but I think it’s the direction Luther’s own teaching was aiming towards, and it is interesting that Luther draws frequent mention as being close, but mistaken (29-31; 177; 275; etc.).
These minor points, though I have labored over them, do little to take away from the monumental importance of this work. Leeman has done a tremendous service to those interested in delving deeply into a theological vision of church and state. Each chapter brings together exegesis, philosophy, and sociology in informative, often surprising ways.
Political Church: The Local Assembly as Embassy of Christ’s Rule is an important work that is sure to influence all who read it, whether they agree with the contents or not. It is essential reading for those curious about the interplay between Christianity and politics. I highly recomend it.
+Engages with multiple voices throughout church history
+Generally offers balanced, ecumenical perspective
+Blends exegesis, systematics, sociology, and more
+Extensive interaction with experts in related fields
-Wrongfully excludes children and infants from Christ’s Kingdom
-Somewhat vague on some theological points
Jonathan Leeman, Political Church: The Local Assembly as Embassy of Christ’s Rule (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2016).
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