Leeman, Jonathan. Political Church: The Local Assembly as Embassy of Christ’s Rule. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2016. 403 pp.
What is the local church? What exactly is going on when a seemingly unimpressive group of people gather week by week to worship the risen Christ through prayer, song, preaching, and the ordinances of baptism and the Lord’s Supper? These questions have always fascinated me. As a local church pastor, I have often sensed a disconnect between the Bible’s exalted language about the church and the attitude of many who participate in its activities. For so many it seems like an optional add-on, a time to feel closer to God, or perhaps even worse, a tortuous tradition that needs to go. In Political Church, Jonathan Leeman argues that the local church is political in that it is “an embassy of Christ’s kingdom on earth, whose corporate life embodies a rule that has been imported not across geographic space but from the end of time” (386).
Leeman’s book covers a lot of ground and addresses a plethora of modern debates about the local church and its role in society. The first two chapters seek to define the terms “politics” and “institution.” Leeman argues that politics and religion, or the secular and the spiritual, cannot be separated as modern liberalism seeks to do. The reason for this is that there is no political viewpoint that is not determined by one’s religion, broadly defined (81). Far from being a place devoid of religion, “the public square is nothing more or less than a battleground of gods, each vying to push the levers of power in its favor” (82). However, this works the other way as well. The local church is a type of institutional authority that rules over an eschatological people and is backed by the power of the keys of the kingdom, making the local church political (95). In short, religion and politics cannot be separated.
Christians may get squirmy when we begin using institutional language to talk about the local church, but the Bible is unashamed to do so. According to Leeman, an institutional conception of the church is not at odds with an organic, life-affirming conception (105). On the contrary, an institution merely “defines relationships, giving them purpose and direction” (108) and provides “the application of authority to a relationship” (111). There is no question from a biblical perspective that Jesus intended to provide such an institution when he established his church. When a professing Christian becomes a member of a local church, he or she is joining a political community in which he or she is “subject to the primary governing authority” and “the governing authority publicly confirms the individual as belonging to its charge” (115). So, not only is the church’s essence political, but so is the church’s mission: “Preaching, it would seem, is political. So is evangelism. Both kinds of speech call people to bow before a king whose claims are higher than all other kings” (136).
The next four chapters provide a biblical theology of politics under the redemptive-historical headings of creation, fall, new covenant, and kingdom. Because God has intended to establish his kingdom from creation, the entire biblical storyline is a political story which culminates in the establishment of Christ’s kingdom through the new covenant in his blood. The church is the political embassy that visibly affirms the identity of God’s people through the visible signs of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, thus signifying visibly those who belong to Christ’s invisible kingdom.
The greatest strength of Leeman’s book is the clarity he provides on the question of what the local church actually is. As consumerists become converted to Christ, we have a tendency to transfer our me-centered, consumerist values over into the practice of our faith. Church then exists to provide a list of advantages for us, and we go in search of a new one when our perceived needs are no longer being met. We look at church and gage our obligation to participate based on the sole criteria of “What’s in it for me?” But Leeman’s refreshingly biblical alternative shatters this insufficient conception of the local church. He uses striking language that paints a more biblically accurate picture: “The local church publicly administers the new covenant,” and, “Local church membership, like good works, is the mark, proof, badge or, to use citizenship language, ‘passport’ of a true Christian” (295). The local church is not a voluntary club or entertainment event; it is an embassy of the kingdom of Christ. “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). Leeman’s treatment of Matthew and the keys of the kingdom (332-361) shows that the church is the highest authority on earth, the only political institution given the keys of the kingdom of heaven by God. In short, local church membership is not an optional add-on.
Leeman helpfully refines a lot of the language we use to talk about politics and church in an effort to bring our speech into submission to God’s word. For example, he argues that, instead of talking about “joining” a local church, a more theologically accurate term which recognizes the authority of the church would be “submit” (363). He makes a helpful distinction between a “deputy” model of authorization and a “delegate” model of authorization. While the state has delegated authority, the church has deputized authority and can actually speak on God’s behalf (374). He also argues that Christians ought to replace their appeals to “conscience” in favor of appealing to “God” as the authoritative source of their actions. Anyone can appeal to their conscience, and it sounds like a manifestation of individualism. However, an appeal to God bears witness to the ultimate authority to which our consciences are bound (205). These types of discussion are all through the book and immensely practical for the church.
One of my motivations for reading this book was my interest in hearing a viable response to “two kingdoms theology” which seeks to divide the world into two realms based on a particular interpretation of God’s covenant with Noah. This brand of theology argues that as Christians we occupy two kingdoms, the creation kingdom and Christ’s kingdom. God rules these two kingdoms in different ways, and we have distinct obligations in each realm. This view tends to minimize the pursuit of cultural justice as belonging merely to the creation kingdom and separates one’s obligation as a Christian from one’s obligation as a normal citizen. Leeman admits that he is sympathetic to some of the goals of “two kingdoms theology,” but rejects the basic conceptuality of two distinct kingdoms: “Just because the state possesses the power of the sword and the church possesses the power of the keys…doesn’t mean they belong to separate kingdoms; it only means they have different licenses from the same king” (179). He also (rightly, I believe) rejects this separation of realms on the grounds that “our worship determines, is determined by and displays our politics. A common cultural concern like the stock market is for many people a place of worship” (179-180). In place of “two kingdoms,” he later argues for “a doctrine of two ages” which rejects the division of life into spiritual and political realms in favor of a biblical division between this present evil age and the age to come which has been inaugurated and is awaiting consummation in Jesus Christ (275).
Another highlight of Leeman’s book is the emphasis he places on the doctrine of justification by faith alone as the only grounds for a truly just political community. The key to every kind of unity (racial, political, and socioeconomic) is a right standing before God on the basis of grace alone through faith alone in Jesus Christ alone: “Ever since God was dismissed as our source of standing, we have had to find it in ourselves, which leads to one-upmanship, boasting, war. But the person justified by faith must no longer prove or justify himself or herself by any earthly measurement” (325-326). Christ has paved the way for his church to experience the one thing that has proved to be most evasive throughout the history of the world: unity and peace among sinful men who have given up on self-vindication and united around the one true Lord.
As you can probably tell, I really like this book. However, I finished the book with regrets that Leeman didn’t address in depth the question of whether or not the church has obligations to work for societal justice alongside its primary commitment to the Great Commission and making disciples through the proclamation of the gospel of the kingdom to the ends of the earth. Clearly, Leeman rightly sees the Great Commission (Matt. 28:18-20) in connection with Matthew 16 and 18 and believes that this mission is to be fulfilled by the church and not merely individual Christians (360). However, while this mission is clearly the church’s main job, does Leeman believe it is the church’s only job? While he shows sympathy to proponents of “holistic salvation” who define the new covenant as involving both the inner and outer person in salvation (258), he also warns against speaking “vaguely of ‘transforming culture’ ….completely apart from the question of personal assent to Jesus’ rule” (266). While I agree with both of these sentiments, I want to know whether or not Leeman believes that holistic ministry fits within the mission of the church alongside the pronouncement of Jesus’ rule. For example, should churches be involved in the adoption of orphans? Should churches lobby against the abortion industry? Should churches use the courts to fight for religious liberty (or “religious tolerance,” (201-202) as Leeman prefers)? The closest Leeman gets to discussing these issues in relation to the mission of the church is in a brief discussion of political engagement and the church (377-378). In short, Leeman wants to avoid tying the name of Jesus to specific political positions unless “the ethical issues at stake are so plain that the wrong position would be treated as grounds for discipline in the church” (378). While I agree with the sentiment of this point, it wouldn’t be hard to come up with examples that would challenge his theory.
Most people read book reviews to determine whether or not they should take the time to read the book under review. Let me answer that question for you by asking you some questions: Do you want to understand the nature of the church biblically to correct erroneous contemporary views? Do you want to be challenged on how you think about the relationship between church and state? Do you want to grow in your amazement of what God is doing in the world through his political embassy called the church? If you answered in the affirmative to these questions, then this book is for you. You might not agree with every argument Leeman makes, but this book will certainly challenge you to see the church closer to the way in which Christ sees the church.
Casey McCall, Pastor of Students and Discipleship at Ashland Avenue Baptist Church, Lexington, KY