Skip to main content

Mere Orthodoxy exists to create media for Christian renewal. Support this mission today.

Jonathan Leeman Responds to Our “Political Church” Review

June 27th, 2016 | 19 min read

By Jonathan Leeman

Other posts in the series:

A few weeks ago we ran a two-part review of Jonathan Leeman’s new book Political Church. We are now giving Dr. Leeman a chance to respond to Minich’s review. Here is Dr. Leeman’s response:

Thanks to Joseph Minich and Mere Orthodoxy for taking the time to engage Political Church. I’ll cut to the chase and offer 4 replies, starting with and giving the most time to the one that I perceive to be the most doctrinally and pastorally significant for those who might read this blog.

The nature of church power and Protestant ecclesiology

Minich characterizes my ecclesiology as possessing a secret allegiance or at least parallel to the Roman Catholic Church. “Crypto-Romanism” is his phrase.

He offers what he understands to be a more traditionally Protestant understanding of church power, which “roots the power of the church in the power of the word.” Furthermore, “Only inasmuch as the church reflects the word does it have spiritual power. When it fails to speak the word, it does not speak for Christ or with His authority and power.” The church’s power, then, “is simply declaratory.” Individuals, congregations, and the whole body of Christ can therefore exercise church power “because an individual Christian, an individual congregation, and the body of Christ as a whole can speak the word of God.” All Christians have “an immediate relationship” with the Word, and so we cannot say that churches can stand “in-between” a Christian and the Word.

In all of this, if Minich is talking about an individual’s ability to read the Bible, comprehend it, and get saved, I agree entirely. See Jeremiah 31:34. I’m also grateful he has raised this matter, because it gives us a chance to talk about something that Protestants today, influenced as we all are by pragmatism and hyper-individualism, fail to grasp. We tend to grasp the authority of the individual conscience, and we grasp Rome’s claim to possess authority over salvation, but we don’t seem to have eyes for anything “in between,” to use Minich’s phrase.

Historic Protestantism, however, whether of the Magisterial, Independent, or Radical variety, has always understood there is something “in between.” Call it the power of jurisdiction or the power of judgment; call it the joint (as opposed to several) power of the officers or just the power of the visible institutional church; but no matter what it’s been called, Protestants of the congregational, presbyterian, and episcopalian variety have always understood there is something more than just that authority to open a Bible and “declare” it. Rather, someone must also interpret and apply it in a way that binds Christians, at least in terms of their relationships with one another on planet Earth. The Presbyterian James Bannerman observes,

“The office of the Church in relation to the laws of her Divine Head [the Bible] is to explain, to declare, and to apply them, in reference to every fresh case that may occur…Beyond this the legislative function of the Church does not extend….To declare and apply these, to administer and enforce the authority of Christ…this is the office of the Church.”

Or here’s the PCA Book of Order:

3-2: Ecclesiastical power, which is wholly spiritual, is twofold. The officers exercise it sometimes severally, as in preaching the Gospel, administering the Sacraments, reproving the erring, visiting the sick, and comforting the afflicted, which is the power of order; and they exercise it sometimes jointly in Church courts, after the form of judgment, which is the power of jurisdiction.

3-3: The sole functions of the Church, as a kingdom and government distinct from the civil commonwealth, are to proclaim, to administer, and to enforce the law of Christ revealed in the Scriptures.

So, yes, church authority “roots” in the Word of God, as Minich says. Nor can the church’s authority go beyond the Word of God. Yet church authority is not the same thing as the authority of the Word of God. Rather, it’s like the authority of a judge who interprets the constitution and then “applies,” “administers” and “enforces” God’s Word (to use the language of Bannerman and the PCA) bindingly to particular real-life cases. The judge’s authority is not the same as the authority of the constitution. It’s distinct from the constitution’s authority, even if it’s bound and subordinate to the constitution. And a judge’s authority is necessary because, for that constitution to work, someone must say, “This is what it means” and “These people are subject to it in such and such circumstances.”

At the risk of repetition, I’ll say it again: the authority of a constitution is one thing. The authority of judgment over the right interpretation and the citizens who are subject to that constitution is another thing. So it is with the authority of the Word and the authority of the church (whoever you want to say exercises that authority, whether the congregation, the presbytery, or the bishop).

Or let me put it this way. Minich is right to invoke the old Protestant claim that the church’s authority is “simply declarative.” But what does “declarative” mean? The older Protestants sometimes intended to distinguish the church’s declarative authority from the state’s coercive authority; sometimes they intended to distinguish it from Rome’s view, which includes a legislative aspect (as Bannerman said above), meaning the church can enact new law beyond Scripture. But neither of these helpful contrasts actually speaks to what type of declaration is being made. There are many different kinds of declarations—legal, personal, didactic, confessional, and so forth. A judge who pronounces “The law says…” in the courtroom is making a different kind of declaration than a law professor who pronounces “The law says…” in a classroom. One declaration binds, one doesn’t.   

The kind of declarations that Jesus talks about in Matthew 16 and 18 are binding or loosing declarations. They are, you might say, “legal” or “judicial” declarations (legal relative to the kingdom of Christ). They bind. Or loose. Which is how the rabbis would use the phrase “binding and loosing.” The rabbis never meant to add to Moses’ law. But they would seek to interpret and apply it in individual circumstances.  

Very concretely, then, adopting a confession of faith (whether the Westminster, the London, or the 39 Articles), receiving someone to baptism, or excommunicating someone for unrepentant sin—all such decisions require a power of judgment over whether or not that confession or that confessor are in accordance with the Scriptures. You have no organized, visible church on earth if no one can agree on what Christianity is and who is a Christian. For Christianity to be public and corporate in any sense whatsoever, comprised of something more than scattered free-agents, each defining the gospel as he or she sees fit, you need someone to render judgment on what the Christian faith teaches and who is a Christian. This is not a salvific judgment. It’s a public, legal, and group-organizing judgment. (The difference here is analogous to what a legislator does and a judge does. A judge does not make the law what it is; nor does he make someone guilty or innocent. He or she simply renders a binding interpretation and application of the law to a person. Sometimes those verdicts are correct; sometimes incorrect; but either way they’re binding in the here and now.)

It’s precisely this kind of authority which falls in between Minich’s radical individualism and Rome; and it’s the kind of authority that is “in between” a Christian and the Bible, at least in terms of that Christian’s public identity and membership in the visible church. It’s an authority that says things like, “You might call yourself a Christian, but we as a church can no longer affirm it based on your unrepentant sin” or “We as a church believe that marriage can only occur between a man and a women and that declaration will bind the members of this church.” This authority should not intrude in between a Christian and salvation, but it does say that there is more to the Christian life than just me and my Bible.  

What then of Minich’s claim that “Only inasmuch as the church reflects the word does it have spiritual power. When it fails to speak the word, it does not speak for Christ or with His authority and power”? Well, that’s true in one sense, but not in another. It’s true eschatologically that Jesus will “side” with whoever accurately reflects his Word, just as Jesus will side with a defendant who has been wrongly convicted by a judge. But it’s also true that Jesus has instituted mediating authorities on planet Earth who sometimes make bad decisions, but they still possess authority. Parents and princes and judges make wrong and sinful decisions, but that doesn’t mean they don’t legitimately possess the office of parent or prince or judge. So with the authority of the church and its officers. A church might wrongly decide to excommunicate someone. But that doesn’t mean there’s no such thing as an authority to excommunicate. Minich, in other words, fails to see the distinction between an office and the use of that office, or between authority and what I do with that authority. Both matters are subject to moral evaluation. And it’s easy to blur the two together, as he has done in his criticisms. People often err by either absolutizing mediated authority (saying it’s never subject to moral evaluation or rejection “because God established it”) or by eradicating it. Minich effectively eradicates it.

Ultimately, I know Minich means to give us historical Protestant ecclesiology, but I think he gives us something very different in fact, something more in line with George Barna and Donald Miller, both of whom make local-church affiliation optional. Barna and Miller recognize that churches exist, and that they can play good practical purposes in people’s lives: You hear the Word preached, you have fellowship, you are discipled by elders, you have the chance to serve others. But they also take the assumption that the local church has no authority in the Christian’s life to its logical conclusion, which is this: If you can get what you need outside of a local church (teaching, fellowship, discipling, submitting to the counsel of a pastor in my life, opportunities to care for other Christians, etc.), then, strictly speaking, there is no moral obligation to affiliate with a church. After all, nothing authoritative stands in between you and the Word. You are a free agent, the captain of your own ship. The local church might play an instrumental purpose, which we might associate with on purely voluntaristic, self-selecting grounds; but it does not play a necessary moral purpose this side of heaven. Which means, strictly speaking, one can in principle dispense with it this side of heaven. At most I might find myself a chaplain and submit to him.

If on the other hand you concede there is such a things as church discipline, or even such a thing as a decision over whether or not to receive someone to baptism and the Lord’s table, then you have implicitly created a space for an authority other than the authority to open the Bible and read it out loud. You have created a space for an authority of interpretation and judgment concerning that Word, which Protestants of every shape and stripe have always understood to be the authority of the church.  

A modernist philosophical posture?

Minich noticed that I referred to myself as an “anti-modernist,” from which he draws the conclusion that I “make the human subject to be the creator of reality, indeed, the ultimate authority.” To my knowledge, he’s the only reader so far to come to this conclusion. Perhaps he missed what I said about the nature of Scripture as a divine speech-act and the source of all truth and the basis for all morality and authority? And what exactly in the argument itself (as opposed to preliminary remarks in a preface) would cause him to think this? He doesn’t exactly say. Instead, it feels as if Minich saw the word “anti-modern” (and maybe the word “pragmatism” later on) and then imported a whole worldview onto me without considering the argument that followed.

It’s true that many postmodernists and postliberals and philosophical pragmatists maintain modernistic starting points. But I assume (and not all do) that Christian theologians can find points of overlap with non-Christian philosophers without co-opting their whole system, which I perceive myself to be doing when calling myself an anti-modernist. In fact, I agree with Minich that what fundamentally separates Christians and non-Chrsitians are our different loves, as I say in chapter 1’s references to Augustine. Those different loves then determine our different epistemologies: “I will listen to Him” or “I will listen only to myself.”

Connected to what I understand to be Minich’s disavowal of my presuppositionalism is his own (what appears to be) evidentialism or even Thomism (?). He suggests that Scripture has an innate gravitas which inevitably echoes in every person’s soul such that (if I understand him correctly) we should be able to persuade people with Scriptural truth in the public square, even if we cannot cause them to become regenerate.

For my part, I think that precisely because people’s different starting points are different loves, and because people by nature love themselves more than God, they will refuse to be persuaded by my Bible-verse recitations, gravitas or no, unless the Spirit gives them a new heart. So when questions of justice in the public square are at stake, Minich may wish to bang his head against the wall by speaking Bible verses in the public square over and over to closed ears. I’m not opposed to using Bible verses in the public square (in fact, I point to Polycarp’s martyrdom as an example of what we might need more of instead of the publically-accessible, religiously-neutral appeals to conscience, as he, contradictorily, favors elsewhere in his critique), but nor am I opposed to quoting statistics or pointing to DNA evidence or doing whatever it takes within the bounds of biblical morality to convince those who would abort their babies to stop. And I guess I’m not convinced that that makes me a modernist.  

Are the power-conferring rules of Scripture descriptive or normative?   

Legal theorists sometimes make a distinction between power-conferring rules and mandatory rules. The former we sometimes call commissions (“Be fruitful and multiply…”; “Whoever sheds the blood of man…”; “Go into all nations…” “Serve as overseers…”). These rules confer power or establish an office. The latter we tend to call commands, and they typically delimit the jurisdiction of any given office (“Don’t eat from this tree…” “Do not steal…”). The power-conferring rule “Fill the earth and subdue it” is delimited by the mandatory rule “You shall not murder.”

Minich prefers to read these power-conferring rules, at least the ones in Genesis 1, 2, and 9, as “origin stories” and not as power-conferring rules. They are descriptive for him, not normative. Why then he would treat any commission or command in Scripture as normative and not merely descriptive is unclear. Still, his point is that, since most people would not have read Genesis 1 and 9 at the time of their original publication, then, obviously, these texts are merely descriptive, not normative.

In response I would simply say that our moral rights, privileges, and obligations as human beings do not always depend on whether or not someone has explained them to us. Is murder wrong only if someone tells me it’s wrong? I don’t think so. It was wrong for Cain even though he had not yet received the 10 Commandments. And certainly it’s the case that something is right or wrong once God says it, whether or not people know God has said it.

Okay, if that’s the case for mandatory rules like “You shall not murder,” what about power-conferring rules—rules that grant people the permanent authority to do something, like marry, form governments, or cross international borders to share the gospel in spite of what governments might say? Minich seems to want to say we “just have” that authority to marry or form governments. Where does he think we get that authority? From the nature of things? From the dirt? From our blood cells? I’m honestly not sure. I’m not trying to be snarky. I’m just trying to think concretely. Where does the authority to marry, to rule the earth, or to form governments come from?  

I propose that any authority for vessels made out of clay comes from the one who made them. Period. In chapters 1 and 9 of Genesis, the Maker makes several such authorizations explicit. So, yes, I’m happy to say that God’s law is also bound up in the nature of creation (if that’s what Minich is saying), but I would not say (as Minich is effectively saying) that the fact that God’s law has been revealed progressively through redemptive history means that his law (whether mandatory or power-conferring), once stated, is merely descriptive and not normative, and so we must rely on “the nature of things” and not Scripture to give God’s law moral weight!

Rather, I would say that God’s law (mandatory and power-conferring) is normative whether or not God states it, and whether or not we hear it. I’d also say that it’s a sign of God’s love and mercy that he does state it. And I’d say that God’s words, once uttered, bear normative weight! So those of us who read Genesis 1 and 9 can happily say, “Ah, yes, there is the authorization to marry, rule the earth, and form governments. And it comes from God!”  

What’s unclear to me in Minich’s formulation is that he seems to say nature (as opposed to Scripture) authorizes us to marry and form governments (“Doth not nature teach you that, sans marriage and the state, we are a shame unto ourselves?”); but he also denies it: “nature cannot be ‘authorizing’ by itself.” So did God or nature authorize marriage and government for Minich? More problematic still, Minich’s basic argument, which reduces Genesis 1 and 9 to mere description, will effectively decapitate Scriptures ethical normativity across the board, like a scythe across heads of wheat, at least if he extends that same argument consistently.   

Eschatalogy and politics

Minich’s opening refrain is that my theology doesn’t fit reality as we experience it. A couple of examples of this are given throughout the piece. Let me simply deal with the first since it goes to the heart of whether or not the church is political. The term political, at least in the time between the fall and Christ’s return, involves the matter of coercive force. And one reason I give for calling the local church political is, not that it possesses the right to use coercive force, but because it’s backed up by one who does, and it speaks on his behalf as an ambassador.

To which, Minich responds, “This is, of course, completely disanalogous with the sort of coercion that exists in the state….When [a church] speaks rightly, it is no more backed by the threat of divine judgment than when an individual Christian speaks the truth…Leeman must concede this is true in fact, in which case there is a question of what the principle is actually getting us” (ital. orig.)

Now there seems to be two things going on in Minich’s critique we need to untangle. First, he seems to be saying the claim that the threat of coercive force behind the church’s action is not actually like the state’s threat (it’s “completely disanalogous”) and so we shouldn’t call it political. Second, he makes the same argument mentioned above about the individual’s authority being no different than the church’s authority. Since I dealt with the latter already, let me just address the former.

It’s my Christian assumption, in fact, that eschatological realities seen with the eyes of faith are just as in-fact and just as really-real as the sword of the state which we can see with the eyes of the flesh. Isn’t one of the things that makes the church the church our belief that Jesus’ sword of judgment is just as concretely real as the police car outside? We submit to and repent and bow before King Jesus because we know that his sword is real and looms over us and the nations now, even if he promises not to swing it until the end. Minich, strangely, appears to be calling eschatological truth not real, not a fact. What’s most real for him, it would seem, is that police car outside. Ah, there is a frightening message for the church!

So, no, I don’t think the political nature of the church is completely disanalogous to the political nature of the state. I think instead that the church is an embassy, and, like an embassy, it does not swing the sword for itself, but calls upon a mighty kingdom and king to swing the sword for it. This embassy is separated from its kingdom not by geographic space, but by eschatological time (so, yes, there is some disanalogy). But that doesn’t make it any less real or in-fact.

There are other matters that probably should be addressed in Minich’s review, such as his discussion of the conscience. (Of course the free conscience is “simply reality.”) But lest my rejoinder outstretch his reply, I’ll leave it at that. Again, I’m grateful for his engagement. It’s not clear to me he understands the history of the various conversations that converge in this book. Still, if I cannot adequately explain myself and those broader conversations in the 400 pages of the book, then it’s probably best to pin the blame on me.

Enjoy the article? Pay the writer.

Personal Info

Donation Total: $0