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.

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  • kelby carlson

    “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.”
    This analogy really doesn’t work. A judge’s interpretation, no matter right or wrong, will be backed by executive force. God will not back up and interpretation or application of the Bible that is wrong, whether spoken by a church or otherwise. And an individual can make a correct application of the Word just as much as a church can; and when the individual does so, that application is binding in its moral force.
    Now, obviously an individual can’t bind formally in the way a church can; but this is simply a function of the fact of group organization, rather than the group having something “more” that makes their authority mediatorial. And even a church can’t “bind” in the ultimate sense; if a church excommunicates me and it’s wrong, then though it’s judgment is legal in one respect, it doesn’t have any actual spiritual implications. Of course, we should give weight to a church’s authoritative statements; but that is because the church is probably more likely to get it right than we are going it alone. But the church collectively has the same moral authority that an individual Christian has; and its legal authority is related to its group activities, and is provisional and external. So, while you say a church cannot make new law, in saying that a church’s application of the Scdripture is backed by coercive force and that the declaration can go beyond Scripture in at least one sense, that is in fact the power you give the church.

    • Jonathan Leeman

      Kelby, Thanks for jumping in. You’re basically saying what I’m saying, perhaps with a few caveats. The church occupies a judge-like role not for the purposes of saving/damning people, but for the purposes, in your words, of “group organization.” A judge represents a legal system (say, the U.S. government), and when he pounds the gavel, he speaks for that legal system, and the system will then treat the defendant accordingly. Either the person will be escorted by a bailiff off to prison, or they will be set free. When the key-wielding local church pounds the gavel, the person really will become a member of the visible local church, or they will be removed from that visible local church. Their status ON EARTH will be palpably affected by the church’s declaration. In your language, it says “You’re a member of this group or not.” Now, yes, again, the church could be wrong. And if they are, Jesus will sort that out on the last day. Still, in the here and now, he has given the church this authority to officially recognize who belongs to him on planet Earth and who does not. It’s like Yahweh said with Israel, “I am their God and they are my people.” Now, today, formally, God would have the nations of the earth know that his name is upon THESE baptized, Lord’s Supper receiving people. He is their God, and we are his people. But no longer are we marked off by circumcision or Sabbath-keeping. Now we are marked off by the ordinances. All I’m saying is, it’s the local church which has the authority to “speak” through the ordinances either by bringing someone in or removing them. And to bring someone in or remove them from the ordinances (which is to say, church membership), is to exercise a judge-like speech.

      Further, I don’t think I’m just imposing the metaphor of judgment on the text. The entire context of Matthew 18:15-20 is judicial in its language. Verse 16 invokes a rule for “two or three witnesses” in matters of legal churches in Deuteronomy 19. Verses 17 and 18 demonstrate such an act of judgment. Verse 19 uses a legal word (“matter” or “pragma”) to speak about the kind of prayers we lift up. Verse 20 again invokes the Jewish court room principle of “two or three.” And the term “binding and loosing” itself was used by the rabbis in matters of interpretation and judgment. Paul, then, in 1 Corinthians 5 also uses the language of “judgment” twice (forms of krino) to describe what the church is doing (see vv. 3, 12).

      In other words, yes, God asks the fallible local church to “speak” for him in a way in a way you and I ask individual Christians cannot. You and I as isolated individual Christians should not baptize, dispense the LS, or excommunicate (even if you learned otherwise at youth camp). Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox Christians have understood this for 2000 years. Only in the last couple of decades has it been denied, as Minich seems to do.

      I hope this helps.

      • kelby carlson

        In fact I think you’re incorrect about the RCC and the EO churches on baptism. While they would strongly discourage lay baptism, generally speaking they do accept it–they even accept Protestant baptisms, so you aren’t required to be rebaptized upon entering the RCC. I really don’t think your interpretation of Matthew 28 is tenable in light of the rest of the NT data. It’s not just Acts 8 you have to account for; it’s all of the other baptisms in Acts. None of them are definitively said to take place in an assembly. You bring that assumption into the text based on a different passage; and to be honest I don’t see a place where you argue convincingly for that interpretation, other than the similarity of language between Matt. 18 and 28. And, of course an individual Christian shouldn’t excommunicate someone. But that is because and individual Christian /can’t/ excommunicate someone, at least not in most church polities. That is just the nature of how group organizations work. Unless I have been given the authority–to use your terminology–to excommunicate, then any attempt to do so would be ineffective. But I am not convinced that an individual can’t say to a 9seeming) brother/sister “you are not acting like a Christian, and I can’t regard you as one” whether inside or outside a local church context. And if that individual is right, their words do have authority–certainly not legal authority, but that is because as we both seem to agree an individual just doesn’t have the ability to excommunicate on his/her own. But, as I’ve said before, if an individual says “you are not a Christian” and they are right, their pronouncement is binding; if a church says “you are a Christian” and they’re wrong, that church’s pronouncement is not binding in the ultimate sense. What you seem to want to do is give the church a “special” kind of authority that goes beyond the provisional, formal and advisory authority into something more powerful. But when pressed, you seem to concede all of the points I have just enumerated. I don’t think you can have it both ways.

        • Jonathan Leeman

          In fact, I also think Acts 8 does give individuals license to baptize in exceptional situations (i.e. there is no church present). My point was merely, P, RCs, and EOs alike have universally affirmed (until recently) that formal church speech is of a different nature than individual Christian speech. And all affirm that, ordinarily, it’s the church which baptizes. (Your good questions keep pushing us further into the weeds, and I’m really not wanting to go there, but I’d say the apostles wielded the keys (Mt. 16) and so do local churches (Matt. 18). So you do see apostles both unilaterally baptizing through Acts, as w/Philippian jailor and excommunicating.)

          Of course you can privately say to another individual Christian, “I don’t believe you are a Christian.” And you may then treat them as such. And Jesus may prove you right on the last day. But there’s no text of Scripture which say that you saying that is you “binding/loosing” them in any meaningful (or as you put it, legal) sense.” But Jesus does give the church precisely such authority, at least in Matthew 18:17-18 he does.

          You keep saying “that’s just how organizations work.” Someone has to have authority to form an organization. To make it public. And that’s what I’m talking about: the authority to form or identity as the visible local church on earth. Are you perhaps attributing to me more than I’m saying when you refer to a “special” kind of authority?

  • Mark Lauterbach

    Jonathan, this is a great reply to the review. The matter of the keys of the kingdom and subordinate authorities is foundation to the order of the church and the Christian life. But it is so against the grain of our radical individualism. Thanks for your good work on this. I will get the book!

  • Joseph Minich

    Dr. Leeman,

    Thanks for taking the time to respond. Unfortunately, it seems to me that there is some major misunderstanding going on. Allow me to clarify.

    1. I never claimed that the local church’s power is was simply declarative, full stop. Rather, I argued that its “spiritual” power and authority were declarative. Whatever it says about a human’s spiritual standing is neither made so by their saying it, nor made not so by failing to say it. One might be tempted to say that this is so obviously true as to be trivial, but it is precisely this basic insight that is lost in many ecclesiologies or buried in confusion by other statements and metaphors. In any case, the local church clearly possesses political power and authority in respect of itself as an institution. In this sense, it functions just like any other institution. If the Roman church says Luther is out, Luther is out of the Roman church. Ex opera operato. But this is a function of the visible church “qua visible,” not qua “spiritual.” Whether or not the former testifies visibly to the latter is entirely a function of whether or not it accurately reflects the evaluation of God’s word upon that person or situation, and if it does, that spiritual reality is not “made so” by the declaration and can be just as accurately testified to by an individual.

    I think Kelby has already ably handled the judge analogy. Moving on…

    I have decidedly not rejected the necessity of the local church or its offices. Indeed, I affirm these wholeheartedly. I simply do not affirm them for the same reasons that you do nor do I see them as a solution to the problems that you identify. To wit, if the church excommunicates, one can still open up another church. If the church writes a confession, an individual can write another one. If the church refuses the Lord’s Supper, there is always my back yard and those who agree with me. That is simply the reality on the ground. I am not saying any of this is necessarily ideal or good, mind you. I’m just saying that it is – whether we like it or not. So why the local church? Most certainly, because fellowship is commanded by Christ. End of story. All Christians are obligated to engage in regular fellowship with other Christians and to pursue the Christian life together. And this generates local churches. And why are we instructed to gather together?

    Mind you, my answer is quite prosaic, as prosaic as reality: it’s because we’re social animals. From a practical perspective (which I do not conflate with divine command), the local church is basically for the sake of uniting ourselves to others around God’s word and sacraments. The offices are authorities within this community to oversee its common life and preserve good order. None of this is in tension with what I have written because none of this concerns any sort of spiritual power beyond the word. It is simply the fact that, if the word is so important and if living it out is so important, it is fitting to bond ourselves with those who are searching it out, interpreting it, and who can correct us by that same word when they see us lose our way. In this sense, a local church is not terribly different from an Alcoholics Anonymous chapter, a phenomenon which very likely produces extremely important filial bonds and pairs the weak with the strong, the master with the novice, the teacher with the student, etc. Obviously, the divine command is “extra,” but I’d argue that the divine command is also a function of the fact that doing otherwise is simply gross negligence given what human beings are. And the divine command is to associate with one another, and work together according to decency and good order. It is not to look at the local church or its ministers as vicars of Christ’s spiritual power – which is just to be a “deputy.”

    You say I have missed the difference between an office possessed and abused. This misses the point. It is not that abuse demonstrates the lack of possession. It is rather that the very nature of spiritual “power” is that it cannot be “abused” because it is just God’s own power. This authority can be mediately declared, but not wielded. The church is mediating authority when it declares the word. And it is even mediating authority when the word is properly applied. But the moment the church is abusive and does not accurately speak the word, there is no “spiritual power” or “spiritual authority” exercised. There is temporal power and temporal authority. There is institutional authority. But they have ceased to represent Christ. This is what makes the analogy to parents and to magistrates problematic. Magisterial and parental power are temporal forms of power. If they fail, they have misrepresented God’s character, but power has still been exercised. Inasmuch as the local church has temporal power (over its immediate membership), again, this power is exercised in each admission and exclusion. But this only “testifies” to Christ’s own “spiritual power” inasmuch as it mediates His words and their implications accurately. This is also true of an individual making a declaration about someone’s soul. The individual has none of the local church’s temporal power, but wields the same ability to accurately or inaccurately articulate the application of the world to this person, situation, or issue. Again, this is unusual and unlikely because of the nature of human sociality. But that it is not impossible forces us to clarify the very essential and basic definition of how the word functions in relation to ecclesiastical power.

    2. On the bit about modernism, I’ll selfishly commend my review of “Covenantal Apologetics” (https://calvinistinternational.com/2014/02/17/covenantal-apologetics-principles-practice-defense-faith). Suffice is to say, for present purposes, that quoting Bible verses in public is not what I had in mind, nor is any of my contention in this area dependent upon any notion of “religious neutrality.” It is rather dependent upon “non-neutrality” with respect to reality as it common confronts us – including its religious implicates. The modernist move is any move which says that reality simply doesn’t commonly confront us or that, sans the hermeneutical key of a particular community, it cannot be properly unlocked to have its own moral and philosophical force. The point about irreducible subjectivization is not that your view is entirely subjectivist. Demonstrably, it isn’t. It is that you believe the acceptance of your basic claims about reality to depend upon (as I read you) some subjective spiritual change rather than the objective persuasive force of reality itself. This is why I bring up the Westminster confessing reprobate. That he or she exists suggests otherwise than this. Nor does my emphasis on reality as it common confronts us suggest that agreement is easy. It isn’t. It is costly. It is hard. But our access to and participation in a common reality serves as an adjudicating force.

    3. On this point, I fear you have simply misread me. When I wrote that “nature cannot be authorizing by itself,” I was summarizing your position – not my own. And I think you missed the objection that I built on top of this. My point is that if your view requires “explicit” (which I have taken to mean “verbal” of some sort) authorization, you would have to argue that it was sinful for people to marry and form governments apart from awareness of this authorization. This is different than something binding us which we don’t know. This is us “doing something” which we don’t know to be authorized by God. My own position does not lead to this reductio because I would argue that nature is authorizing by itself. This does not mean that Scripture is not also authorizing. But it would call into question the “institutional hermeneutic,” not because Genesis 1, 2, and 9 are not “authorizing” texts – but because their authorizing function is speaking into a context wherein these institutions are already known to be authorized by nature (and therefore by God!). In the case of Adam and Noah, of course, natural and special revelation came immediately together. But in the case of most persons, including many ancient Israelites and most modern Christians, these texts are speaking an “authorizing” voice into a situation where this is already our norm (and is so by nature). To say it differently, God has already taught us this by nature, and so when we read Genesis 1, 2, and 9 now, our first response should not be, “Whew! I’m glad I was allowed to do that all this time” (an implicate of your view, even if you don’t draw it), but rather, “What does God further reveal about this thing that I’m already doing” (i.e. its origin, explicit norm, and telos)?

    4. As Barth famously said to Brunner, “Nein!” (though in that case, Brunner was right) Christ’s eschatological rule is the “most real” thing. My point is simply that the local church’s “being backed by an end-time force” does not work qua their being an embassy, but qua their accurately declaring the word. But the individual Christian who rightly proclaims the word is also backed by an end-time force – even if they are out of step with the local church when that church errs. So there is no “essential” (again, I’m trying to get at the most basic principles, here) link between the institution and the “force,” but only between the “word” and “force.” This is disanalogous to human embassies. When an embassy says, “If I push this button, jets will come” – that is how it works. As a private citizen, I have no button to press and my threat is completely empty if I talk about my “jet-wielding” authority. Not so in the church embassy. Here, their pushing a button doesn’t make jets come that weren’t already on their way. And their failing to push a button won’t keep jets from coming that were already en route. And those jets have precisely the same relationship to the individual Christian because both can declare the word. What is different is that the individual is far less likely to be right. Let’s face it. Lone ranger Christians usually have crazy doctrine and distorted affections. What is also different is that the individual cannot kick out of the group, but the group (whether as a group or through its representatives) can kick out of the group. And, depending on how one reads the New Testament texts, one could even call this “divine authority,” but it is divine authority exercised in a temporal fashion (and herein similar to the authority of parents and magistrates) and has no essential relation to spiritual power or the word. Contingently and ideally, it does. And when it does, the public temporal testimony of the church speaks powerfully precisely because the word is being spoken, and spoken communally. But there is still great temporal power when a community speaks even apart from mediating the word – which is why cults have such a hold on their members.

    I hope this response brings some clarity. Thanks very much for your engagement. I have engaged your work because I believe that this is a matter of utmost importance and because I believe that lack of clarity as it pertains to some of these distinctions pays disastrous pastoral dividends. In my judgment, the ultimate antidote to spiritual abuse is not just getting church authorities to wield authority better. It is rather to insist to all persons that the only ultimate spiritual “end-time” power over them is God and His word and do direct them to that. This might take the form of telling them that the word suggests, by implication, that they are in eternal danger. But it is the word and it alone which has the spiritual power and this should be “oozing out the pores” in a cases of local church discipline. Granted, I think that when you cut most Protestants, they’ll bleed these answers (even if they aren’t clear at the level of principle). But non-clarity of principle can lead to baptized terminology which, sans clarity, bleeds into practices which are far more reminiscent of papal bondage than gospel freedom.

    P.S. On the issue of the specifics of sacramental administration and church government in their relation to this view, I will once against indulgently point you to what I have written elsewhere (including the comments section afterwards): https://minicheism.wordpress.com/2012/12/12/thoughts-on-church-authority/

    • Jonathan Leeman

      Joseph,
      First, there is no need to address me as Dr. Leeman. Second, I’ve become convinced you didn’t actually read the Political Church, but some other volume, strangely, with an author by the same name. You critique me for views I don’t hold, and affirm many of the things I would affirm. Your first paragraph, for instance, is precisely what I’m saying. Why you and Kelby continue to ascribe to me the claim that I’m ascribing some type of “spiritual” authority above and beyond an institutional authority, I cannot figure out. Please observe, once more, the title of the book: POLITICAL Church. Politics is about organizing people in a public framework. You write, “this is a function of the visible church ‘qua visible,’ not qua ‘spiritual.’ Whether or not the former testifies visibly to the latter is entirely a function of whether or not it accurately reflects the evaluation of God’s word upon that person or situation, and if it does, that spiritual reality is not ‘made so’ by the declaration and can be just as accurately testified to by an individual.” What? I thought that’s what I was saying. But then again, you say things in your penultimate paragraph that, in my view of things, say something different. IN other words, you and Kelby ascribe to me views I would not own. And it seems like I’m doing the same for you. My guess is, a conversation or two could clear up some of these differences or misunderstandings. I do think we probably have some significant differences. But I suspect we are using different categories and so are missing one another. Which obfuscates the actual differences. I have a similar suspicion on points 2 to 4. If you’re ever in DC, I’d be happy to take you to lunch. Let me know if you are by contacting 9Marks.org.

      • Joseph Minich

        Jonathan, thanks very much for your interaction. It is not surprising to me that you find yourself agreeing with much of what I have written. This is why, of first importance in my original review, was an emphasis on “adjustment” of principles to reality. It seems to me that many of these qualifications strike you as right because you are, after all, a Protestant and you believe the gospel. But my argument is that these qualifications stand in some degree of tension with the analogies, rationale, and articulation of church authority you offer in other places. In other words, there are two sets of principles (articulated below) and one, as I read it, trumps the other. Happily so! So what’s the big deal? In my judgment, the big deal is how this is worked out pastorally in actual local churches. Most parishioners don’t get all the qualifications. Unless they hear, with Paul himself, “If even I or an angel from heaven……” they will likely misunderstand church authority. This is an amazing text. The apostle Paul himself tells the Galatians to kick an APOSTLE to the curb if he preaches differently. What ethos, then, did apostolic churches and the individuals within them have with respect to the word? The gospel makes confident men and women. My fear, and it is not an unconfirmed one, is that when people hear that the church-qua-institutional and polis is Jesus’ “deputy,” that the local church is Jesus’ “embassy,” and that to disobey the elders is very very very likely to be in threat of divine judgment – they don’t see the disanalogy to human judges and what they represent, human embassies and what they represent. When a judge applies, it is law. Not so in the heavenly kingdom. When an earthly embassy calls the jets, they come. Not so in the spiritual kingdom. In the former, there is no qualification. In the latter, the qualification is such that even an Apostle says, “Check with the King!” And this is why I don’t think merely asking me to check out the title of the book suffices here. In some places, what you write comes off as though this is all about a “public framework.” Of course. It’s a book about politics. But I do not think that when people read that consciences can be bound, that the church possesses authority over the “new man” (qua institution!), or that local churches and elders speak for Jesus (as deputies) in a way that others do not (how? If we agree that it’s only ministerial authority?) – that they will see this as reducing to theology that reduces to a “public framework” – and certainly not with clarity about how the “public” nature of the word factors into this (again, in a way disanalogous with human institutions). Inevitably, on the ground, the institution and the offices are perceived as having a sort of spiritual “jiu jiu” that is very often destructive. That is, the deference rendered is not the ordinary sort that prudential people give to exemplars, experts, and communities (for all the reasons we do so in normal life) – but because here there is some extra “something” which really cannot, at this point, just be the word – but it is “spiritual” and therein is the danger. An ordinary believer, hearing of “authority over the new man” and the “interpretive authority of the church,” and of the propriety of “binding consciences,” is not going to merely hear “public framework,” but “the church is the vicar of Christ,” (alongside other statements in tension with this) – and they will often outsource their critical judgment. It is that latter bit which renders the situation so ripe for abuse. And incidentally, this also why I don’t think it is sufficient to say “authority can be abused.” There is a difference between abusing with authority you do have (and in which cases, we are often obligated to submit), and abusing with authority which you do not have (in which case, there is no obligation to submit). I would argue that this distinction is very often lost on the ground, especially if the critical faculties have been outsourced. This is not an accusation. There are plenty of churches who speak this way and where the “ethos” on the ground is fine. But there are plenty speak this way and the “ethos” on the ground is not fine – and in the name of statements precisely like this. The comments on “individualism” in my original review were meant, in part, to address this. Just like the gospel, ecclesiastical practices most consonant with it makes both strong individuals and strong communities – and both protect and build up the other. I hope that clears up where I’m coming from. I appreciate your offer of lunch. We have many mutual friends in DC. Perhaps I will hit you up if I am there at some point. Cheers, brother!