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Reviewing Jonathan Leeman’s “Political Church” Pt 1

June 13th, 2016 | 22 min read

By Joseph Minich

Other Posts in the Series:

A few months ago I asked my friend Joseph Minich if he’d be kind enough to review Jonathan Leeman’s Political Church for us. He said he would. And then wrote 9000 words about it. We’re going to run his review in its entirety, but we’re doing it over two days. Today’s first part is simply going to be a summary of Leeman’s argument. On Wednesday, Minich will turn to making a critical assessment of Leeman’s work.

Before handing things off to Joe, I wanted to take one paragraph to explain why we’re running a review of such length. The answer is simple: I expect ecclesiology to be one of the defining debates of our generation in the western church.

We’re at something of a turning point in the west. The old mainline denominations are failing. In one sense we all ought to say “good riddance” as nearly all of them have long since become apostate. In another sense, however, their loss is still devastating. These institutions are the oldest Protestant institutions in North America and they are collapsing before our eyes. Rome appears headed a similar route for the most part, although I expect there will be a few regions that remain more orthodox, thanks largely to the influence of orthodox bishops. (This isn’t intended as a slur against Rome; rather it’s simply an assessment of the fact that Francis appears to be pushing the church in a more episcopalian direction not only theologically, but in terms of its polity.)

What we are left with is evangelicalism—and evangelicalism is comprised chiefly of relatively new institutions that do not know their tradition’s history, do not have discernible mechanisms for learning their history, and do not have solid answers for questions of ordinary parish ministry, church life, and church governance. If the American church has a future, it will be because God is faithful to us and aids us in finding solid answers to the vexing problems of church life and governance.

Therefore, taking the time to think about these questions and to address them faithfully is important. So yes, we’re running a 9000 word book review. But we’re doing it because, first, we need to faithfully depict Leeman’s actual argument and, second, we need to interact with it critically. Whatever one might think of Leeman’s book, one must recognize the value of Leeman’s contribution to the evangelical conversation about the church. His book will, I hope, encourage many more  people to reflect on these questions carefully and deeply. I also hope that this review by Joe will help further that work. (NOTE: If it would be helpful to you, I will be uploading a PDF of the review that will be available when we publish the full review on Wednesday. So if you would rather read a print out than read 9,000 words on a backlit screen, we’ll have that for you on Wednesday.) On that note, I’ll pass it on to Joe.


Daniel Rodgers has called our era an “age of fracture.” This expression captures the identity crises which exist among all institutions seeking to navigate their way through what is often termed “liquid modernity.” The “evangelical” community is no exception to this identity crisis. The diversity of its many self-professed adherents as well as the speed at which independent influences randomly and variously come together (or apart)  leads many to think that orthodox American evangelicalism is fundamentally ungrounded.

Of course, many evangelical movements think of themselves as a solution to this problem. Their antidotes, however, are as various as the above description would suggest – and therein the problem itself is perpetuated. For some, we must simply deconstruct evangelical identity into a loose amalgam of confessional identities. For others, there is a call to recover a sense of connectedness to the history of the church through the rediscovery of the church fathers, sacraments, and the more basic creedal items of the Christian faith (Trinity, Christology, etc).

This, of course, is the theological side of the coin. But arguably, such fracture is created or at least reinforced by a more fundamentally practical individualism. We live in the age of identity politics, of self-discovery – a “culture of authenticity” or “expressive individualism” as Charles Taylor puts it. If confessional particularity or creedal breadth constitutes the ideas around which we might unite, the concrete and embodied expression of this must be in the actual communities of practice. This context helps to explain the current attempts to recover the doctrine of the church. Not only must we have a beacon in the sea of ideas, we need a crew (and an organized one at that) to navigate our way safely.

A Map for Reality

Of course, many have abandoned the disoriented Protestant fleet and joined in the apparently more stable Armada of Rome or Constantinople. But several Protestant theologians have argued that we can gain our bearings once again if we but map our surroundings with biblical precision and a willingness to submit to our Captain.

It is precisely as a sort of map that Jonathan Leeman conceives of his recent “Political Church: The Local Assembly as Embassy of Christ’s Role.” He writes, “My prayer for this book is that it would give you, the reader, a better understanding of what the Bible says about church as well as how it describes the political map on which the church serves the purposes of Christ’s kingdom.” (17) As a map the book is written – and as a map it shall be judged. What follows is a summary of Leeman’s ecclesiological proposal in part one and, in part two, a critical evaluation of several key points, and a conclusion concerning the misunderstood but radical (i.e. “to the root”) nature of historic Protestant ecclesiology at its most basic level.

Institutions and the Life of the Church

Leeman begins his tome, “This book has two main goals. The first is to replace the map of politics and religion that many Christians have been using since the democratic revolutions of the eighteenth century with a more biblical one. The second is to explain where the local church fits onto this redrawn map as a political institution or embassy of Christ’s rule.” (13) The more common map is rooted, we are told, in Enlightenment assumptions concerning the “freedom of conscience,” and its concomitant, the freedom of religion. In this view, argues Leeman, the political and the religious are separate, corresponding to the realms of public and private respectively – the public sphere a realm of politics and the private sphere a realm for conscience and religion.

This freedom easily becomes a surrogate for “freedoms” to which most traditional religious persons take umbrage. As an alternative to this, Leeman introduces his own map, in which “church and state are separate institutions with different jurisdictions. Neither should confuse itself for the other. One bears the sword, while the other bears the keys of the kingdom. Yet the work of each is set on a landscape where politics and religion are wholly coterminous, like two circle lenses placed perfectly on top of one another.” (14) Leeman, it is important to note, does not hope to persuade unbelievers of his position. Rather, he writes “as a Christian to Christians.” (15) “If Christian political theologians or political philosophers try first to convince their non-Christian counterparts even before they convince themselves and their fellow believers, they will have to build on common ground, which invariably means compromising their own foundations.” (ibid)

Leeman descends from global height in his Preface to mountain-top height in his Introduction. And here, one gets a sense of his concerns. “A fundamental assumption of…many democratic Westerners, is that local churches are one more voluntary organization.” (21) In contrast, claims Leeman, “The church is a kind of embassy, only it represents a kingdom of even greater political consequence to the nations and their governors. And this embassy represents a kingdom not from across geographic space but from across eschatological time.” (22)

Again, the “institutional essence of the local assembly is a political unity.” (23) Each Christian, by virtue of membership in this political unity, is authorized “to represent the King’s name before the nations and their governors as an ambassador.” (24) Tellingly, Leeman writes, “The state and the church both mediate the rule of God, and unlike the mediate authority of, say, a parent, they both make an authoritative claim on the whole of a society, one by the sword and one by gospel proclamation. And backing up both claims is God’s own sword, even if that sword won’t show itself until the eschaton.” (ibid)

To approach Leeman’s understanding of the church as a political institution, we need, he argues, better concepts of both the “institutional” and the “political.” Leeman briefly compares his own maps to other paradigms (two-kingdoms, neo-anabaptists) before summarizing his own starting points. Rather than an attempt to refine one or more tradition, Leeman’s method is a “theological method driven by the biblical covenants.” (40) He seeks to draw his map in relation to the biblical storyline. His self-described “ontological” starting point for his analysis is, “like Radical Orthodoxy,” the Trinity. (40) Epistemologically, “like the post-liberals,” we must eschew Enlightenment foundationalism and speak boldly from within the presuppositions we hold to be true (for Leeman, the authority of Scripture).

The hermeneutical and institutional implications of this starting point lead Leeman to the following:

“The political theology developed in this book will not depend upon an anthropological division, say, between the inner and outer person, or between a religious portion of our lives and a political portion. Rather, it depends on a ‘doctrine of the two, or ‘doctrine of the two ages’ as Oliver O’Donovan has explained it. Institutions like the state and the family have authority over the whole person in one age, within the limits of their mandates; while the church has authority over the whole person for another age, within the limits of its mandate. The state’s authority is one of temporal coercion; the church’s is one of eschatological declaration. But both must attend to the inner and outer person. Both are political, and both are spiritual.” (51, emphasis in original)

At this point, Leeman moves to “ground level” to discuss each of his theses in some detail. Six chapters break up neatly into a chapter on politics, on institutions, on the politics of creation, of the fall, of the new covenant, and of the kingdom (followed by a brief conclusion). I will take these in turn.

Chapter 1: What does it mean to be “political?”

Chapter one is concerned to re-orient our thinking concerning what it means for a thing to be “political.” According to Leeman, “Politics refers to (1) the institutional activity of governance (2) over an entire population (3) backed by the power of coercion, which in varying degrees will be regarded as legitimate.” (62) The latter element (force) “separates a metaphorical use of ‘politics’ like ‘university politics’ from a literal one. Hence, we therefore exclude from the discipline of Politics the study of the running of such groups and institutions as businesses, trade unions, schools, universities, banks, churches and families, because in none of them may force play a role except with the permission of the state.” (60) The word “may” is important. To wit, “The difference between the power of a band of armed robbers and the power of the state is that the state’s power is authorized. The state is said to have authority, which is the right to do things or to demand that things be done. Authority in the simplest terms is power legitimately exercised.” (61, emphasis in original)

Leeman is interested, in relation to this topic, to develop an account of religious tolerance which can be given as a Christian, but “one cannot expect this to be persuasive to non-Christians.” (87) Final authority should not be invested in individual conscience (88), but rather in the limitations which God has placed on the political authorities He has authorized. Leeman argues, nevertheless, that this does not imply either that religion is neutral with respect to the public square or that one cannot employ traditional formulations to argue for religion within the public square. The latter is permissible for pragmatic reasons (93), and the former cannot obtain because the ultimate values of a people will always find a way to publicly assert themselves. Indeed, “government is very much in the business of binding whole persons, included their consciences…A person might be conscientiously convicted that a nation’s immigration laws are unfair, but he or she is still obligated to obey them…His or her conscientious objection is no measure of the law’s legitimacy.” (87)

A related irony, we are told, is that it is in the name of “freedom of conscience” that Christian religion will tend to decline (being portrayed as an encroachment upon the consciences of others), which is why it is important for Christians to use their voice in the public square to preserve the platform of the state in a way that is favorable to the strength of the church – which then blesses the state. “All people ‘worship’ in everything they do, whether in public or in private. What institutions do, to oversimplify, is proscribe and prescribe which activities appropriately express that worship in different domains.” (95)

Chapter 2: What are “institutions”?

Drawing on a “new institutionalism” in the field of political science, Leeman defines an institution, in his second chapter, as a “behavior-shaping rule structure” (107). They are not to be opposed, as in so much of the anti-institutionalism of the 1960s, to “community” or to “relationships.” Rather, “institutions are the application of authority to a relationship. Institutions exist wherever two or more individuals relate to one another according to some set of binding principles that commission and constrain the nature of their interactions.” (111) A political institution, then, is a behavior-shaping rule structure whose “reach or jurisdiction extends to the whole body politic (generally, not necessarily) recognized as formally possessing the right to govern it through coercive force.” (112) A political community, then, “is a community of people united by a common governing authority.” (115) Membership in such a community can take the form of being “subjects” (as in a totalitarian regime) or the form of “citizens” (as in those who covenant to submit themselves to a legitimate coercive authority). (125)

Importantly, Leeman here develops an “institutional hermeneutic,” which asks of Scripture, “Who is authorized to do what?” (129) This is of major importance for what follows. He writes that “not all imperatives are created equal. And some imperatives – particularly power-conferring imperatives, authorizations and commissions – do possess a kind of primacy in determining our ethical responsibilities and duties.” (131) The next three chapters ask, then, “who is authorized to do what?” in key passages of Scripture.

Chapter 3: The Politics of Creation

In his third chapter, on the politics of creation, Leeman does not start with Adam, but with God as the Trinity. “If the gospel is political, then it would seem that something about God himself is inherently political. Perhaps his good news is political because something about his very character or being requires it?” (142) God is both one and three, and as three, “there are within God self-conscious encounters between the three persons (unlike Barth, I would even say three subjects) of the Godhead. God has the relational resources within himself to affirm and acknowledge another, another who is, somehow himself.” (146)

This is relevant for human politics because “God has a social nature and so do human beings. And politics…is the business of organizing and governing groups of social beings according to a certain concept of righteousness and justice.” (149-50) This structure is manifested in that each person of the Trinity “bears himself toward the others as governed by a shared nature and essence,” (147) as well as the “structured ordering” among the persons themselves. (150)

From here, Leeman launches into a discussion of God’s image-bearers, using his “institutional hermeneutic” to discern whom God has authorized to do what. It is clear, first of all, that God is king over creation. Secondly, however, God authorizes human beings to mediate His authority toward creation. God has authorized mankind in the creation (Genesis 1) and garden (Genesis 2) commissions. And the relationship between mankind and God is indeed an identity-shaping rule structure backed by the threat of force – and therefore a political community.

For Leeman, this is a paradigmatic case of authority being “authorized” and therefore “re-presenting” God’s own authority by means of His servants. He writes, therefore, that “every act of human rule is legitimate only if it has been expressly authorized by God and expresses his will.” (162) Adam and Eve were given a task, and were meant to make life on earth “look like life in the divine polis of Father, Son and Spirit, a society that spreads beyond all time and space.” (ibid, emphasis in original) Adam and Eve were subjects of God’s kingdom but participated in His rule as its citizens.

One implication which Leeman draws out of this is that “a tension will inevitably exist in a fallen world between the absolute obligation to obey God and the relative obligation to obey any human authority that he has authorized.” (169) Luther’s injunction that it is neither right nor safe to go against conscience must be balanced by its inverse, “to go against parent or prince for the sake of conscience just might not be right or safe either.” (ibid) “God does in fact authorize various individuals and institutions to place burdens on the conscience.” (ibid) One might “rightly decide that the obligations of submission to the authority in question outweigh his assessment of the situation at hand.” (170) When this is the case and when it is not is very much a matter or wisdom.

Chapter 4: The Politics of the Fall

This ambiguity forms a perfect segue into Leeman’s discussion of the “politics of the fall” in chapter four. The fall is “the grand complexifier for any theological account of politics.” (172) The fall creates a complicated situation in which God remains king over all of creation, and yet within which His reign is not recognized explicitly by His subjects. Hereafter, while God’s rule remains invisibly universal, He makes it manifest in His “particular” relation to His people. There is a difference, then, between God’s single rule in its invisible dimension and in its “visible manifestation.” (181) The former is enshrined in the Noahic covenant, and the latter is enshrined in the “special covenants” between God and His people (culminating in the new covenant).

Within the Noahic covenant, Leeman identifies what he terms a “justice mechanism,” an authorization of mankind to deal with violence, and by implication, matters pertaining to self-preservation. “The inevitable and unavoidable implication of these two verses is that groups of people living in society must form or support a government – an orderly set of publicly recognized institutional processes – in order to employ this God-given justice mechanism justly.” (188, emphasis in original)

That the state is not authorized to demand true worship is because such a demand is not a part of its divine charter. Religious freedom need not be argued on the foundation of free conscience (201), but rather in the fact that God has “not authorized human beings to prosecute crimes against himself.” (ibid) Leeman does make a case for revolution when a “government systematically defies the justice mechanism and falls under its condemnation.” (203) And indeed, governments have an interest in “ascertaining…right doctrine and in some sense submitting itself to it” (204) precisely because false worship and idolatry will easily lead to such systematic defiance. “In short, a Christian’s description of the public square depends upon embracing two principles that bear a measure of tension between them: government must tolerate false religions, and following a false religion will eventually make a government unjust.” (ibid) If, however, none of this is persuasive to the unbeliever, how should Christians hold back injustice against themselves in a public square that does not recognize their first principles? Leeman responds, “use whatever arguments work!” (205)

The nations are subject to God’s authorization in the Noahic covenant. To wit, “Through the common covenants given to Adam and Noah, God commands all his subjects to act as his citizens, his ruled rulers. They do not. So God establishes a series of special covenants to call out a people who will embody this citizenship, modeling what God intended for all humanity.” (215) At this point, Leeman traces the history of God’s special covenants in the Old Testament. In the Mosaic economy, crimes which could not be punished under Noah (idolatry) could now be punished because God’s comprehensive rule was there exemplified (226). Leeman makes much of the distinction between “delegated” and “deputized” authority in the Mosaic polity. A department head of a company possesses a delegated authority to perform a certain function within a company (on behalf of the CEO).

But the department head is not a stand-in for the CEO. “A lawyer, on the other hand, can be deputized to act on behalf of the CEO” (ibid, emphasis in original). This distinction helps us to further see the line between the common and special covenants. “Those who possess authority under the common covenants (parents, governments) do indeed represent God’s authority, but they represent him like a delegate might…But God has not attached his own name to every parent and to every prince in quite the same way as he does with the people of Israel.” (227) Israel bears God’s name and are “specially authorized to act in his name.” (ibid) Special covenants represent God’s “visibly mediated rule” with common covenants represent God’s “invisibly mediated rule.” (ibid) Tellingly, “the distinction in space between ‘my people’ and ‘not my people’ signifies an institutional difference.” (230)

Chapter 5: The Politics of the New Covenant

In his penultimate fifth chapter, Leeman follows the biblical storyline into the prophetic heralding of the “politics of the new covenant.” Interestingly, he argues that since God “gives the new covenant community what he commands…coercive force is unnecessary within the new covenant.” (257) This is an important point for Leeman, because the new covenant community is still a political community, but it is a community of those who affirm God’s rule over them. This is his critique of Christendom. “By conflating national citizenship and church membership, Christendom formally affirmed people as Christians in whom the Spirit had not moved.” (262)

In the new covenant, God creates the example of true community for a watching world that Israel failed to be. As such, “Christians should rest their hopes for true justice and righteousness not upon the state but upon the son of David and the political community that he is forming.” (267) Here Leeman spends a good deal of time clarifying the institutional boundaries of the church and the state. Even if a state governor were a Christian, “he or she must still refrain from taking up the sword for new covenant purposes.” (273, emphasis in original)

Both church and state are concerned with body and soul, but one as comprehended in “this age” with its specific charter and limitations, and the other as comprehended in “the age to come” with its specific charter and limitations. “One age and its rulers are passing; the other is not.” (275) And again, “both ages possess their own institutional authorities. The creation age possesses marriage, the family and the state. The eschatological age possesses the church and ordained elders.” (ibid) The church possesses authority over the “new self as it can be discerned in the whole person” and the state possesses authority over the “old self…as it can be discerned in the whole person.” (277)

Nevertheless, the overlap of the ages means that the institutions of the age to come serve those of this age by example and influence. Yet, “In their best moments, the kingdoms of this world reach for justice and sometimes even offer a glimmer of it. In the new covenant community alone will true righteousness and justice be found.” (278) This is largely because it is only in the new covenant that true political forgiveness and restoration to Adamic office and citizenship is realized. Here it a citizenship in which rebellion is identified, repented of, forgiven, and the subject restored to office and obedience.

Chapter 6: The Politics of the Kingdom

Leeman’s final (sixth) chapter, on the politics of the kingdom, is certainly the most important chapter in the book. It’s opening is worth quoting at length: “The argument of this book, in several sentences, is that the local church and its members constitute a political community that exists according to Jesus’ explicit authorization in Matthew 16, 18, and 28. In fact, since it is this authorization that gives the local church existence, we have to say that an essential element of the local church is its political structure, without which there is no local church. 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)

A large portion of this chapter expands upon the metaphor of the local church as an “embassy” of God’s kingdom. Local church membership is like a “passport” for the Christian. (295) To wit, “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) The local church, however “is not an embassy representing another nation from across geographic space. It represents another nation from across time – from the future.” (ibid) Though I will not focus on it here, Leeman spends a good bit of time (particularly in Matthew’s gospel) detailing the manner in which Christ fulfills the citizenship mandate of Adam and restores man to the Adamic office. He follows up on this with a discussion of Paul’s doctrine of justification by faith alone, which he argues is “history’s unexpected ground of political unity.” (325)

Why? Because justification frees the self from the need for self-justification and idolatry, and therefore makes a community of love and forgiveness possible – a community not governed by negotiating and winning status for the sake of an elusive identity, but an extra-spective community which already has secure status and can therefore live in its neighbor. But Leeman follows this analysis with the query: “If salvation, justification and the creation of a just body politic comes through the new covenant, why is anything more needed for establishing outposts of Christ’s kingdom on earth?…God’s word creates God’s people. As such, you can have the universal church – meaning Christians – alive and well on planet earth even though no ecclesial authority recognizes it as such. What’s more, a believer is at this moment a new creation, born again, a son, a priest-king. Why is anything more needed?” (332)

To these questions, he replies, “The short answer is, the member’s of Christ’s body politic still need to be publicly recognized and affirmed as a body politic; they need the assurance of their belonging; they need to be authorized in the work of the body politic or kingdom; and they need to agree upon an authoritative interpretation of the gospel and Scripture.” (ibid) A body politic needs a visible “glue” (ibid) and a nation needs some way of helping to form a “we” for insiders and a “they” for outsiders. (333) Again, “A person is included in the universal church through salvation. Yet at this point the church remains an abstract idea without a palpable and public presence. A second constitutive moment is needed in order for ‘the church’ to show up on planet earth. For this to happen, a group of Christians must gather and organize themselves (or be organized) as a congregation and affirm one another as believers.” (ibid)

Leeman argues that the famous “keys” of Matthew 16 and the “binding and loosing” re-mentioned in Matthew 18 represent Jesus’ deputizing the church to publicly affirm the doctrines of the gospel (and heresy) and the faith (or lack thereof) of people who claim that gospel. For Leeman, this is (again) deputized authority. It is as though Jesus says “my presence and authority is with them such that this church speaks on my behalf.” (346-7) Matthew 28 is the moment in which Christ deputizes the church to speak in His name, particularly by giving it the affirming mark of “baptism” through which it then publicly affirms the faith of its members and, on His behalf, deputizes them to participate in corporately representing Him. Leeman spends some time covering the “congregationalist” ground, defending a moderate congregationalism (albeit led by elders).

Interestingly, he argues that congregational authority binds and looses “now,” whereas elder authority is “backed by a heavenly and end-time sanction. Disobey your elders within the arena of their authority, and you will have to deal with Jesus’ displeasure on the last day.” (357, emphasis in original) The congregation can force someone in and out of a church, but elders cannot. Their authority is declarative and they “can place biblical burdens on the conscience of their hearers by virtue of their office, but they cannot enforce, force or demand something.” (358) If the burden is unbiblical or unwise, however, Jesus will have words for the elders (ibid), and Jesus Himself is the only final authority. Still, He commands the congregation to “exercise its key-holding authority in submission to the elders.” (359, emphasis in original)  

Because the church speaks for God, it also has authority to declare to the nations what God affirms and what He abhors – based upon its authoritative interpretation of the Scriptures. It is precisely because of the ministry of the keys that Leeman argues that individual Christians must be very careful what they attach to the name of Christ in the political realm. He reaffirms a pragmatism as it pertains the public square (385) but argues that there are moments wherein a moral issue is clear enough that the church may speak on behalf of Christ about the matter.

Leeman finishes with a discussion of the political unity to be found in the local church, a “visible political unity” (385). Indeed, Christians who do not attend the same church share a “spiritual unity,” but nevertheless do not participate in one’s binding and loosing “on earth.” (386) It is in this community that true society is found. “The state…has been thrust into a peripheral role. God’s Genesis 1:28 citizenship mandate has been fulfilled in Christ and will be accomplished in the church.” (387) Leeman concludes the book, “The political hopes of the world should rest on the local church – in its life together. Here the pardoning word of the gospel is spoken, and the obedience-giving power of the Spirit is applied. The warfare of the nations begins to end here. It’s a different kind of politics, to be sure. It is the politics of aliens, strangers and unwelcome immigrants. It is a politics that expects, even embraces, persecution (Mt. 5:10-12). Still, the hope of the nations is to be placed here – in this society gathered around a King who has laid down his life for the world. It is those who have submitted themselves to this crucified King who, in turn, lay down their lives for one another and beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks.” (387)


Leeman’s tome is a massive undertaking, and even the above summary does not quite fully capture all the nuances, sub-discussions, and detailed interaction with various other ecclesial proposals. There are many helpful aspects of his work, particularly in relation to other proposals (the neo-two kingdom’s school of David Van Drunen) and on some exegetical/theological matters – such as the full scope of Paul’s doctrine of justification and Matthew’s vision of the kingdom of God. Space and reader exhaustion demand, however, that I focus upon those areas which I deem either deeply ambiguous or overtly problematic. That will be our concern in part two on Wednesday.

Update (6/14): The above summary has been very slightly modified to more accurately reflect the meaning of the book’s author.