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Reviewing Jonathan Leeman’s “Political Church” Pt. 2

June 15th, 2016 | 19 min read

By Joseph Minich

Other posts in the series:

Here is part two of Joseph Minich’s review of Political Church by Jonathan Leeman.

You can download a full PDF of the review by clicking this link: Full Review PDF

The Failures of Leeman’s Map

Most basically, while Leeman’s map might provide guidance in the context of certain discussions, it nevertheless frequently fails to accurately chart reality at its most stubborn edges  – and will therefore mislead in some very important areas. That this is the most basic objection reflects a particular theological orientation. If one’s interpretation of the Bible appears to distort the way in which reality is carved up right in front of one’s face, then there is some question about whether the word of God (which illuminates our work and our world) has been properly understood. Reasoning in such a manner is both as natural as human nature (Leeman does it too) – and indeed it is reflected in Scripture itself. When the Psalmist writes, for instance, “As a father has compassion on his children, so the LORD has compassion on those who fear Him” (Psalm 103:13), it is assumed that the normal experience of fatherhood illuminates divine fatherhood. The prophetic and Pauline critique of idolatry similarly assume the “obviousness” of their contentions. And in this tradition, it is to reality that we must go to judge Leeman’s map – for icebergs exist in reality whether or not they are accounted for in our imagination.

Specifically, Leeman constantly camps on principles which must then be adjusted to actually fit the phenomenon of actual church life. On the one hand, we are told that political institutions are backed by the power of force, and that the church is just such an institution. However, we are then told that the church does not, as such, have coercive power but is “backed by one who does.” This is, of course, completely disanalogous with the sort of coercion that exists in a state. When the church speaks falsely, it is no more backed by the power of the final judgment than are the threats of a cult. And when it speaks rightly, it is no more backed by the threat of divine judgment than when an individual Christian speaks the truth. Whatever one’s theory demands them to say, all Protestant theologians (including Leeman) must concede that this is true in fact, in which case there is a question of what the principle is actually getting us. Another example of this is Leeman’s insistence that to disobey church elders is backed by the threat of divine judgment unless, of course, they are wrongly placing burdens on the conscience. Once again, what concrete difference does the principle make? If the church elders declare that an unrepentant adulterer is right with God (which does happen) and I declare that he is not – who is then speaking for Christ? And what does one’s office have to do with it? The only eschatological difference-maker in this instance is the Word of God and the truth – which is either rightly spoken or it is not.

The Crypto-Romanism of Leeman’s Ecclesiology

I will deal with more specifics in relation to other points below, but it is worth highlighting the parallel of the above to the Roman Catholic definition of the church. Whatever the substantive differences between Leeman’s proposal of the local church as a political community and an embassy of Christ’s kingdom, Leeman’s proposal has a material overlap with certain Roman Catholic principles in that it holds that the body of Christ is institutional as such. Leeman is somewhat inconsistent on this point, since he seems to root the institutional nature of the church both in the very fact of God as a political entity – but also in “could have been otherwise” practical realities (i.e. that the church needs to become identified in history).

Nevertheless, it is interesting to note that Roman Catholic theology makes the very same sorts of “adjustments” to its first principles in dealing with the anomalies of the Eastern Orthodox, Protestants, those who have never heard of Christ, and those who have heard the gospel but have no contact with or knowledge of the Roman magisterium. On the one hand, this could be perceived as a strength, as the ability of a paradigm to “incorporate” all of the phenomenon. And yet, arguably, the proliferation of anomalies is an indication that the paradigm has missed the mark and must constantly adjust to fit what is actually in front of one’s face. As will be argued below, the genius of the most basic Protestant ecclesiological principles is that the anomalies are incorporated into the first principles themselves – and in such a way that the diverse phenomenon of reality and of Scripture become elegantly illuminated and quite naturally accounted for.

The Deeply Modern Nature of Leeman’s Project

Essential to this basic error is Leeman’s alleged “anti-modern” philosophical posture – which is ironically deeply modern! We are told, indeed, that believers and unbelievers cannot do political philosophy together because they do not share basic principles in common. We are told that his argument could not be persuasive to an unbeliever, and are correspondingly advised to defer to more pragmatic argumentation in the public sphere. The problem is that, despite protests to the contrary, this move necessarily and  irreducibly makes the human subject to be the creator of reality, indeed, the ultimate authority. Reality itself is effectively silenced in its adjudicating role of confronting and revealing itself to human beings in a common manner. I have criticized this sort of thinking before. In all its iterations, it is demonstrably modern and, as hinted at above, unlivable – since reality confronts us still and we adjust to it still.

For instance, Leeman obviously believes that there are Reformed Baptist unbelievers. How do his theses apply to them? Presumably some of them will read his book and agree with it. Once again, his map has not entirely mislead us, but it must be adjusted to actually account for what is happening. And this adjustment must nevertheless falsify the principle. To wit, believers and unbelievers do not necessarily have different philosophical or epistemic starting points. They have different loves. This might regularly shape their explicit philosophy, but that it does not necessarily do so suggests that Christian claims can be persuasive in themselves. Being persuaded that they are true will not cause the new birth any more than being persuaded that “God is one” will convert the demons.

But what these rarities suggest is precisely that explicit Christian claims and principles are not to be traded for pragmatism in the public sphere. Suspended as they are atop the reality that commonly confronts all humans, when understood and imbibed, they contain an innate gravitas which inevitably echoes in the soul of the person made in God’s image. This is not to imply that such a task is easy. It takes a lifetime for even the initiated and inclined to fully appreciate Christian truth. It often takes generations and centuries for the same to shape an often reluctant public.

Skepticism and Biblicism

In any case, this philosophical skepticism necessitates the corresponding biblicism which then must make up for the presumable lack of clarity in reality itself. In such a case, what Leeman terms an “institutional hermeneutic” might seem natural – though it is exegetically awkward. Not, of course, that the human task is not illuminated in Genesis 1 or the task of the state illuminated in Genesis 9, but it is precisely normal human reality that these illuminate. These texts can be read as “origins” stories of our normal experiences (and to some extent they are), but their import is not, “That’s why I’m allowed to do that,” but rather, “That’s where this thing that I already do came from and what it is for.” The problem with Leeman’s picture is that nature cannot be “authorizing” by itself. He states many times that political institutions must be explicitly authorized by God and have very specific charters.

It is important to highlight this move, because without it, his entire ideological edifice falls apart. And yet note what its necessary implication would be. Most cultures have had little sense of what their political structures, or their experience of marrying and giving in marriage, have to do with Adam and Noah. Presumably, this does not mean that they are not authorized to do these things, but it does imply that they don’t know that they are authorized to do these things. And this would seem to lead to the absurd conclusion that they, in fact, should not do these things. There is probably a fine-grained distinction to be made here which might avoid such a conclusion, but it is difficult to imagine how it might avoid the awkward impression that we have taken a wrong turn somewhere.

A far more obvious and natural read of both reality and of these biblical texts is simply that marriage and political communities arise from human nature – and that these are their origins stories. Human beings find themselves naturally organizing into various sorts of communities in various sorts of contexts, and naturally joining together as man and wife. And they find themselves doing this because humans are made to do this. God then inspires His word to speak into those already lived realities and reveal to us their relationship to His creation, His larger goals, and His purposes. The point to emphasize, however, is “Doth not nature itself teach you that, sans marriage and the state, we are a shame unto ourselves?”

This more reciprocal relationship between Scripture and nature will become more important below. But it is interesting, for the moment, to note an exception to this trend in Leeman’s thinking – specifically, in his definitions of politics, institutions, and especially of the human conscience. His definition of politics is extremely specific to the point of speaking about “university politics” as metaphorical. Though not an expert in this field, this strikes me as definition by fiat. It is also interesting to note, in the context, the frequent contrast of “the church” to the more “voluntary organizations” (on which, again, see below). This is another example of failing to chart reality at its edges, because Leeman is forced to admit that the church may phenomenologically be described in this manner (people join and leave at will), but this also fails to see political institutions as on a sort of spectrum.

There are, in fact, many interesting organizations in-between a 4H Club and Leeman’s definition of a “political institution.” There are Alcoholics Anonymous chapters, and martial arts schools, and neighborhoods. These are not trivial institutions and the bonds developed therein are quite powerful. The “politics” of going and staying are quite similar to the “politics” of joining or leaving a church. Leeman’s definition of “institution” is, by contrast, so broad as to be trivial. Plenty of people criticize a certain sort of institutionalism. But very few people have a problem with an “identity shaping rule structure.” One fears that Leeman’s affirmations do not link up to his interlocutor’s denials – though we are given the impression that they are supposed to. Perhaps most idiosyncratic is Leeman’s implicit definition of “conscience,” which I will deal with in a moment.

Leeman’s Treatment of the Power of the Keys

The theological heart of Leeman’s text is his treatment of Matthew, 16, 18, and 28. The subject of the “keys of the kingdom,” the nature of “binding” and “loosing,” and the corresponding concept of “church power” are perhaps beyond the purview of this review. Briefly, much of what Leeman says about these matters could be true in one sense and not in another. Fascinatingly, however, he does not see the grammatical “future passive participles” of Matthew 16 (“shall have been bound” vs “shall be bound”) as particularly significant. And yet, from a Protestant perspective, this is essential because it roots the power of the church in the power of the word. 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 – whether it claims to do so or not.

And once this relation is clear, it becomes obvious that the authority that Jesus gives the church is simply declaratory. It is to “teach all that I have commanded you.” It is to bind and loose according to what is already in heaven. And yet here we see a sort of awkward element to Leeman’s “institutional hermeneutic.” If the power of binding and loosing is just the power of the word, then its relationship to institutions is as ambiguous as the actual texts themselves (again, because they speak to the real world). Binding and loosing can apparently be done by Peter (Matthew 16), by a congregation (Matthew 18), and by the whole body of Christ as such (Matthew 28).

Why? Because an individual Christian, an individual congregation, and the body of Christ as a whole can speak the word of God concerning a truth or concerning a person. This will take a different form at different levels, but the relation to the word and therefore the “spiritual power” exercised are one and the same – though their social and political manifestation may differ.

To explicate this further, let us examine Leeman’s image of the local church as a “citizenship affirming” embassy of an eschatological community. Is it? Perhaps the analogy is useful in some respect, but there is a significant point of discontinuity. Because the eschatological embassy only speaks on behalf of the word, and because all men may also have an immediate relationship with that Word, each person stands in immediate relation both to the embassy and to the very Person and kingdom which that embassy represents.

The embassy does not stand “in-between” the host nation and the citizen. Rather, the relationship of the citizen or of the would-be citizen to both is immediate. And so, the authority of the embassy is exercised in the very presence of the King who works above and alongside it. If the embassy says one is not a citizen, but the Bible says one is, the embassy does not speak for the King. What is more, the world can, in principle, evaluate the veracity of the embassy’s claims because the word is as public as the institution which (at another level) mediates it.

I have written more extensively about the place of the local church within this vision elsewhere. One area to highlight here, however, is the relationship of the believer to the state. Leeman writes insightfully of the manner in which Christians exemplify true community to the world, but this is not something that is simply true of local churches. This is also true of believers who do not belong to the same local church. And it is true of believers who work together in secular organizations.

While certainly these organizations (and the state) have a different function than the function of the local church, the latter is not an entirely different “sort” of institution. In fact, local churches will pass away in the eschaton just as will human embassies. The love between two Christian co-workers who attend different local churches, a love which can be seen by the world, will not pass away. It would be better to say that while the local church as an institution will pass away, the identity therein celebrated will not – though arguably neither will our identities as male and female and even our distinctive national identities (note Revelation 5 and Revelation 21-22).

I think the most that can be said here is that we ideally participate in the local church by virtue of our eschatological identity whereas we participate in all other institutions by virtue of our “this age” identities. Nevertheless, (a) the actual mechanics of the local church as an institution are like those of many other institutions (as are many of its immediate concerns), and (b) a large part of the goal of Christ’s kingdom is to redeem our “this age” identities (the substance of which is glorified and carried on into eternity) – which occurs at all levels wherein the word is influential.

It is, of course, understandable why Leeman speaks the way he does. Individualism and spiritual “islandism” are a real problem in the West. This is the era of the “spiritual but not religious,” who “love Jesus, but not the institutional church.” Arguably, however, to address this problem by emphasizing the institutional character of the church fails to properly diagnose the spiritual malaise of our era. Our problem is not merely that we’re “too individualistic,” such that what we need is to be “less individualistic.” The problem could just as much be identified with the type of “individualist” that we are. The irony therein revealed would be that we’re actually nothing of the sort. We’re “individualists” because we have imbibed the kool-aid of personal fulfillment, maximized temporal pleasure, brands, identity politics, self-fulfillment, shallow modes of agency, and have been heralded to worship our own “freedom from restraint.”

The call to wisdom in this context is not merely the call to see the necessity of community, our social nature, the gift of “others,” or to deny that the local church is largely a “voluntary association.” It is rather a call to actual individuality rather than its surrogate. Jumping from church to church and thereby treating the local body like an item in the buffet line reflects a shallow identity, shaped ironically in a mass consumerist fashion, to think only in terms of “me” and “my needs” and “my desires.”

Leeman’s explication of Paul’s doctrine of justification is apt here. In being united to Christ by faith, we are given a communal and an individual identity that no man can take from us. And we are freed to a life of service which is in accordance with our formed desires. In one sense, our call is not to “stop being so individualistic,” but to be more radically individualistic – the mature form of which necessarily terminates in living for one’s community and in their neighbor. Without this, we will simply exchange one vice for another – a communitarian bondage which surrenders our own epistemic and moral responsibility for our bondage to individualistic self-expression (which is really a bondage to others’ affirmation). In other words, justification both creates individuals and a body which mutually reinforce one another as grounded in a secure identity that pushes them outside of themselves for the other. Especially in our world, nothing could be more radically individualistic than to choose the difficult life of a community which will hurt the individual and which will require forgiveness – or more communitarian than a community receiving an individual who will hurt them and who will require the extension of their forgiveness.

The Problem with Church as Polis Theologies

That this communitarian pendulum swing can be a form of bondage is put in refrain when we look at the actual history of “church as polis” theologies that have existed before Leeman’s proposal. If a sort of shallow individualism is rife with embarrassing and insecure attempts to legitimate one’s self to an imaginary public, then its communitarian alter-ego is rife with a history of people who do not learn to exercise critical judgment and leaders who unwittingly (even with good motivations) support the dynamics that grow spiritual children rather than spiritual adults. This is especially dangerous in light of Leeman’s statement concerning the church’s authority over the “whole person” (body and soul) as that person is comprehended in the new age.

Once again, we must ask what this means in reality. Deciding what belongs to the old age and what belongs to the new age can be quite tricky. And slight adjustments, then, to the “charter” of the state versus the “charter” of the church then have massive practical implicates. For instance, Leeman puts cases of “child abuse” in the hands of the state rather than the church. (45, n. 90) But what principles determine this line? Presumably, property law belongs to the state (being a concern of “this age” flourishing and self-preservation), but is dispute over property not precisely the sort of thing that Paul would have believers not bring to the state? (1 Corinthians 6)

Of course, cases of child abuse should be brought to the public authorities, but I mean to highlight the danger of drawing the line at specifically delineated charters – the logical algorithm of which is almost always involved in “cover-up” scandals. Rather, the New Testament seems to operate on the far more basic principle of love as artfully refracted through the much less basic filter of wisdom. In this case, what wrongs are loving for me to suffer and to work through privately with my fellow believer? And conversely, which wrongs are unloving for me to suffer with privately – but are most lovingly treated as matters of public interest?

Taking stock of all of the above, I would summarize thus: The authority of the church (whether represented by an individual, a local congregation, or the body of Christ throughout the world) is the authority of the word. And the word enters and illuminates reality as it commonly confronts us. Leeman is addressing real problems. But both their diagnosis and their antidote is to be found in a Scriptural map of reality that corresponds to the world as we actually live in it. When these are put together, I would argue that there is an innate gravitas (the gravitas of the Word) which  does its work even apart from regeneration (Isaiah 55:11). It is the echo in the soul of man whose heart is created as a cavern for God’s word. One might reject the Word, but cannot trivialize it.

Scripture and Reality Belong Together

I think it would be appropriate to conclude with another illustration of how Scripture and reality work together seamlessly. One of the issues that Leeman addresses thoroughly in his volume is the topic of religious freedom. And a significant portion of his text is spent arguing that religious freedom, for Christians, need not be argued on the basis of a “free conscience” but rather on the basis of the limitation of the state’s charter. He argues that Luther’s “to go against conscience is neither right nor safe” needs supplementation. He argues that both states and churches bind consciences. In point of fact, this is an extremely problematic definition of “conscience” which results in a dialectic of Leeman’s own making. For Luther, “conscience” is not just “my own personal preferences” or even “my own personal convictions,” though it is closer to the latter.

Most immediately, the free conscience is the immediate relation that one has to God which cannot be accessed by men. This is not to say that states and despots don’t try. The history of the human race is a history of social engineers, psychological manipulation, the force of threat or persuasion to follow a certain path, etc. But ultimately, the conscience cannot be forced. It is free in relation to God, and this was brought into stark relief in the Reformation. Not only was it in fact free as a faculty, it was declared free in relation to guilt because of God’s justifying declaration. But here’s the point. The free conscience is simply reality! Even Rome had to recognize that it could not “force” the conscience.

The genius of Protestant political theology was simply that this became a self-conscious principle of governance – integrated into its starting point for thinking about these matters. In other words, the limitation of the government charter is a limitation rooted in nature itself, a nature wherein the conscience is free in relation to God and in which God alone can ultimately bind and loose it in relation to Himself. And so the argument for religious freedom on account of the free conscience and from the limited charter of government are not different accounts of religious freedom. The limited charter of the government is simply a function of government limiting itself to what it can access in the first place (i.e. pen-ultimate things) qua reality.

Much more could be said, especially concerning Leeman’s treatment of the new covenant, infant baptism (see my essay in this volume), and concerning his extremely problematic treatment of Trinitarian “subjects” (for which, see here). But I believe that I have addressed matters of first importance above. While often bedeviled by parasitic spandrels, the very essence of Protestant ecclesiology – its radical insight – is that the church’s spiritual power is only the power of the word and that the believer’s access to this word is immediate. The implications of this insight for a doctrine of the visible church are momentous and, let it be noted again, illuminate reality as it actually confronts us (See Brad Littlejohn’s recent work on the theology of Richard Hooker for an excellent statement of Protestant ecclesiological essentials at their most basic and consistent).

It is gravely important that this clarity of principle is preserved, because confusion in this area will inevitably bleed into other areas of doctrine and life. It is not coincidental that many recent converts to Rome come from the portion(s) of the evangelical community which tend to treat the church as a political institution with a vaguely defined “spiritual power.” And it is not coincidental that churches which hold to these sorts of ecclesiological formulas often wind up with all sorts of intra-community “obligations” which comfort the competitive but discourage the weak. In this area, failure to make proper distinctions is doctrinally and pastorally perilous. The antidote to the malaise of modern community is not a baptized “new institutionalism,” but a recovery of historically orthodox and Protestant first principles – the roots of which grow in the soil of persuasion and produce the fruit of Christian love.