In my First Things column two weeks ago, I presented a brief critique of the National Conservatism “Statement of Principles.” Like the authors of an open letter published a few days ago at the European Conservative, I believe Christianity is an inherently universalist political vision, embodied concretely in the global communion of the catholic church. The gospel calls nations to serve the King of kings and to join the peaceable pilgrimage to Zion. The church disciples nations by directing them and their rulers to goods beyond national goods.
Observing the online reaction to my column, I fear I was misunderstood. Some apparently read it as a brief for the primacy of the “spiritual” over the “political.” That isn’t my view. I advocate instead the deconstruction of the spiritual/political dualism and the primacy of ecclesial politics.
We’re tempted to assume that if “the state” isn’t involved, it’s not politics. To discern the political character of the church, we need to broaden our understanding of politics. Politics isn’t merely a set of mechanisms to decide how coercive force is distributed and used. As Richard John Neuhaus often said, politics is better understood as the process by which we answer the question, “How ought we to order our life together?” How we pass on the heritage of the past to future generations; what values and priorities should determine the design of our built environment; how we get our food and water and ensure it’s safe and nutritious; how we care for the sick, elderly, dying, and dead; how we preserve the dignity of work—whether or not the state directly oversees these issues, they are all political questions because they involve deliberation and decision about our common life.
As the family of the heavenly Father, the body of the incarnate Son, and the temple of the Pentecostal Spirit, the church is a uniquely “supernatural” communion. But the church is recognizably a polity, a group of people with a distinctive pattern of common life. The church has her own rhythms of time, her own organization of space, her own rituals and habits, her own beliefs and ways of speaking, her own norms for daily living. Guided by Scripture and the Spirit, the church’s rulers deliberate over the ordering of our communal life, correct those who deviate from the commands of Jesus, and police the gates of the church, admitting the penitent and expelling the impenitent.
“Polity” isn’t a sociological category imposed on a theological reality. On the contrary, the New Testament everywhere highlights the political nature of the church. The most common Greek word for “church” is ekklesia, which outside the Bible refers to the citizen assembly of the Greek polis (Acts 19:32–41). At the very least, this usage indicates the biblical writers view the church as a civic order. We might venture a stronger claim. Calling the church in Ephesus an ekklesia is analogous to naming a church “First City Hall of Gardendale, Alabama.” Tiny and beleaguered as the original ekklesiai were, they saw themselves as the governing bodies of the Greco-Roman cities where they were planted. Long before Constantine, they believed the destiny of Rome was in their hands. Astonishingly, they were right.
Other biblical terminology points in the same direction. Paul applies the Platonic and Ciceronian image of the “body politic” to the church. He calls the church a koinonia in the Spirit (1 Cor. 12:12–13), using the term Aristotle used to describe the “community” of the city. Alluding to Old Testament descriptions of Israel, Peter describes the church as a “holy nation” (1 Pet. 2:9). Gentiles who were once excluded from Israel are now sumpolitai, “fellow citizens” with the saints in the household of God (Eph. 2:19). Paul instructs the Philippians to “live as citizens” (politeuo) worthy of the gospel (Phil. 1:27), remembering their citizenship (politeuma) is in heaven (3:20). As N. T. Wright has argued, Paul is reminding the Philippians they’re a colony of a heavenly commonwealth and should be ready to discard their Roman citizenship as rubbish for Christ’s sake, as Paul has done with his Jewish heritage. In the Bible’s final vision, the church is a bridal city (Rev. 21–22), and she is now imperfectly what she will be in perfect fullness.
The church is a spiritual community because she is gathered, enlivened, impassioned, and impelled by the Spirit. But her spirituality isn’t apolitical, but an utterly unique socio-political reality. She is a family by water rather than blood, a nation without borders, a global empire without divisions or aircraft carriers. Whether or not she has a recognized public role, whether or not she directly affects the decisions of rulers, whether or not she’s embedded in Christendom, the church is God’s holy nation among nations. She doesn’t need to be represented in the civic ekklesia to be the divine ekklesia.
So far, so Hauerwasian. But at this point, Hauerwas is thoroughly catholic, even Catholic. As Andrew Willard Jones has pointed out, medieval thinkers regarded the church as the society where the peace and charity that is the aim of political life can be achieved, however haltingly. The church is the only polity on earth that is more-than-metaphorically a body politic.
Yet the church doesn’t merely exist alongside other polities. She doesn’t retreat into hidden enclaves. When she is faithful, she is the living sacrament of the coming kingdom, a public witness to the ultimate ends of human beings and human society and a public challenge to the twisted politics of the world. In our worship, we bow to a heavenly King and summon principalities and powers to do the same. In her teaching, the church exposes idolatries embedded in settled customs and warns that the jealous Judge does not tolerate rivals. Gathering for communion, we testify that God intends to gather the nations as brothers at his table. In our pursuit of unity and catholicity, we challenge all parochialisms of blood and soil. By her works of charity, the church combats the abuse and neglect of social outcasts.
Ecclesial politics is a biblical politics, a liturgical politics, a politics of prayer, a eucharistic politics, an evangelistic politics, a catholic politics, a politics of mercy, justice, and truth. And just as she does in her own politics, the church infiltrates and transforms cities and nations, persuading them to strive to be their better selves, calling them to the only greatness there is—greatness in the kingdom, greatness in service to Christ, his people, and his mission.
Peter J. Leithart is President of Theopolis Institute.
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Image by Phil Whitehouse licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped.