My original essay in this Theopolis Conversation, “The Ecclesiocentric Alternative to National Conservatism” addresses two topics. First, I show that the principles of “national conservatism,” as expressed in the Edmund Burke Society’s signature “Statement of Principles,” while including much consistent with traditional American conservatism, nonetheless, at crucial points, wildly overstates what nation-states can and should do. Secondly, I argue that Christian political theory is properly “ecclesiocentric,” given that the Church – that is Christ’s body – uniquely encompasses the proper end or telos not only of the polis and the ethnos, but of the household as well. This ecclesiocentrism neither denies nor destroys the natural institutions in this age, but rather identifies their ultimate nature and purpose, and so allows us to identify and establish their distinctive roles in this age.
In this concluding essay I return briefly to National Conservatism’s Statement of Principles to note the Statement’s overstated claims for the nation-state. I then turn to discuss three topics related to ecclesiocentrism: First, I explain why ecclesiocentrism posits the only appropriate anthropology for a political theory. Critically, because the Church is the Body of Christ, only ecclesiocentrism accounts for the full solidarity of humans one with another, and with God, in Christ. Secondly, I discuss national identity in relation to Christian identity in the Bible. I discuss the creation of nations at Babel’s judgment and the concurrent creation of the unique and distinctly open nation in Abraham. This nation, in turn, would bless and ultimately transform Babel’s judged nations. Finally, I discuss the fact that churches wield much more power on earth than do civil governments. This helps us to understand why, contrary to modern prejudices – including the prejudices of many within the Church – the Church’s jurisdiction encompasses that of the civil government rather than vice versa.
I have no broad objections to nation-states or a world system built largely on or around nation-states. Nation-states can be perfectly serviceable administrative units that contribute to the common good, given historical circumstances. (The form nation-states take today is largely a modern phenomenon.) Optimal subsidiarity implies sub-national levels of government administration, given the requisites of different policy domains, and can imply supra-national levels of government administration when needed. And optimal subsidiarity is not limited to political administration. Families have their appropriate domain, as do institutions such as labor unions, corporations, and “voluntary organizations.”
In contrast to my sincere, if wonkish, appreciation of nation-states, National Conservatism’s “Statement of Principles” does not limit the role of the nation-state to accounts of the optimal provision of common goods. Rather, the Statement spins into overstatement, claiming in the second paragraph that the nation-state is the “foundation” for “restoring a proper public orientation toward . . . religion and wisdom, congregation and family, man and woman, the sabbath and the sacred, and reason and justice.”
Religion. Wisdom. Religious congregations. Family. Man and woman. Even reason and justice. The nation-state serves as the foundation for our appreciation of these? That is, without the nation-state our public appreciation for the items on this list are unfounded, that is, unjustified? It’s a frankly bizarre, reductionistic claim. But I guess when one has a hammer the whole world looks like a nail.
So, too, the Statement endorses the unbalanced theological claim – and it is a theological claim – that “No nation can long endure without humility and gratitude before God and fear of his judgment that are found in authentic religious tradition.” While I have no problem acknowledging the reality of God’s judgment, it is an odd choice to emphasize God’s judgment without even mentioning that a part of “authentic religious tradition” – at least the most important part of Christianity – is the love God showed to the world in the sacrifice of Jesus Christ in order to save it from God’s judgment. Or is it only God’s judgment that is pertinent to nations, and not the Gospel? (Cf., Mt 28.19, Rev 21.42. With the caveat that Biblical “nations” should not be directly equated with modern nation-states.)
Might it be complained that I’m nitpicking what is merely intended as a brief summary statement? On the one hand, something labeled as “A Statement of Principles” might reasonable be read as, well, a . . . statement . . . of . . . principles. That is, the statement of important principles that the authors (and signers) want the rest of us to consider seriously and critically.
But we can go beyond the short Statement of Principles and consider the extended, book-length views of two of the authors of the Statement, R.R. Reno and Yoram Hazony.
In my review of R.R. Reno’s 2019 book, Return of the Strong Gods I expressed concern with Reno’s promiscuous, 19th Century Romantic-era-like use of “sacred” in application to non-ecclesial public life. Consider a few passages from Reno’s book:
The role of the sacred remained central in the West even as the authority of the Church was displaced. . . . We can critique these modern gods [of Rights and Reason and empire and commerce] – and we should; they are often false idols – but the sacralizing impulse in public is fundamental. Our social consensus always reaches for transcendent legitimacy.
The miracle of the “we” infuses political solidarity with sacred significance.
We are tempted to imagine our collective life as in some sense sacred, giving the community a rightful claim upon our loyalty.
To be human is to seek transcendent warrants and sacred course for our social existence.
“The state is not the Church.” Indeed! The problem is that Reno’s social “sacredness” is free-floating; it is not located in any authentic sacred space. Rather, Reno simply baptizes what is not the Church. (Indeed, Reno hardly ever mentions the Church in his book.) In contrast, French philosopher Jean-Louse Chretien accounts for the absolute uniqueness of the “sacred” social space that the Church offers:
Amongst collective bodies, only the body of Christ is truly personal and one under one head. So only here does the analogy to an individual body really work. Other collective bodies turn tyrannical because their bodiliness is incomplete and to a degree a lie.
I return to this point below.
Similarly, Yoram Hazony expressly discusses nationalism in the context of theology and the Bible in many of his books and essays. I discuss some of those claims here, here, and here. Applying a highly selective reading of the Scriptures, Hazony does little more than read an endorsement of the modern nation-state into the Scriptures.
The point is this: When National Conservatism’s Statement of Principles discusses religion and the nation-state, it is summarizing content that some of the Statement’s authors have devoted substantial, extended, and manifestly theological attention.
So much for my expressed concerns of the Statement regarding the import of the nation-state. Let me reiterate that I do not object in principle to organizing the international system through a system nation-states. But the Statement’s apparent enthusiasm for the nation-state results asserting a reductionistic view of the role of the nation-state, and distorting the theological claims of the Christian religion with which it purports to sympathize.
I now turn to extend sundry parts of my discussion of the implications of ecclesiocentrism for Christian political theory.
I learned as an undergraduate that a useful question with which to approach works in political theory is to ask, “What’s the theory’s anthropology?” That is, what’s the theory’s view of humanity and humans. For example, a well-known dimension of Christian anthropology derives from the implication of humanity’s Fall in Adam. Many non-Christian political theories adopt secular versions of this assumption, other political theories reject this somewhat pessimistic view of human nature and insist that humans are not naturally inclined to evil.
A different aspect of the Christian anthropology that was important in centuries past, and has grown again in practical significance in modern times, is the corporate nature of humanity. This attention is not stimulated merely because of the highly individualistic tradition in American life (and perhaps in Western life more generally). There has been increasing concern about “atomizing” aspects of modern life that, arguably, turbocharged the already-existing individualist inclination in American life. Relatedly, there has been increased talk of “solidarity” as a feature of life that can counteract some of the atomizing tendencies.
To be sure, there are any number of theoretical and empirical questions relating both individualism in the U.S. and solidarity. This is not the venue to consider these, so I am going to ignore almost all of these important questions. Instead, for brevity, I simply assume that modern American life, if not Western life more generally, reflects centrifugal forces of individualism, and that a need of the moment is increased “solidarity” of humans in society.
Indeed, a central feature in the expanding academic literature on “nationalism” is the way in which nationalism can ostensibly provide solidarity to societies. (See, for example, here and here.) This attention is not new. Aristotle expressly argued in his Politics that his polis is a “body” and that the body is prior to the individual and the household. Medieval Christian also often conceived of society as an organic whole.
As the quotation above from Jean-Louse Chretien suggests, there is, however, only one true collective body, and that is the Body of Christ, the Church. All other corporate bodies – worldly polis, worldly ethnos, and temporal households – are “incomplete” and therefore, in the main, a lie if forwarded as a foundation for human solidarity. Recovering the centrality of the organic unity of the Church in this age is important not only for Church life herself, it is also important for developing authentic Christian social and political theory. Trying to anchor human solidarity in institutions that cannot truly provide that solidarity is a recipe for disaster, as the political experiences of the first half of the 20th Century bear devastating witness.
As Larry Siedentop argues in Inventing the Individual, the social world of ancient society formed around organic corporate institutions of household, polis, and ethnos. These were fundamentally religious, fundamentally hierarchical institutions of the ancient world. Modern forms of conservatism often, if implicitly, see to resurrect one or more of these ancient institutional forms as the answer to modern hyper-individualism. Ecclesiocentric political theory rejects attempts to resurrect the “solidarity” of these ancient institutions as misdirected in their very inception.
The coming of Jesus Christ fundamentally changed human relationships with and within these institutions. Contrary to Siedentop’s argument, Jesus did not merely shatter the ancient institutions resulting in the creation of individualism. To be sure, there is a remarkable equality of status between people taught in the Christian Scriptures and contrary to the hard inequalities built into these ancient institutions. Yet Jesus did not merely destroy the organic institutions of the ancient world, rather he re-formed them centered around himself. The Church – Jesus’s Body – is family (Mt 12.46-50, etc.), the Church is polis (Heb 12.22, etc.) and the Church is ethnos (1 Peter 2.9). Or at least the Church is
The Christians’ corporate identity as member of the Body of Christ is not a secondary role or identity for Christians. This corporate identity – our union with one another in our union with Christ – is primary for our Christian identity.
For example, the “new human” or “new man” (anthropos) created by Jesus Christ includes a corporate dimension in which Jews and Gentiles are now “one” rather than “two” (Eph 2.15). This should not be a surprise. Humanity’s fall in the first Adam is a corporate fall (Ro 5.17), and its salvation is a corporate salvation (ibid.).
Members of Christ’s body share a real ontological union with each other. Writes Paul: “We, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another” (Ro 12.5, emphasis added). Similarly, Paul argues for the responsibility of Christians to “speak truth each one with his neighbor” in his letter to the Ephesians from the fact ontological union, that “we are members of one another” (Eph 4.25). The organic unity is created in baptism (“by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body” 1 Co 12.13) and sustained in the Supper (“because there is one bread, we who are many are one body,” 1 Co 10.17). This is – or should be – central to all Christians.
The Church uniquely fulfills the fundamental human need and desire for solidarity. While polis, and ethnos, and household can properly reflect aspects of that fundamental solidarity in this age, because their “bodiliness” is at best incomplete corporate bodies relative to Christ’s Body, they cannot in themselves fill that need and desire. If the partial is mistakenly substituted for the whole, the outcome is distortion and injury. If the Christian anthropology is true, then the highest experience of human solidarity can be had only in the Body of Christ in this age and the next. Christian anthropology requires that Christian political and social theory be ecclesiocentric.
The absolute uniqueness of the Christian’s ecclesiocentric identity does not destroy the identities of natural communities in this age, but it does relativize them. For Christians, it is water that is thicker than blood rather than the other way around (Mt 12.46-50, etc.). This naturally holds implications for the Christian’s national identity as well. The corporate “new man” in Christ is a corporate identity formed by the union of Jew and Gentile into the one new man (Eph 2.15). This lesson is not new in the New Testament. It exists from the time of the creation of separate nations in judgment for the attempted storming of heaven in the Tower of Babel.
We might observe in passing that the creation of nations in the Bible occurs as judgment in response to the Tower of Babel. That does not of course mean that God cannot subsequently construct something good from them. After all, Israel’s King originated as a rejection of YHWH as King (1 Samuel 8.7), yet the monarchy becomes central to God’s redemptive design (see, e.g., Luke 1.32-33, and etc.).
Nonetheless, immediately after creating and dividing the nations in judgment in Genesis 10 and 11, God calls Abram and blesses him so that Abram will be a blessing to the nations that God had just judged (Gn 12.3). Paul in fact calls this promised blessing “the Gospel” itself in Galatians (3.8).
But God constituted the nation he formed around Abram differently than he constituted the Gentile nations. While the nations created at Babel were identified by family relationship and language, Israel’s nationhood was, with few exceptions (see, e.g., Dt 23.3), an open class based on covenant rather than based on blood.
From the very start, membership in Israel was a matter of covenant rather than a matter of blood. Biological descent from Abraham was neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition to be an Israelite: a male who descended physically from Abraham yet who did not receive circumcision would be “cut off” from the nation (Gn 17.14). At the same time, a male who did not descend physically from Abraham would become as a “native of the land” when circumcised (Ex 12.48). From the very first day of the covenant, the vast number belonging to the covenanted nation were not physically related to Abraham (Gn 14.14, 17.23).
Beyond formal membership in the covenanted nation, Israel was open to non-Israeli visitors. YHWH commands Israel that “the stranger who resides with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt; I am YHWH your God” (Lev 19.34). Note that love for the alien was in reflection of Israel’s experience as aliens in Egypt, and even continuing (1 Chronicles 29.15, cf., Romans 5.6, 8). Note also the echo of the second great commandment, “you shall love your neighbor as yourself,” cf., Mt 22.39, Lev 19.18. So, too, the sojourner occasionally joined in making national covenants with YHWH (Dt 29.1, 11), was invited to pray to YHWH (2 Chronicles 6.32), and even sacrifice to YHWH (Lev 17.8).
The open membership in Israel continues throughout the prophetic books. To quote just one example from Zechariah (2.10-11),
“Sing for joy and be glad, O daughter of Zion; for behold I am coming and I will dwell in your midst,” declares the Lord. “Many nations will join themselves to the Lord in that day and will become My people. Then I will dwell in your midst, and you will know that the Lord of hosts has sent Me to you.”
This in turn forms the backdrop for the Day of Pentecost, when Babel is reversed. Indeed, the movement in the book of Acts is that Jesus puts the world back together again from its sundry separations: First Judah. Then the reunion of Judah and the northern Kingdom of Samaria (Acts 8, cf., Ez 37.19-23, etc.), then the reunion of the rest of the world (Acts 10, cf., Acts 1.8). Given the Christian’s re-creation in image of God through Jesus Christ, there is no longer fundamental divisions between Jew or Greek in the Church (Col 3.12).
This does not mean that Christians form a single cosmopolitan mass in this age. Quite the opposite. Separate national jurisdictions can be efficiency-maximizing and otherwise convenient, useful, and even enjoyable. Nonetheless, the Christian’s identity in Jesus has subordinated national identity to the Faith. Christians are citizens of Christ’s Kingdom first (Eph 2.19, Philippians 3.20), and are national citizens second.
Christians in this age are unused to thinking of the Church as a powerful institution. Even Christians often incorrectly conceive of the Church as a “voluntary organization,” that is, as little more than a club for like-minded believers. And even when we conceive of the Church as having authority, we think the Church is powerful only if she wields the temporal sword or has an “in” with the civil authority. Yet according to the Scriptures, the Church wields more power as a spiritual institution than does the civil government with the sword.
Jesus, for example, is clear:
“I say to you, My friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that have no more that they can do. But I will warn you whom to fear: fear the One who, after He has killed, has authority to cast into hell; yes, I tell you, fear Him! (Luke 12.4-5).
This is called the “power of the keys,” and it is a power given to the Church (Mt 16.19, 18.18, John 20.23, 1 Co 5.4-5, 2 Co 2.10, Acts 5.1-11). Jesus tells his disciples not to fear civil punishment – not even the ultimate civil punishment of physical death. Rather, he instructs his disciples to fear eternal death. (The specific agent here makes no difference. If the agent is Satan rather than God, it is God and the Church who removes protection from Satan, as Paul’s formulation suggests in 1 Co 5.5.)
Of course, the Church’s juridical action is not always, or even usually, an exercise of punishment. It is more usually a blessing. The declaration of absolution, employed most regularly in liturgical churches, is understood to be “by and in the stead” of Christ’s action through the Spirit, and is considered the giving of real forgiveness by Christ’s minister.
That said, according to Jesus, the authority that the Church wields is to be feared much more than civil power. This can be sobering and disconcerting for Christians used to thinking of the Church as little more than a religious club, with good ole Pastor Bob up front, and the good ole boys on the Board of Elders.
As a result of the unease with this ecclesial power, modern Christians have come up with ways of trying to wave away or minimize Jesus’s teaching regarding the Power of the Keys. Perhaps the most common way is for modern churches simply to refused to apply it. As a practical matter “Anything Goes” as a practical matter in many congregations, even among those that say that they oppose the relativism of this age.
Another way of Christians seek to minimize or wave away the Power of the keys is to explain away the power. “The Church does not really hold this power. Rather, God holds this power and when the Church exercises the power of the Keys, nothing really happens in response to the Church’s action, it’s just a stand in for God’s judgment at the end of the Age.” To be sure, it is correct that the Church is exercising God’s power. And it is also true that the Church does not dictate God’s responses to God. But the implication that the Church is only engaged in cheap talk when it exercises the power of the keys does not follow.
Note, first, we simply must allow the texts regarding the power of the Keys to have their natural reading. “If you forgive the sins of any, their sins have been forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they have been retained” (John 20.23). And “Truly I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven” (Mt 18.18). And we have an example in Paul’s letters to the Corinthians of binding in real time (1 Co 5.4-5) and loosening in real time (2 Co 2.5-11).
Secondly, however, the exercise of ecclesial authority in this regard is really no different than the exercise of civil power in law courts. To see why, let’s translate juridical action by an ecclesial court into a juridical action by a civil court to compare the way we conceive the jurisdiction of the two.
To wit, we will say that a trial court declares someone guilty of a crime, and the trial court judge sentences the convicted person. If we were to take the same move that people make of ecclesial courts we would say, “Ah, but a trial court does not really hold any power over the convicted individual, because the defendant can appeal his conviction to a higher court. Unless the conviction is sustained by the higher court, then the person will not be punished.”
It is true that legal errors in the civil government’s trial courts can be appealed and set aside. But we do not talk as if a trial court’s judgment is not a real judgment just because it can be overturned on appeal. Instead we treat the trial court’s judgment as real – as really authorized – unless it is set aside on appeal in the future.
Let’s adopt the same mode of talking about Church courts and see the result. We would say that the Church court speaks and acts for God – as really exercising the power of the keys in binding and loosing, when they act as authorized by God in his Word. If a Church court acts without authorization, or ignores the evidence, then like, a civil trial court acting unconstitutionally or without statutory authorization, the wrongful sentence will be overturned on appeal. But that does not mean that all the other times when trial courts do act properly its judgments are considered not actually real at the time they are made.
In response there’s a second objection: “Yes, but when a criminal court finds someone guilty, they go to prison. When a church court finds someone guilty, nothing happens to them.”
Yet all this second objection means is that the person doesn’t believe Jesus’s words. Again, we must allow the texts to say what they say.
Further, real spiritual things do happen, even if we don’t see them (1 Co 5.4-5, 2 Co 2.10). The thought that “nothing happens” is often based on the false belief that salvation only means “going to heaven when you die.” Yet while the fullness of salvation is realized only in the Age to Come, the Christian’s salvation and its blessing have already started in this age (Eph 2.5-6 “made. . .raised . . . seated”; Heb 12.22-24 “have come”; Luke 19.29-30 “at this time,” etc.). The blessings of salvation that are “loosed” in this age and be “bound” in this age, if necessary.
Finally, we might note that, for the Christian, physical punishment is not the objective reality we often take it to be. Consider the cases in Scripture in which the saints treat physical punishment as nothing, or even as blessings (Acts 5.41, 16.25, 1 Peter 4.14, 16, Heb 10.35). Spiritual separation from God, spiritual death, is a terrible punishment, to be feared more than physical death. In my twenty years of involvement in prison ministry I often had prisoners tell me that they were freer in prison than they were out in the world.
There is of course a lot more than can, and should, be said about ecclesiocentrism and the development of Christian political theory. A part of this continuing agenda first speaks to the Church, and invites Christians to reject the anti-institutional animus towards Christ’s Body that is routinely held even by Christians. Another invitation exists for Christians and others to rethink Christian political and social theory through the Church, rather than conceive of it ideologically, as though the Church were not the world’s true and ultimate polis. It is the Church, rather than the nation-state that offers “the only genuine alternative to universalist ideologies now seeking to impose a homogenizing, locality-destroying imperium over the entire globe.”
James R. Rogers is associate professor of political science at Texas A&M University. He holds a Ph.D. and a J.D., and teaches and publishes scholarship at the intersection of law, politics, and mathematical models. He has published in the American Journal of Political Science, the Journal of Law, Economics, and Organization, Public Choice, and in numerous other academic journals. He edited and contributed to the book, Institutional Games and the Supreme Court, and served as editor of the Journal of Theoretical Politics from 2006 to 2013. He is currently contributing editor at Law & Liberty. He chairs the Theopolis Institute’s Civitas group.
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