Political Church

The church is a new form of polity that erupts into the world as much as the Son of God comes into the world. It’s a real-world political alternative to the polities of the ancient world. It resolves many of the political dilemmas of the ancient world, though not simply by splitting the difference.

The Greek city-state was built on the contrast of the household and the city. This is one of the underlying themes in Aeschylus’s Oresteia, and the central theme of Antigone, the middle play in Sophocles’s Oedipal trilogy. The conflict of that play was between the demands of loyalty to blood and house v. the demands of loyalty to the city. The conflict is a tragic one. One must choose household or city, but both choices are deadly.

The oikos/polis contrast was related to a variety of other dualities of classical Greek polity. The household was a place of production; the polis was for disputation and war. The household was ruled by the father; the polis was democratic. The household was for women and slaves; the public institutions of the polis for citizens. That meant a division between the manual labor expected of menials and slaves, and the leisure or war pursued by men in the agora. The polis was the place for the cultivation and display of virtue; slaves, women, and children did not enter this realm.

The church is both city and household. Paul considers the church a “brotherhood” and himself a “father” to the churches. Yet the church is also a political entity, an ekklesia and a colony of the empire of Jesus. That undoes the dualism of the Greek city, and in so doing undoes the other dualisms associated with it. Women are part of this polis/oikos, as are children and slaves. That elevates labor, disparaged by the Greeks: Everyone is called to work with their hands, including Paul the tentmaker. All can pursue godliness; virtue is no longer confined to free adult males.

By the same logic, the church reconciles empire and ethnicity, a challenge faced by all of the empires of late antiquity: How can an empire be one political unit and yet encompass many cultures, traditions, gods? Some empires rearranged populations to break down the pre-existing bonds that might become dangerous to the empire; others incorporated the gods of the conquered ethnicities into their own pantheon; some were more tolerant, some intolerant. By uniting the blood-based oikos with the citizen community of the polis, the church also integrates ethnicities into a global empire. Ethnicities don’t lose their distinctive character, which are considered gifts for the edification of the whole. But they are united by one Spirit under one Lord, and in part by the relativizing rites of baptism and Eucharist.

The infusion of the polis into the household (and vice versa) doesn’t make the church an egalitarian, purely democratic polity, which is probably impossible in any case. Rather, the oikos/polis combination in the church makes her the realization of the ancient hope for a “mixed” polity. It is a mixed polity with a difference, a mixed polity rooted in the incarnation of the Son and the gift of the Spirit.

There is a “democratic” dimension to the church’s life and structure. The Spirit is given to all, so that all receive gifts that can be used to edify the church. The Spirit gives voice to all the church’s members. Even slaves might come with a prophecy or a word of knowledge, because the Spirit doesn’t bow to class structures.

But that democratic dimension is checked, and necessarily so, by an “aristocratic” aspect. Those who come with a word of knowledge are judged by others. Those who are spiritual – the wise – correct others (Galatians 6). All have voice, but not all are teachers. Teaching is a necessarily hierarchical task, though, as John Milbank points out, an oscillating one in which the hierarchy exists in order to be overcome, as the disciple becomes like his teacher. Without this aristocratic leadership, the church’s “democracy” cannot function well, because the people have to be guided to maturity and wisdom by the wise and mature.

Above all, the church is a monarchy, the people ruled by the King of kings and who acknowledge His reign. Jesus is, in some ways, an absent monarch, whose future coming as Judge is the basis for living according to His commandments. Yet He comes in parousia at the gatherings of the church, to sift and judge, perhaps to remove a lampstand from an unfaithful church. More positively, He rules by gift, by distributing the gifts of His Spirit to the church. He is the “one” who coordinates the “many” by giving gifts to the “few.”

By being a mixed polity, the church serves as a model for extra-ecclesial polities. This isn’t a merely theoretical point: In actual fact, the medieval church’s papal “monarchy” was an unfortunate model for absolutists. More positively, the conciliarist movement presented a model for constitutional monarchy of a sort in its Pope-in-council model of authority.

Though a model for other polities, the church retains its unique character. That is most immediately obvious in the church’s rejection of the use of force: Rulers rule the church, but not by the sword or threat of war. That doesn’t imply that civil rulers should sheath their swords; Paul says that rulers bear swords to carry out God’s vengeance.

The reason for this disjunction between ecclesial model and political copy is eschatology. No political order since the first century embodied the kingdom and people of God. That privilege belongs alone to the church, the eschatological society, a present city that will be perfected in the future, a city that is already the order of the coming age in embryo.

That gives the church an inherently prophetic character. In her very existence, and as it lives in faithfulness to her Lord, the church prophesies of an order of justice and peace to come. And by the same token, the church highlights the fragility of the peace and justice of present regimes. In being an outpost and sign of the eschatological city, the church, as Oliver O’Donovan emphasizes, relativizes the status of the politics of this time and this world. The very existence of the church is a prophetic reminder that other polities are part of a world that is passing away. The very existence of the church is a pledge that there will be a city of light and life in the end, a city open to all kings and nations.

And, again, in its eschatological character the church fulfills the misplaced hopes of ancient and modern orders. For the church is the true imperium sine fine, an eternal Reich under the rule of Jesus. As the anvil on which many hammers have been broken, the church’s very existence rebukes the pretensions of state-builders who yearn for an eternal name and kingdom.

In short, the church’s unique polity disrupts the polities of the ancient world, even as it fulfills their deepest aims and dreams. This disruption and fulfillment is part of the gospel, the good news that the Judge of the earth has committed Himself, His Son and Spirit, to bringing shalom to His broken world.

Peter J. Leithart is President of Theopolis.

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