Political Church: The Local Assembly as Embassy of Christ’s Rule

Jonathan Leeman, Political Church: The Local Assembly as Embassy of Christ’s Rule. (Studies in Christian Doctrine and Scripture) Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2016. pp. 448. $25.00, paperback.

On the heels of what was a contentious political season to say the least, there may be little zeal for reading a 400+ page book on political theology. The 2016 election cycle saw a fault line open up which exposed a significant divide between differing views in the Evangelical realm of American churches. In spite of the Religious Right movement of the 1980s and later, the Evangelical community has never arrived at a well-developed political philosophy to guide its political engagement. It has almost always functioned mainly in a reactionary manner to particular issues such as abortion or marriage or religious freedom.

Jonathan Leeman is a part of Capitol Hill Baptist Church, serving as editor for the publications of its 9Marks ministry. Thus he has a ringside seat to the political milieu (melee?) which is Washington, DC. In this work he sets out to provide a more extensive foundation of political theology, with a view toward replacing the flawed models used in American church thought for over two hundred years with a more biblical one. He also seeks to show how the local church is rooted in his model “as a political institution or embassy of Christ’s rule” (13). While this is certainly a strongly academic work, he writes it primarily for the church and Christians.

All too many discussions of political theology jump to discuss the extent of the authority of church and state instead of beginning with the nature of such authority. Leeman does not fall into that pattern, but rather seeks to thoroughly discuss the nature of authority first (perhaps too extensively at times even by his own admission!). He attacks a dualistic view of citizenship which is rooted in secular thought and which places political citizenship and religious citizenship in two non-overlapping jurisdictions. While this also has similarities with Martin Luther’s two kingdoms doctrine, neither is it synonymous with it. He seeks to make his arguments from an Augustinian, covenantal view of the church and state, asserting that “there is in fact no such thing as spiritual or political neutrality” (39). He makes the jarring assertion that “justification by faith alone … provides the only true basis for a just political unity” (47), though readers seeking to sniff out any theonomic leanings will not find them in this work.

Instead of a two kingdoms theory, he argues for a “two ages” theory. Leeman is openly indebted to the work of Oliver O’Donovan (cf. his Desire of the Nations) for this framework. But before reaching that point, he sets out to arrive at a definition of what constitutes politics, or more specifically, what constitutes the extent of political authority, whether of the state or the church. What is the nature of political authority and how far does it extend, morally speaking? A section of this discussion that is very timely is where he asserts that religious freedom as currently conceived of in the West actually destroys real religious freedom, noting that “someone’s gods must prevail” (90) in the public square. Once he leads us to a definition of politics, he then works to show what constitutes a political institution.

Having defined the nature of political authority, Leeman turns to discuss the nature of the authority of the church. He interestingly asserts that the doctrine of justification not only has political implications, but “is a political doctrine outright” (244). “Just as self-justification divides humans from one another and from God, so sola fide covenantally and politically unites them. It creates a new body politic” (246). A bold assertion, but one which he takes pains to adequately bolster.

Leeman chastises Christians who seek a utopian hope through politics. Though the church and state are distinct, they will not merge in this age. Instead they are “diachronic,” overlapping in time. His views on the meaning of the “keys of the kingdom” will likely start more arguments than end them. He ends up defining the local church as “a group of Christians who regularly gather in Christ’s name with the power of the keys to affirm the gospel and one another’s citizenship in the gospel through the ordinances” (365).

This work is also timely in regard to discussing the meaning of church membership in age of the big box worshiptainment where any real concept of membership has been degraded to mere attendance as consumers only (Leeman has written elsewhere on church membership). Far too few churches have a well-conceived ecclesiology, and thus there is nowhere for them to anchor any sort of concept of Christians becoming members of the Body of Christ, which is a theological and pastoral travesty. This book is a helpful corrective to such trends in the evangelical world.

While Leeman leans much on the work of O’Donovan, this is not a mere repackaging of the latter’s ideas. Perhaps the most significant part of his contribution is seeking to anchor political theology in covenant theology. Thus anyone with an interest in this area where ecclesiology meets political thought will be challenged as they read this book. It is a much needed addition to the two-kingdom discussion and far beyond.


Kenneth J. McMullen
Reformed Theological Seminary, Charlotte