Peter Leithart is controversial and provocative. He wants to be. He wants to change the categories and labels so that we think about what we’re doing. Thus the title of this book.
What’s it all about? Largely, it’s about a “Christianity” that is confined to the head, the pew, and one day of the week. This is contrasted with the Biblical view of the Church as “the Assembly” (Greek: ekklesia). Leithart doesn’t go the usual route with this term – called out of the world, or called as in elect of God. Instead, he notes that this is the same term the Greeks of the day used for their political gatherings which had the purpose of governing the city. Assembly is Parliament. Ekklesia is Congress. The Church is the new governing body of a new City. It is the City of God, already established here on earth, as a challenging alternative to the secular city.
Okay, so now that I’ve got you nervous, let me alleviate that. Leithart does not mean political as you think of political. He does not advocate political activism as it is typically thought of. The Church isn’t supposed to be telling congress what laws to pass. It’s not like that.
Now let me make you nervous again. The Christianity Leithart is against allows the world, and even Christians, to marginalize their faith out of the center of culture. Instead, our faith, if preached and lived out faithfully, will have tangible results beyond the pew and morning devotions. We will act differently at work, with our neighbors, etc., and that will change the culture. This is not a bad thing. We have to rethink what culture is; it is nothing more than the outworking, externalizing, of religion. What we DO is determined by what we BELIEVE.
Many people lament the times in history where whole cultures and their governments have adhered to Christianity, because it makes for nominal Christians. This is misguided. Such nominalism is a real concern, but in a thoroughly Christian culture it can be dealt with through knowing each other well, and subsequent church discipline. We don’t need a godless general culture to produce genuine Christians. Leithart points to Jonah at Nineveh as an example. “You called me to be a prophet against them, not a chaplain for them!” But what’s wrong with being a chaplain aligned with a power that believes?
Along these lines, Leithart’s last chapter is “For Constantine.” Christendom is not an inherently negative thing, where the Church is grasping after power in a sinful way. “Christendom meant not the Church’s seizing alien power, but alien power’s becoming attentive to the Church” (pg 129, quoting Oliver O’Donovan’s “Desire of Nations”).
“The Christian Right made one of the most characteristic of modern political beliefs the foundation of its entire agenda: the assumption that the state has jurisdiction of morals….. A more radically Christian approach would be for the Church to challenge this assumption by reasserting her own jurisdiction of morals…. The Church could begin by accepting responsibility for the conduct of her own members” (pg 118).
“The Church does not agree on, much less enforce, her own ‘thou shalt nots.’ The Church does not even agree that there are ‘thou shalt nots.’ The anti-culture has invaded the Church” (pg 115).
“So long as the Church preaches the gospel and functions as a properly “political” reality, a polity of her own, the kings of the earth have a problem on their hands. Some Haman will notice that there is a people in the empire who do not live according to the laws of the Medes…. As soon as the Church appears, it becomes clear to any alert politician that worldly politics is no longer the only game in town…. This necessarily forces political change, ultimately of constitutional dimensions” (pg 136).
The big questions this book raises, but doesn't really answer or address: how do we go after a distinctively Christian culture OUT THERE, while also affirming religious tolerance in the public square? Was it wrong for Constantine to outlaw pagan religions in favor of Christianity? Why would that be wrong today in America? Do we believe more strongly in the First Amendment or the First Commandment? Ultimately (in the Kingdom of Heaven), the two are incompatible and the former will pass away. But if we’re praying for God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven, why are we reluctant about this?
No direct answers from me right now, but this from Steve Forbes during his presidential campaign a few years back: we have to change the culture before we can change the laws. Because the laws are just the outworking of our beliefs. Work on the heart of your neighbor; that’s the way to change things. Neither Leithart nor I am interested in imposing Christian laws on people who don't want it. God will judge them for their rebellion eventually; I don't have to now. But we need to keep in mind our goal in the culture war: to win; to change enough hearts that people want to have a government that explicitly honors the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Whether this will actually happen before Christ's return is beside the point; shouldn't we be working towards it now?
Expecting some good discussion on this one...