Week 3—What Christians Should Do For Government: Be the Church Together


Editor’s note: This is a manuscript from Jonathan Leeman’s class “Christians and Government,” which he is currently teaching through at Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, DC. There will be 13 weeks in the class. Here is the course schedule, to be published as it’s taught.

What Christians Should Do For Government

Week 1: Love Your Nation, People, or Tribe
Week 2: Obey Scripture, Get Wisdom
Week 3: Be the Church Together (manuscript below)
Week 4: Be the Church Apart
Week 5: Engage with “Convictional Kindness”

What Christians Should Ask of Government

Week 6: To Not Play God  
Week 7: To Establish Peace
Week 8: To Do Justice
Week 9: To Punish Crime, Tax, and Defend the Nation

Week 10: To Treat People Equally (Justice and Identity Politics)
Week 11: To Provide Space for True and False Religion
Week 12: To Affirm and Protect the Family
Week 13: To Protect the Economyy

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Abraham Lincoln, in his second inaugural address, exhorted the war-torn America to do everything it could to “achieve and cherish a just, and a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations”—words now carved in marble inside the monument bearing his name. Where on planet earth do you think we are going to find a just and lasting peace?

Like most Americans, I love Martin Luther King Jr’s “I have a dream” speech. He dreams of a place “where little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls and walk together as sisters and brothers.” Where on planet earth should we expect King’s dream to truly take hold in reality?

The prophet Isaiah, early in his book, tells of a day when “God will judge between the nations and will settle disputes for many peoples. They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore” (2:4). When do you think this day will come?

The goal of the “Christians and Government” Core Seminar is to think about how Christians should approach politics, and how the church should relate to the state. Typically, these kinds of conversations treat the church almost as an afterthought. If it’s a 10-chapter book you’re reading, you’ll read plenty about Christians, but the church as an organized institution won’t really show up until chapter 8 or 9. But I think that has it backward. The local church is the primary and defining political reality for the Christian, which then shapes how we approach the state. So we’re going to spend two weeks on the local church, which I would define as a political institution.

The local church is where the nations should discover a just and lasting peace, where King’s dream should take hold in reality, where the nations will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks.

The one sentence summary I want you to take away from today’s class is this: the most important thing for the church to do politically is to be the church.

Our focus today, then, is on the church in its life together: what the local church is as a political society. Let me offer you five descriptions of the local church in its life together.

1. The Local Church Should Be an Ideal Political Community

God created Adam and Eve not just as husband and wife, but as fellow citizens, tasked with ruling the Garden together: Be fruitful and multiply, subdue and rule. Being created in God’s image, they would image him by representing his just, righteous, and life-giving rule in their life together. By being God-imaging kings.

Of course, they didn’t represent his rule, they represented their own, and God removed them from his holy place.

Later in the story, then, God calls Abraham and promises to fulfill in Abraham what he commanded of Adam. Where he commanded Adam, “Be fruitful and multiply,” he promised Abraham, “I will multiply you. I will make you fruitful.” God’s special covenant people fulfill and reveal what God intends and commands for all humanity.

God therefore gave Abraham’s descendants, Israel, the law and told them if they kept the law they would be his “kingdom of priests” and “holy nation” (Ex. 19:5–6). That is, by walking according to God’s justice and righteousness as revealed in his law, they would be a marked-off nation and a model community (political and otherwise) where God dwelled, as in the Garden of Eden. They would be the priest-kings Adam and Eve were supposed to be, both ruling and consecrated to God in how they ruled, thereby revealing his justice and righteousness, his character and glory. Pharaoh, of course, was the contrast. Pharaoh was fallen Adam writ large and a model of tyrannical politics.

Sadly, Israel didn’t fix their eyes and hearts on God and imitate him in worship. They fixed their eyes and hearts on the nations’ gods and ended up looking just like the nations. So God sent them into exile, and told them he would no longer employ them as the model of a renewed politics.

Yet there in exile, he gave the remarkable promise of the news covenant. Listen to Jeremiah’s version of this promise in chapter 31, verse 31:

31 Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah…33 For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. 34 And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.”

Before we unpack this, stop and think with me for a moment: What would constitute an ideal political society? The nations of this world try to build a righteous society through a combination of external laws and the sword. Ancient Israel, who even had divinely inspired laws—perfect laws—taught us that this does not work. Friends, stop and think. Imagine you got the perfect president and perfect congress and perfect set of Supreme Court justices and perfect state governments in place, all of whom conspired to pass perfect laws. What would you get? You’d get, in a sense, a re-do of Exodus to Deuteronomy. Okay, Israel, here’s the perfect law. And how well did Israel do? How just were they? Sacrificing their children to idols…taking bribes…exploiting the weak and poor…

So what are the ingredients of an ideal political society?

I can think of three things: a right ruler and rules, right desires, and right standing. The rule of the ruler will line up with the desires of the ruled, and the ruled will all have a right standing in the community. They justly (not unjustly) belong.

And I dare say, this promise of the new covenant gives us all three ingredients of this ideal political society.

First, there is the promise of the right ruler: “I will make a covenant,” says God; “I will be their God, and they shall be my people.” Second, the desires of the people align with the rule of the ruler. Verse 33: “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts.” And third, they have a right standing. They justly belong. Verse 34: “For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.” And notice how idealic this community is: no longer shall each teach his neighbor to know the Lord—the ruler—because all know him. There’s an equality of political access and opportunity. It’s like a democracy of kings.

Think with me about this third category for a moment: right standing. By what justification are you a member of this New Covenant society? Answer: forgiveness.

Now, admittedly, that may seem like a strange foundation for a political community! Typically, we grant someone political membership or status either through birth or merit. To be considered an upstanding adult citizen, then, you must be born into a nation or you must act righteously—in accordance with the law. Isn’t that what’s at stake in America’s present arguments over immigration?

Yet admission to this new covenant community, strangely, begins with the confession that you were born into sin and that you have not acted righteously. Instead, you stand in need of forgiveness.

That’s a strange foundation for a political community, isn’t it?

It is, but in fact, it is all important. Why? Well, consider: all strife, all factions, all war in the history of human politics has been the result of self-rule and self-justification. We convince ourselves that we deserve to rule, that we know best, not God. We convince ourselves that our nation, our tribe, our race, our party, our person is somehow better and more right than the other nation, tribe, race, party, person. We justify these claims with all kinds of arguments. And so we do what it takes to rule over them. We go to war. Friend, insofar as you are still self-justifying, convinced that you are just and righteous on your own terms, you will continue to discriminate and judge and put down all those less righteous, less worthy, less human than you.

Look at me: I deserve to rule over you because I’m more white, more wealthy, more wise than you. And insofar as I have the powers of state at my disposal, I will use those powers to do it.

Here’s one of the two deepest and most profound theological points of the morning: Your self-rule is always grounded in your self-justification. Self-rule (which, in relation to God we can call rebellion) is always grounded in self-justification. It’s grounded in some kind of argument that convinces us, “I deserve to rule.” And self-rule, of course, will always dominate others to get its way.

Here then is the second of the two deepest and profound theological points of the morning: Our giving back to God the right to rule our lives only happens when all our self-justifying arguments come to an end and rely instead on God’s justification and forgiveness. “Oh, my rule has made a mess of things. I deserve punishment. Will you please forgive me and be the king in my life.” So if our self-rule sits on the throne of our self-justification, we let God sit on the throne of our lives when we rely upon God’s justification.

And this is what creates a peaceful, life-giving, just political community. People don’t realize how politically powerful the Christian gospel of justification is! It creates the ideal political community.

It is only the person who knows he or she has been an enemy of God, but has received a gracious pardon, who can then turn and forgive other sinners and no longer lord it over them. It’s only the person who knows their standing in the community wasn’t earned, but was given, who can live at peace with others.

“I have no political standing because I’m a natural-born citizen, or Hutu instead of Tutsi, or Serbian instead of Bosnian, or upper-class instead of lower class. I belong to this community purely as a gift of mercy. So how can I put myself above you and prosecute you, my neighbor?”

Sure enough, the self-righteous religious leaders of Jesus day condemned others. They lorded it over others. So Jesus had to say he came not for the “righteous,” but to call sinners to repentance. Think of the parable of the unforgiving servant (Matt. 18:21-35). The servant who was forgiven 10,000 talents by his master, but could not forgive 100 denaraii owed his servant and threw him into prison, was convinced of his own righteousness. And so he was happy to lord it over others.

The local church is an assembly of forgiven people, which means it’s the strangest political society on earth: a place where enemies have learned to put down their swords and love one another. And do these enemies not come from all nations?

There is a grand historical irony here worth noting. People have always criticized Martin Luther’s doctrine of sola fide (justified by faith alone) as promoting political inactivity and quietism. I mean, if you’re justified by faith, not works, why work? Why concern yourself with the politics of this world? But in fact, sola fide is the most powerful, new-creation building political force in the world. It breaks down the dividing wall of partition and makes one new man out of two. It brings peace to where there was hostility. 

So a right standing and a right ruler are crucial. And so are right desires: “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts…. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.” We must desire to do God’s law. Do we? Let me use this question to transition to a second way we can describe the church this morning:

2. The Local Church Is a Model Political Society—A Prophetic Witness

Jesus is certainly interested in our desires. Look at Matthew 5:3. The kingdom of heaven, we learn, is given to a people who are poor in Spirit, who mourn the sin of the world, who are meek, who hunger and thirst for righteousness, who are merciful, who are pure in heart, who are peacemakers. In other words, they desire to be done with sin. They’re poor in spirit because they know they are sinners. They cannot lord it over others. Instead they are broken. And now they hunger for Righteousness. Mercy. Purity. Peace. To see God.

What kind of community does this create? The next verses (13–16) tell us. One that is salt and light. It’s salty in that it’s distinct from everything around it. It’s light in that it present a witness for all to see. The local church is not just an ideal political community; it’s a model political community for all to see.

Jesus continues in the latter half of chapter 5 to give us a sense of what this ideal and model society looks like:

  • You have heard, do not murder, but you shouldn’t even angry with your brother…The people of the new covenant do not hate, discriminate, or murder, but seek reconciliation ( 5:21–25).
  • You have heard do not commit adultery, but you shouldn’t even lust… These people do not exploit or use others for their own gain (5:27–30).
  • I say to you anyone who divorces is wife is an adulterer… These new covenant people honor God’s creation ordinances (5:31–32).
  • I say to you, do not take an oath, but let your yes be yes, your no no… These people speak truthfully on all occasions (5:33–37).
  • If anyone would slap you on the right cheek, give him the left…if anyone would sue you and take your shirt, give him your coat also… These people employ their property to protect and equip others (5:38–42).
  • And finally, these people love their enemies (5:44–45).

Friends, do you see what a radically different sort of community the local church is to be? What a different kind of “politics” are at play here?

Notice how it all beings with a gospel of forgiveness, and the gospel of God’s forgiveness of our sins through Christ that creates renewed social relationships, a renewed and righteous and just politics. Indeed, that’s exactly what we see in Philippians 2. Turn there.

“Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit…in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests…have the same attitude as Christ Jesus…

And then we get a picture of the gospel…

“who being in the very nature God…”

Then we return to the original topic…

so that you may become blameless and pure, “children of God without fault in a warped and crooked generation.” Then you will shine among them like stars in the sky.”

Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit….your attitude should be he same as that of Christ Jesus.

As members of the new covenant local church, in fact, we belong to a whole new age—the age of the Spirit. Are you beginning to understand why I said at the beginning, the most important thing for the church to do politically is to be the church.

Think of Paul in Romans 2: You who preach against stealing, do you steal?

We might also ask, You who fight for immigration reform, do you practice hospitality with strangers? You who vote for family values, do you honor your parents, love your spouse self-sacrificially, spend time with your children?

You who plead for social justice and ethnic equality, do you obey Romans 12:13–16: “Contribute to the needs of the saints and seek to show hospitality. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another.”

How deeply tragic it is, that Christians choose segregated lives even in their churches. Don’t you see that we should be the first place where people of different ethnicities integrate? And the first place where the rich care for the poor?

Do you want to have an impact in the area of social issues like abortion and marriage? Start by obeying Ephesians 5: “Wives, submit to your husbands. Husbands, love your wives, love them as your own body. Children obey your parents.”

How deeply tragic it is that Christians divorce, and sexually and emotionally defraud their girlfriends and boyfriends, and put off having children. Don’t you see that we should be the first to prize marriage and family?

Do you want to have a positive impact on the economy? Then keep reading in Ephesians 6: “Bondservants, [or employees], obey your earthly masters…with a sincere heart, as you would Christ, not by the way of eye-service, as people-pleasers…”

How tragic it is that there are Christians who are lazy at work. Don’t you see that we should be the first to work hard and to be the best employees?

What if you’re a business owner or employer who votes for “pro-business” laws to help the economy? Read on in Ephesians 6: “Masters [or employers], do the same to them, and stop your threatening, knowing that he who is both their Master and yours is in heaven, and that there is no partiality with him.”

How tragic it is that there are Christian employers, people with power and authority over their workers, who exploit that power unjustly, or stay silent when other business owners do. Don’t you see we should demonstrate the most interest in a well-running and equitable economy?

In a course on Christians and government, again, you may have wondered why we put two weeks on the church right up front. That’s because we’re trying to redraw the maps of how you think about politics—where the battlefield lies. The political life doesn’t just being when you step into the ballot box or go to work down the street as a Hill staffer. It begins with what God you worship on the first day of the week. And then how you go about worshipping that God in days 2 to 7. It begins with who you choose to spend time with today after church. Is it simply people who look like you, or who can be an advantage to you? Then you’re preparing to do politics like the nations.

Christians move to Washington, DC determined to make a difference in the nation’s capitol. They don’t realize the real action, the most important political action that will last for eternity and that won’t keep rolling down the hill as with Sisyphus, is in the local church. It’s fine to play with matchbox cars on your hands and knees; but don’t you want to drive the real thing? So pick up an old lady on the way to church before you talk about welfare reform.

3. The Local Church Is Cosmopolitan, Non-Partisan, and Multi-Ethnic

The local church should never tie its identity to any one nation. Our identity depends upon the forgiveness we’ve received. So Jesus could command us to render to Caesar what was Caesar’s, we saw a couple weeks ago, whoever Caesar’s name happens to be. We are in that sense a cosmopolitan people. No, that doesn’t necessarily mean we’re “globalists” as that term is presently defined in our political discourse: pro-trade, pro-European Union and United Nations, pro-open borders. It does mean we will not baptize all the newborn infants in a nation and call it a Christian nation, as was the practice in Christendom. It does mean that, in the context of our assembly, we may thank God for the good we’ve received from our nation, but that we won’t give any special favor to being “American.” And, yes, it should prompt us to have conversations about how the Bible might prompt us to love the troubled immigrant on our doorstep, and whether the parable of the Good Samaritan has any lessons for how we treat outsiders.

Not only is the local church cosmopolitan, it is non-partisan. Except in extreme cases, as with something like the Nazi Party, you should not restrict membership to certain parties. Unless you are going to include party membership in the church’s statement of faith, and make it something over which to divide the body of Christ and therefore part of the gospel itself, we must not make membership contingent on a certain party affiliation.

And frankly, we should probably not start a “Christian” political party. That would unite the name and reputation of Christ to an institutional structure and a set of policies that he has never attached his name to. To give an example: most evangelical Christians, the statistics show, are Republicans. But as those of you who work in Republican political circles know, not all Republicans are Christians—not by a long shot! Suppose you wanted to rebrand the Republican party as a Christian party. You might think that’s a good idea, since many Christians are aligned with that party’s beliefs on several core issues. But the costs outweigh the benefits: you’d be tying the name of Christ to an institution where many leaders are not Christians. It’s already hard enough to preserve the integrity of Christ’s name in the church itself, which is full of repentant sinners, but sinners nonetheless. Attach Christ’s name to an institution full of unrepentant sinners, and the job becomes impossible. You’d find yourself having to defend – even tempted to defend, because you’re on the same team – public actions that are indefensible, or at least inexplicable in the light of Christ’s name.

Finally, the church should be multi-ethnic. Again, our justification is not grounded in our ethnicity, but in forgiveness. Therefore, there is no Jew nor Gentile, slave nor free, Barbarian nor Greek. The dividing wall of partition has fallen at the cross. The saints were reconciled to one another at the same place we were reconciled to God: at the cross. This point about multi-ethnicity is important enough that we’re going to devote much of week 9 to it.

4. The Local Church Is a Sign-Maker—A Priestly Witness

So if a group of human beings are forgiven and granted the Holy Spirit through the new covenant, thereby becoming an exemplary political society, how do we know who the members of the new covenant are? How is the new covenant administered or publicly marked off?

I think the new covenant is publicly declared before the nations through the local church as it exercises the keys of the kingdom in baptism and the Lord’s Supper. This is the cumulative picture we get in Matthew 16, 18, 26, and 28. Jesus first gave the keys to Peter and the apostles, and then he gave them to the local church—the keys for binding on earth what will be bound in heaven, and loosing on earth what will be loosed in heaven.

This does not mean the church is able to save people, or to damn people. It means the church has the authority to declare (i) what is a right gospel confession, and (ii) who is a right gospel confessor.

The local church’s institutional authority consists of sign-making, you might say. It makes signs and hangs them around the neck of anyone who makes a credible profession of faith. The sign says, “He’s with Jesus” or “Citizen of Christ’s kingdom.” It doesn’t make you a citizen, but it issues kingdom passports. That’s what we do through baptizing people into church membership, and keeping them in membership through the Supper. The local church also hangs a sign that says, “This is the true gospel” and “This is not.”

The heart of the separation between church and state is right here. The state has the power of the sword. It does not have the authority of the keys, or the authority to baptize and serve the elements. It cannot hang signs. This is where Christendom went wrong. This is where the national churches of Europe or any established church go wrong. The state cannot establish the church precisely because the new covenant community does not arrive through the sword. It comes by the Spirit and by the gospel of Christ’s kingdom, Christ’s rule. So when the sword-bearing State starts binding consciences on behalf of Christianity by naming doctrines or people “Christian,” it only create nominal or false Christians.

From the founding of America, evangelicals have, from time to time, proposed placing Jesus’ name into the preamble of the Constitution. In my mind, that could wrongly imply that the citizens of the U.S. embrace Jesus as Lord, which of course they don’t. It would be to have the state act as a sign maker.

5. The Local Church Is an Embassy from the End of History

To sum up points 1 to 4, we can say that the local church is an embassy. It represents another kingdom, not from another place on the planet, like the U.S. Embassy in London representing the United States; instead, it represents a place from the future—the end of history, a new age—which came forward and entered history through King Jesus and now in our life together. What does it mean to become a church member? It means being publicly affirmed as a citizen of Christ’s kingdom by the local church, which the church does through baptism and the Lord’s Supper.

It’s like an embassy institutionally because it has the authority to stamp our passports, not making us citizens, but declaring us citizens. And it’s like an embassy in that it represents a foreign culture, which Christians are in their life together. We demonstrate a renewed, Holy Spirit indwelled, politics.

So where on planet earth do you think we are going to find a just and lasting peace?

Stop looking at the monumental presidents and mighty peoples described in your high school history book. And glance over at those two crumpled old women sitting in the church pew. Have you noticed them before? Both of them have persevered in the faith for decades. Both have listened carefully week after week to their King’s words heralded from a pulpit. And year after year, decade after decade, through the ebb and flow of seasons, through the raising of children and the temptation to compare whose children rise higher, through the petty jealousies of friendship and the desire to outdo one another, through the divergent paths of financial prosperity and the attendant threats of covetousness and condescension, through hasty words and hurt feelings, through times good and bad, these two old women, unrelated by blood, enemies by birth, have, by the power of the Spirit, found their worth and justification in an alien righteousness. And so they have discovered the freedom to forgive one another’s hasty words, to surrender those desires to compete and compare, to outdo one another only in showing honor, to fight for sisterly love amidst everything that would have torn them apart.

Between these two women we find the just and the lasting peace that Lincoln could only orate about, and for which the nations long. You will find it there in the pews, wherever two or three are gathered to bow down before Jesus and are lifted up together in obedience by his Spirit.

The most important thing for the church to do politically is to be the church.

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Editor’s note: For a fuller description of Jonathan’s views on church and state, seePolitical Church: The Local Assembly as Embassy of Christ’s Rule (IVP, 2016). 

Jonathan Leeman

Jonathan (@JonathanLeeman) edits the 9Marks series of books as well as the 9Marks Journal. He is also the author of several books on the church. Since his call to ministry, Jonathan has earned a master of divinity from Southern Seminary and a Ph.D. in Ecclesiology from the University of Wales. He lives with his wife and four daughters in Cheverly, Maryland, where he is an elder at Cheverly Baptist Church.

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