The Church as Polis

Toward an ecclesiocentric Christian politics.

Zachary McCartney
Zachary McCartney is the University minister at the Hillcrest Church of Christ in Abilene, Texas.
Ben Peterson
Ben Peterson is a doctoral candidate in the Texas A&M University Department of Political Science and a member of the Civitas Group hosted at the Theopolis Institute.

When we think about whether and how Christians should “participate in” politics, we typically mean activities associated with institutions and organizations that compose the national political system in which we find ourselves: the complex of political parties, social movements, and bureaucracies. These institutions and organizations are usually associated with the state or are dedicated to affecting the laws and policies of the state. Christians tend to treat politics as something you “engage in” or not, out there in the world. We think of ourselves as individuals navigating these institutions and organizations to engage in politics in a Christian way.

That’s part of living as a Christian in a constitutional democracy, but it’s not the core of Christian political engagement. There is another vision of Christian politics in which we understand the church itself as a political entity, a community of people sharing a common life with a distinctive form determined by a distinctive ethos.

Christian politics is first about being a member of a polity, an outpost of heaven impinging on the other polities of the earth. Membership in that polity, the true polis with its own God-given ethos and form, is central to Christian life, and it should be the fulcrum of Christian politics, properly understood.

The Idea of the Polis

As Peter Leithart writes in The Theopolitan Vision, “the church is the true polis,” the archetypal political community: the one of which all others, all states and cities and associations, are symbols. The implication is that political communities are real, are being themselves properly, only insofar as they reflect the features of the church: insofar as they participate in its nature.

What does it mean to say the church is a political community? What are its features, what is its purpose, and what are the means by which it seeks to attain that purpose? Finally, how should an understanding of the church as the true polis shape our attitudes and activities as church members and political actors?

The polis was the primary unit of concern for classical Greek philosophers when it came to politics. Aristotle famously wrote that “man is by nature a political animal.” Human beings live together in households, and households live together in city-states, or poleis. He argued that the community, the polis, is “prior in nature to the household and to each of us individually.” Human beings find fulfillment not as individuals but as members of communities. Built into our human nature is a capacity for speech, for reasoning together about the advantageous, the just, and the good, a capacity exhibiting the sociality of human life. The polis is essential to a truly human life, to the extent that a person living in fulfillment outside a community is not human, but must be a beast or a god. The Greek philosophers’ analysis suggests the idea of a correspondence between the distinguishing moral character of a people, which is related to their ability to live a good life—we’ll call it their ethos—and political form, or structure. The form of a polity shapes the character of its people, and thus their ability to live the good life together.

Human beings find fulfillment not as individuals but as members of communities. Built into our human nature is a capacity for speech, for reasoning together about the advantageous, the just, and the good, a capacity exhibiting the sociality of human life.

New Testament authors used the word polis simply to refer to a city. We find a justification for associating the idea of the polis with the church, though, in Revelation, where John speaks of the “new Jerusalem,” the polis of God that comes down out of heaven (Revelation 3:12). To be sure, the church is not territorially limited like the ancient Greek city-state, but the underlying idea of the polis that membership in a community is essential to human life can be reasonably applied to the church. The Greek word for “church” is ekklesia, the same word Greeks used for their public assemblies and Hellenic Jews used for synagogue meetings. Throughout his letters, the apostle Paul describes the church as a unified body made up of many members. Paul says we are members of one another (Romans 12:5; 1 Corinthians 12:12; Ephesians 4:25). Just as the hand is nothing apart from its attachment to the human body, our very lives are bound up in our association with the body of Christ.

In The Law of God, Rémi Brague writes, “Christianity did indeed have a political effect to the extent that it created a new type of social organization, the church. With the church, there arose, for the first time, a purely religious form of social organization with no national dimension.” The roots of this new form of social organization, though, are tied to the social vision found in the Hebrew Bible.

The Hebraic Social Vision

While the Old Testament writers treat community and political organization quite differently than the Greek philosophers, the idea that human life is intimately bound up with membership in a community infuses these sacred texts. The Greek philosophers based their vision of the best regime on abstract ideals derived from human nature, but the ethos of the Israelite polity rests on revelation, history, on a shared story, and above all on the idea of covenant: Israel becomes a people by entering into covenant with Israel’s God.

The Greek philosophers based their vision of the best regime on abstract ideals derived from human nature, but the ethos of the Israelite polity rests on revelation, history, on a shared story, and above all on the idea of covenant.

The writings of the Hebrews present a didactic form quite different from the great sages of Greece. Rather than abstractions, we see a collection of pastoral and nomadic case law, a narrative story of God’s dealings with humanity, poetry and wisdom literature, the records of the kings of Israel and Judah, and ecstatic oracles of men speaking on behalf of God. While foreign in style from the Greeks, the Hebrews likewise seek the good life and recognize the formative power of community. But unlike the Greeks, their end is the mission of God.

Israel as a nation had a unique purpose: God chose the Israelites to reveal himself to the world, visiting them with his presence and inviting them into covenant with him. The missional quality profoundly shaped the ethos of the Hebraic polity: “Now therefore, if you will obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my own possession among all peoples; for all the earth is mine, and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:5–6; all quotations of Scripture are from the RSV unless otherwise noted). As a priestly nation, Israel served as the representative of Yahweh and mediator between him and all other nations and families of the earth; this was her national vocation. This passage reveals both Israel’s ends and the means by which this vocation is carried out: “obey my voice and keep my covenant.” The means by which all nations would come to know and worship God was through their interaction with the covenant community of God, a community governed by the perfect Torah of Yahweh.

Much of the Torah is what one would expect to find in any Bronze Age law code, and in fact is what one does find in other such codes: do not steal, do not murder, do not commit adultery. Its uniqueness is twofold: the weight it gives to religious offenses and the protections it offers to marginalized classes. According to Torah, no word would be spoken against Yahweh, and no foreigner could be deprived of adequate wages. No violation of Sabbath would be permitted, and no widow turned out by her in-laws. No religious festival could be neglected and no orphan denied an inheritance.

The book of Ruth provides an example of Torah lived out in a community, and in a community that reaches out beyond the limits of ethnic Israel: Ruth is a Moabite, brought into Israel’s covenant, adopted into its bloodline. Torah singles out the foreigner, the orphan, and the widow for special protection and service. These formative commands were rooted in Israel’s history and designed to shape the nation’s priorities—Yahweh was the God of the poor—his people were to reflect this reality. Naomi’s family, the clan of Elimelech, embodied this ethic and followed these laws. The result: a broken family restored, a destitute widow rescued, a foreigner converted, and the line of David preserved.


If Ruth provides a positive vision of the Hebraic polis, the biblical prophets call the Hebrews to account for failure to embody it. The prophets raged because Israel had forsaken the priestly vocation, which made them unique. As Israel’s material prospects improved, Israel’s commitment to their priestly vocation waned. The stringent demands of Yahweh were exchanged for the popular and more transactional worship of Baal. The people abandoned protections for the vulnerable, instead following demands of progress and industry. Such exploitation is not unique to Israel; the novelty rested in the passionate and personal moral response of the transcendent reality to these abuses, the divine rage at the neglect of the downtrodden, channeled through the prophetic witness.

In terms of political form, at first Moses acted as the supreme legislative, judicial, and executive power for Israel, his authority and purpose stemming directly from God. He empowered seventy elders who handled day-to-day administration and disputes allowing the Israelites to function (Exodus 18:1–27). After this “golden era” of direct divine rule, a period of anarchy swept through the land. Tribal chieftains scraped together coalitions of authority to poor effect, leading the author of Judges to lament, “In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (Judges 21:25 ESV). Afterward, the polity assumed a monarchical form, similar to the absolutist rule of the Babylonian and Assyrian kings. While similar in structure, the sources for kingly authority were radically different. Nebuchadnezzar’s word was law, for Nebuchadnezzar was the divinely appointed ruler who spoke for the gods. In Israel this was not so:

And when he sits on the throne of his kingdom, he shall write for himself in a book a copy of this [Torah], from that which is in charge of the Levitical priests; and it shall be with him, and he shall read in it all the days of his life, that he may learn to fear the Lord his God, by keeping all the words of this law and these statutes, and doing them; that his heart may not be lifted up above his brethren, and that he may not turn aside from the commandment, either to the right hand or to the left; so that he may continue long in his kingdom, he and his children, in Israel. (Deuteronomy 17:18–20)

God creatively responded to Israel’s wish for a “king like the other nations” with a deliberately tweaked version of kingship, which he wove seamlessly into his redemptive plan. The king was to be God’s man before he was his own or the people’s: God’s servant for his peoples’ good. God and God’s Torah were to be the ultimate source of authority for the Hebrew people, as the priest Ezra hammered home upon the return to Jerusalem after the fall of the Davidic dynasty, the exile (Nehemiah 8:1–3). The book of Nehemiah attributes that fall and the exile to Israel’s failure to live up to her true ethos (Nehemiah 9).

This understanding of history preserved the Hebraic vision for generations to come. It was a vision of a community with whom God tabernacled and made his presence known, of a community on mission, shaped by devotion to God and love of neighbor as expressed in God’s Torah.

The Apostolic Age

The mission and methods of the church are rooted in the Hebraic vision of community. Peter reimagines Exodus 19, calling the church a “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation” (1 Peter 2:9). Paul speaks of the church as the “Israel of God” (Galatians 6:16) with the Gentiles “grafted in” to the root of Israel (Romans 11:17). This mission and method is most clearly demonstrated at the end of Acts 2, when the church began its work after Pentecost:

And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.

And fear came upon every soul; and many wonders and signs were done through the apostles. And all who believed were together and had all things in common; and they sold their possessions and goods and distributed them to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they partook of food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved. (Acts 2:42–47)

The apostles did not build constituencies to influence the Sanhedrin, nor did they join the Zealots in direct political revolution. Rather, they formed churches, counter-poleis, embassy-like communities shaped by the love of God and neighbor. These communities were the bedrock of the missional strategy. Throughout the book of Acts, wherever the good news of Jesus the Messiah is proclaimed, such an ambassadorial counter-polity is formed.

Ekklesia as Polis

Following the Hebrew model, forming communities of people dedicated to God and his Messiah Jesus, the early Christians devoted themselves to his apostles’ teachings. As with the Israelites, the Christians understood God’s presence to be powerfully manifest in their fellowship and common life (Matthew 18:20; 1 Corinthians 14:25). These communities were rooted in God’s priorities revealed in the Hebrew Scriptures, given new meaning in light of Christ’s incarnation, death, and resurrection. As in Israel, both rich and poor were to be respected. Most radically, Gentiles, previously “alienated from the commonwealth of Israel,” were called to worship God alongside Jews, to join the commonwealth as “fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God” (Ephesians 2:12, 19).

The early church took root among Jewish communities and the Gentile God-fearers adjacent to those communities, but the ethos of the new communities was missionary. In their letters, Paul and Peter each urge Christians to let their good character and actions serve as a winsome presence among nonbelievers. And, as Rodney Stark notes in The Rise of Christianity and Tom Holland observes in Dominion, there is evidence that Christian communities attracted pagans, especially women, because of their radical hospitality, treatment of women, respect for the value of human life, and profound courage in the face of death and torture.

Interior of the Sint-Laurenskerk in Alkmaar by Pieter Jansz. Saenredam, 1661.

While these communities embodied and extended the Hebraic vision and ethos, Christians also sought to recognize the kingship of Jesus in terms of political form. As Leithart notes, the church is a divine monarchy, the kingdom of God impinging on earth. At first, the apostles themselves, those who knew and talked with Jesus, assumed leadership. When doctrinal disputes arose, they settled them, and when practical needs emerged, they delegated administrative authority (Acts 15; Acts 6:1–6). The apostles’ authority was itself delegated from Jesus, God in flesh. As churches began to proliferate, connection to the apostles became a symbol of legitimate authority. The Roman Catholic Church, to this day, claims to trace its spiritual lineage and thus the authority of its officials to St. Peter, to whom Jesus promised the “keys of the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 16:19).

The other great channel of authority is the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, considered God-breathed and bearers of apostolic authority. The leaders of the Protestant Reformation claimed the Scriptures as the ultimate normative authority for Christians, standing above the hierarchical structure of the Roman Church. While the Protestant Reformation resulted in individualistic approaches to salvation, the Magisterial Reformers and their direct descendants were supremely committed to the church’s communal ethos and its political form. Consider John Calvin’s Geneva, Zwingli’s Zurich, and Anglicanism, including the Puritan form that was brought to America: Church membership was linked to citizenship, though ministers and magistrates, the church and the state, remained separate. Radical Reformers as well understood the church as a counter-polis—one standing over against and often subject to the hostility of the earthly polities in which it found itself.

The church, the ekklesia, is a public institution, a gathering of the followers of Jesus. Its ethos is missional and inviting, offering an imperfect taste of real community, real joy, and real hope in the form of sharing, giving, and being together. In form, the church is a monarchy, ruled by the one Lord, who has become a man: the Davidic kingship having proved itself a foretaste this strange, unlooked-for outcome. The church’s driving ethos is its mission to go into all the world, telling men and women the good news of Jesus, teaching and modeling obedience to the call of Christ. The church is a kingdom of priests, the personal embodiment of the kingdom of God in this world.

The church, the ekklesia, is a public institution, a gathering of the followers of Jesus. Its ethos is missional and inviting, offering an imperfect taste of real community, real joy, and real hope in the form of sharing, giving, and being together.

The Two Poleis

Membership in the church, the polis under the kingship of Jesus, soon came into conflict with membership in the Roman Empire. During periods of persecution like that under the Emperor Diocletian in the third century, many Christians sacrificed their lives for the kingdom of God because they refused to profess fealty to Caesar, instead claiming “Jesus is Lord,” a declaration of political loyalty. The goal of the church is not conflict with other poleis, but conflict is probable and common because of the church’s character as a polis and its missional nature. The church’s ultimate goal is conquest, not with the sword but through preaching, conviction, and conversion. God wants all to be saved in Christ, and the church exists to invite all to salvation. The church aims at a unique kind of conquest, not revolutionary, but redemptive. The church aims to change institutions not through seizing coercive civil power but by redeeming people and institutions through its embodied witness to truth and the authority of the true King.

While the church is the true polis, and conquest is part of its mission, the church does not deny the legitimacy of other poleis (Romans 13:1–7; 1 Peter 2:13–17). The governors of other poleis exercise “concurrent jurisdiction,” along with church leaders, over church members. But the church claims jurisdiction over a large part of its members’ lives—over our very souls, and more, over our whole personal being as body-souls. The other poleis in which we live are legitimate, but their authority is limited to the civil sphere. Recovering a sense of the church as possessing a high degree of jurisdiction, of governing authority, in matters bearing on our well-being is a task for church leaders and members today.

Our membership in the church comes with claims and benefits, obligations and opportunities that are prior to, but not exclusive of, the claims and benefits of the temporal polities in which we live. In the sense that our association with the church is primary, the other poleis of which we are members are indeed “out there.” Our primary membership is in the church, and our engagement in other poleis flows from that membership. The most basic element of a rejuvenated Christian politics will entail a focus on polis-building, on modeling in our own common life the ethos and form of the true polis.

The most basic element of a rejuvenated Christian politics will entail a focus on polis-building, on modeling in our own common life the ethos and form of the true polis.

Formative Community

Recognizing the church as the true polis and the center of a better Christian politics does not amount to quietism with regard to civil affairs. Rather, Christian politics in the more traditional sense is at its best when our primary focus is on polis-building in the church, on establishing communities and practices that open us to fuller participation in the kingdom of heaven as manifest in gatherings of believers all over the world, ambassadors of the true king. Engagement in the temporal politics of “the city of man” flows out of rooted, formative membership in the true polis, “the city of God.” Prophetic social and political witness requires formative communities that shape our character according to the ethos of the true polis and model true justice and love.

Prophetic social and political witness requires formative communities that shape our character according to the ethos of the true polis and model true justice and love.

Like Israel before us, our natural bent and inclination will be to become like the nations around us—to lose our distinctive ethos. Consider the Confessing Church movement that opposed the quiescent German Christian leadership during the 1930s and 1940s. During the rise of the Third Reich, a pathological fervor for the ascendant Nazi leadership gripped much of the German population, including Protestant Christians. The social and ideological pressure to conform to the ethos of the German people was tremendous. Most German Protestant churches and churchmen failed this test. But a few, like the theologian Karl Barth and his colleagues who desired to protect the institutional prerogatives and moral standards of the church, opposed the Reich with the Barmen Declaration of 1934. Some, like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, were martyred for their resistance to Hitler’s barbarous regime. Bonhoeffer devoted himself to building formative Christian communities like the underground seminary he addresses in Life Together, providing instructions for building a common life. Without a sense of the church as a distinct polity, with its own “vocation” and structure, thinkers and leaders like Barth and Bonhoeffer would have been swept along with the tide of popular sentiment.

By contrast, consider the reluctance of many white churches and parachurch organizations in the Jim Crow South to desegregate, even opposing government-mandated desegregation. We think this failure resulted from overidentification with Southern culture, racial superiority, and a misguided version of patriotism. For white, Southern Christians in this era, the formative communities were the cultural institutions of the American South, rather than an authentic Christian polis. Bonhoeffer noted this during his tour of America, convinced he found the true church not in the theological progressives of the North, nor the fundamentalists of the South, but in the persecuted black church. We suggest that, had Southern whites held a proper view of the church as a political community, sensing the bonds between black and white Christians as deeper than the civic ties between white Americans, and as the archetype toward which all civic ties pointed, they would have taken a stand more in keeping with the gospel and with justice.

As C.S. Lewis notes in Mere Christianity,

If you read history you will find that the Christians who did most for the present world were just those who thought most of the next. The Apostles themselves, who set on foot the conversion of the Roman Empire, the great men who built up the Middle Ages, the English Evangelicals who abolished the Slave Trade, all left their mark on Earth, precisely because their minds were occupied with Heaven. It is since Christians have largely ceased to think of the other world that they have become so ineffective in this.

Part of thinking of the next world is joining in fellowship with the people who have committed themselves to its real, personal manifestation in the church, the true polis. Christians formed deeply by participation in that polis will be able to navigate and engage with the institutions of other poleis.

Toward Polis-Building

Christians should follow Bonhoeffer in recognizing the importance of formative community and reorient our priorities toward polis-building. The salutary proposals for a more biblical, more principled vision of Christian political engagement that combines moral order and social justice, such as Justin Giboney, Michael Wear, and Chris Butler have put forward in Compassion (&) Conviction and are pursuing with The (&) AND Campaign, require as a prerequisite Christian thinkers and leaders shaped by formative participation in the life of the church.

We should understand that the office of church elder, deacon, or priest is significantly more important and consequential than the office of president of the United States. Offices in the civil polis are important, but they are secondary to offices carrying responsibility for the care of persons and safeguarding a common life in the presence of God.

The attractional church model common in the United States, whereby congregants sort themselves based on worship styles and child-care offerings, is antithetical to the vision of church as polis. Building multigenerational, multiethnic, and multi-class communities that in turn form and shape their members, form and shape us, must become a core value. Instead of leaving behind a thin congregation, we can seek out a few like-minded brothers and sisters to practice a thicker communal ethic within that small group. We can submit ourselves to a collective rule of life that is strenuous in comparison to the modern church routine. We can commit to accountability to the rule with one another and agree on what should be done for penitence when the rule is broken. We can invite our church leadership to be a part of these efforts and ask for them to join and perhaps lead us.

Building multigenerational, multiethnic, and multi-class communities that in turn form and shape their members, form and shape us, must become a core value.

Critical to the formulation of this communal rule is joy—and even fun. There will certainly be requirements for spiritual disciplines and ascetic renunciations, but they are not ends in themselves. They are means to become what God intended us to be: men and women fully alive. We fast that we may feast. Meals shared and games played together are crucial to the life of any community. In a world that treats work like a crash diet of binges and purges, a group adopting a healthy balance of work and play, guarding times for both jealously, would shine like stars.

Our existing American polis is, it seems, in a good deal of trouble. Polarization and vicious racial division seem to be on the rise. If we wish to strengthen it, to convert it to a new mode of being, to be faithful citizens, we ought to start by converting the American church. Showing is more persuasive than telling. Let us start small, and pray. Revival is the Holy Spirit’s business. Without God’s help we’ve no hope of becoming what we ought. So pray. Pray we Christians turn away from consumer Christianity and seek the difficult path of discipleship, that we learn to reject our preferences for the sake of genuine community, and that God will help us to become what we are made to be: a kingdom of priests, a holy nation, the true polis.