Skip to content

Peter Leithart on the Church’s Mission

I posted a while back on some of Peter Leithart’s thoughts about the importance of the church as a political society, and his support of the idea of Constantinianism as a political concept, one in which the church, as the City of God, the true polity inevitably ends up ordering the city of man.  Here’s a quote from Leithart on the topic:

The Church, as a collaborator with God, is called to nothing less than world conquest, world construction, in the widest possible sense. She is called to labor by God’s power to bring every man, woman, and child into the life and under the dominion of the kingdom; to work to see that every institution in every nation conforms itself to Christ’s commandments; to bring every thought into captivity to Christ (2 Cor 10:5). Her mission is to see that every human being brings every created thing into service to God, so that the Adamic commandment in both its royal and priestly dimensions is fulfilled. So, the Church has a mission, and what a mission! (The Kingdom and the Power, p. 173-174.)

I find the militant imagery and spirit of this quote rather disturbing.  For all it’s talk of bringing “every thought into captivity to Christ”, I don’t see how this line of thinking derives much from the way of Christ.  Christ’s mission from the Father, which he handed on (analogously) to his disiciples (Jn. 17:18) was one of self-giving love and cruciform kenosis, not “world conquest…in the widest possible sense”.  If the Christian mission can be described as “world conquest” it can only be in the narrowest possible sense of the form of “conquest” that occurs in the kenotic, self-disposessing movement of giving life away for the sake of the other, rather than claiming it for oneself.  If this is truly a form of conquest it must be one more akin to what Hans Urs von Balthasar describes as “the conquest of the Bride” in which the outpouring of God’s triune love in Christ enraptures, captivates, and transforms his estranged world into a bride for the Son of God.  The only “conquest” in which the church can participate is the movement of God’s own captivating, koinonial, and pneumatic love before which we are passive recipents before we can ever become collaborators.  We love because he first loved us (1 Jn. 4:19).


  1. Aric Clark wrote:

    Amen. I find the conquest language very disturbing indeed. It sounds like he’s mistaken the Gospel for the book of Joshua.

    Wednesday, August 15, 2007 at 9:51 am | Permalink
  2. Very disturbing indeed. Leithart has written some fine stuff (particularly on the connection between poor understanding of sacraments and poor imagination in the Church). However, I can’t support his Christendom political theology.

    Wednesday, August 15, 2007 at 9:52 am | Permalink
  3. Fred wrote:

    beautiful quote…

    Wednesday, August 15, 2007 at 6:10 pm | Permalink
  4. Halden wrote:

    Fred, if I may ask, how ‘First Thingsish’ are you?

    Wednesday, August 15, 2007 at 6:34 pm | Permalink
  5. Fred wrote:

    I like Fr. Neuhaus as a writer and commenter upon things, but I have no real sympathy for the neocons. They aren’t militant enough, being content with petty influence.

    In thinking imperially, I remember the words of St. Paul: everything belongs to you, but you belong to Christ.

    I agree with Balthasar that the “in hoc signo vince” means exactly opposite of what Constantine thought it meant. But the kenosis of Christ shakes the very foundations of the world. See Polyeucte or the Dream of the Rood for dramatizations of this conflict between the Christian and culture.

    Even Hauerwas’s colony metaphor is a military one. Any colony or creative minority threatens the empire when it attains a certain point in its growth – as the Carthaginians discovered in their struggle with Rome.

    The Christian proclaims with certainty the Lordship of Christ in all things. This is not a hegemony that’s gained piecemeal by compromising with power. But neither is Christianity a private club that exists mainly for the edification of its members.


    Thursday, August 16, 2007 at 12:16 pm | Permalink
  6. Halden wrote:

    They aren’t militant enough, being content with petty influence.

    What, practically do you want to see in terms of Christian political influence and power?

    Thursday, August 16, 2007 at 12:27 pm | Permalink
  7. melissa florer-bixler wrote:

    I don’t think Hauerwas is using a military metaphor. If anything, it he does need to be careful about the colonial overtones, but he’s not referencing a military image. He is harkening back to the OT imagery of a people in a foreign land. This is an ancient sojurning reference. And he’s also drawing on Augustine’s interpretation of OT peoplehood in City of God.

    Thursday, August 16, 2007 at 2:14 pm | Permalink
  8. Fred wrote:

    The power of the Holy Spirit and the faith of Jonah to proclaim the judgment of God to the people living in Nineveh. My sensibility is more cultural than political (see my new blog, linked above), but I can give practical examples.

    What’s critical is the willingness to engage with culture, to witness to what one knows or sees despite opposition.

    One example: some pharmacy students in Milan protested a conference on stem cells that excluded any attention to the value of human life.

    Most of all, it’s a willingness to propose sensibilities and solutions at the broadest and highest levels – even if they are rejected.


    Melissa, I’m well-acquainted with the stranger in a strange land imagery (Numbers 13, 14, etc).

    Thursday, August 16, 2007 at 2:33 pm | Permalink
  9. then why are you saying it’s militaristic?

    Thursday, August 16, 2007 at 5:56 pm | Permalink
  10. adamsteward wrote:

    Fred, it seems to me that what you (and, I guess, Peter Leithart) are calling for is some sort of witness that is external to the normal, organic function of the church, as a side project or something. From my perspective (and I think this is the core of what Yoder and Hauerwas have to say), the normal function of the church is already a witness against the world. Thus, in our pursuit of justice, we do not appeal to congress or any of the other power brokers of the world, for they were stripped of their power at the cross. Rather, we appeal to Baptism, Eucharist, church potlucks, and all the rest of the normal functions of the church. And as we do so, we proclaim that justice is not ours to establish, but has already been made real in the cross and resurrection of Jesus.

    In other words, I aggree wholeheartedly with your call to proclaim the injustice of the Babylons and Nineveh’s. It’s simply that I reject the liberal-democratic mode of activism as superflous to the alternative vision of reality that is already being carried out by the church.

    Thursday, August 16, 2007 at 7:15 pm | Permalink
  11. Fred wrote:


    I’m with you in rejecting a liberal- democratic activism which is grateful to even have a seat at that table (one reason that I’m not a neocon).

    But it’s not at all a side project. This is something that cuts right to the heart of the Church’s mission to all nations.

    When Jonah preached to Nineveh, the king ordered that everyone repent and put on sackcloth and ashes. To Hauerwas, such a gesture is pointless because it is merely the state imposing an external conformity and by law imposing what the colony would generate from within. That’s looking at things from an insider’s view.

    One can also look at Jonah from Nineveh’s point of view. Jonah comes preaching repentance and the Ninevites realize that as a prophet he is reminding them of their mortality and contingency upon God. Do they become Jews? No, but they do live a more complete, more human life – a life not of arrogance or fear but of humility.

    The Church exists for the salvation of the world. We should at least propose mercy and forgiveness of sins to a cold-hearted world. If I don’t extend this mercy to those outside the colony, then I tremble to think of my own appeal to the mercy of Christ.

    Christ doesn’t need the approval of the courts or congress, but the courts and congress need Christ’s judgment. Man needs God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven – and it often seems to me that the unbelievers outpace the colony in conforming to this will.

    Should a Christian artist address his works to the colony or the whole world? If I see a better way to live, do I keep it within the colony or do I at least propose it to my friends, co-workers, and neighbors outside the colony?

    Thursday, August 16, 2007 at 11:23 pm | Permalink
  12. Lee wrote:

    Hauerwas has always struck me as being pretty cagey about what exactly Christians should be doing in the political arena. Yoder, on the other hand, seemed ok with democratic activism.

    William Placher has, I think, some wise things to say about limited Christian activism to the “organic” practices of the church in the course of discussing the practice of visiting prisoners (forgive the somewhat lengthy quote):

    “…Hauerwas,though he has not talked much about prisons, argues in general for such a model of Christian action: act through local congregations, one on one; don’t get involved as Christians in politics to try to change governmental policies. Political involvement, he says, compromises Christian witness, since in politics we inevitably make regrettable compromises.

    “In [Chuck] Colson’s programs, however, the work of the Justice Fellowship supplements that of the Prison Fellowship, campaigning for alternative forms of punishment for nonviolent offenders, for an end to the worst abuses within the prison system, and so on. How, Colson asks, can one visit prisoners, connecting with them as Christian brothers and sisters, and hear their stories of brutality or sexual abuse within their prisons without doing something by way of publicity or political lobbying to improve their condition? How could prisoners accept as sincere invitations to join Christian communities whose members were not trying, through political activity, to reduce brutality and injustice? It is hard to believe someone who says, ‘I really care about you, but I’m not going to vote against the sheriff who lines his pocket by cutting back on your food. I don’t want to corrupt myself by political participation.’” (Jesus Our Savior, p. 155)

    Friday, August 17, 2007 at 7:34 am | Permalink
  13. adamsteward wrote:

    Fred, I think your following quote nails down a pretty central issue of dispute on the role of the church in the “public sphere” -
    One can also look at Jonah from Nineveh’s point of view. Jonah comes preaching repentance and the Ninevites realize that as a prophet he is reminding them of their mortality and contingency upon God. Do they become Jews? No, but they do live a more complete, more human life – a life not of arrogance or fear but of humility.

    A few responses:
    First, I’m not at all certain that the Ninevites didn’t become Jews during the story. We should read them alongside the sailors, who do not make vows to elohim, but to Yahweh. In my opinion, it is just this sort of specificity in our naming of God that the democratic process cannot tolerate. At most, the present American public sphere can allow for is vague references to godness, or in Bush’s case, a Jesus (A rose by any other name!) who is stripped of all his pacifistic peculiarity.

    Second, we violate the text if we make Jonah a model for any Christian practice. The author uses him as a satiric portrait to lampoon ethnocentric superiority. I actually have a post that touches on this, if you care to check it out. Not that this invalidates your claim, it’s just that it shouldn’t be proved with Jonah.

    Third, what do you mean “a more complete, meaningful life?” Ecclessiastes should tell us that this is meaningless in itself. Outside of Christ, attempts to make our lives more fulfilling are misplaced. For the very sake of the world’s fulfillment, the church must affirm that fulfillment can only be found in Christ. If the democratic process could make room for us to say this, then I would be all for it. But as I have seen it, from Falwell to Wallis, the church’s political speech is always castrated when it accommodates itself to the norms of democratic process.

    Monday, August 20, 2007 at 10:46 pm | Permalink
  14. Fred wrote:

    Thanks, Adam!

    1. you’re arguing from silence. The OT insists that the nations turned away from God to the gods (the covenant with Noah, for example, was made with the forefather of all nations). In the satirical tale of Jonah, the Ninevites did not all get circumcised or offer a temple sacrifice to atone for their sins – they merely repented in sackcloth and ashes.

    2. Regarding Jonah and Christianity, see Luke 11:20-32, or better yet Matthew 12, in which Jesus cites Jonah to rebuke the scribes for lacking the faith of Nineveh or the Queen of the South.

    3. The wisdom of Qoheleth is a beautiful and humiliating reflection on the enigma of man as man. It is the persistent recognition of man’s need for happiness despite his incapacity to attain it. After all, man is not nothing – he is a nothingness that is aware that he is nothing.

    When the Ninevites repented in response to the merciful word of God, they embraced this wisdom; it made them better off than they were the day before – why? because it’s a more honest position in the face of life. Or since the Ninevites are a fable, how about the woman who dried Jesus’s feet with her tears? Better yet, how about the woman who told Jesus that even the dogs eat the scraps wasted by the children. It’s the wisdom of John the Baptist who said, God is coming; we must repent now.

    This is the same wisdom that Jesus preached in the beatitudes: blessed are they who recognize their need for happiness, justice, love: and who don’t flee from this need because they are in themselves unable to make it happen.

    Which is better: to acknowledge the human condition or to embrace Christ? It’s better to embrace Christ, of course. But Christ comes to us precisely as the answer to our human need for happiness.

    4. I’ve never advocated accommodation. But I don’t fear its contamination so much that I would retreat to the gated community of a colony. If political structures are old wineskins, very well, let’s see if they hold up to the new wine…

    Wednesday, August 22, 2007 at 8:12 am | Permalink
  15. adamsteward wrote:

    Fred, the problem with the democratic structure of politics is that we cannot get our new wine into that wineskin uless we first make it palatable to the public. I.e. we have to get elected, and in order to get elected we have to make Jesus’ message popular. Unless the public has been given a miraculous conversion (like Nineveh), the only way to make Christianity popular is to compromise it – to give the Son of Man a place to rest his head. You know, if we could get Christians elected who hold uncompromisingly to our values, I’d be all for it. But getting elected with the Sermon on the Mount as your platform doesn’t work. That’s why politicians ignore it, and look to “natural law” of retribution, protection, and pre-emptive strikes as the basis for their public message.

    As for the opposition of the human condition to embracing Christ, I never meant to imply one. In fact, I hold a pretty Barthian line on this one, namely that we don’t know what’s wrong with us untill we are encountered by Christ. On our own, we can only know that something is missing, when really what we need to know is who is missing before we can really say what’s wrong.

    Wednesday, August 22, 2007 at 3:10 pm | Permalink

Switch to our mobile site