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The Church as Polis? Some Biblical Reflections

One of the big debates to emerge from the torrent of blog discussions about Nate Kerr’s book, Christ, History and Apocalyptic is the issue of whether or not the church is rightly described as a polis, as Hauerwas (and sometimes Yoder) tends to describe it. This of course, is to ask the question of what we really mean by “polis” in the first place, and I don’t want to elide this issue. However, the first thing I want to do is actually look at some of the biblical language about the church and see what impression that leaves. Here are some of the passages that I found relevant to this question:

“You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid.” (Matt 5:14)

“…he prophesied that Jesus was about to die for the nation, and not for the nation only, but to gather into one the dispersed children of God.” (John 11:52)

“For we are God’s servants, working together; you are God’s field, God’s building.” (1 Cor 3:9)

“Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?” (1 Cor 3:16)

“But our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.” (Phil 3:20)

“Remember that you were at that time without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.” (Eph 2:12-13)

“He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace.” (Eph 2:15)

“So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.” (Eph 2:19-22)

“Who gave himself for us, that he might redeem us from all iniquity, and purify unto himself a peculiar people, zealous of good works. ” (Titus 2:14)

“But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the church of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven…” (Heb 12:22-23)

“For here we have no lasting city, but we are looking for the city that is to come.” (Heb 13:14)

“…like living stones, let yourselves be built  into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” (1 Pet 2:5)

“…but you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people…” (1 Pet 2:9-10)

“And I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.” (Rev 21:2)

Some thoughts:

  • Some of the terms used to explicitly describe the church here include: light of the world, field, building, temple, commonwealth, nation, people, race, priesthood, house, household, citizens, dwelling place, new humanity.
  • The only verse that I’ve find that maybe specifically designates the church as a polis is Matthew 5:14, but that’s a bit thin. The mention of “city” there seems more by way of illustration of the church’s unhideability than of the church’s nature as a sort of civitas.
  • All the passages that explicitly talk about God’s city, the holy city, or the new Jerusalem seem to refer to the eschatological polity of God that will be established on the last day.
  • However, consistently the church’s present reality seems to be described as partaking of the heavenly city in the present in some sense (cf. Heb 12:22; Gal 4:26; Eph 2:12). The heavenly city, though ultimately future, is, in some partial sense present in the church’s present life.

So, in light of this, should we call the church a polis? Certainly not if by that we mean a stable political entity that is established and certain in its givenness. The church’s eschatological and provisional character forbids any strict identification of the church with any political entity that is determinate and given in its closure. “Here we have no lasting city.”

However, the biblical terminology of the church is utterly tangible, material, concrete, and communal. The church is a peoplehood and can be described in a number of political and familial terms with accuracy. As such, our emphasis on the chruch’s eschatological provisionality and non-closure should not eclipse the fact that the church is a visible communal reality in the world. Thus, if by “polis” we simply mean that the church’s political and social constitution is just as real and concrete as that of other social and political formations in the world, clearly the church is a polis in that sense. However, I’m not sure that its possible for us to purge the concept of territoriality from the language of polis, and what is clear from the New Testament language is that the church is distinctly non-territorial in nature, indeed its non-territoriality is the very shape of its “catholic” fullness.

In light of this I’m inclined to steer away from the language of “church as polis,” but not the language of church as political, social, communal, or peoplehood. This langauge seems far too central to the New Testament to be done away with. Indeed the  diversity of the New Testament language seems to me to suggest that the church’s social reality–having its its genesis the the apocalyptic victory of Christ over the powers–cuts across so many lines of “sociality” that the diversity of social and communal images for the church are essential to our attempt at description.


  1. Patrik wrote:

    So, using the same argument, would you stay away from trinitarian language?

    Thursday, February 26, 2009 at 10:47 am | Permalink
  2. Halden wrote:

    No, because I don’t see anything in the language of trinitarianism that conflicts with the biblical langauge of Father, Son, and Spirit. The point is not that if the Bible doesn’t use a word, we can’t use it. Clearly that’s dumb. Rather my point here is that the language of polis seems to have an irreducibly territorial reference, which to my mind is not appropriate to the church.

    So, the better analogy here would by that, just as I’m not using “polis” to describe the political nature of the church, I don’t think that “triumvirate” is a good way of describing the three-personed God.

    Thursday, February 26, 2009 at 10:49 am | Permalink
  3. Nate Kerr wrote:


    This really is not a question about a particular word being used in Scripture or not; it is about how that word is used and why, when it was a readily available term, it was not used definitively of the church in the New Testament. The “polis” that is spoken of most definitively in the New Testament is indeed the New Jerusalem coming down from heaven — the city without walls. This is a polis from all ends of the earth and from all nations. This polis is not “the church” here below. The church here below exists as a sign and sacrament of that coming polis, but it is this as in a way that it witnesses to God’s worldwide household as the site of the coming polis of God. And so it is precisely as not a polis in-itself that the church can live politically as a sign and sacrament of that polis to come. For precisely as such is it free to live as an exilic people whose seeking the peace of the city in which they find themselves is itself an upbuilding of the household of God, the fullness of the body of Christ in the world (the oikodeme, as it is put in the passage Halden quoted from Ephesians). The fact that the church-as-polis language as it is used in theology today tends to be deployed for the sake of a certain kind of focus upon an enculturation that is reflexively self-regarding makes me think that language like oikos, and poeoplehood, and exile is more appropriate to the church’s mission to be not so much a “counter-culture” as much as a missionary and transformative “culture-of-encounter.”

    Thursday, February 26, 2009 at 11:20 am | Permalink
  4. Patrik wrote:

    I don’t think I actually disagree (much) with either of you, I just think the argument is problematic. It just remindid me of the 5th century christological debates, where the homoousion was rejected by some groups because it wasn’t in the bible.

    I’m not sure about the polis-as-territory concept though. Bit of a strawman that isn’t it? Or is there somebody out there that uses it in that sense?

    Personally, I kind of like the Milbankean “nomad city” concept.

    Friday, February 27, 2009 at 12:32 am | Permalink
  5. Hill wrote:

    If we really want to be biblical here, the New Jerusalem has walls, at least according to John. It also has very specific dimensions and seems to be immanently “territorial” at least in an allegorical sense. I have no idea what this might mean, but Nate’s characterization of the heavenly Jerusalem as a city without walls seems precisely false according to, ironically, the Apocalypse :) Is there another passage where it is described as not having walls?

    Apocalypse 21:10-21

    10 And he carried me away in the Spirit to a great and high mountain, and showed me the holy city, Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, 11 having the glory of God. Her brilliance was like a very costly stone, as a stone of crystal-clear jasper. 12 It had a great and high wall, with twelve gates, and at the gates twelve angels; and names were written on them, which are the names of the twelve tribes of the sons of Israel. 13 There were three gates on the east and three gates on the north and three gates on the south and three gates on the west. 14 And the wall of the city had twelve foundation stones, and on them were the twelve names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb. 15 The one who spoke with me had a gold measuring rod to measure the city, and its gates and its wall. 16 The city is laid out as a square, and its length is as great as the width; and he measured the city with the rod, fifteen hundred miles; its length and width and height are equal. 17 And he measured its wall, seventy-two yards, according to human measurements, which are also angelic measurements. 18 The material of the wall was jasper; and the city was pure gold, like clear glass. 19 The foundation stones of the city wall were adorned with every kind of precious stone. The first foundation stone was jasper; the second, sapphire; the third, chalcedony; the fourth, emerald; 20 the fifth, sardonyx; the sixth, sardius; the seventh, chrysolite; the eighth, beryl; the ninth, topaz; the tenth, chrysoprase; the eleventh, jacinth; the twelfth, amethyst. 21 And the twelve gates were twelve pearls; each one of the gates was a single pearl. And the street of the city was pure gold, like transparent glass.

    Friday, February 27, 2009 at 11:37 am | Permalink
  6. Hill wrote:

    Freakin’ homophones… eminently.

    Friday, February 27, 2009 at 11:39 am | Permalink
  7. Halden wrote:

    Well, it may have walls, but the text does emphasize that the gates of the city are always open, which is, I think the idea that Nate is going for.

    Friday, February 27, 2009 at 11:44 am | Permalink
  8. Halden wrote:

    And aren’t you Catholics supposed to be the ones that really take Lent seriously? Shame on you!

    Friday, February 27, 2009 at 12:00 pm | Permalink
  9. Hill wrote:

    I would think the gates of the Church as polis are always open, too, and yes… I’m terrible. I’m going to go flagellate myself and put on my hair shirt and cilice. I will then go back to protecting the secrets of the true grail.

    Friday, February 27, 2009 at 12:18 pm | Permalink
  10. Halden wrote:

    Perhaps some penitent praying barefoot in the snow as well?

    Friday, February 27, 2009 at 12:20 pm | Permalink
  11. Nate Kerr wrote:

    Hill is right. That is, about the New Jerusalem. I did mean to say “open walls.” I think in my blog fatigue (which is quite real right now, as I’m nearing the end of week 7 of what have been very intense and good conversations over at Church and Pomo) has gotten the best of me. I am aware of Revelation and I don’t know why I would every describe a “city” “without walls.” I don’t know what I was thinking, but I think I must have been confusing my idea of the openness of the city walls with the statement of Ephesians 2 about “the dividing walls have been broken down” (referring to Jews and Gentiles) to make us one “household,” which I had just looked up to make my point about the oikodeme. Mea Culpa. For what it is worth, the chapter on eschatology that I am working on is subtitled: “the Spirit of the City with Open Walls.” Sorry about the confusion. I’ll try to take another stab at the church-as-polis question for Hill after the cobwebs have cleared and I’ve gotten some sleep. But for now, I don’t think there is anything that prevents us from thinking the church as a polis with open walls here below; my critique of the church-as-polis idea in my book has to do with the way it functions in connection to a certain “concentric” view of church and world and a too-realized eschatology in Hauerwas (and at times in Yoder).

    Friday, February 27, 2009 at 2:16 pm | Permalink
  12. Hill wrote:

    For our mutual edification, I have found reference to “a city without walls”

    Zechariah 2:

    1 Then I looked up—and there before me was a man with a measuring line in his hand! 2 I asked, “Where are you going?”
    He answered me, “To measure Jerusalem, to find out how wide and how long it is.”
    3 Then the angel who was speaking to me left, and another angel came to meet him 4 and said to him: “Run, tell that young man, ‘Jerusalem will be a city without walls because of the great number of men and livestock in it. 5 And I myself will be a wall of fire around it,’ declares the LORD, ‘and I will be its glory within.’

    6 “Come! Come! Flee from the land of the north,” declares the LORD, “for I have scattered you to the four winds of heaven,” declares the LORD.

    7 “Come, O Zion! Escape, you who live in the Daughter of Babylon!” 8 For this is what the LORD Almighty says: “After he has honored me and has sent me against the nations that have plundered you—for whoever touches you touches the apple of his eye- 9 I will surely raise my hand against them so that their slaves will plunder them. Then you will know that the LORD Almighty has sent me.

    10 “Shout and be glad, O Daughter of Zion. For I am coming, and I will live among you,” declares the LORD. 11 “Many nations will be joined with the LORD in that day and will become my people. I will live among you and you will know that the LORD Almighty has sent me to you. 12 The LORD will inherit Judah as his portion in the holy land and will again choose Jerusalem. 13 Be still before the LORD, all mankind, because he has roused himself from his holy dwelling.”

    I’m mainly just being a gadfly, because when you are roused to post, something great is usually the result. I’m sympathetic to your critique of church-as-polis, especially after seeing it clarified and honed in recent exchanges, some of which are the most lucid explanations of your thought I’ve read yet. I’m sorry to hear about your fatigue, but I’m grateful for your labors.

    Friday, February 27, 2009 at 2:25 pm | Permalink
  13. Halden wrote:

    That’s a fantastic reference that only further underscores the need to continue thinking theologically about the Scripture, particularly the prophets in regard to these debates.

    Friday, February 27, 2009 at 2:27 pm | Permalink
  14. Hill wrote:

    Totally… the Bible is amazing isn’t it?

    Friday, February 27, 2009 at 2:32 pm | Permalink
  15. Halden wrote:

    Sometimes the Bible makes me feel like an idiot for reading so many other books to discover theological insight.

    “A wall of fire”? How rich of an image is that??

    Friday, February 27, 2009 at 2:34 pm | Permalink
  16. Nate Kerr wrote:

    Oh, snap! Like, double snap! That reference from Zechariah constitutes, like, a palimpsest of “snaps”! And I don’t know who gets them — it’s like you snapped yourself, Hill, for me — but snapped me for not snapping you!

    But seriously, thanks for the reference. And even more thanks for your kinds words about my posts. I live for these conversations. And I learn so much from being a part of them.

    Friday, February 27, 2009 at 3:00 pm | Permalink
  17. Hill wrote:

    A double palimpsest of snaps, indeed. I have obtained a dispensation for commenting in this thread. What’s going to be really rough is when I start reading blogs again and try to resurrect posts that are 6 weeks old.


    Friday, February 27, 2009 at 3:05 pm | Permalink
  18. Halden wrote:

    Leave it to the Catholic to bring an apocalyptic Bible passage to the attention of a couple free church protestants.

    Friday, February 27, 2009 at 3:08 pm | Permalink

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  1. [...] Church and Postmodern Culture has been hosting a great 6-part conversation (1, 2, 3, 4, 5 & 6) on Nathan Kerr’s Christ, History and Apocalyptic: The Politics of Christian Mission. Be sure to also check out Halden’s posts on Kerr’s book too: Mission and Apocalyptic Ecclesiology and The Church as Polis? Some Biblical Reflections [...]

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