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 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.