… as Wright explains, Paul was mounting a polemic against the imperial ideology, affirming that Jesus, not Caesar, is “Lord” and “Savior,” both prominent terms in imperial propaganda. Paul’s claim that Christians are citizens of a heavenly politeuma further indicates that the Philippian Christians are to consider themselves a colony of heaven more than as a colony of Rome. Paul imitated Christ by giving up his privileges as a Hebrew of the Hebrews, and he exhorted the Philippians to follow his example by treating their Roman citizenship and attachment to the Roman emperor as “rubbish” for the sake of Christ and His heavenly politeuma.
In short: throughout Philippians, which some identify as one of the least of political of Paul’s letters, Paul was treating the Church as an alternative to the political-religious organization of the city and of the empire.
(Peter Leithart, Against Christianity, 29–30)
The note Dr. Leithart sounds here has been growing louder in recent years. Every day, it seems, new monographs and articles are being released on the topic of the church as polis, counter-polis, and alternative-polis. As contributors to TCI have written in the past, political theologians indeed need to be asking some pointed questions about the application of this language. While we continue, however, to keep one eye on the world and the approach this theology takes to it, we also need to continue looking to scripture, to make sure our foundations are sure.
In this case, there might be some reason to hesitate before clinging too tightly to Dr. Wright’s approach, also affirmed by Dr. Leithart among many others. John Reumann, in his commentary on Philippians, carefully surveys the lay of the land on the proposed understandings of politeuma. Here are six of them:
Reumann argues a version of the sixth, “governing civic association”, is correct:
Evidence is strong for politeuma as a civic association, like a thiasos or collegium (Ascough 2003:77–78, 146–49, voluntary associations). Attractive as political aspects are and the (pretentious) glory of a (Christian) state or kingdom (in heaven), for house churches the local club or association lay much closer at hand (Alvarez 339, collegia licita). Cotter 1993:101–104, the episkopoi and diakonoi (1:1) were officers of such a civic entity, but bawdy socializing and pursuit of honors in collegia are out of place in “God’s politeuma where the cursus honorum includes only the names of the faithful” (104).
How to tr[anslate] politeuma at 3:20? Some reflection of “state, constitutive government,” etc., seems needed, but also the social world of clubs, guilds, and (religious) associations. Therefore “civic association.” It exercises some control over members (not with, or over, the state, polis or Empire), so governing (us, its members). Our governing civic association is awkward. It lacks the homiletical attraction of a “colony of heaven,” but is truer to lexical findings: less than “the state,” yet civic, with a place in the public world of the day; like an association or club but with governance over members; it is in heaven, where its Lord is.
(Philippians: A New Translation With Introduction and Commentary, Anchor Yale Bible [New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 2008], 575–77.)
The external evidence points in this direction, and the biblical evidence agrees. The church exercises no compulsion upon its members. Like pagan collegia, it can “control” itself only by persuading members to act in obedience to its teaching, or else to shun members who refuse to do so. The head of this association resides in heaven, from whence he rules by means of regenerating and sanctifying hearts. This he does by his Spirit, whose sword is the Word.
While it is true that Christians are subjects in the kingdom of Christ, the scriptures do not teach that that kingdom displaces human kingdoms. Paul remains at ease with exhorting the Philippians to live out their Roman citizenship, though in a way informed by the Gospel, and does not intimate they should sever all ties with the Empire. Even texts as stark as Revelation 11:15, resounding with the message “The kingdoms of this world have become the kingdoms of our Lord and of his Christ,” do not envision a world where lesser kings no longer have a place (cf. Rev 21:24–25). Indeed, the political backbone of the Bible rests on the claim that the Lord, asarkos as well as ensarkos, is “King of kings, and Lord of lords”; not the sole ruler, but the one who delights to create images of himself on earth, vicegerents over his creation.