A genuinely penetrating critique of liberalism must start from the universal Christian confession of the “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church.” The church isn’t merely another social institution, but the family of the heavenly Father, the body and bride of the incarnate Son, the temple of the Spirit. Through the word, the Spirit gathers and knits us together. In the waters of baptism, we’re made members of Christ and of one another. At the table, we become one body because we all partake of the one loaf that is the body of Christ. For paedobaptists at least, membership in Christ and one another is inter-generational. To the naked eye, the ties that bind members of the church across time and space look fragile. Word, water, bread, and wine are surely no match for blood, flag, and soil. But the Spirit of the living God works in and through the fragile things of earth to form a communal body like no other, a solidarity in the Spirit.
The sheer existence of the church challenges liberalism’s claim to monopolize social order. Here is a differently constituted community of men, women, and children. Consent is real, but the will that makes the church isn’t the will of man or the flesh, but the will of God. Here is a sacramentally and spiritually formed body, living divine life in the flesh and manifesting the spiritual unity of the Father and Son (cf. John 17:20–21). If she does nothing else, the church stands as a witness against the imperialistic hubris of liberalism.
Paul says the reconciliation of Jews and Gentiles in the body of Christ form “one new man,” a new humanity, the fulfilled humanity (Eph. 2:15). As the body of the Last Adam, the church provides a glimpse of the final destiny of human society. She is the most human of human communities, and, precisely because of her utter uniqueness, she serves as a model and aspiration for other communities. The church has a distinctive rationale for popular participation, grounded not in a common human nature but in every member’s share of the common Spirit. That unique ecclesial form of “democracy” inspires experiments in participatory politics. As a catholic communion, the church embodies the hope for an international peace that embraces every tribe, tongue, people, and nation. International networks, nations, local communities, and families can become false churches, rivals to the body of Christ. When leavened by the church, such groupings can become shadows and images of the divine communion of the church.Peter J. Leithart, First Things, “The Ecclesiology of Liberalism“
Leithart’s essay is worth reading in full, and while I think the applications will be most clearly apparent to Catholics, there is something here all Christians can glean from: the church is not “merely another social institution” but the body of Christ. In its fullest sense, church is categorically unique, a challenge to all ideologies and political philosophies. And as such, participation in church radically changes our engagement with and degree of participation in any and all other spheres.
It might be helpful to make sure you grasp what Leithart is addressing here when he writes about “liberalism,” a term that means many things, but here refers to the dominant political philosophy in the Western world.
So why do I think this important?
I think we participate in the life of the church for any number of reasons while missing out on many of the larger claims that participation in such a body might make upon our lives. If you are a member of a congregation, you are now linked with brothers and sisters and fathers and mothers in an extended kinship that is not depended on common biological ancestry. You have received adoption into God’s family. You have been conferred status as a co-heir with Christ. You are deemed an “ambassador” of God’s kingdom, and a citizen of the heavenly realms.
Those are political realities that not only have implications for eternity, but for the here and now.