Social Hierarchy in the Christian Tradition

Aertsen_Christian_CharityReformed Christian ethics has taken a social egalitarian turn. Recently, a few Reformed bloggers have criticized Christians for failing to support the “radical and inclusive social ethics” of the New Testament. Matthew Tuininga, in a couple interesting and well-written posts on the Presbyterian role in racial segregation (see here and here),[1] has condemned the southern Presbyterians for their “communitarian” social ethics and spiritualized,”neo-platonic” understanding of the Gospel. For them, “the spiritual kingdom of God does not take concrete social expression.” He writes,

I would submit that the real problem with the way in which southern Presbyterians used the doctrine of the spirituality of the church was not the insistence that the Church should only proclaim what God’s Word teaches. The real problem was the interpretation of the concept of ‘spirituality’ through the lens of an underrealized eschatology. By stressing that the Gospel does not affect social structures of nation, race, gender and class southern Presbyterians were bound to have a bias towards the status quo, and they were bound to turn to the Old Testament as an alternative source for guidance about the nature of a godly society. They did not have trouble admitting that the Old Testament did not say anything specifically about race because that was not the point. The point was that the Old Testament clearly justified an exclusive kind of politics, a politics that highlighted division over unity and judgment over grace.

Now, I do not dispute that the southern Presbyterians sinned in failing to see or act against the injustice of the South’s racial segregation, but I want to point out, however, that Southern Presbyterians were following a racialized (and unjust) version of the standard Christian (catholic) position on social hierarchy. The ideas that the Gospel does not significantly affect social structures of nation, gender, and class and that social hierarchy is natural are standard positions in the Christian tradition. Major figures in the Roman Catholic, Anglican, and Calvinist traditions are in agreement on this.

It is important to recognize that Tuininga’s argument does not merely condemn the racialized hierarchical system of the South, but also, and primarily, the idea of social hierarchy in general. In this, he joins Michael Walzer and Nichols Wolterstorff, who both argue not only that Calvinism was politically radical from the beginning and always has been, but also that it, given its theological principles, ought to be radical. Wolterstorff insists that Calvinism was and is a “world-formative” religion. [2]

This post provides evidence from major figures in the Christian tradition that social hierarchy (though not its racialized form) is a standard position in the Christian tradition. To be clear, I am not defending racial segregation or anything of that sort. I am simply pointing out that Tuininga’s rejection of social hierarchy and a “spiritualized” Gospel is a rejection of a standard position in the Christian tradition.

I start with Thomas Aquinas:

Under the question “Whether in the state of innocence man would have been master over man?,” he writes (Summa Theologica 1.96.4):

But a man is the master of a free subject, by directing him either towards his proper welfare, or to the common good. Such a kind of mastership would have existed in the state of innocence between man and man, for two reasons.

First, because man is naturally a social being, and so in the state of innocence he would have led a social life. Now a social life cannot exist among a number of people unless under the presidency of one to look after the common good; for many, as such, seek many things, whereas one attends only to one. Wherefore the Philosopher says, in the beginning of the Politics, that wherever many things are directed to one, we shall always find one at the head directing them.

Secondly, if one man surpassed another in knowledge and virtue, this would not have been fitting unless these gifts conduced to the benefit of others, according to 1 Peter 4:10, “As every man hath received grace, ministering the same one to another.” Wherefore Augustine says (De Civ. Dei xix, 14): “Just men command not by the love of domineering, but by the service of counsel”: and (De Civ. Dei xix, 15): “The natural order of things requires this; and thus did God make man.”

Notice that inequality is natural and is for the “common good.” We see below that the goodness of human society is based on more than the sum of its parts.

For the question, “Whether men were equal in the state of innocence?” he writes:

Equality is the cause of equality in mutual love. Yet between those who are unequal there can be a greater love than between equals; although there be not an equal response: for a father naturally loves his son more than a brother loves his brother; although the son does not love his father as much as he is loved by him.

The cause of inequality could be on the part of God; not indeed that He would punish some and reward others, but that He would exalt some above others; so that the beauty of order would the more shine forth among men. Inequality might also arise on the part of nature as above described, without any defect of nature.

1) Unequal relationships produce a “greater love than between equals.”
2) Some are exalted “so that the beauty of order would the more shine forth among men.”

We see that a properly ordered hierarchical social order has greater beauty than a collection of equals. This is consistent with Aquinas’s view that “divine goodness” is communicated “more perfectly” by “diverse things” (Summa Contra Gentiles , III, 97)

God, through His providence, orders all things to divine goodness as to an end; not however in such a manner that His goodness increases through those things which come to be, but so that a likeness of His goodness is imprinted in things insofar as it is possible, for indeed it is necessary that every created substance fall short of divine goodness, so that in order for divine goodness to be communicated to things more perfectly, it was necessary for there to be diversity in things, so that what is not able to be perfectly represented by some one [thing] is represented in a more perfect manner through diverse things in diverse ways.

For Aquinas, it seems that the social hierarchy continues into heaven. The Protestant Reformers rejected this. The point here, however, is that Aquinas affirmed the positive good of a hierarchical society.

John Calvin

In Calvin’s commentary on 1 Corinthians 11 he writes,

When he says that there is no difference between the man and the woman, he is treating of Christ’s spiritual kingdom, in which individual distinctions are not regarded, or made any account of; for it has nothing to do with the body, and has nothing to do with the outward relationships of mankind, but has to do solely with the mind — on which account he declares that there is no difference, even between bond and free. In the meantime, however, he does not disturb civil order or honorary distinctions, which cannot be dispensed with in ordinary life. Here, on the other hand, he reasons respecting outward propriety and decorum — which is a part of ecclesiastical polity.

The “spiritual kingdom…has nothing to do with the outward relationships of mankind.” The Gospel is not meant to radically transform social relationships toward egalitarianism. Indeed, it is quite the contrary, according to Calvin. We are assigned our places in society (Institutes III.x.6.):

The last things to be observed is, that the Lord enjoins every one of us, in all the actions of life, to have respect to our own calling. He knows the boiling restlessness of the human mind, the fickleness with which it is borne hither and thither, its eagerness to hold opposites at one time in its grasp, its ambition. Therefore, lest all things should be thrown into confusion by our folly and rashness, he has assigned distinct duties to each in the different modes of life. And that no one may presume to overstep his proper limits, he has distinguished the different modes of life by the name of callings. Every man’s mode of life, therefore, is a kind of station assigned him by the Lord, that he may not be always driven about at random.

Each person is assigned a place in society; and one ought not, according to Calvin, seek to “overstep” one’s “proper limits.” So the Gospel is not meant to level society and people ought to stay in their place. Tuininga, in his call for radical egalitarian social reform, is encouraging the “boiling restlessness of the human mind.”

But, most importantly, for Calvin this social hierarchy is natural. In other words, it is part of the created order. In a sermon on 1 Corinthians 11:14, he said the following:

No one will ever devote himself to doing what belongs to his place [in society or the social organism], until we have learned that we were not created for ourselves, and also that we cannot be sustained, unless others extend us a helping hand. And, once we have learned this, we must still come back to what we observed before: this natural order did not come about by chance; rather God reveals His will by it, and means to test our obedience to see if we will submit to Him. Without this reverence, we will only cooperate begrudgingly, and will always be enraged when it comes to serving our neighbors. When, however, we perceive that it is God who yokes us together, teaching us that it is not without reason that he has been pleased to join us together in this way, then we should be disposed to receive the yoke He sets upon our neck, and willingly serve them whom He obligate us to serve.

It is a “natural order.” It is not by chance (nor necessarily from unjust power relations) that brought about social hierarchy. And God tests our obedience to it. Calvin’s comments here are very similar to Aquinas’s.

Richard Hooker

In his Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity (Book VIII, Section 2), Richard Hooker, wrote:

Without Order there is no living in public Society, because the want thereof is the mother of confusion, whereupon division of necessity followeth; and out of division destruction…If things and persons be ordered, this doth imply that they are distinguished by degrees: for Order is a gradual disposition. The whole world consisting of parts so many, so different, is by this only thing upheld; he which framed them, hath set them in order. The very Deity itself both keepeth and requireth for ever this to be kept as a Law, that wheresoever there is a coagmentation of many, the lowest be knit unto the highest by that which being interjacent may cause each to cleave to the other, so all continue one. This order of things and persons in public Societies is the work of Policy, and the proper instrument hereof in every degree is Power.

The similarities in Aquinas, Calvin, and Hooker on social hierarchy are striking. This reflects a common Aristotelian influence. Hooker directly connects the hierarchical structure of the world with the hierarchy of human society. Social hierarchy is natural. Hooker would, no doubt, agree with Edmund Burke: “those who attempt to level, never equalize. In all societies, consisting of various descriptions of citizens, some description must be uppermost. The levelers, therefore, only change and pervert the natural order of things; they load the edifice of society by setting up in the air what the solidity of the structure requires to be on the ground” (Reflections on the Revolution in France).

John Winthrop

In his famous sermon, A Model of Christian Charity, Winthrop said,

GOD ALMIGHTY in his most holy and wise providence, hath so disposed of the condition of’ mankind, as in all times some must be rich, some poor, some high and eminent in power and dignity; others mean and in submission.

1st Reason. First to hold conformity with the rest of his world, being delighted to show forth the glory of his wisdom in the variety and difference of the creatures, and the glory of his power in ordering all these differences for the preservation and good of the whole; and the glory of his greatness….

3rd Reason. Thirdly, that every man might have need of others, and from hence they might be all knit more nearly together in the Bonds of brotherly affection.

Again, the similarities are striking, and probably reflect influence from Hooker.


The continuity from the medieval Thomist tradition to the Reformed tradition on the subject of social hierarchy is clear. Of course, there is a somewhat individualist turn in Phillipe de Mornay (Vindiciae contra tyrannos, 1579) and Samuel Rutherford (Lex, Rex, 1644), but neither could be classified as egalitarian social reformers, at least not to the extent called for by Tuininga. Tuininga could appeal to this individualist tradition, which was codified by Locke and forever identified with him, but Tuininga must admit that he is working contrary to what could be called the ‘c’atholic tradition on the matter.

This serves as a corrective for many in the theologically conservative Protestant world who quickly denounce “binary oppositions,” social exclusivism, and socio-economic inequality and support “deconstructing social categories of exclusion,” “rolling back boundaries,” and “flattening every moral and social hill in light of our inclusive God.” Conservative Protestants have bought into the promises and premises of modern liberalism, and they proclaim it with confidence without having acknowledged and dealt with the dominant view in the Christian tradition. This must change.


[1] Also, see Tuininga’s post on the social Gospel here.

[2] Nichols Wolterstorff Until Justice and Peace Embrace. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing, 1983

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