Archive Civic Polity Matthew Tuininga Reformed Irenicism

The Gospel, Liberalism, and Social Hierarchy

In a thoughtful and honest article at Reformation500 Stephen Wolfe suggests that in my work Reformed social ethics has taken a “social egalitarian turn.” Wolfe is responding to my series of articles on Presbyterians and Race at Reformation 21. He specifically highlights this claim that I made:

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.

Wolfe agrees that southern racism was unjust. That is not his concern. His concern is that my article touches, if only in passing, on other forms of social hierarchy as well, and he fears that my arguments suggest that I disagree with the classic Christian position on social hierarchy. As he puts it,

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.

Wolfe offers numerous quotes from leading theologians, including Thomas Aquinas and John Calvin, to prove this point. He seems comfortable endorsing what he himself calls a “‘spiritualized’ gospel.” He concludes with this claim:

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.

I am grateful to Wolfe for his engagement of my essays, and I want to take this opportunity to clarify a few points about my views.

First, I think we should clarify the relationship between political liberalism (note, we are not talking about theological liberalism here) and Christianity. What do I mean by political liberalism? Classical political liberalism is defined by its commitment to God-given human rights, oriented around human beings’ creation in the image of God. The liberal tradition has worked hard to improve political institutions such that they reflect the dignity of every human being. This has led to a strong emphasis on taking Christian ideals of liberty and equality and working out their social implications more faithfully than has been done by Christians in the past. Some of the payoff appears in the West’s commitment to free market capitalism, democracy, the abolition of slavery, and social equality between men and women.

It is safe to say, and I imagine Wolfe would agree with me here, that political liberalism would never have emerged as a tradition without Christianity. Many of its most important assumptions (especially its assumption about the inherent dignity of every individual human being), though not all of its conclusions, come from Christianity. Liberalism didn’t emerge in other parts of the world for a reason; it is a stepchild of Christianity. That said, as I’ve argued here and here, I think we can constructively speak about two kinds of liberalism. One has increasingly abandoned its allegiance to Christianity in favor of a commitment to human autonomy, though it maintains some basic Christian assumptions as “borrowed capital.” The other seeks to remain faithful to Christian theology. I affirm the latter, not the former, and I think we need to work hard promoting a Christian sort of liberalism for the modern world.

Second, I do not reject social hierarchy wholesale, as Wolfe assumes. He rightly points out that social hierarchy is absolutely necessary for human life in the present age. Parents have to raise their children, teachers have to instruct their students, and someone has to actually govern the country and enforce the laws. We need institutions of authority and we need to foster a healthy respect for persons who occupy positions of authority. All this involves social hierarchy of a sort. But key questions remain. How will we decide who occupies positions of authority? Will we affirm a fundamental social equality underlying the distinction between rulers and ruled? How do we construct and manage social hierarchies in ways that acknowledge and protect human dignity? What do we think of monarchy? Of slavery? Of patriarchy?

What I do affirm is that the gospel should affect social structures of nation, race, gender and class. It should call us to organize these structures, as much as possible given the constraints of the present evil age, in light of what the gospel teaches us about human dignity, about justice, and about love. That requires wrestling with the nature of each type of human relationship that involves some sort of inequality or hierarchy. I do not have the space to do that here in depth, but let me at least illustrate what I’m talking about.

There are several types of social relationships. Some of them, such as marriage and the relationship between parents and their children, are grounded in creation and ought to be protected and promoted by  human beings. The key questions here revolve around how to preserve these relationships in ways that acknowledge the fundamental spiritual and moral equality between men and women, between adults and children. Obviously parents must be in authority over their children, but that doesn’t mean they should be allowed to treat their children like slaves or property. Men and women will typically perform different gender roles by virtue of their different embodied nature, but that doesn’t mean men should domineer over women.

There are other types of relationships that are not rooted in creation but that have emerged, at least in the form that we know them, due to the fall into sin. They are not evil, but their very form demonstrates that evil does exist in the world. Here I am thinking about the coercive state. Christians should support this sort of hierarchy because it is absolutely necessary for a modicum of order in this life, let alone for human flourishing. But questions remain. How do we set up political authority such that it is not tyrannically abused? How do we ensure that those who rule are held accountable to those who are ruled? How do we ensure that even where there is political inequality, all recognize a more fundamental level of moral and spiritual equality?

Finally, there are some relationships that have also emerged due to the fall into sin, and that have sometimes been necessary (at least in the short term), but that we should abolish where possible. Here I am thinking of slavery, not to mention other dramatic inequalities of wealth or power that inevitably lead to oppression. Sometimes, given the realities of the present evil age, Christians have to tolerate these structures, hoping for their gradual transformation (as Paul does with slavery in the New Testament). But as Paul also argues, Christians should seek to attain their freedom where possible, and as Calvin argues, where we succeed in abolishing an institution like slavery, we should not try to bring it back.

What is the point of all of this? It is simply to show that even though social hierarchies necessarily exist, and even though the gospel doesn’t immediately nullify those social hierarchies, it does ultimately point to their elimination in the kingdom of God, where all human beings will be free and fundamentally equal. As such, the gospel ought to shape the ways in which Christians inhabit these social structures. In ways appropriate to the fact that we live in the tension between the already and the not-yet, we ought to seek the gospel’s realization in greater and greater ways. As a husband, for instance, I ought to serve my wife sacrificially, conforming more and more to the example of Christ. She, likewise, ought to do the same for me. If we are both seeking to submit to one another in love, as Paul commands in Ephesians, will we not increasingly treat one another with dignity, in a spirit of spiritual and moral equality? And is this not the form that all of our social relationships ought increasingly to take?

In the end, then, it comes down to what it means to take up the mind of Christ,

who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:6-11)

As Lord of all, equal to God, Christ’s relationship to human beings was one of absolute hierarchy, absolute inequality. Yet when he became incarnate – when he became a human being like us – Christ set that supremacy aside. Instead, he took up the form of a servant, making himself our equal, or even less than our equal. It is this mindset to which Paul calls us to conform. Each one of us, no matter what our social or political position, is called to take up the form of a servant to those around us, no matter whether they are under us or not. Such an ethos has a way of subverting or qualifying social hierarchies in favor of a more basic human equality. If emphasizing the implications of that point in ways appropriate to our life together in this age constitutes a “social egalitarian turn,” then I’m all for it.

By Matthew Tuininga

Matthew J Tuininga teaches politics and core studies at Oglethorpe University in Atlanta, Georgia, and was recently appointed assistant professor of moral theology at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He blogs at

5 replies on “The Gospel, Liberalism, and Social Hierarchy”

This doesn’t sound like a “turn” towards egalitarianism; it’s a collapse into precisely the kind of egalitarianism that has ravaged the U.S.’s social ethics, e.g. in Obergefell. As if it were possible to ignore, talk about social equality has given us decades of exploding abortion, divorce, unwed mothers, sexual deviance, and millions turning away from churches that preach the destruction of social standards. Given the wild abuse of egalitarianism in our day — e.g., the feminist men who refuse to lead their families like Christ led the church so they can be humble and submitting or something — just what is the cultural occasion of words like this? What is the inegalitarian abuse that needs remedying? Are we insufficiently democratic in our culture? Everyone is being told ad nauseam that they have to betray their own communities to some cosmopolitan liberal utopia in the name of Christ or human rights or whatever CNN saint is popular at the moment. Do we need a theologian to join Kennedy and the other federal and Hollywood enforcers that encourage us to abandon all traditional safeguards of family and nation? I don’t think so.

Your questions: “How will we decide who occupies
positions of authority? Will we affirm a fundamental social equality underlying
the distinction between rulers and ruled? How do we construct and manage social
hierarchies in ways that acknowledge and protect human dignity?”
presuppose a liberal social structure. In other words, deciding, constructing,
and managing assume either that there are no “natural” social structures. Wolfe
marshals the Western Christian tradition to the contrary. It hardly defeats his
position to utilize the categories of social liberalism to undermine
pre-liberal conceptions of social hierarchy. In other words, the first question
should be the normative one. If the answer is that Christianity warrants some
sort of social hierarchy, then we can ask how that norm can be realized in a world
of social liberalism.

Scott, I disagree that those questions presuppose a liberal social structure. Calvin asked every single one of them, as did Aristotle, whether explicitly or implicitly. Premodern societies often imagined that their social hierarchies were natural, when in fact, they were products of history.

That is not to say that no social hierarchies are natural. As I pointed out in my article, some are. But many others are not, and even those that are have taken on all sorts of baggage that is not from nature.

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