The “three estates” and the “common order of Christian love”


Here’s another abandoned post I found in my drafts folder. As I recall – a little vaguely, since it was back in August 2012 that I wrote this – I hit a wall with the final sentence. Rather than try again to finish the point I was trying to make, I’ve left the placeholder I added before hitting “save draft” and, clearly, getting distracted by something else…

lutherIn the final section of his Confession Concerning Christ’s Supper, Martin Luther sets out a broader confession of his faith. This includes, in passing, his exposition of the “three estates” of human society: the “holy orders and true religious institutions established by God” (in contrast to the human institutions of monasticism and other religious orders). These are:

  • “the office of priest”;
  • “the estate of marriage”; and
  • “the civil government”.

Luther’s conception of each of these is somewhat broader than those names might sound. “The office of priest” includes not only those who preach or administer sacraments, but those in (presumably lay) supporting roles such as church treasurers and sextons; “the estate of marriage” includes the whole “domestic sphere”, including “widows and unmarried women”; and “the civil government” includes “princes and lords, judges, civil officers, state officials, notaries, male and female servants and all who serve such persons, and further, all their obedient subjects”.

So we might instead summarise them as:

  • the church;
  • the household; and
  • civil society.

Luther’s formulation has the benefit of being more concrete than those rather abstract terms, though, since it reminds us that each of these “estates”, however broadly we may conceive them, is founded on a particular institution, each of which has an existence distinct from the others. (An important point in an era where the third of the estates, the civil government, has a tendency to assume omnicompetent powers over the other two.)

These three estates do not exist in a vacuum, however. Transcending all of them is “the common order of Christian love”: or, as we might put it today, “the common good”. As Luther writes:

Above these three institutions and orders is the common order of Christian love, in which one serves not only the three orders, but also serves every needy person in general with all kinds of benevolent deeds, such as feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, forgiving enemies, praying for all men on earth, suffering all kinds of evil on earth, etc. Behold, all of these are called good and holy works.

How can we apply all this today? Well, first of all, the emphasis on “the common order of Christian love” helps to address the view that the “three estates” must necessarily lead to a “conservative” political framework. Plenty of scope is left open for different views on how each of those “institutions and orders” (including the civil government) might best serve the common good, and especially those in need.

However, it does present a challenge to a politics in which the only fundamental “estates” are “the individual” and “the state”, with the state’s powers being limited only by the rights of the individual – and in which the transcendent “common order” is one, not of “Christian love” or “benevolent deeds”, but [capitalism].

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