In my inaugural post here at There is Power in the Blog I provided a brief introduction to the rich and intriguing concept of subsidiarity in Christian social thought. In this and the following posts I will dig down a bit more deeply into the two main ways of construing subsidiarity, “from above” and “from below.”
A note on terminology: for the sake of brevity, I will refer to the hierarchical view of subsidiarity, “from above,” as the ancient view, while the idea of subsidiarity as grounded in equality, “from below,” as the modern view. But these terms should not be taken as historically opposite; many of the themes and ideas inherent in the “modern” view are quite old, and exist alongside, sometimes in opposition, sometimes in collaboration, with the “ancient” view. But generally speaking the ancient view of subsidiarity is rooted in older ideas and social norms, while the modern view is rooted in some more recent intellectual and social developments.
The ancient view of subsidiarity took a hierarchical view of authority as its starting point. Subsidiarity, in some ways, amounted to delegation of this authority. The classic biblical warrant for this delegation was the advice of Jethro the Midianite to his son-in-law Moses recorded in Exodus 18:
The next day Moses sat as judge for the people, while the people stood around him from morning until evening. When Moses’ father-in-law saw all that he was doing for the people, he said, “What is this that you are doing for the people? Why do you sit alone, while all the people stand around you from morning until evening?” Moses said to his father-in-law, “Because the people come to me to inquire of God. When they have a dispute, they come to me and I decide between one person and another, and I make known to them the statutes and instructions of God.” Moses’ father-in-law said to him, “What you are doing is not good. You will surely wear yourself out, both you and these people with you. For the task is too heavy for you; you cannot do it alone. Now listen to me. I will give you counsel, and God be with you! You should represent the people before God, and you should bring their cases before God; teach them the statutes and instructions and make known to them the way they are to go and the things they are to do. You should also look for able men among all the people, men who fear God, are trustworthy, and hate dishonest gain; set such men over them as officers over thousands, hundreds, fifties, and tens. Let them sit as judges for the people at all times; let them bring every important case to you, but decide every minor case themselves. So it will be easier for you, and they will bear the burden with you. If you do this, and God so commands you, then you will be able to endure, and all these people will go to their home in peace.”
So Moses listened to his father-in-law and did all that he had said. Moses chose able men from all Israel and appointed them as heads over the people, as officers over thousands, hundreds, fifties, and tens. And they judged the people at all times; hard cases they brought to Moses, but any minor case they decided themselves. Then Moses let his father-in-law depart, and he went off to his own country.
In this account we have, in nuce, a practice of subsidiarity that amounts to an empowering of representatives of a higher authority to act with a particular mandate. Moses is to set up these lesser authorities, provide them with the resources, training, and instruction they need, and then he will be relieved of a burden that, in Jethro’s words, “is too heavy for you.” Only the “important” cases will then come to Moses, but the “minor” cases can be handled by the delegated authorities.
This kind of subsidiarity is rooted even more deeply in the creation order itself, as human beings are created in the image of God, and as such are to act as divine representatives in the world, exercising dominion and authority over the rest of the creation (cf. Gen. 1:26). Human beings are thus “a little lower than God” (NRSV), or “the angels” (NIV), and are “crowned…with glory and honor” (Psalm 8:5). A bit later the psalmist says, “You are gods, children of the Most High, all of you” (Psalm 82:6).
Later we see this creational ordering of authority more explicitly mirrored in the typology of law that emerges in the medieval scholastic tradition, notably the account of Thomas Aquinas. Natural law is grounded in eternal law, and human beings, as unique creatures endowed with reason and moral agency, are to act in accordance with the dictates of natural law. Indeed, human beings image their creator by being causes of other things. They do so in a derivative way, but with an authority that has been delegated to them as part of the order of creation. As Aquinas put it in the Summa contra Gentiles, “Therefore, since a created thing tends to the divine likeness in many ways, this one whereby it seeks the divine likeness by being the cause of others takes the ultimate place.”
We can see how an ontologically hierarchical worldview stands behind such a conception of subsidiarity, in that authority flows from God, the highest authority, through his ordained representatives in the order of creaturely (secondary) causality. This view could be so strong as to encompass all social forms.
Of course there are pragmatic aspects of the doctrine as well, which Jethro’s advice clearly demonstrates. As Machiavelli would observe, “The choice of Ministers is a matter of no small moment to a Prince,” since the efficacy of his rule depends in large part upon their faithfulness and capability. The sixteenth-century reformer Wolfgang Musculus (1497-1563) would later note that a person, “although otherwise greater in dignity and power, is beset by human weakness, for he does not see everything, does not understand everything, cannot do everything, which nevertheless, on account of his office, he ought to see, understand, and do.” He therefore has need of ministers and subordinates; this insight is, in fact, a staple of classical political theory.
It would be easy to point to a doctrine such as Luther’s articulation of the “priesthood of all believers” as the turning point from the ancient to the modern view of the human person and society, and therefore also marking the shift from the the ancient to the modern view of subsidiarity. But as we’ll explore in greater detail in the following post on subsidiarity “from below,” the modern view has deeper roots, beyond the Protestant Reformations, and there is, in fact, a complex interrelationship between the ancient and the modern views that persists even yet today.