Ordering Our Social Loves

In The Abolition of Man, C.S. Lewis includes the ordo amoris—the ordering of our loves—as a key component of the Tao—the basic principles of practical reasoning that inform the moral judgments across all cultures.[1] The theme of rightly ordering our affections has been developed explicitly in the West, and in Christian moral theology it receives its most elaborate early exposition in the writings of Augustine.

In his City of God, Augustine argues that a “brief and true definition of virtue is ‘rightly ordered love.’”[2] He prays for God to “order love within me.” Then, in On Christian Doctrine, he defines the just man as one “who has an ordinate love: he neither loves what should not be loved nor fails to love what should be loved; he neither loves more what should be loved less, loves equally what should be loved less or more, nor loves less or more what should be loved equally.”[3] Augustine clearly cares greatly about an ontological hierarchy of goods and making sure that our affections are ordered accordingly.

So, what about social goods?

There is an order to our loves, even our social loves. Properly ordering our social loves is the subject of this essay.

But we should also consider the more basic question of love as an order, or an order of love. And it is this that liberalism precludes.

Liberalism and an Order of Love

In 2011 a very under-appreciated thinker among contemporary postliberals, David L. Schindler, published an important book about the fundamental dilemmas of liberal political orders: Ordering Love: Liberal Societies and the Memory of God.[4] One of the fundamental claims of the book is that liberalism marginalizes love in the socio-political realm.[5] How does it do this? Well, it does this by framing society around the atomized and abstracted individual, a technological understanding of order, and instrumental relations. Persons are conceived first and most basically as unbounded and in abstraction from relations with others. Any relations and obligations are chosen in the pursuit of the construction of the self or a world for one’s own benefit. What is lost in all of this is love at the core of being and social order. Let me expand on this just for a moment by drawing attention to a few common themes in liberal societies.

One term that has been coined to explain some of the pernicious developments in late-modern societies is that of the “market society,” which describes the ubiquitous application of market logic into every sphere. Adam Smith famously developed the theory of the invisible hand as a secularized version of providence but grounded in self-interest. The economy works best if the various actors seek their own interest, and somehow this magically benefits everyone. A market society would then apply such logic to basically all relations, even relations to oneself. Increasingly people treat themselves as commodities, developing their personal “brands.” And they are drawn to commodify others, which is exemplified in referring to others as relational “value adds.” Such relational commodification values other persons for how they help you advance in your career, stimulate you intellectually, provide humor to your social group, etc. This way of treating others is still self-centered, even if all parties benefit according to the Smithian invisible hand. Self-interest become mutual is not love; mutual instrumentalization is not beneficence.[6]

Unfortunately, this market logic is built into the fundamental framework for liberal political theory: that of the social contract.

Social contract theory begins with a theoretical “state of nature”—a clear parody of the Garden of Eden. In this state of nature, society does not yet exist; rather, the basic unit out of which society is constructed is the detached, pre-social individual, shorn of all prior contexts, natural or social. These abstract, autonomous individuals emerge as naked wills, auto-originating and constructing everything around them driven by rational self-interest. Relations are not there from the outset, and they are entered into only voluntarily. We “contract” for mutual self-interest, and this is what forms society. Society just is the sum of the encounters in which these individuals collaborate to maximize their advantages. The state emerges as individuals trade their freedoms for a system of mutual protection in which the government exists to maximize the liberty of individuals to pursue their subjective desires, remaining neutral about the ends, there merely to facilitate the individual pursuit of these ends.

Thus, what we see is that relationships and social ordering are entirely created, not given; and they are understood within the broader framework of personal construction. Schindler explains this as “ontological pelagianism.”[7] This “removes the Other-centeredness that lies at the core of, and accords the original and abiding meaning to, the creature’s rightful self-centeredness.” Love and relations are not “first given to the creature, and just so far present already in the creature’s original structure,” but rather always and only chosen or effected by the creature. Therefore, there is no grace in being; nothing ultimately gifted that defines the person.

Both Left and Right in modern societies are, in various ways, tempted by such “ontological pelagianism.” The Left, or progressive, side is prone to deny any authoritative, definitional status to social roles or nature, including bodily nature. The Right is often too willing to believe the myth of the meritocracy which centers on the individual as the sole cause for his or her path.

Liberalism, whether of the Left or Right variety, denies or at least severely downplays the sociality of the person, of relationships as constitutive to personal identity. And the key relationship marginalized by liberalism is man’s relationship to God. Yes, liberal orders allow individuals to make a choice about God; but this framing rejects the truth that persons are inescapably, constitutively related to God. Liberal orders purport to be neutral about this relationship. But such a framing is itself not neutral, and no person exists in a neutral relation to God. To order society as if God is optional, absent until chosen, and irrelevant for social order, is already to have made a decision about the existence and nature of God and of man.

For the truth is that the human person is made in the image of God, and is made for God. He or she lives coram deo and is constituted as capax dei (not in the sense as capable of becoming God or grasping divinity, but of participating in divine life by relation, by grace). As Henri de Lubac famously argued, we have a natural desire for the supernatural.[8] This idea was grounded in two key quotes from Augustine in the Confessions: “our heart is restless until it rests in [God]”;[9] “[God is] more intimately present to me than my innermost being, and higher than the highest peak of my spirit.”[10] We were made by and for God. Apart from him, apart from recognizing every person’s ultimate ordering to God, everything will be out of order. And the point here is not just that we will be prone to idolize other things—loving them more than our creator. But also, we will forget receptivity at the core of our being. We will deny giftedness—grace as constitutive of our life. We will fail to understand that reality is an order of love, not just will.

We need to recognize the primordial, inescapable relation to God at the core of being. But also, this God gave us other relations that define us and shape our loves and obligations. How do we love them rightly? And how do they relate to one another?

To address these questions, I am going to frame the rest of the essay around what is typically referred to as the “three estates”: family, political community (and here I will just focus on the nation), and the church. And at the end I will make a few brief general comments about neighbors and enemies.


We will start with the family, which John Paul II famously described as the “basic cell of society.”[11] The family is where we first learn how to relate to others, thus where we first develop our sociality. But it is also more basically how we come into this world and begin to understand ourselves. I would like to propose that we need to retrieve a sense of fundamental childlikeness; Jesus said this, after all (Mark 10:14–15). But I would like to make a preliminary comment about liberalism again here: childlikeness is almost unfathomable within liberal orders because children are mostly invisible at the level of the theory.

French political philosopher Bertrand de Jouvenal famously said that liberal “‘[s]ocial contract’ theories are the views of childless men who must have forgotten their own childhood.”[12] This is true just at a factual level: neither Thomas Hobbes nor John Locke had children, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau abandoned his. And conceptually, children don’t fit neatly into a framework built around autonomous rational individuals who associate only voluntarily with others for self-interest. Childlikeness is alien to a society built around individuals who construct themselves, create their identity independent of all considerations of nature, culture, or relations.

Hans Urs von Balthasar offers an image to dispel such ontologically pelagian stupor. At various places in his writings, he refers to the power of the mother’s smile. A child’s first experience of being comes through the smile and embrace of its mother—thus, of being loved. The child’s smile is awakened as a response to the generosity of its mother. And this encounter is illustrative of human being itself. We only exist from others, and cannot even know ourselves apart from others. And children are, in a sense, “useless” to their parents, at least in the early years. Parents, at least healthy ones, don’t have children merely out of self-interest, to advance their career or social standing, to help around the house. Those things might come, but young children are mostly a ton of work, which good parents are happy to perform. The primary joy is the presence of the child itself. Generosity is at the core of self, which childlikeness recognizes. We were made to receive and return gifts. We have relations from the outset. And these relations also mean we begin with obligations we did not choose.

Christian moral theology has emphasized this through exposition of the fifth commandment. We are commanded to honor our father and mother. This relationship is not a voluntary society, which is the preferred social mode of liberalism. No, you do not choose your parents—and the parent-child relationship is the most fundamental for one’s identity (apart from one’s relationship to God).

Augustine, in his exposition of the ordo amoris, describes other relations similarly. Though we are commanded to love everyone, priority in our loves should go to those “who are most closely bound to you by place, time, or opportunity, as if by lot.”[13] Dutch Reformed theologian Herman Bavinck makes a similar argument:

The command to show love toward everyone (1 Thess. 3:12; 2 Pet. 1:7) does not preclude different degrees of that love. Some people are much closer to us than others. Some are bound to us by a physical relationship, by social or political relations, by spiritual unity, by friendship, and the like.[14]

We will return to the political and spiritual relations in a moment, but for now we see the priority to one’s natural family.

The Apostle Paul reiterates the imperative to honor one’s father and mother in his letter to the Ephesians (Eph. 6:1-3). And in his first letter to Timothy he emphasizes primary obligations one has for one’s family. He says that if one fails to provide for his family, he is worse than an unbeliever (1 Tim. 5:8). Clearly obligations to one’s natural family have a certain priority within the biblical vision.

However, this is complicated at various points. For instance, in the book of Ruth, which is one of the most beautiful portrayals of covenantal love, the Moabite widow chooses to identify completely with the people of her dead husband’s mother rather than returning to her natural family. “Where you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge. Your people shall be my people, and your God my God” (Ruth 1:16). And from the beginning, marriage itself already disrupts some natural family obligations, since we are told that a man shall leave his mother and father to become one flesh with his wife (Gen 2:24; Matt. 19:5; Mark 10:8; Eph. 5:31). Marriage does not nullify obligations to one’s parents, but adds a layer of complication to them. And things only get more complicated with the coming of Christ.

When Jesus calls his disciples, he makes it clear that he must take priority above all other relations. “Let the dead bury their own dead and follow me,” he says (Luke 9:59ff). This would have violated ancient codes of filial duty. Furthermore, Jesus explains that his coming would introduce division within families. “I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. And a person’s enemies will be those of his own household.” (Matthew 10:34ff) Christ goes on to declare that love for himself must take priority even over love for father and mother. This helps explain the language about “hat[ing] one’s own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters” in one’s discipleship to Christ (Luke 14:26).

John Calvin expounds on this:

As it is exceedingly harsh, and is contrary to natural feelings, to make enemies of those who ought to have been in closest alliance with us, so Christ now says that we cannot be his disciples on any other condition. He does not indeed enjoin us to lay aside human affections, or forbid us to discharge the duties of relationship, but only desires that all the mutual love which exists among men should be so regulated as to assign the highest rank to piety. Let the husband then love his wife, the father his son, and, on the other hand, let the son love his father, provided that the reverence which is due to Christ be not overpowered by human affection. For if even among men, in proportion to the closeness of the tie that mutually binds us, some have stronger claims than others, it is shameful that all should not be deemed inferior to Christ alone.[15]

Bavinck makes a similar point:

as soon as that [natural affections] conflict[] with the demand of Jesus, of the kingdom of heaven, the entire external ego must be denied, not given a hearing, refused, and rejected. Yes, then even the inherently good love for parents and the like must be denied: father and mother must be hated; the young man must sell his goods; eye and ear and hand must be cut off; house and fields must be forsaken; … the dead must be left behind, and one is not to look back. Yes, and then one’s own life, and one’s own soul, in this sense, must be given up.[16]

The point is that nothing is to distract from the call to follow Christ. And yet, we need to be careful not to over-spiritualize so that we abandon natural, familial duties, and thereby commit the “Corban” sin (Mark 7:11).

Here I want to introduce a theme that is going to come into play at various points in the rest of the essay. This is the relationship between nature and grace. Yes, in classical Christian theology, grace does not destroy nature, but rather restores, perfects, and elevates it.

But natural loves can get of out whack. C.S. Lewis discusses this in The Four Loves. All natural loves can be inordinate. They become inordinate when God is pushed out of sight and created goods are not loved in God. Nature actually cannot satisfy the desires she arouses.[17] Natural love must turn into charity, must be reshaped by supernatural love. And this is always going to involve some kind of death, Lewis explains.[18] Otherwise, natural loves can turn into gods,[19] or, he says elsewhere, demons; and demons cannot deliver on their promises. The invitation to turn our natural loves into charity is never lacking, says Lewis. But this involves refusing to let natural love remain in itself, but rather “taken up into, made the tuned and obedient instrument of, Love Himself.”[20] Lewis explains that this is an ever-present dilemma: “The rivalry between all natural loves and the love of God is something a Christian dare not forget. God is the great Rival, the ultimate object of human jealousy.”[21]

Thus, grace disrupts what distracts from the supernatural object that is the proper priority in our affections. Where our loves terminate on natural, created, temporal goods, grace comes to kill and redirect.

Here is an example: the so-called idolatry of the family. Often this term is thrown around to say that singles aren’t valued enough in churches, but rather everything is centered on families with kids. This might be true in some places. I doubt it is as true in the churches of the folks that most fervently invoke this language. Rather, what I see as a much more common manifestation of the idolatry of the family is this: when connection with one’s kids trumps biblical convictions. For instance, when a parent is willing to forgo clear biblical teaching on moral matters because of their kids’ sin struggles. That is the much more serious idolatry of the family temptation in North American evangelicalism, I would contend.


Let us turn to the nation.

The etymology for the terms patriotism and nationalism are related to birth—patria for father and nasci for birth. Both basically refer to some level of loyalty to and identification with one’s homeland or people. And here the fifth commandment is relevant again. In the Christian tradition, this commandment has been generally understood to extend in application to one’s fatherland (or, in our day, the nation). We have obligations to the nation of our birth. We owe them certain loyalty and love. Again, these are realities that we did not choose. They are, in Augustine’s terms, “as if by lot.”

Why do you love your nation? Because it is the best? “No,” says Lewis.[22] Would you speak about your love for your wife and kids that way? No; you love it because it is yours.

For many Christians in America today such patriotic love does not come easily. Much grade-school public education, university teaching, and even Christian moral theology over the last few decades has trained many to be highly critical of America and any explicit appeal to love for nation. This was true for me. In recent years I have been challenged to reconsider these things through deeper engagement with the Christian tradition but also just thinking through what neighbor-love entails and what effective and responsible governance looks like.

Leading Christian political theologian Oliver O’Donovan is especially helpful here. In his masterful work, The Desire of the Nations, he argues that the Bible exhibits a subtle polemic against empire and seems to suggest that humanity must organize in collectivities smaller than human society as a whole.[23] These collectivities carry traditions that are worthy of preservation. In his follow-up work, The Ways of Judgment, he explains that one of the strengths of conservatism is its rejection of abstract universals in politics.[24] This means that humanity organizes, again, in particular collectivities which provide meaning to human life and action. We need to see ourselves as part of smaller, concrete collectives that enable coordinated agency.[25] O’Donovan seems to suggest that the nation is the largest form of such peoplehood on the political register.

And O’Donovan goes on to argue that civil leadership is responsible for perpetuating the nation’s tradition that provides the people’s identity. This tradition enshrines the particular common goods, common loves, which constitute the people. Civil leaders are responsible not for creating these things, but rather discovering, preserving, and serving them.

This inclines O’Donovan’s framework in a conservative direction, because it refuses abstractions and is grounded in gratitude—which is a central conservative virtue. To inherit and protect a tradition is to practice gratitude. However, we know this can go wrong.

O’Donovan explains that this virtue can become a vice when gratitude for one’s national tradition translates into reluctance to question it. But national loyalty can go wrong in other ways as well. And here Lewis is particularly helpful in his essay “Learning in Wartime.” He writes that he supports the cause of Britain’s participation in WWII. He compares participation in a just war to the duty to rescue a drowning man. But he provides a warning: to rescue a drowning man is certainly a duty worth dying for, but not worth living for. Lewis applies this to all political duties. “A man may have to die for our country,” says Lewis, “but no man must, in any exclusive sense, live for his country. He who surrenders himself without reservation to the temporal claim of a nation, or a party, or a class is rendering to Caesar that which, of all things, most emphatically belongs to God.”[26] So, one must not live ultimately for one’s nation. Furthermore, it is important that one’s love for one’s nation is properly grounded. De Lubac, in another wartime essay, “Patriotisme et Nationalisme,” encourages us to build a positive, rather than negative, love for nation—one that is grounded in common loves rather than common hatreds or enemies. He warns that a “sacred love of nation” often demands a “sacred hatred” of those outside the nation, or those groups who do not fit neatly into the national story.[27]

Love for nation can easily become a demon, argue both Lewis and O’Donovan. If one loves one’s nation not just because it is his but because he thinks it is great, this leads to a swagger that sets one on the path to racist authoritarianism.[28] The self-esteem of any social body has a demon inhabiting it, which is especially fierce in the nation. This demon surfaces when people become enamored with a pure, exclusionary, idealistic vision of the people, which inhibits them from the messy burdens of loving the actual people in their midst.

But another way of framing the dangers of national idolatry is that it turns our affections to the wrong ideal community. This brings us back to the nature-grace issue, and Augustine. In the year 408 a pagan civil servant named Nectarius reached out to Augustine asking him to intervene in a certain political affair. During this era, bishops were often involved in various civil matters, often sharing their advice to civil rulers about punishments. In one incident in Nectarius’ hometown, not far from Hippo, a riot broke out during some illegal pagan celebrations. Nectarius urges Augustine to intervene to protect his fellow pagans from civil penalties. Nectarius appeals to patriotism to try to get Augustine to step in. Augustine replies that, yes, we are duty-born to serve our home-lands. But then he flips it on Nectarius:

That is why we should love to count you too as a citizen of a certain country beyond; it is because we love that country with a holy love—as far as we can—that we accept hard work and danger among the people we hope to benefit by helping them reach it. If you were, you would consider there to be ‘no limit or terminus’ to the service of the small group of its citizens who are pilgrims on this earth; and in discharging your duties to a much finer city [cf. Heb 11:16], you would become so much finer for it. If you set no end to your efforts to serve that city for the present time, you would find no end to your enjoyment of her everlasting peace.[29]

Augustine goes on, saying, yes, we must cause some disturbance to your homeland, which you are eager to leave flourishing, “for the sake of our home-town, which we are eager never to leave.”[30] Augustine is telling Nectarius and us that we must not love our temporal homeland more than our eternal, heavenly homeland—whose glory never fades, which we will never leave. And, in some respects, this loyalty is disruptive of earthly homelands.

This brings us to what leading political theorist Pierre Manent has explained as the “theological-political problem.” By this term Manent refers to the fact that Christianity, with its distinction between what is Caesar’s and what is God’s, “set the secular free,”[31] in a sense. But at the same time, the Christian religion raises a “specific political problem” in that it liberates the secular sphere while also devaluing political societies. Manent explains this as a result of the reality of the unique social body which is the church:

[Christianity] institutes an unprecedented human community, and thereby raises an unprecedented political problem. This community is the church, which could be defined as a “real universal community.” Every human being is at least potentially a member of this community, which has its own proper principle, charity, and a specific organization, the ecclesiastical hierarchy …. Thus this nonpolitical community necessarily comes into contact and competition with all political communities, not by directly providing political laws, but indirectly, by addressing every man and every woman, claiming him or her for itself, promising him or her membership in a perfect community.[32]

The church, as the only truly universal community that calls every person to itself and thus devalues all other political societies introduces confusion in the earthly city. This humbles the nation and complicates our loyalties. We will return to this in a moment, but let us first turn to the church.


It is fascinating how much political language is used to describe the church. The church is described as a holy nation, a commonwealth, and even the term ekklesia itself has political connotations. But the church is also described in familial terms. Through the Spirit, we are given new birth, and thus a new family—made up of brothers, sisters, fathers, and mothers in the faith, with the church as a mother.[33] When Jesus was informed that his mother and brothers were waiting for him, he responded with a declaration that his mother, brothers, and sisters are those who do the will of his Father in heaven (Matt 12:48ff; Mark 3:34f). And he promises those who give up everything to follow him that they will receive “a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands” (Mark 10:29; Luke 18:29).

For those who have come from acutely broken homes or just generally struggled with the loneliness of modern society, this supernatural community is a profound gift. In fact, it is for all of us. And this gift also orders our loves. As Calvin said in relation to these verses about our new spiritual family, the Lord is teaching us that:

there is no tie of relationship more sacred than spiritual relationship … Although these words seem to imply that Christ has no regard to the ties of blood, yet we know that in reality he paid the strictest attention to human order, and discharged his lawful duties towards relatives; but [he] points out that, in comparison of spiritual relationship, no regard, or very little, is due to the relationship of the flesh. Let us therefore attend to this comparison, so as to perform all that nature can justly claim, and, at the same time, not to be too strongly attached to flesh and blood. Again, as Christ bestows on the disciples of his Gospel the inestimable honor of being reckoned as his brethren, we must be held guilty of the basest ingratitude, if we do not disregard all the desires of the flesh, and direct every effort towards this object.[34]

This is complicated, but let me ask a simple question: Do you view the church as a gift? It is interesting that baptism debates never seem to go away. Something that always strikes me about these debates is how little most evangelicals think results from baptism. And I’m not referring to internal grace, but to all the promises and social gifts one receives. When you are baptized you are united to the body of Christ, brought into the church, inducted as a member of God’s family. Yes, there are obligations with that, but it is also an unfathomable grace.

The church is the site of social salvation, and salvation is inherently (though not exclusively) social. The gospel is fundamentally reconciliation—between God and man, and amongst men. This is obvious in Ephesians 2—a classical text to explain the gospel. Don’t stop after verse 10 (or verse 9, which is where many stop in their expositions of the gospel from Ephesians). What did the cross accomplish as described in the following verses? Those who were once alienated from the commonwealth (a political term) of God were brought near and formed into a new social order. The dividing wall of hostility was broken down and we were reconciled to God and one another. We were formed into one new body through Christ and have access in one Spirit to the Father. We were made fellow citizens (another political term) with the saints in the household of God. As Peter Leithart has expounded, “salvation must take social form,” and this social form is first and foremost the church.[35]

The gospel is the restoration of broken relations. Sin can be described not only as guilt-inducing lawlessness, but also as division, isolation, and the turn inward (Luther: incurvatus in se). Christ came to recapitulate—re-head—humanity, and reunite peoples in the church (Eph. 1-3).

Do you love her? Church Fathers would refer to a Christian person as vir ecclesiasticus, or anima ecclesiastica, as one who has a churchly soul. De Lubac, who has expounded more on the gift of the church than anyone in the past century, describes this churchly person:

Such a man will have fallen in love with the beauty of the House of God; the Church will have stolen his heart. She is his spiritual native country, his ‘mother and his brethren,’ and nothing that concerns her will leave him indifferent or detached; he will root himself in her soil, form himself in her likeness, and make himself one with her experience. He will feel himself rich with her wealth; he will be aware that through her and her alone he participates in the unshakableness of God. It will be from her that he learns how to live and die.[36]

He will love her history and her tradition. He sees himself in her future.

In and through her, as God’s instrument, Christians receive a new birth, a new nation. This will divide loyalties. See what happened with the early church. Part of the reason early Christians were persecuted was the civil disruption caused by their unwillingness to join in the civil religion. And modern political theorists also picked up this theme. Marsilius of Padua argued that the Christian revelation represents a threat to the unity of the polis. This anticipates the concerns of Rousseau, who worried about the divided loyalties introduced by the church. He believed that Hobbes’s civil absolutism resolved this dilemma. “Of all Christian authors,” claims Rousseau, “the philosopher Hobbes is the only one who saw clearly both the evil and the remedy, and who dared to propose reuniting the two heads of the eagle and fully restore that political unity without which neither the state nor the government will ever be well constituted.”[37] Rousseau and his disciples have always been aware that the church as humanity reconciled will always constitute “a dividing sword in each individual heart and each level of society.”[38]

But actually, on the other hand, the church helps us rightly relate to our other social loves. Grounded in the gospel proclaimed by the church, Christians move toward family members from whom they are estranged, extending forgiveness and seeking reconciliation. And the multinational church challenges Christians to see the good in their respective nations and labor to improve them.

A church that is truly catholic, truly universal, wants to see the goods of all nations purified and brought into her. According to de Lubac, “all races, all centuries, all centers of culture have something to contribute to the proper use of the divine treasure which [the church] holds in trust.”[39] The church is the “only ark of salvation,” giving “shelter to all varieties of humanity”; the “banqueting hall” whose “dishes” are “the product of the whole of creation.” She wants them all as offerings of gratitude to God for our his creational artistry and abundant gifts.

And the church, as the “paradigm society,” shapes the broader society around it to become more Christian, and thus more human. The church, as de Lubac says, like grace to nature, elevates and ennobles the nation.

Let me briefly explain this with reference to marriage. How does Christian marriage relate to civil marriage? How does “sacramental” marriage relate to natural marriage? Well, as noted, grace does not destroy nature. Christian marriage doesn’t nullify other marriages. But it does reveal the true depths of marriage and re-shapes a society’s practices. For instance, where Christianity breaks into a culture, monogamy increases and women are treated with more dignity as co-heirs with their husbands—who are implored to treat their wives as Christ loved the church. But marriage is also revealed as always ordered to something beyond the marriage itself. The logic of Ephesians 5 is that natural marriage was given from the beginning to reveal the gospel and thus the church—the saving relationship between Christ and his bride. Therefore, marriage has a symbolic dimension, pointing beyond itself. But this does not destroy the marriage; in fact, it elevates it. Husbands are called to love like Christ and wives to submit like the church to Christ—and through this, their marriage displays the gospel to the world. And marriage is placed within a more comprehensive context. Christian marriage is placed within the church—part of a broader family, in which we are called to serve and receive.

We can extend this logic about the relationship between Christian and civil marriage to help us consider how the church relates to our nation and civil societies more generally. How does this society of charity help create the “civilization of love” (to invoke John Paul II’s famous term)? O’Donovan speaks of the city discovering its destiny through the prism of the church. The church is a “paradigm society” and a “locus of social renewal.”[40] It serves society best by embodying in its common life what it looks like to receive and submit to the rule of Christ. He highlights the ways that particular aspects of the church impact broader society.[41] The church’s catholicity will humble any temptation to universalize a civil community’s local experiences and perspectives, and challenge it to push deliberations beyond local, linguistic, or racial monoliths. The smaller, local, contextualized ministries of the church, under the guidance of God’s Word, will stimulate reflection on the meaning of local traditions. The church’s diaconal service will challenge prevailing patterns of social standing, honor, and material distribution.

Thus, love within ecclesial life ripples out. But it must start with the church. Put first things first. As Paul said, “let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith” (Gal 6:10). And this was evident in church in Acts, as the believers treated each other like family, such that none had need; and the world flocked to them (Acts 2; 4).

De Lubac says that the church is for the world, but also, in a sense, the world was made for the church.[42] She gives us a taste of reunited humanity which will eventually populate the renewed creation for all of eternity.[43] God, through her, gives us a taste of the divine life for which we were always created.

According to de Lubac:

God did not make us ‘to remain within the limits of nature’ or for the fulfilling of a solitary destiny; on the contrary, he made us to be brought together into the heart of the life of the Trinity. Christ offered himself in sacrifice so that we might be one in that unity of the divine Persons. … [And] there is a place where this gathering together of all things in the Trinity begins in this world; ‘a family of God,’ a mysterious extension of the Trinity in time which not only prepares us for this life of union and gives us a sure guarantee of it, but also makes us participate in it already. The Church is the only completely ‘open’ society, the only one that measures up to our deepest longing and in which we can finally find our whole shape. The people united by the unity of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit’ that is the Church. She is ‘full of the Trinity.’[44]

So, yes, we can exert energy to preserving and improving our temporal societies; but we need to make sure that is not all we do. With such efforts the church’s work would not have even started. For, as de Lubac says, “her business is not to settle us in comfortably in our earthly existence but to raise us above it.”[45]

Neighbors and Enemies

To conclude, I would like to make a few brief comments about neighbors and enemies. A lot of people who discuss the ordo amoris and social obligations start with debates about neighbors and the Good Samaritan, and try to work out circles of obligation. I have wanted to focus on concrete entities and social bodies that are prominent throughout the church’s history of moral-theological reflection. These are the concrete givens that are always with us.

But yes; we are also given neighbors and enemies; and we are called to love them. Neighbors are clearly included in nation. But I don’t want to get bogged down with immigration policy debates which usually follow closely from this.

The neighbor in the Good Samaritan has an anarchic character to it. Yes, as many have noticed, the shift is from object to subject in the parable—from “who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10:29) to “go and [be a neighbor]” (Luke 10:36f). Basically, the neighbor to whom we owe mercy is anyone whom we encounter who has a need for which we can provide assistance. There is a complex responsibility that Christ is laying upon us, for the concept of neighbor is universalized, yet it remains concrete. We are called not to love “Humanity,” but the concrete neighbor we meet. However, within all of this, obviously this should not undermine one’s ability to fulfill the demands of love in more primary relations. Remember, if one cannot provide for his family, he is worse than an unbeliever. So, keep this in mind. Furthermore, this should not take priority over the family of the church—remember Galatians 6 and Acts 2 and 4. Do good especially to the household of God, within which none should have need.

However, love wants to include, invite, expand, multiply.

A healthy marriage desires children; a healthy family wants to grow and to welcome others.

Charity does not diminish when shared. In fact, it enlarges.

Reformed missiologist Lesslie Newbigin commented that a remarkable aspect of salvation is that it is not fully enjoyed until shared by all who are destined to share it.[46] Thus, Christians want neighbors to become brothers. Augustine takes it even further: “What is perfection in love? To love even one’s enemies, and to love them to the degree that they may be brothers. … Love your enemies in such a way that you wish them to be brothers; love your enemies in such a way that they are brought into your fellowship.”[47]

The universal community of the church shapes our love for neighbor and enemy. We know what all are intended for; we know that there are no social barriers to this fellowship, though there are moral and spiritual ones. Thus, our love includes correction. But this is all ordered to communion.

The eucharist in which we participate is the great gift. It is the moment in which the church’s nature is most focally realized. Baptism makes brothers and sisters out of once enemies and mere neighbors. The eucharist is the sacrament by which the church is unity; it completes the work that baptism begun. It is the gift that completes the gift of creation, as in it a fellowship brings the fruit of the earth to offer up in return to the God who gives us our being and renews us as a reconciled community under his Fatherly reign, as co-children with Christ, born anew by His Spirit.

So, love God, and your neighbor in, for, and unto God. Honor your parents and your homeland—especially your heavenly homeland, and its embodiment on earth: Mother Church, into which, by the Holy Spirit, you are born, and by which you are continually fed, together with your spiritual family, in the feast of charity.

James R. Wood is Assistant Professor of Ministry at Redeemer University in Ancaster, ON. He is also a Commonwealth Fellow at Ad Fontes, a teaching elder in the PCA and former associate editor at First Things.

  1. See C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man, Chapter 1: “Men Without Chests.”

  2. Augustine, The City of God, trans. William Babcock, ed. Boniface Ramsey (New York: New City Press, 2013), 15.22.

  3. Augustine, On Christian Doctrine, translated by D.W. Robertson, Jr. (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1997), 1.27.28.

  4. David L. Schindler, Ordering Love: Liberal Orders and the Memory of God (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011).

  5. See Schindler, Ordering Love, ix.

  6. See Schindler, Ordering Love, 124, 157, 180.

  7. Schindler, Ordering Love, 306. The following quotations are also from that page.
  8. This is most (in)famously expounded in his still untranslated work: Surnaturel: Études Historiques. He further develops these themes in two works to which he affectionately refers as his “twins”—Augustinianism and Modern Theology and The Mystery of the Supernatural—and other works, such as The Discovery of God and A Brief Catechesis on Nature and Grace.

  9. Augustine, Confessions, translated by Henry Chadwick (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991) 1.1.1.

  10. Augustine, Confessions, translated by Maria Boulding, O.S.B., edited by John Rotelle, O.S.A. (Hyde Park, NY: New City Press, 2012), 3.6.11.

  11. Pope John Paul II, “Familias Consortio,” November 22, 1981. https://www.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/apost_exhortations/documents/hf_jp-ii_exh_19811122_familiaris-consortio.html.

  12. Bertrand de Jouvenal, The Pure Theory of Politics (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1963), 45.

  13. Augustine, On Christian Doctrine, 1.28.29.

  14. Herman Bavinck, Reformed Ethics volume 2: The Duties of the Christian Life, edited by John Bolt, et al. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2021), 427.

  15. John Calvin, Commentary on a Harmony of the Evangelists, Matthew, Mark, and Luke volume 1, translated by Rev. William Pringle (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2009), 471.

  16. Bavinck, Reformed Ethics volume 2: The Duties of the Christian Life, 294.

  17. C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves (New York: Harcourt, 1988), 21f.

  18. Lewis, Four Loves, 136.

  19. Lewis, Four Loves, 8.

  20. Lewis, Four Loves, 134.

  21. Lewis, Four Loves, 38.

  22. Lewis, Four Loves, 28.

  23. Oliver O’Donovan, The Desire of the Nations: Rediscovering the Roots of Political Theology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 73.

  24. Oliver O’Donovan, The Ways of Judgment (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2005), 181.

  25. O’Donovan, Ways of Judgment, 150.

  26. C.S. Lewis, “Learning in Wartime,” in The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses (New York: MacMillan, 1949), 47.

  27. See Henri de Lubac, “Patriotisme et Nationalisme,” reprinted in Henri de Lubac, Résistance Chrétienne au Nazisme, edited by Jacques Prévotat (Paris: Cerf, 2006), 23ff.

  28. See Lewis, Four Loves, 28; O’Donovan, Ways of Judgment, 159f.

  29. Augustine, Political Letters, edited by E.M. Atkins and R.J. Dodaro (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 91.1.

  30. Augustine, Political Letters, 91.2.

  31. Pierre Manent, A World Beyond Politics?: A Defense of the Nation-State; translated by Marc A. LePain (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2013), 26f.

  32. Manent, World Beyond Politics?, 27.

  33. See John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, book IV.1.1 where Calvin picks up this classical theme in Christian theology.

  34. John Calvin, Commentary on a Harmony of the Evangelists, Matthew, Mark, and Luke volume 2, translated by Rev. William Pringle (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2009), 90-92.

  35. Peter Leithart has argued this in various places. See especially Delivered from the Elements of the World: Atonement, Justification, Mission (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2016); “Sacramental Mission: Ecumenical and Political Missiology,” in Four Views on the Church’s Mission, edited by Jason S. Sexton (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2017); and Against Christianity (Moscow, ID: Canon Press, 2003).

  36. Henri de Lubac, Splendor of the Church, translated by Michael Mason (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1999), 241

  37. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Social Contract, 4.8.

  38. De Lubac, Splendor of the Church, 190.

  39. Henri de Lubac, Catholicism: Christ and the Common Destiny of Man, translated by Lancelot C. Sheppard and Elizabeth Englund (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1988), 296f. The following quotations are also from these pages.

  40. O’Donovan, Ways of Judgment, 241.

  41. See O’Donovan, Ways of Judgment, 291f.

  42. See de Lubac, Splendor of the Church, 52, 63, 66. See also Henri de Lubac, The Church: Paradox and Mystery, translated by James R. Dunne (Staten Island, NY: Alba House, 1969), 54.

  43. De Lubac, Splendor of the Church, 184.

  44. De Lubac, Splendor of the Church, 237.

  45. De Lubac, Splendor of the Church, 298.

  46. See Lesslie Newbigin, The Household of God (New York: Friendship Press), 160.

  47. Augustine, Homilies on the First Epistle of John, translated by Boniface Ramsey, edited by Daniel E. Doyle, O.S.A. and Thomas Martin, O.S.A. (Hyde Park, NY: New City Press, 2008), 1.1.9.

*Image Credit: “The Good Samaritan, after Delacroix” by Vincent Van Gogh


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