Priest, Parent, and Prince – Tres Ordines

The Covid-19 Chronicles: Reflections in a Pandemic, Part 10

Those of us who grew up reciting Luther’s Small Catechism for our suppers will recall the Table of Duties, the last of the small catechism’s eight parts, and the most difficult to learn by heart. In the typical congregation’s catechism curriculum, there wasn’t much time left at the end of the season for the Table of Duties, so it didn’t always get the attention it deserves.

The Table of Duties or Christian Responsibilities is a catena of New Testament passages gathered under the heading of the “three estates or ordos” (tres ordines) of temporal life: the ordo ecclesiasticus, ordo oeconomicus, and ordo politicus, often labelled Church, Household, and State. Priest, Parent, and Prince. These are orders or authority structures established by God for the temporal well-being of everyone, whether believer or not.

When everything is functioning properly, the three orders work together in a cooperative and complementary way with Priest, Parent, and Prince staying in their respective lanes. This is not the distinction of “two kingdoms” – temporal and eternal – but a distinction of temporal orders and authorities. In the eternal kingdom of God, the three coalesce into one, but in this life and world, they are distinct. Like the separation of governmental powers, the distinction of authorities ensures that no one estate holds all three authorities at once. These are, after all, in the hands of sinners. What could possibly go wrong?

The ordo ecclesiasticus, or “Church,” is not necessarily the Christian church. “Religion” or “spiritual authority” might be a better name for it. It is the spiritual authority that orders temporal life under God, reminding us that, like Hebrew National Hot Dogs, we are all answerable to a Higher Authority. It flows from our natural, intuitive knowledge of God and the fact that we are uniquely spiritual creatures. Adam was the priestly image of God in God’s temple, whether the Earth in the cosmos (Genesis 1) or the Garden in a wilderness (Genesis 2).

The ordo oeconomicus, or Household, is also part of the created order, established in the union of man and woman as “one flesh” for the bearing and nurturing of children and the economic exercise of God-given vocations within the fabric of community. “It is not good for Man to be alone.” “Household” is not the atomized nuclear family of the modern suburb, but an extended network knit together into a vocational community. In the ancient world it would have included household servants and their families. The family farm or the family-owned small business come to mind. You sometimes hear people say of the company they work for, “We’re like a family.” We are made to work, not sit idly at home playing video games, and our entire economic life is an extension of the household, whether we work at home or at the office or factory.

The ordo politicus, or State, is the governing authority of society. In our day, it tends to be front and center, though, in fact, it is the third, last, and least of the three temporal orders. The State is not part of the created order, but comes as the result of the Fall, a kind of add-on patch to deal with the pandemic of Sin. It is established by God (Romans 13:1ff, 1 Peter 2:13ff) as His ministry of the sword to curb Sin and maintain outward order in a disordered world. There is nothing quite like those flashing lights in the rear view mirror to curb our anarchist driving habits, is there?

The current pandemic has caused something of a wobble in the order. The ordo politicus seems to have taken over everything by executive order. While public health and safety are certainly within its purview to protect, management of economic and spiritual life are none of its business. The Prince makes a terrible Parent and an even worse Priest. Free markets and the freedom of faith allow the three orders to do their proper work. Totalitarians, and any who would lord themselves over others (Luke 22:25), always try to collapse the three orders into one rule under their control, the final step, of course, being one world order. Unus ordo seclorum.

Like King David, who couldn’t resist taking a census, the State can never resist tinkering, often with disastrous results. Instead of permitting everyone to pursue their own enlightened self-interest, the State has taken it upon itself to determine what interests are in fact enlightened. It has also taken over the authority of Parent by defining what constitutes “marriage” in terms of “legal rights and privileges.”. We used to ask permission from parents to marry; now we seek permission from the Prince. The State has appointed itself the moral and spiritual judge of society telling when and how human life begins and the legal limits of the right to life. In other words, the Prince has become Parent and Priest. Push back a bit further to first century Rome, and you’ll see the ordo politicus up to the same sort of things with Caesar and the Caesar cult, pictured in the Revelation as two beasts and a dragon. When Prince becomes Priest, the devil is always in the mix (see Revelation 12-13).

Little wonder then, that at a time of global pandemic when the State is called upon to mobilize resources, maintain order, and protect its citizens, it reaches for the totalitarian sword as our elected officials channel their inner Caesar. It’s an easy grab. This is how it can shut down an economy, deprive people of their livelihoods and the ability to exercise their God-given vocations, and declare a society’s spiritual life to be “non-essential,” all by executive order. Who needs Parent and Priest when the Prince can do it all? It’s both efficient and effective.

Temporal life is a delicate balancing act of actions and consequences, risks and rewards, ethics, economics, morality, reason, and faith. It’s like juggling a chain saw, a bowling ball, and a wine glass – you have to keep everything in motion at once and treat each object for the thing that it is. The Prince cannot save us from a viral pandemic any more than he can manage an economy, save the earth or change the weather. “It is better to take refuge in the LORD than to put confidence in princes.” (Psa. 118:9)

The present strategy to shut down the economic and spiritual orders to flatten a contagion curve or stop a virus in its tracks is sure to have dire unintended consequences long after this pandemic is over. The damage to our households and economy will bring far deeper death, destruction, and despair than even the most dire predictions by the CDC. The stifling of society’s spiritual voice will in fact subvert the very respect and loyalty the State requires to function. This current crisis did not set us on this disordered road. We’ve been happily strolling on it for quite a while and haven’t taken much notice as the State quietly invaded the Household and the Sanctuary while we amused ourselves. It was time for a wake-up call and a tiny virus particle tripped the alarm.

Some may be tempted to take up the sword and start swinging in rebellion. But as Peter learned, our aim is bad and we manage only to lop off the ears of innocent bystanders. Jesus would say the same to us as He said to Peter that night in the garden: “Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword.” (Matthew 26:51). The Swiss reformer Ulrich Zwingli died in the battlefield. The only sword we have at our disposal is the Word of God wielded in prayer, a far mightier and sharper sword than any executive order. “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” The crucified, risen, and reigning Lord Jesus Christ is still the Lord of the Church, as well as the Household and the State. He has all authority in heaven and on earth given to Him, and He knows best how to set things back in order so that the three ordos can do their proper work. The Table of Duties will guide us.


For an excellent discussion on the three ordos and two kingdoms in the theology of Martin Luther, see Oswald Bayer. Trans. by Thomas H. Trapp. Martin Luther’s Theology – A Contemporary Interpretation. Eerdmans, 2008. pp 120-153.

©2020 William M. Cwirla