In chapter 18 of Exodus, Moses' father-in-law Jethro instructs him on how to set up a fairly ordered society where Moses doesn't have to burn himself out by answering everyone's questions all the time.

I've heard that this is the basis for a form of government and economics known as subsidiarity and distributism respectively. Is this the only place in the Bible where these ideas come up, or do other books build on or recapitulate Jethro's scheme.

  • 3
    The seventy spoken of in the NT seem to fulfill a similar purpose for the apostles.
    – user23
    Oct 10, 2011 at 19:24
  • Subsidarity is a word I first heard of on the slacktivist blog. He talks about it a lot.
    – TRiG
    Oct 10, 2011 at 23:50
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    @trig subsidiarity is also the Catholic Church's answer to Capitalism and Socialism scborromeo.org/ccc/p3s1c2a1.htm
    – Peter Turner
    Oct 11, 2011 at 19:04
  • @JustinY: The seventy spoken of in the NT for me seem to be closer to the 70 spoken of later in Exodus, when God gives Moses His plans for structure and organization, which seem to differ from Jethro's (to which God never gave His approval). God's government does not seem to be hierachical, but rather flat and based on anointing (He took of Moses' spirit). Oct 18, 2011 at 16:30

1 Answer 1


Jethro very plainly is advocating subsidiarity for Moses. I don't see any reference to distributism in that chapter though. Jethro is addressing organization/governance, not economics/ownership. (However, both terms are relatively new to me so I could be misunderstanding.)

There are several New Testament passages that assume subsidiarity without explicitly promoting it as Jethro does.

In Acts 6:1-6 the apostles realized that they were becoming overwhelmed with their responsibilities and directed the church to select the first deacons to take over some of the hands-on ministry responsibilities so that the apostles could devote themselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word (v4).

In Acts 13:1-3 the church at Antioch is functioning without direct oversight by the apostles in Jerusalem. Under the guidance of the Holy Spirit and without consulting the apostles, they send Barnabas and Saul on the first missionary journey. Later on, in Acts 15 there is a theological dispute that leads the church at Antioch to send Barnabas and Paul to consult directly with the apostles in Jerusalem for a decision.

One of the main purposes of the letter that Paul wrote to Titus was to instruct him in appointing elders/overseers in the churches that had already been established in Crete so that the churches could better function without the need for oversight from Paul or the apostles.

  • I'm not an expert, I just read a bit of Chesterton. Distributism is the economic arm of subsidiarity. Like corporatism is to a Representative Democracy where all the politicians are bought and sold. I'd figure there'd have to be a proverb about 3 acres and a cow. Maybe something with the way Abraham and Lot split divided their wealth.
    – Peter Turner
    Oct 24, 2011 at 17:31

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