The Trouble With Hierarchy

It is fair to say that many people react negatively to the word “hierarchy”. The allergic reaction to the word has deep roots, going back to the Reformation and the secularism of the Enlightenment. Protestants of the sixteenth century tended to identify hierarchs with the distant and pompous prelates of the Roman Catholic church, and secular people of the Enlightenment tended to identify hierarchy with oppressive monarchs, grinding the face of We The People and justifying their actions with references to the Divine Right of Kings. Hierarchy therefore was often regarded as an out-dated relic of a darkened age, a vestige of a terrible and oppressive time.

This view of hierarchy persists today. In many feminist writings, it is taken for granted that hierarchy is undesirable and inherently oppressive. Thus one blog, A Feminist Theory Dictionary, defines “hierarchy” as “A ranking system that organizes itself based on arbitrary values… Hierarchies contribute to a narrow world view and both form and are formed by oppressive ideologies, making them ultimately untrustworthy.”

Evangelical Christians, though unlikely ideological bedfellows, seem to agree with such feminists that hierarchy is a bad thing. Take for example, as a classic statement of Evangelical suspicion of the hierarchical principle, a very old quote from an early Pentecostal association, the “Full Gospel Ministerial Fellowship”. In creating their fellowship, they stressed that, “It is NOT a hierarchy of any nature, but a company of Full Gospel preachers who are zealous for God’s best to be received and performed by all His saints” (capitals original, from the 1966-1967 Handbook of the Full Gospel Ministerial Fellowship, p. 5, cited in Shane Flanagan’s 2005 thesis From Tent to Tabernacle).

All this suspicion may cause us to ask, “What is ‘hierarchy’ anyway?” The word comes from two Greek words, ἱερεύς/ iereus (or “priest”) and ἀρχή/ arche (or “rule, power”). The idea is that rule or power and the resultant chain of command is sacralised. In a hierarchy, the one on top has the most power, and this power is transmitted to those under his command, and in turn transmitted to those further down. In the classic celestial hierarchy of (Pseudo-) Dionysius, the uppermost angelic order is that of the seraphim, under which are the cherubim, under which are the thrones, etc. Power and blessing is believed to flow from the top down.

Orthodox Christians believe, with (Pseudo-) Dionysius, that all reality is hierarchically-ordered. Indeed, in some sense, even God Himself is hierarchically-ordered in that the Father is the arche or hypostatic source and cause of the Son and the Spirit. (Not, of course, that the Father precedes the Son and the Spirit in time, but that the Son is divine because He is the Son of the Father and the Spirit is divine because He is the Spirit of the Father.) The power of God flows from Him down throughout all of His creation, and within creation He has set up a number of different hierarchies.

HierarchyThe invisible world of the angels is arranged in hierarchy. So is the visible world of men, animals, and plants: God has set human beings as the head of the created world, to rule over it (Genesis 1:26-28). Even within a family of human beings there exists a hierarchy, with the parents jointly ruling over their children, and the husband acting as head of the wife (1 Corinthians 11:3). Society at large has a hierarchical element, with rulers and judges having divine authority to carry out their responsibilities in God’s name and stead. Such notions are repugnant to many—Marxists come to mind—but they are found in every culture and have been so for time immemorial. The long and terrible recent Russian experiment with Marxism has proven that we resist and expel hierarchy at our peril.

Why then has hierarchy got such a bad rap? It is not difficult to see why: any good thing can be abused, and the better a thing is, the more terrible are the results when it is abused. Hierarchy, being basic to human nature and human culture, turns into a very bad thing indeed when it is abused. When hierarchy is abused, the ruler on top exercises authority for his or her benefit, without reference to their responsibility to those under them. A king or queen, for example, will tax and exploit those over whom they rule, acting indifferently to the suffering they cause and thinking only of how those under them can be used for royal benefit. A father or mother may abuse their children, either physically or emotionally. A husband may abuse his wife, not caring for her well-being or paying her the respect and deference he owes her. A church leader or pastor may abuse his flock, growing rich from his or her use of power, and not serving them as they deserve or need to be served. All of these abuses, numerous and well-documented in history, explain why many people view the concept of hierarchy with revulsion and say (with the Full Gospel Ministerial Fellowship) they do NOT want “a hierarchy of any nature”.

Hierarchies functioning badly, however, do not mean that the hierarchical principle should be scrapped. As the old proverb says, abusus non tollit usum, “abuse does not cancel use”, and the misuse of something is no argument against its proper use. What is the proper use of hierarchy, and what does it look like when it is functioning properly? Let us look at how hierarchy functioned in the Church in the early second century.

Here we see that in the second century church the bishop functioned as the local hierarch, ruling the local church community. He was assisted in the task of ruling by a council of fellow-elders or presbyters. Further, he was helped by a number deacons who administered aid and financial resources to those who needed such help. The people submitted to the hierarchical rule of the bishop and his presbyteral council. Accusations could be lodged against such presbyters or against the bishop. In the latter case, other bishops nearby would convene a council and judge the matter, resulting either in the vindication or expulsion of the accused bishop.

Things started to change with Constantine (see here to explore the gradual change), but the second century pattern represented the original model established by the apostles. In this model we see the following things.

  1. The bishop was not the sole ruler of the Christian community, but was assisted in this work by a team, and the bishop functioned as a member of this team. He generally did not act apart from the consensus of his presbyters, whose counsel was sought and followed.
  2. The bishop’s authority was local—that is, he saw those over whom he ruled every Sunday, and therefore was in some measure accountable to them. If he ruled tyrannically, he would instantly experience the negative repercussions of his tyranny. There were limits, politically-speaking, of what he could decide and do.
  3. The local church community functioned as an integral part of a wider community, with the local pastor/bishop being accountable to the pastor/ bishops nearby. If he misused his authority or messed up, other bishops would step in to offer correction and guidance.

I suggest that elements such as these are found in all healthy and functional hierarchies. Where these elements are lacking or are weakened, the hierarchies become dysfunctional, to the pain and loss of many and to the loss of the church’s credibility in the eyes of the world. In these latter cases the words of the Scriptures find tragic fulfillment: “The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you” (Isaiah 52:5, Romans 2:24).

Hierarchy is a gift of God to the human race and to His Christian people. It can be a tremendous source of blessing if used properly, and a source of endless trouble if misused. We are all hierarchically-ordered to some degree, and this can provide great freedom. But, as we have been often told, the price of such freedom is eternal vigilance.

Source: No Other Foundation

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