Hierarchy: Why It's Problematic

An elder at a former church of mine once said that the leadership at the church did not allow women to be elders or pastors because the church leadership modeled itself after a "Biblical" marriage. In other words, women in the church must submit to male leadership (not the other way around) just as wives should submit to their husbands. These men are then to lead the women in love (presumably the same way a husband should lead his wife). It should come as no surprise that I disagree with just about every part of this idea, but I mention this merely to illustrate the connection between gender issues and leadership issues within the church.

Lately I have been considering the issue of hierarchy in general within the church. The more I think about it, the more I believe that the gender hierarchy in the church is only part (a crucial part) of a larger problem within the church. That problem - hierarchy. I intend to write a series of posts exploring this issue, but for today I just want to talk about why this is so important to me personally.

LKH and I have spent the last year in a Methodist congregation in England. Here Methodists still operate under the old circuit system, meaning our pastor shepherds four congregations but that each operates mostly independently and the churches depend heavily on lay preaching and leadership to operate. Our pastor only leads services once a month, so it is necessary for us to take responsibility in meeting the basic needs of the body, especially because each congregation is small. This means that often times we don't get what we want. I don't know what to expect on a weekly basis. Some of the preachers prefer old hymns, and some prefer contemporary worship. Some preach with visual aids, some lecture. They come from varied theological backgrounds. Many Christians would find this alarming. However, I wonder if the early church did not operate in a similar manner. Sometimes Paul would stop in and preach, sometimes it was Priscilla and Aquila, or sometimes Apollos. Regardless of who was preaching, each church was responsible for keeping its affairs in order during the meantime. This is often a messy practice. It requires us to communicate and compromise and engage with each other. What is beautiful about it though is that we don't need to seek a pastor's guidance, we need to seek God instead.

It has made me reevaluate the hierarchical structure of most churches. Most Evangelical churches have a pastor (mostly men) who is the ultimate authority. There may also be a group of deacons or elders (again mostly men) who hold other various leadership roles. Then in a less formal sense depending on the size of the church, certain church members may run certain ministries (and isn't this usually the most effective part of the church - notice here that women often participate freely). What you have is a hierarchy that gradually distances us from God's leadership. In order to make a decision, I must first contact the person in charge of the ministry who then must go to the pastor or in larger churches an elder or associate pastor who then answers to another authority who ultimately answers to God. Isn't it a structure like this that Jesus continually challenged and ultimately made irrelevant when His death caused the veil to tear?

I see a few disturbing consequences of this hierarchy. One, it makes us lazy. We expect our leaders to do the grunt work. They will take charge of even the most minute details of running the church. Most of us will just sit in the pews. Second, it creates divisions. We speak at length about how it affects gender relations in the church, but it also affects relations between the young and old, established and new members, people who focus on different ministries, and the doers and pew-sitters. Third, it has created a new high priestly order, a set of various cults of personality. We have given pastors far too much power and authority simply because they have a seminary degree. I don't say this to undermine the pastoral calling or the importance of pastoral gifts. I just want to draw attention to how we have twisted the role of pastors. They are no longer shepherds; rather they are mini-gods. This is part of the reason we have televangelists and megachurches. It is why people like John Piper, Rob Bell, Rick Warren, Joel Osteen, and Brian McLaren have become famous and controversial to some. We have given these mere men far too much authority. We depend on them for our understanding of God, and I have seen firsthand how the kind of power these men have can destroy them and the people around them. Fourth, it puts more distance between God and us. We have essentially repaired the curtain that guards the Holy of Holies.

So I have decided to write some more about this issue because I think it is one of the most crucial problems the church faces. I believe we have created an institution that falls far short of the body of Christ, which only has one Head. I will be looking at some of the places where the Bible deals with this issue somewhat directly in both the Old and New Testaments, and I will also relate some personal anecdotes.

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Susanna Krizo said...

To this I can only say, "AMEN"! I can relate to your comment that we have made our pastors gods and that the congregation has little to do. The early church was certainly a messy place, but that's to be expected where there is life. A house full of children is not clean, but it is vibrant with life. A nursinghome is clean and undisturbed, but the only things its residents do is wait for life to end. We were created for life, and life is not always an organized business. I hope we as a church can get to the point in which we value life more than a hierarchy of egos.

Anonymous said...

I Timothy 5:17-18 The elders who rule well are to be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who work hard at preaching and teaching. For the Scripture says, “YOU SHALL NOT MUZZLE THE OX WHILE HE IS THRESHING,” and “The laborer is worthy of his wages.”

Hebrews 13:17 Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they keep watch over your souls as those who will give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with grief, for this would be unprofitable for you.

Pastor's are accountable for their leadership which should be under the Holy Spirit.
In I Cor. 14:33 the Bible teaches that God is not a God of disorder but of peace. There are those who for whatever reason have issues with authority of any kind and this carries over into the church. Sometimes bad experiences in the past can color all experiences and sometimes it is just a rebellious spirit of 'kicking against the goads'. There should be a spirit of freedom to be obedient to the Holy Spirit's leadership in a church under the leadership of the pastor. If he has been recognized by the church as being called by God then he should be allowed to lead as God directs him. This a 24/7 calling for him not an occasional 'thought' as is the case for most of the congregation referring to the direction of the church. If he is a man of God he will listen to his congregation and the wisdom God gives through those who lives reflect said wisdom, but ultimately he answers to God; not the body. Churches can have order and freedom when all hearts are attuned to God's voice.

EKH said...

Anonymous, you have brought up some good verses for me to consider. I will definitely be spending more time in Hebrews (Jesus as our high priest), 1 Corinthians (the body of Christ with one "head") and the pastoral epistles (practical instructions on church leadership) when I move into the New Testament.

Perhaps I should be more clear. I do not propose eliminating church leadership, but I believe we have created a leadership that is far too systematic rather than Spirit-led. I do not propose that we adopt a disorderly system where everyone does as he pleases, but I do think we should all consider whether the leadership structures we do use in churches are really from God or whether they are just from tradition or mimicking secular institutions. We should constantly seek God's will for how we are to be led and who is to lead us.

I must say that I have a bit of an issue with your implication that most of the congregation just gives God's will for the church an occasional "thought." If this is true, then the Church is worse off than I thought, and again I would argue that it is symptomatic of the problem of hierarchy. All congregants should take seriously God's will for the body and be fully invested in the work of the church, not just the pastor. It is precisely because we depend on pastors to do everything that this problem arises. I completely agree with your last statement, but I don't think it is possible for "all hearts [to be] attuned to God's voice" if only one person in the church is listening to God 24/7 and the rest listen only occasionally.

Anonymous said...

I'm not suggesting only one person, the pastor, is listening to God 24/7. I am submitting a pastor has a life calling by God to focus on the church continually on an daily and most of the time hourly basis. Most congregants may pray for the church and pray for direction of the church but are not going to be as fully focused, committed and passionate to it's direction as the pastor. It would be an incredible church if they did but the word says he calls some to preach, teach, serve etc. Each one will have a passion for their area of calling in the church and individually could tip the church to their area of passion. The pastor has been given the responsibility to oversee and bring together a unified body of Christ in the local church and as the Word states is accountable to God for it. No scripture that I have found holds any other single person in the church accountable for the overall leadership and direction of the church. Just as there are many leaders, decision makers, board of directors, etc. in a company the buck stops with the CEO. The body should be praying for the direction of the church and for the pastor who has been called to lead. A good pastor is humble and will listen to those in the church who bring Godly wisdom. If there is a concern that the pastor is leading in a direction that does not feel Spirit led to the body, than Godly leader's in the church should pray and confront them in love. I have seen pastor's who have fallen away from God and it's heartbreaking but I have also seen churches beat down Godly men who have a passion and direction from the Lord but because the direction was uncomfortable or was not 'their vision' they rejected it.

EKH said...

I completely agree that good leaders should be humble and listen to other Godly people. Churches should also pray for their leaders and follow their lead when it aligns with Scripture and the Holy Spirit. These are the exact things that are lacking when a church overly exalts its leaders and gives them too much authority and responsibility. My issue here is less with pastors who are following God's call and more with churches who are lazy. However, I believe as a church's shepherd, one of a pastor's main responsibilities is to empower and equip the members of the congregation. Sometimes the church is lazy, and the pastor allows it to happen by simply taking over and not challenging others to do so. In the worst cases, pastors do not allow people to be included or empowered because it might threaten their own authority.

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