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Thursday, 4 October 2012

Benevolent Hierarchy?

Is it possible to have a benevolent hierarchy? Well, yes, perhaps...but it's still hierarchy. And hierarchy is ultimately, even if inadvertently, restrictive and dis-empowering  I guess benevolent hierarchy is kind of what I used to believe - my being 'over you in the Lord' was for your own good. And I genuinely tried to be relational and considerate (if not always succeeding) in the exercise of it. I think now that the problem is not just the manner in which authority is exercised, but with the actual model of hierarchy itself.

In Luke 22:25-26, those  in authority are referred to as 'benefactors' - the idea was that those in authority were for the benefit of society. But Jesus includes this in what he wants his followers to be different from - "But you are not to be like that. Instead, the greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who rules like the one who serves." (v.26). He is turning hierarchy on its head! He is not just challenging its abuse, but its very place in the kingdom community.

For years, I was taught - and in turn taught others - that authority (and by this was really meant hierarchy) was central to the Godhead, nature, society, family and the church. It was of the same essence across all of these. And then it was argued that modern society faced a crisis of authority. We needed to see its value and have more of it, and the church could show the way. The problem is that we didn't take into account sufficiently the fallen nature of this world, including its model of authority, nor the radically counter-cultural nature and dynamic of God's different kingdom.

The world does not need more authority of its own kind. It needs a radical redefinition and re-modelling of authority in terms of servant-hood,  self-sacrificial love and the empowerment of others.


  1. Hi Trevor, thats interesting, and I hope you keep developing this, but here are a couple of questions for you.

    1)What you have said assumes that heirachy is a bad thing, even benevolent heirachy. Most people assume that heirachy is not only normal but right, as long as it is applied in a fair and just way. So what actually is wrong with a benevolent heirachy? You might want to expand on what the bad fruit of this is and why it might be a problem.

    2) Most apostolic leaders in the UK today would argue that they are not heirachical actually, but relational. So what is the fundamental difference between what you are describing above and what you have experienced so far?

    I look forward to your comments.


  2. Thanks for this, Deane. As you will see from my next post, I am going to be moving of the subject of authority and hierarchy for a while. But let me respond to your welcome and totally legitimate challenge.

    Like Greg Boyd, I recognise that hierarchy - or 'power over'people - is necessary in a fallen world. This is actually the authority that God 'orders' (not ordains) in Romans 13, to restrain evil. But authority in the kingdom - and so in the church - is to be of a different kind. Even when well-intentioned, I believe that hierarchy results in restriction, because its main purpose is restraint and order; it easily degenerates into a culture of control based on fear, instead of a culture of freedom and release, based on love.
    The patterns of authority and leadership in the church will be based on love and relationship, and the desire to release potential and gift - as in a family.

    My experience has been a mixture as I think we have struggled to always achieve the latter, partly because our understanding of authority was too coloured by a hierachical view of authority instead a familial persepctive. Many have tried to be relational and probably all have seen the value of it. But ultimately what is communicated to people is not what is in our confession - we believe in relationship - but in our culture - sometimes, too much fear and control.

  3. Excellent commentary Trevor. I think thats exactly it, and your point that authority is used as a tool for restraining evil is absolutely right. But if we are building a culture where people are to be released to be great then control and authority is the wrong tool.

    Best illustration of this is from Danny Silk in his book on parenting where he says that he doesn't want his kids to obey him through fear and punishment, but because they have a loving relationship with him and they want to live in such a way as to maintain it and please him. I believe that is primarily why we obey God ourselves. It is not because He might punish us. I believe that Jesus did everything to please the Father because he loved the Father and not out of fear of punishment. Same relationship model.

    I believe that is key to relationship with God and should be key to the way the family is headed up.

    There are issues around when people sin and have to be held accountable for it, but this can be done in such a way that honours and restored people instead of somehow needing to automatically punish people. In some cases that may lead to someone being put outside the fellowship where they are persistently unrepentant over a sin issue - I think Jesus and Paul say that.

    I think we need a rethink around the exercise of authority in our churches, and remodel our culture around our primary relationship with the Father.

    A lot of this comes down to how you see God, and what you think God's relationship is to you as a christian. Its quite fundamental.

  4. Exactly, Deane. And obedience out of relationship must never deteriorate into manipulation. It must be a genuinely empowering relationship between free people.

    I like what Danny Silk says about possible discipline (as opposed to punishment), that it is not about controlling people but helping them to exercise their spirit of self-control.

    And also, our structures and culture of leadership should be determined not by what might go wrong but by the purpose of that leadership - to liberate and empower others. The purpose we have in mind will determine the model we adopt.

  5. Hi Trevor,

    Wow makes for an interesting read.

    I mostly have thought democracy is the way to govern, but then again if you look at how God does it, benevolent heirarchy starts making sense (recent discussion) on how some countries have bettered themselves through this way of governing.

    Romans 13.1-7 on submission to governing authorities, tells us its for our own good that which has been established by God.

    Today is elections in SA and it makes me wonder who the right one would be to mark my X against...? To have the head of our country do all they can for the greater good for all of us! Wishful thinking, but possible there is that party/government, surely we can believe that- afterall I serve a God of miracles and the impossible! It is relational and not through fear we should submit, having faith that the one in charge is doing what is in our best interest and not for them.

    You mentioned a passage -
    In Matt 22:25-26, those  in authority are referred to as 'benefactors' - the idea was that those in authority were for the benefit of society. But Jesus includes this in what he wants his followers to be different from - "But you are not to be like that. Instead, the greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who rules like the one who serves." (v.26).

    I went to look this up in my NIV bible and this is what it says-
    'Now there were seven brothers among us. The first one married and died, and since he had no children, he left his wife to his brother. The same thing happened to the second and third brother, right on down to the seventh.'

    Please can you check and advise the correct passage these verses come from as I really like how you put it -
    'benefactors' - the idea was that those in authority were for the benefit of society.


    1. Thank you for your comment, Wendy. It is encouraging that someone is still reading and benefiting from this post 18 months after me first writing it! And thank you for drawing attention to the mistake in the biblical reference - it should be LUKE 22:25-26.

      As for your thoughts on democracy, benevolent and the elections in SA, let me say this. I think the point that Jesus makes here and the Bible in other places, is that the way that we conduct leadership and authority in the kingdom of God (and therefore the church) is to be very different from how it is exercised in a fallen society. As citizens of society we should seek to be peaceful and respectful, and we are free to participate in the political processes if we want to but those processes cannot be used to express or achieve kingdom values (God's kingdom is so different from the governments of this world). I believe one of the mistakes that Christians have made again and again is to think that they can achieve through government what only the gospel can do. Our main focus as Christians then should be to be examples of the better way of God's kingdom - and one of the main things that will involve is a different approach to power and authority. One that is focused on selfless serving and lovingly valuing and empowering others.It is the way of the cross rather than the way of the sword, or even of the ballot box! I would recommend Myth of A Christian Nation by Greg Boyd for more on this. I pray that SA will be changed by Christians like you Wendy, living and loving like Jesus Christ.

  6. Hi there,

    No thanks for your interresting read and your time for replying. I enjoyed and appreciate it.

    When pondering deeper, I realise or should I say recognise the possibility that I may have made my X next to the party that I shouldn't have. However, in saying that, it was to ensure that our current government doesn't get any stronger, so the party that I chose was the "better" of the 2 (official opposition in SA) in terms of "democracy" or being benevolent as our current government is almost reversing/flipping back to how it was in the apartheid times before Nelson Mandela and freedom for everyone.

    We have 2 Christians parties in our country, 1 has obtained 2 or 3 seats in parliament, the other none. I know the amount of votes they got compared to all the Christians in our country doesn't match by a long shot, surely we should automatically support them, give them our X's? Now if we as Christians aren't voting for them as the "best party" to run our country (hopefully true Christians) as God would, then we voted for the wrong party/s???

    I want what's best for our country and what's best for ALL South Africans.

    Yes agreed only the Gospel can! God is God of miracles and does the impossible and our brains cannot comprehend how some things are even remotely possible, but with Him it is! For us to live with a selfless approach, serving, loving and valuing others (as you mentioned) is how we as individuals and Christians need to start. I'm even guilty of not always being this way.

    Thankfully we have hope which is powerful to carry us through anything.

    Thanks Trevor and may you have favour and be blessed.