Reimagining church without worldly hierarchy

Usually I greatly appreciate what the well known Methodist Bible commentator Ben Witherington III (BW3) writes on his blog – although I don’t always have time to read his longer posts. But I have some serious issues with what he writes in his latest post, the first part of a review of Reimagining Church by Frank Viola.

I haven’t read Viola’s book, and more or less all I know about it comes from BW3’s review. Here BW3 writes quoting a key pasaage:

[Viola] describes very straightforwardly how he reimagines how the church ought to be– “organic in its construction; relational in its functioning; scriptural in its form (aha! it has a form); Christocentric in its operation; Trinitarian in its shape; communitarian in its lifestyle; nonelitist in its attitude; and nonsectarian in its expression.” (p. 26). Now that’s a tall order. Let’s see how he develops these ideas and blueprints for the 21rst century church.

While BW3 appreciates many of Viola’s ideas, he offers sharp criticism of some aspects of them, and especially of Viola’s suggestion that the church should not be hierarchical. BW3 writes:

I also have a problem with those who have a problem inherently with the notion of hierarchial leadership structures, because in fact such structures are Biblical not merely in the OT, but in the NT as well, as documents like the Pastoral Epistles and Acts make clear.

Much later in the review he returns to this issue, and roots it in the doctrine of the Trinity:

the blueprint Godhead provides us with a reason to expect that in the church there will be a hierarchial pattern of ordering things. … it will involve a leader and follower, shepherd and sheep, pastor and congregation, apostle and co-workers hierarchy— something Frank wants to avoid at all costs, seeing it as either inorganic or simply fallen human structures.

But surely BW3 gets this wrong. The Bible, in the Old Testament as well as the New, offers stinging criticism of worldly models of hierarchy. When the Israelites asked for a king, this was God’s response through Samuel:

Samuel told all the words of the LORD to the people who were asking him for a king. 11 He said, “This is what the king who will reign over you will claim as his rights: He will take your sons and make them serve with his chariots and horses, and they will run in front of his chariots. 12 Some he will assign to be commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and others to plough his ground and reap his harvest, and still others to make weapons of war and equipment for his chariots. 13 He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. 14 He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive groves and give them to his attendants. 15 He will take a tenth of your grain and of your vintage and give it to his officials and attendants. 16 Your male and female servants and the best of your cattle and donkeys he will take for his own use. 17 He will take a tenth of your flocks, and you yourselves will become his slaves. 18 When that day comes, you will cry out for relief from the king you have chosen, but the LORD will not answer you in that day.”

1 Samuel 8:10-18 (TNIV)

But, despite “you yourselves will become his slaves”, the people insisted on having a king, so God granted their request (8:19-22), not because hierarchical leadership was his plan but because he respected his people’s wishes. Even then, God had special requirements for the king of Israel, to keep him humble and not like the kings of the surrounding nations,

so that he may learn to revere the LORD his God and follow carefully all the words of this law and these decrees 20 and not consider himself better than his fellow Israelites and turn from the law to the right or to the left.

Deuteronomy 17:19-20 (TNIV)

So it was really nothing new when Jesus gave his own teaching which effectively outlaws hierarchical structures among his disciples:

Jesus called them together and said, “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. 43 Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, 44 and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. 45 For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

Mark 10:42-45 (TNIV)

A dispute also arose among them as to which of them was considered to be greatest. 25 Jesus said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who exercise authority over them call themselves Benefactors. 26 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. 27 For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one who is at the table? But I am among you as one who serves. …”

Luke 22:24-27 (TNIV)

Indeed Jesus didn’t just teach this, he also modelled it, in his life as well as in his death:

When he had finished washing their feet, he put on his clothes and returned to his place. “Do you understand what I have done for you?” he asked them. 13 “You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am. 14 Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. 15 I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. 16 Very truly I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. 17 Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them. …”

John 13:12-17 (TNIV)

So, in the light of this fundamental teaching from God spoken out by Moses, Samuel and Jesus, what do we make of the evidence BW3 has in mind, that “hierarchial leadership structures … are Biblical … as documents like the Pastoral Epistles and Acts make clear”?

First, as always we have to be very careful about taking what we read about what happened in the New Testament church as normative. The early believers sometimes got things wrong, and were corrected for it. This means that we should always give priority to specific teaching of Jesus and the apostles over following examples recorded without explicit teaching to commend them.

Nevertheless, we must accept that the apostles did arrange (here I deliberately use a very generic word) that certain people would have leadership positions, such as being elders, in local churches, and Paul explicitly taught Titus to make similar arrangements (Titus 1:5). Since Paul called himself “a slave of Christ Jesus” (Romans 1:1, literally, Greek doulos), it is easy to infer here a hierarchy: Jesus > Paul > Titus > elders > ordinary church members.

But is this what the Bible really teaches? No, because Paul’s instructions must be understood in the light of the teaching of Jesus which I already quoted. And this was Paul’s understanding; in accordance with Jesus’ words “whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant” Paul called himself a slave of Jesus but a servant (diakonos) of the church (Colossians 1:24-25, compare 1 Corinthians 3:5, also 2 Corinthians 4:5 which uses doulos), and he notes that even Jesus took the very nature of a slave (doulos) (Philippians 2:7). Peter appealed to elders to be “not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock” (1 Peter 5:3, TNIV).

So what are the models of leadership which are commended in the Bible? As we have seen, clearly not the hierarchical model as understood by “the kings of the Gentiles”, in which each person is in effect the slave of the one in authority over them. I find the following models (I don’t claim that this list is exhaustive):

  • Leader as steward or manager (oikonomos): This important model is obscured in many modern Bible translations, but the idea goes right back to the creation (Genesis 2:15) and is found in Jesus’ parables (Luke 12:42-46, 16:1-8) and in Paul’s instructions for overseers (Titus 1:7; also 1 Corinthians 4:1-2, 9:17, Ephesians 3:2,9, Colossians 1:25, 1 Timothy 1:4, 1 Peter 4:10). The point here is that leaders are commissioned by God to do his will, and have no independent authority to impose on the people entrusted to their care.
  • Leader as shepherd or pastor: This image also goes back to the Old Testament, with God as the shepherd of his people (Psalm 23:1) and human leaders also as shepherds who are held accountable by God (Ezekiel 34). In the New Testament Jesus is the chief shepherd (1 Peter 5:4, John 10:14) and elders in the church are shepherds (or “pastors”, the same word in Greek) of the flock that has been entrusted to them (1 Peter 5:2-3). This model is similar to that of the steward.
  • Leader as father or mother: This is a significant biblical model of leadership, and one which goes back to all eternity in that it is a Father and Son relationship, not one of master and slave, which is found in the Trinity. (This is the answer to BW3’s attempt to root hierarchical subordination in the Trinity; a son is not just in submission but he is also the heir to his father and so is or should be treated with respect and love by the father.) In the Old Testament authority was primarily through extended families known literally as “fathers’ houses” (Exodus 6:14, Numbers 1:2 etc, see KJV). The judge Deborah was called “a mother in Israel” (Judges 5:7). Paul made use of both of these metaphors: “Just as a nursing mother cares for her children, so we cared for you … For you know that we dealt with each of you as a father deals with his own children …” (1 Thessalonians 2:7-8,11), and he called Timothy and Titus not his servants but “my true son” (1 Timothy 1:2, Titus 1:4). Paul also saw the church as a family (patria) under one Father (pater), God (Ephesians 3:14-15) Nevertheless Jesus cautioned against human use of the title “Father”, along with “Rabbi” and “Teacher”, because of the way such titles are abused by “those who exalt themselves” (Matthew 23:8-12).
  • Leader as servant or slave: We have already looked at this one, so I will reiterate it simply by quoting Paul’s instructions for relationships between Christians which must include those between leaders and those they lead:

In your relationships with one another, have the same attitude of mind Christ Jesus had:
6 Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
7 rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
8 And being found in appearance as a human being,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross!

Philippians 2:5-8 (TNIV)

0 thoughts on “Reimagining church without worldly hierarchy

  1. Thank you for this Peter. It’s very helpful. I’m particularly interested in issues about hierarchy and how they impact the church.

  2. Peter,

    I don’t see the passages you refer to as contradicting the ones BW refers to, in which hierarchy is taught and respect for those in authority is a strong emphasis.

    Hierarchy is not the problem. Indeed, hierarchy is a very useful way to organize life in the family, the church, the workplace, the army, and so on. The real questions are: how is authority to be exercised and by whom? For whose sake and in whose interest? The Bible has distinctive teachings on those points.

    The Bible simply is not an egalitarian text in the way Frank Viola wishes it was. Note how Viola finds the doctrine of the Trinity as taught down the ages to be unacceptable. But that doctrine is based on Scripture. Viola’s Trinity has no basis in Scripture. Neither does his church without hierarchy.

  3. Which came first the chicken or the egg? I always feel this question come on when hierarchy is challenged. The biblical Canon evolved from the Church not the other way around. In so doing why hierarchy? why the teachings that appear in the New Testament? There are by necessity in the Church two functions that of the Prophetic and the Institution the function of Paul and Peter. This is why the saints feast day is joined together. I see that you may quote the Gospels but these are later writings than Paul`s which have more authority. I would say both in having a living tension between the texts we discover for ourselves the authority that the Holy Spirit wishes for the Church.

  4. John, I accept that “hierarchy is a very useful way to organize life”. I am sure adultery, abortion and all kinds of sins can be justified in this way. But Jesus quite explicitly and repeatedly condemned hierarchy as an organising principle for the Christian life, or at the very least required it to be modified so severely as to be unrecognisable.

    The answer to your “real question” seems to be that authority is not to be exercised over other people at all, at least within the community of believers. Indeed Jesus is explicit on this: “… their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you …” (Mark 10:42-43). What New Testament verse can you cite to contradict that, to show that any Christian has authority, exousia, over any other? As far as I can tell, only 2 Corinthians 10:8 and 13:10, and this is highly rhetorical language describing a rather special case where an apostle is sorting out some serious problems (and contrast 1:24); Revelation 2:26 is about eschatological exousia over the nations, a very different issue. The idea of Christians exercising authority over one another in the general course of church life is sub-Christian and clearly against the teaching of Jesus.

    I accept that ordinary believers are expected to submit to and obey their leaders (Hebrews 13:17, 1 Peter 5:5). But they are to do that not because the leaders are exercising authority but because as mutual submission and out of respect for their office. Indeed they should allow themselves to be ruled if the leaders are sinfully exercising authority, but what the leaders should do is serve, and the ordinary believers should (unlike Peter initially in John 13:8) submit to being served.

  5. Ferg and Rachel, thanks for the encouragement.

    Andrew, thanks for your interesting thoughts. Maybe the church did become rather hierarchical fairly quickly, although perhaps not generally as much so as we sometimes imagine. But it still could not deny and reject from the canon the teaching of Jesus and the apostles which in fact undermined that hierarchy.

  6. Jesus did not condemn hierarchy. As John H pointed out, it was the abuse of hierarchy that was rightly condemned.
    The sinful propensity to misuse/abuse a position of leadership is the focus.
    Even the examples you yourself give under the 3 headings “Leader as …..” fit the meaning of the word ‘hierarchy’.

  7. BW3 has now posted the second part of his review of Reimagining Church. I continue to think that on the issue of hierarchy, although not on all their areas of disagreement, Viola is right and BW3 is wrong. I don’t say that meetings don’t need leaders, and I wonder if Viola is really saying this or has been misunderstood, but I do suggest that those leaders are not to exercise lasting authority over other people, and indeed that in most circumstances leadership should be shared among many different people according to their various gifts.

  8. Glenn, indeed this does depend on what is meant by “hierarchy”. What I mean is that Jesus condemned situations in which one person was permanently assigned authority over others. I see very little of that in the New Testament. Yes, a certain amount of leadership which was shared wherever possible, and almost no real exercise of authority rather than servanthood. If Jesus allowed any kind of hierarchy it was a totally inverted one in which the “great” ones were the servants of the others. I like one of the Pope’s titles, “servant of the servants of God” – if only Popes lived up to it!

  9. Nice job Peter, I enjoyed this, even the bits I didn’t agree with. The issue is whether hierarchy is inherently a fallen thing. I would argue it certainly is not since a functional hierarchy even exists within the Trinity as 1 Cor 15 makes ever so clear.

    Blessings on your good ministry,


  10. I’m a big Ben Witherington fan…
    But I must agree with you, Peter, and say that I’m pretty much droolign to get my hands on Viola’s recent two books, particularly after hearing his recent interview on Steve Brown Etc.

    Hierarchy isn’t bad, in and of itself, but I SO agree, Peter, that the Ephesian model of positive hierarchy seem to NOT be in the form of “I’m the pastor forever, the end,” but more so something like, “I’m more mature and I’m hear to serve you SO THAT I can help you come to a place where you know Jesus as much as I do, and preferably even MORE than I do, so that you can do the same with others and help bring them to Him too.”

    Meaning, the “hierarchal goal” in Christ’s camp seems to be more one of working oneself out of a job. “Greatest” disciple is the greatest servant, etc.

    This stands in sharp constrast with the clergy/laity model in the institutionalized church world. I speak as a (former) pastor’s wife, from a “good” church. IT doesn’t matter how good/sweet/kind the leaders are, the clergy/laity divide stands strong, and the damage done, while often outwardly invisible, is something I think to be of great concern.

    I think Viola is right on for asking some tough questions about what we, the church, has become.

  11. Now I’m off to BW3’s blog to read his words for myself. Btw, Ben, that’s so cool that Viola is going to dialogue. I’m looking forward to “hearing” the two of you…

  12. I’ve just finished reading Reimagining Christianity, after which I went along to yet another boring Evangelical Church service where 1 person lead, another preached & the rest of us sat in our seats & listened.I’m in my 50s & have belonged to a number of different types of churches in my lifetime, but have always had some measure of dissatisfaction, even where I have been involved in leadership. Frank Viola has helped me understand why this is. On the subject of the Trinity, I hadn’t realised until a few days ago that there was debate about heirachy in the Trinity, having always been taught that there wasn’t, but having now read both Frank Viola & Ben Witherington on the subject I find Frank’s arguments on that subject, as well as on heirachy, very convincing. I urge everybody to read Frank’s books & then have the courage to step out of your traditional heirachical clergy driven church & try something different. I certainly intend to!

  13. There is a splendid argument for an egalitarian approach in a book by Richard Bauckham, “God and the Crisis of Freedom”. In it he acknowledges that there are passages in the Bible that can be enlisted credibly in support of either a hierarchical approach to church relationships or an egalitarian one. I think this is an important concession. Too often the debate descends into seeing which texts trump the others preferred texts. Someone committed to a hierarchical approach needs to deal with the favourite texts of the egalitarian and vice versa.
    Bauckham’s arguments in nuce is that in both the Old and New Testament there is a repudiation of the dominant form of hierarchy, of kingship in the OT where the appeal for a king in 1 Sam 7 is described as a rejection of God, in the NT in the repudiation of fatherhood except the fatherhood of God in Matt 23. Then he has to explain passages such as Ephesians 5 where hierarchy seems to be accepted. For these passages Bauckham argues that although they do indeed accept hierarchy the main thrust of then is to seek to qualify hierarchy and to prevent the worst aspects of hierarchy from spoiling things.
    I really so recommend the book.

  14. Thanks, BW3. I’m glad you enjoyed even what you disagreed with.

    Molly, Stuart and Timothy, thanks also for your comments. I would like to explore further the issues related to the Trinity. Bauckham’s book sounds interesting too.

    I wonder if the issue is to a large extent a matter of the definition of “hierarchy”. I don’t hold for a complete absence of distinctions between people. But to me “hierarchy” means more than pragmatic functional distinctions between people, it is a rigid system of permanent or semi-permanent distinctions into fixed levels, with higher levels having authority over lower ones. And it is this kind of system which I see as abolished by Jesus, at least for his disciples.

    I do now intend to read the book, when I get the chance. Meanwhile it has its own website which I will explore. And of course I will look out for Viola’s response on BW3’s blog.

  15. Congratulations, Peter, on sparking an animated discussion.

    Unlike you, I think that the positive exercise of authority (exousia) occurs whenever one does God’s work. All authority in heaven and on earth is given to Jesus, and this authority, in turn, is passed on to believers (the power of the keys). It is useless to pretend otherwise.

    It is an awesome fact that precisely those sins we effectually forgive are forgiven and precisely those sins we effectually do not forgive are not forgiven. Obviously this power / authority can and is abused. But to suggest that we do not have it is plain weird in my eyes.

    Furthermore, God gifts the church not only with charismata, but with ministers of various kinds, whose legitimation is based on calling from God from within the body of believers according to chains of succession of which the Pastoral Letters, for example, speak.

    In the Old Testament, it is the mantle of Elijah passed on and doubled to Elisha. This is all about authority. It would be passing strange for you to argue otherwise. Since you are not a Bible deist, surely you realize that this kind of authority continues to be vouchsafed to individuals and to individuals within specific traditions (“orders,” formalized or not) to this day. The authority God gave E and E was not negative, but tell that to the followers of Baal.

    Other believers, and even non-believers, submit to that authority, and thus to Elijah or Elisha. Read 2 Kings 5, for example.

    You are over-interpreting a few passages. The result: the hollowing out of entire emphases of biblical teaching in the name of absolutizing one.

    The position that Jesus abolished hierarchy is very odd. If so, you have to admit that he was fundamentally misunderstood by his own disciples and almost all believers since. My own denominational framework is episcopal. It is a strength, a great strength, that it is not in my hands, nor in the hands of my wife, to decide where we will serve. That is up to the bishop. Together with her advisors (it is a she in our case), she decides, and we – both of us are elders under her authority – defer.

    I am also surprised by your implicit claim that God allows hierarchy in the world and asks Christians to submit to it (Romans 13, etc.), but disallows it among Christians. What is disallowed is not the exercise of authority among believers, but its use in contradiction to the Gospel of justification by grace through faith.

    Furthermore, a close reading of church history is revealing. Groups like the (ana)Baptists who have tried hardest to emphasize the priesthood of all believers have ended up having to deal with – other forms of tyranny in their midst. If you abolish the clergy / lay distinction as Molly seems to want to do, guess what you end up with? A layperson who shoots from the hip. A layperson whose authority can quickly become absolute because – there is no hierarchy to offset it!

    Now the problem is not the priest you didn’t choose. It is the pastor / lay leader you choose on your own.

    Now we are supposed to have pastors without authority, teachers without authority, parents without authority, layleaders, also, without authority? Thanks, but no thanks.

    Mark my words: the path Viola lays out is paved with good intentions, but leads to a hell at least as bad as the one we already know.

    The one thing that can be said in favor of the exercise of authority qualified by love and mutual respect: it’s bad, but all known alternatives are even worse.

  16. Here here to great discussion. I’m ammending my blog fast because of this one. 😉

    Lots of great points all around, far from the least of which are John’s. But personally, I vote for 50 years of Frank’s “hell” after which, God willing, we may discover a new way entirely. Until then, we can only continue to argue about words and concepts although we already all agree on the heart and character of truly christlike leadership. Aside from all that, the simple fact that we do NOT know HOW do do any better means we need to let at least several thousand of our brothers and sisters experiment for a few decades.

    IOW, Christendom needs a R&D department. We should encourage these saints, whoever they dare be. Surely, many will fall into the same old mistakes, and hopefully, a few will find a way to make some new mistakes. But we will learn. Just because the anabaptists failed doesn’t mean we can’t try to do better. One point in our favor today might be the lack of mortal persecution against house churchers – theological and religious/political persecution notwithstanding. 😉

    I think leadership (whether or not that word means the same thing as hierarchy) is essential to all human activity. But I believe that instituting permanent leadership almost always spoils the leader. (John, your example of the Bishop’s oversight is a check against this, to be sure. Still, many who have similar arrangements still behave to some degree as if they did not.)

    Moses, Joshua, David, Elijah, Elisha, John the Baptist, Jesus, Peter & Paul are great examples of men who were annointed and gifted for lifelong undertakings. It does not automatically follow that all christian leaders must receive lifelong mantles of authority.

    In short, I think Peter Kirk’s distinction of permanence touches on the heart of the matter.

    Earthly permanence is institutional. But the wind wants to blow where it will…

  17. Bill,
    I think this statement of yours (and the points you made around it) is fabulous:

    think leadership (whether or not that word means the same thing as hierarchy) is essential to all human activity. But I believe that instituting permanent leadership almost always spoils the leader.

    For me, heirarchy and authority are not bad things, in and of themselves. *Permanent* heirarchy (humanly speaking), however, is something I question as being a good thing. As in, the king’s son gets to be the next king, by birthright, and so on…

    And the same is true in the church.

    Jesus defined authority for us, it seems, and it did not seem like He was copying the world by setting up a, “I’m the boss/priest, you are the laity who are meant to follow me wherever I go and think whatever I think.”

    Yet this is all too often the attitude that comes from the pulpits or, even if not held by the pastor, comes from the laity (who think that the pastor is a very very special man who God loves more than other folks, etc…almost superstitious feelings toward the pastor, in a sense, if not outrightly so in many cases)…

    The clergy/laity divide will always exist in the institutional church because it HAS to in order for the institutional church to live.

    I think it’s fair to question whether or not the clergy/laity divide is something God has ordained, or if it’s a grossly misunderstood and misapplied creation of well-meaning flesh.

    Heirarchal arrangements are somewhat instinctual, meaning it’s nigh to impossible to avoid following someone who is obviously a leader, etc. However, if leadership in the church is seen as a means to grow others into your spot, ie, to “work oneself out of a job,” as a position of servanthood vs. authority “over,” then the resulting negatives (that do and *will* come with a permanent heirarchal structure) can be somewhat negated.

    Heirarchy amongst Christ-followers should exist ONLY in order to serve the Body, much like the heirarchal structure of parent and child. The parent/child is not intended to be permanent (though the relationship will hopefully be permanent, the aspects of authority involved will evolve in structure, from one of authority “over” to mutual reciprocal submission/authority between equals).

    This is the ideal.

  18. Our concept of “leadership”…as in “follow the leader”…is just that…one concept…one model…One way to really understand leadership is no study carefully the relationship between Jesus and his disciples. This is a living breathing model. Leadership is not an “office”…I strongly disagree with those who think there are “offices” in the “church”. There are however, “figts to the church”…Apostles, prophets, evanglists, shepherds and teachers.” Relational gifted persons. Brothers, sisters, fathers in the Lord, apostles, pastors (shepherds). This was made clear to me by my father in the Lord who is from Africa. “George, he said to me. Why do you paint pictures of jesus as a shepherd walking in front of the sheep with them following?”
    Solomon went on, “It shows me you have not tended sheep. The shepherd never walks in front of the sheep. He walks, “behind” the sheep”. That way he can kkep his eye on them and watch over them to make sure they are not attacked by wolves.”

    Whenever I hear the “follow the leader” I’m reminded if the “blind lead the blind” BOTH will fall into the pit. American Christianity is filled with “sheep” being taught to follow “leaders” and many sheep ending up “in the pit”.

    Re-discovering the leadership of the Holy Spirit and servant (at the feet of) leadership is something we need to do.

  19. I want to both echo and dissent from something George Dunn said. True, the image of the shepherd leading from the front of the flock is, er, misleading. I’ve seen shepherds at work. At least in Sicily, they do lead from the middle. or even from the rear.

    They still lead, of course. It is an amazing sight to watch a shepherd gather sheep for a stage in a journey. Along with the dogs, a whistle here and there, and the sheep bah-bah into place. “I’m a shepherd, too,” I said to one my parishioners in Sicily who was a shepherd (in Italian, the word is exactly the same: “pastore” – my wife, who is also a pastor, they would call a “pastora”). But I can whistle all I want, and they don’t necessarily follow my lead.” He smiled.

    But the reason we talk about following a leader in the Christian faith is that Jesus is understood as the “pioneer” of our faith, the Bahnbrecher, to use a German word. We are also to follow him in the sense of following his example of bearing the cross. A pastor’s leadership is meaningless if it does not model what it means to be a disciple first of all.

    It would require quite a few paragraphs, perhaps, to explain why “ordained” ministry, and not just gift-based temporary and itinerant ministry, has deep biblical roots. As soon as you have ordained ministry, you have “offices.” It’s very clear, really, in the Pastoral Letters.

  20. I think that John Hobbins is too certain of himself when he argues that an egalitarian approach leads to hell. For every example of an egalitarian church making shipwreck of itself there must be 100s of examples of hierarchy issuing in abuse of power. I admit that this is partly because examples of hierarchy in the church is far more common, making abuse more common. His claim that anabaptism resulting in abuse of power proves more than he might like. Hierarchy is the claim to power, egalitarianism is the rejection of power. If egalitarian churches result in abusive power, it is through hierarchy re-emerging within the nominally egalitarian church.
    He makes something of the Greek word for authority (exousia). One striking thing about the use of the word in the NT is that nowhere is it accorded to the church leadership. It is therefore a stretch to argue for church leadership to have authority.

  21. peter—

    a fascinating post. very, very well done.

    have you read models of the church by avery dulles? he is a catholic theologian, and devotes a whole chapter to the hierarchical church model. he specifically defines the institutional church as the hierarchical configuration of offices within it. (he defines five other models of church as well. find this book if you can; i’ll send you one if you need me to).
    from his book, he talks about characteristics of the hierarchical institutional church:

    –it is very visible; it becomes one of the most visible ways we have of perceiving and judging ‘church.’

    –institutional church as a society is supreme to all other forms of society, subordinate to no other society’s authority (vatican i)

    –institutional powers and functions include teaching, sanctifying, and governing. the church teaches, sanctifies, and governs; those not in office are taught, sanctified, and governed by the church.

    –the church is not democratic or representative, rather it is oligarchical in its authority.

    some pro’s of the institutional model:

    –offers a thread of continuity between past, present and future.

    –offers a sense of identity in the church.

    –offers stability in times of instability.

    some con’s:

    –it can become institutionalism. (institutionalism is the primacy of the institution model over other models of the church. think of circles in a venn diagram of different models of ‘church;’ where the circles don’t overlap, institutionalism discards the areas outside the institution model. this makes the gestalt of ‘church’ less than it could be.)

    –it often reifies a particular set of beliefs, documents, and creeds, which become laws and loyalty oaths.

    –useful in times of instability, but not useful when growth or change are better responses to thing.

    any understanding like an understanding of church as institution, can become an ‘ism,’ where it becomes exclusively primary. i agree with you whole heartedly that institutionalism is too narrow an understanding to build ‘church’ on. when you discard institution (hierarchy) all together, you’ve responded in the same way that anyone who holds an ‘ism’ to be true responds—you’ve discarded the area of the venn circle that’s outside your exclusive belief. (anti-institutionalism?)

    i’m not saying it’s not possible to have church without institution. some of the later dulles models talk about some of these ideas. but it gives me a question or two to ask you:

    -if you feel the church model is ‘body of christ’ or ‘kingdom of god,’ is it possible to collaborate with these models of church without institution (hierarchical offices)?
    -is it possible to collaborate with these models without community?
    -is it possible to collaborate with these models without scripture?
    -what is your understanding of the bare minimum of ‘church’?

    again, an excellent post. good thinking.



    p.s. john hobbins, in one of his responses, made it seem he goes where ever called in his church hierarchy model. that’s most likely, but not exlusively, true of catholic priests. but as a methodist, his denomination encourages a healthy, interesting, collaborative dance between bishop, parish needing a pastor, and the pastoral candidates. john, what was that discernment process like in your calling to your most recent parish? surely not blind obedience on your part?

  22. you seem to be selectively quoting John 13:12-17 in opposition to hierarchy.

    Jesus was choosing to serve the disciples, but He retained His authority as their Master at the same time. peter twice tried to usurp that authority and direct how things “ought” to be done, only to be corrected as Jesus continued to dictate what was going to happen:

    6He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?”

    7Jesus replied, “You do not realize now what I am doing, but later you will understand.”

    8″No,” said Peter, “you shall never wash my feet.”
    Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no part with me.”

    9″Then, Lord,” Simon Peter replied, “not just my feet but my hands and my head as well!”

    10Jesus answered, “A person who has had a bath needs only to wash his feet; his whole body is clean. And you are clean, though not every one of you.” 11For he knew who was going to betray him, and that was why he said not every one was clean.

    IMO you are setting up a false dichotomy. the bible condemns the abuse of hierarchical models, but not the models themselves.

    prior to israel having a king, was moses’ opinion equal to that of every other israelite? it is strange that what you seem to oppose in the verses about israel wanting a king is that there would be a division between civil and religious leadership (rather than all authority being with the prophets and judges?)

    are you saying you oppose a division between church and state? 😉

  23. Re-discovering the leadership of the Holy Spirit and servant (at the feet of) leadership is something we need to do.

    Ah! I couldn’t agree more.

    One of hte things we are doing in the little church plant I am working with is having our “sermon” be lectio divina—-the careful and deliberate mediation on a passage of Scripture together, with the intent of listening to the Spirit and learning at His feet.

    I cannot tell you how LIFE-GIVING this practice has been, how many exclamations our little group has made about truly being “fed” in ways that no sermon ever did…and being empowered to learn to listen to the Spirit instead of always needing to find our “food” through a leader’s voice. Learning to be the lambs of Jesus, not the lambs of another human being…

    This is not to say that all sermons are bad, not at all. It’s just just an example of re-imaginging church…(ie, asking questions about sacred cows like the 5 Point Sermon being the main reason for congregating weekly, etc, and not answering “yes” like a “good Christian” should)…

    Again, I need to get my hands on a Viola book or two. Sounds like he and I are very much on the same page.

  24. Thanks for all the comments. As so often the blogosphere is busy on Sunday nights after I have gone to bed, and I don’t have time to reply on Monday which is my busiest day. I have a few minutes now to address some of the points.

    John, I prefer your “I think” to “It is useless to pretend otherwise.” The latter is rather too close to an ad hominem argument. (So I will resist the ad hominem response “As a pastor you would say that, wouldn’t you?”) I accept that believers have authority delegated from Jesus, but (1) this is his authority to do his will, not theirs to impose their own will, and (2) it is authority over the world and over the powers of evil, not over other believers who share the same authority. This is the kind of authority which church leaders and prophets have. As I said, believers submit to other believers (as to worldly authorities), however not because the others believers have authority but on the principle of mutual submission. As for your “it’s bad, but all known alternatives are even worse”, there is one alternative which is far better (although it has rarely been practised properly), and that is the way of mutual submission which Jesus and the apostles taught.

    Of course, as Bill points out, there are practical issues with the kinds of direction which Viola suggests. (Bill, I’m glad you didn’t suggest permanent leadership has spoiled John!)

    Timothy, thanks for your point.

    By the way, the Church of England system is very different from John’s Methodist one, and much better if you do need pastors, in my opinion. Pastors apply for posts which are often publicly advertised, and are interviewed by people from the parish as well as by the bishop, and appointed by mutual agreement of all three parties each of whom has a veto.

    Scott, Charles and Molly (100234), I will get on to your comments later. Must run now.

  25. John, about Anabaptism leading to abuse of power, do you have in mind Münster? This was an obvious aberration where hierarchicalist tyrants took charge in a situation where fringe Anabaptists had strayed from what at least later became the Anabaptist rule of keeping separate from secular authority. This, and other cases you have in mind, were aberrations rather than the truth of Anabaptism. I’m sure I could find similar cases of abuse to use against Methodism if I wanted, but I refuse to use such tactics. Nevertheless you do have a point that non-hierarchical churches can be open to takeover by hierarchicalists (a more recent case I have discussed here is that of Michael Reid) and need proper safeguards to avoid this.

    Also John, you more or less quote John 20:23. But note that “you” here is plural, referring to the authority of the church relating to outsiders, not of individual Christians over others. I accept that Matthew 16:19 is singular, referring to Peter as symbolising the whole church to be built on him, but in 18:18 this is repeated in the plural, just after Jesus’ only other use of the word “church”, clarifying that this is something for the church rather than for individuals.

    Scott, thanks for your useful comment, and for Dulles’ description of the institutional church which is of course just what I reject. I don’t even accept that this offers “stability in times of instability” – as for example in post-revolution China, it is easy for oppressors to destroy institutions but they can do little against a non-institutional church. I don’t suggest instead a church without structure, but a church with the structure of a body which is not hierarchical (see 1 Corinthians 12:15-26) rather than of an institution. I suppose for me the bare minimum of church is Matthew 18:20, “where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them”.

    Charles, I don’t deny that Jesus had authority in the church, as the Son of God who could teach authoritatively in his own name. Christians, like Old Testament prophets and leaders, can by the Holy Spirit teach authoritatively, but this is derived authority rather than their own, and is in principle equally available to all New Testament believers (Acts 2:17-18, 1 Corinthians 14:31). As for Israel, even in the time of the judges there was a distinction between the secular leadership of judges and the priesthood (although Eli uniquely had both roles; note also the distinct roles of Moses and Aaron), but there are also many important differences, in terms of church-state relationships, between God’s ways for Israel and for the church today.

    Molly, your church plant sounds a great idea! Why don’t you post a bit more about this? If you do you might even find your wish coming true!

  26. We’ve been doing it for…2 months now, after a full year of trying NOT to do it (searching vainly for a “fit” after exiting the “ministry” world). It’s a babe-in-utero, as it were, but growing and taking shape and I’m very much delighted and humbled at what we’re experiencing. We currently get together weekly and start with lectio, going through the four stages with a few minutes of silence for each one (more on the idea of lectio here:

    We then take the Lord’s Supper together in a celebratory-rather-than-somber way, sing a little (if we want to, usually songs that are requested vs. having an “official” singing list) and then have a time where we discuss what we thought about, prayed about, felt impressed w/ via the passage of Scripture we just meditated on during lectio. This all takes a little less than an hour…and then, we EAT a big potluck lunch.


    I want to second the idea that I’m not sure how able a full-time “minister” on salary is able to question the very thing that puts dinner on the table. I say this as a former minister’s wife (for 8 years or so) who had a nice house and two nice vehicles thanks to the $$$ we made from being “in the system.” We were treated well–meaning, the system was good to us. (It’s just that it about sucked every last shred of Life out of us, if such a thing is possible, and it’s really hard to even say how, because nothing “bad” ever happened and our church family was so sweet and kind)…

    It’s a difficult thing to ask REAL questions that question the validity of the very thing that makes your life stable—-particularly when all your education has been to that end and, therefore, if you leave that world all your training becomes unable to pay the bills.

    It’s a very difficult place within which to engage the question with an open mind. I’m not saying that it’s impossible, but just that it’s very difficult, and probably impossible for most, as one’s very identity risks the potential of destruction simply in the asking.

  27. Thanks, Molly. Good to hear more about your church plant. I also know what it’s like to leave full time ministry, in my case as a Bible translator rather than pastoral, with the life sucked out of me by a well-meaning but somehow dysfunctional system, and then be left with nothing. Fortunately I could just afford to leave, financially, but I know others who are financially trapped in systems, denominational and parachurch, which are slowly killing them.

  28. Peter said: Of course, as Bill points out, there are practical issues with the kinds of direction which Viola suggests.

    Amen Peter – talk is cheap. I put in 10 years of house church so far and I’m hoping to get another crack at it one of these years. We learn by doing.

    Peter said: (Bill, I’m glad you didn’t suggest permanent leadership has spoiled John!)

    I like John. I hope he does those posts he just threatened on ordination someday. I’d also love to see more biblioblog reviews of Frank’s book.

    Hint, hint. 😉

  29. Hi. Been a while since I’ve been able to come here again.

    Interesting topic, one that raises all kinds of issues. I was a Minister here in the UK but left for family reasons (full-time Minister, full-time Dad…). If we look at Jesus’ example (Shepherd going BEHIND the sheep – excellent!) we can’t go wrong, especially if we all stay close to Him.

    Leaders are the lead-shepherds, entrusted with responsibility for various parts of Spiritual and practical things. But leaders aren’t ‘the boss(es)’. We have all we need as parts of the universal church in the Word of God, enlightened by the Spirit. I’ve yet to see it (in reality), but imagine a ‘local’ group of believers, one in heart and purpose, all the gifts of the Spirit where appropriate in use effectively, working together in true love, encouraging each other to Godliness, helping and healing one another and presenting itself a true witness!! Wow!!

    I have the responsibility for an aspect of practical life within my local church. My decisions carry a fair bit of weight in several areas, but I can only function – indeed, function at all – if I keep myself reminded that I am the servant of God and His people. God forbid I should ever get too big for my boots….

    ‘Leaders’, those with some form of responsibility, (should) have been appointed by God and recognised within the fellowship. This isn’t structure as much as it is recognition of God’s working within the local group. Being ‘fluid’ and other fancy terms sounds great to a post-modern generation but are we building the church of today and tomorrow on our own development and understanding or upon God Himself? Are we trying to build the church at all? God help us and keep us close.

  30. Scott,

    My goodness, you are well-read. Avery Dulles makes an excellent read.

    Believe it or not, in the episcopal system of the United Methodist Church, the elders the bishop moves around do not necessarily have any part in the discernment process. For that very reason, it is a freeing and liberating experience.

    Congregations are not given a choice between more than one candidate. They are given one choice. Elders are not given a choice between two or more parishes they might serve. They are given one choice. You might be surprised at how well this usually works out. The bishop and his or her cabinet, of course, need to listen carefully and prayerfully. Still, it is NOT about doing what this or that party thinks is right. The elder least of all. The strength of the system lies therein.


    At least in my family and with the connections my family gives me, the last place I would be if money was the issue is in the pastorate. All of my 7 sibs, male and female, make more than I do, some double or triple. If I could convince myself that doing ministry on the side while bringing home the bacon by other means was good for the church, I would jump at the opportunity. It would turn my finances right around. But I am not so convinced.

    The history of the church would seem to teach that a balance between institution and movement is desirable. The two need each other. In both the Old and New Testaments, that is what we find.

    Even in the very early days, Paul and others fought against those who argued against paid, full-time ministry.

  31. Hey, John, I didn’t mean that I think paid full-time ministry is wrong. Actually, I COMPLETELY agree with you that it is not only NOT wrong, but that the NT makes it clear that it is normative, as a means of bringing blessing and growth to the church. So, Amen, brother. 🙂

    What I meant to bring out was more the idea that when one is invested in a system, questioning it is extremely difficult, no matter how “rational” we think we are being when we entertain ideas and criticisms from the “other side.”

    For example, I can say that about my own egalitarianism. After coming out of patriarchy (the Vision Forum kind, etc) and wrestling my way through the Scriptures with a new set of eyes, my egalitarianism is now simply non-optional. In that sense, no matter how I feel that I’ve come to this position Biblically, rationally, etc, I am now so much invested in it that I really can’t open-mindedly entertain thoughts to the contrary (in the way that I once was able to in that first year of investigating egalitarian claims).

    In the same way, anytime we are convinced of a thing or invested in a paradigm/belief/way-of-life, we really aren’t able to wholly consider the claims of commenters outside of our paradigm. (This phenomenon of or “irrational rationality” appears to be fairly well researched and validated by psychological studies, from what I’ve read, and I’m not really sure what we can do about it).

    The good news is that if we are in a healthy paradigm, this natural instinct protects us from being decieved out of it. The bad news is that when we are in an unhealthy paradigm, we have a difficult time getting out of it.

    I’m not really sure what can be done about it, other than to simply acknowledge it, and in so doing, acknowledge our fallible humanity. Ie, I may be in error and completely blind to my error, but I can at least be humble about it. 🙂


    (Sheesh, the above link is long).

    Hey, in regards to the topic being discussed in this post, Peter, here’s a GREAT piece by one of my favorite bloggers, hitting on some of the same issues we’re talking about.

    He’s done some reviews on Viola’s books, too…

  33. john–

    i know some of the things i’m wrong about, and the appointment process in the methodist church is one of them.

    i was at a family reunion on my wife’s side this summer, and fully one third of her relatives are methodist ministers. you can’t throw a rock, an insult, or an idea without hitting several.

    sprinkled in for flavor are two or three episcopal clergy (i think they married in). the issue of appointments to parishes came up in a conversation over lunch, and the process i heard was not the one you describe. rather, ’twas the one peter described in the angican tradition. so i think the story teller i was listening to this summer was one of the episcopalians, and not one of the methodists.

    the dulles is such a great read. i understand he’s also written a book about the models of revelation, which i’ve not yet read. do you know of it? have you read it?



  34. john–

    that last set of italics should have been around the word ‘not.’ things seem to be out of my control this morning.

    john, i’m sorry about your sister-in-law. near as i can tell, your family is lucky to have you in their lives.


  35. I’ve started a response to Witherington’s review here, on my blog. Frank’s a friend of mine and our views are pretty identical on the fundamentals (although I wouldn’t presume to speak for him myself).

    I take issue with BW3’s way of seeing hierarchy everywhere in the NT (see my comments and Witherington’s replies here). I concede that the church in Jerusalem WAS pretty hierarchical. But I also see Paul reacting to that (See his attitude towards Jerusalem in Galatians 1-2) and resisting the whole top-down mentality. He basically says, “Yeah, I visited Jerusalem; I met the top dogs. They added nothing to my message.” That just doesn’t sound like someone who is following a pecking order.

  36. John, Scott and Molly, thanks for continuing the conversation. I see a place for full time paid ministry, but not for the person or people in that position to be above others in a hierarchy. Interestingly even the world doesn’t do that – businesses are run by boards at the top mostly of part-timers to whom full time CEOs etc report.

    Molly and Neil, thanks for the links. I don’t have time to follow them up just at the moment but hope to later.

  37. Pingback: Gentle Wisdom » Reimagining Church: the debate continues

  38. (i>Peter- thanks for your efforts in generating one of the more interesting conversations re: Frank’s later books. Not implying anything in this statement : ) Some folks think your last name is part of the etymology for the word that became church that Tyndale used only to refer to places of idol worship.

    This is all IMHO from a fellow-traveler in Christ’s Caravan:

    Hierarchy? We are a body, which has, thank God, one Head, Jesus Christ.

    To use the “Here’s your brain; here’s your brain on drugs” method: Here are the people; here is their Head. Any questions?

    If only Believers did more holy KISSing where KISS = keep it simple stupid; no offense intended!!! : )

    Meeting in large numbers facing forward, etc. seems to me to imply a need for human hierarchy and things like Roberts Rules of Order- or at least a reasonably good amplification system with entertaining voices to ensure auditory command.

    Meeting in small groups facing the Center (Christ) seems to me to require attentiveness to Christ via the Holy Spirit speaking things from the Throne.

    When we keep a “so much more as we see the day approaching” mindset and meet daily in the temple (in places primarily to evangelize) and house to house (most conducive to fellowship-disciple), having all things (including “authority”) in common, we see the Lord adding to His body daily. Clearly in the context of our road rage gated community iPod society we need to be a radically social Body to see the reproduction we claim to desire.

  39. Thanks, John, for your interesting thoughts, a direction I would like to move in. Yes, the word “church” is related to my surname; both come from the Greek kuriakos which means “the Lord’s”.

  40. Pingback: Gentle Wisdom » Reimagining Church: Review, part 1

  41. Hi

    I have been enjoying reading last September’s discussion on leadership and authority. It is obvious that this is a hot topic and that there are many thoughts on it.

    In my doctoral dissertation I needed to wrestle with these issues as well since my ministry topic in the church was, and is, very complex.

    I have made this dissertation available online.
    See what you think. Check out at:

  42. All very interesting. I wasn’t able to read all of the comments, so I apologize if I am going over old territory. I am a get right to the point guy. Here it goes. Take away the monitary incentive and you will have a more pure “leadership”. Frankly, (no pun intended), we have made the church into a business with professionals instead of family filled with love. If the individual still loves you enough and you love the individual enough after the money is gone, it probably is real love. If you have to sign a contract, what does that look like. “This is how they (the world) will know you are my disciples, because you have a standing contract?” I know that is not scholarly for some, but it does get to the heart of the issue. I have read Frank’s book and I think taking only one part such as heirarchy without the whole package hinders one from understanding the ultimate problem which is that we are still enamoured with this world system and interpret and apply scripture by how we feel based on human understanding. It is hard to admit our mistakes especially those that have gone on so long, but what are the alternatives, live a lie? As a scientist said, humans don’t take to new ideas to readily, especially when they have built their career on a certain belief.

    I personally came to the same general conclusions Frank and others came to and then found that others were coming to the same conclusions. Scripture calls that revelation, the same type of revelation that Peter had when it was revealed to him by the Father that Jesus was the Christ. Hey God still speaks imagine that.

    I have and am being persecuted for my revelation and my beliefs by fellow believers. What’s new? Don’t take that as a “poor me” statement, we are in good company. Our fellow believers are not our enemies, but good and well misguided friends who we must love with Christ’s love since ours isn’t enough in quantity or quality.

    Keep up the good fight and love each other.

  43. Mike, thank you for your comment. Mostly I agree. I’m sorry that you are being persecuted for your opinions. Perhaps you need to move away from those who are causing this trouble and find a group following Frank’s principles. But of course I don’t know is that is a practical possibility in your personal circumstances.

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