It is a word I’ve been thinking a lot about, particularly as it relates to culture and faith. In the context of the church I currently attend, we are discussing the book Growing Healthy Asian-American Churches. One of the things we recently talked about was the role hierarchy places in Asian-American and especially Korean contexts. There was reference of course to the Confucian based values system that underlies much of Eastern philosophical and cultural practice and mention of how those realities continue to influence the way Asian-Americans “do” church.
For me the striking thing has been, again, the similarity between Black church and Korean church. Pastors within the Black church context, regardless of denomination, have extremely wide latitude in leading/running the church, especially compared to their White counterparts. I can hardly find words to describe the honor and indeed reverence in which many if not most Black pastors are held. Even when the person himself is not viewed favorably, the position of pastor is held in very high esteem and the pastor is generally thought of as someone to be obeyed within the context of the church, and indeed often outside of it. Their authority is very nearly unquestioned.
Not only that, but pastors are honored and served. It is not unusual for a church to have a “pastor’s anniversary” in which thousands of dollars are raised, extensive programming put together, and mounds of food prepared all in honor of the “shepherd of the house, the man of God.” Pastors are often treated like princes. (there is a significant downside to this which I may address in another post)
I do not mean to suggest that Black pastors are all dictators. To the contrary, most are not. And there are significant institutional and even cultural constraints on their influence. But in general they are quite powerful.
That such a level of authority and hierarchy is a reflection of culture, I was aware. The extent to which it is viewed as being negative (as it seemed to be in the book and as it most definitely was described as being in our class) is something different.
Having been raised in the Black church, I am all too aware of the abuse of power, but I never questioned the validity of the pastor holding such authority. In fact I have been at times an apologist for it, from a scriptural position. Indeed if I were ever a pastor I cannot imagine that I would operate much differently than that. Obviously I do not believe that pastors have or should exercise dictatorial control over their congregants’ lives.
That hierarchy would be so questioned raises some hackles for me. What is it about hierarchy that scares us so much? It is not as if there is much vote for democracy in church or in society that shows up in the Bible (if the Bible could be said to advocate for any particular formulation it would seem to be a type of Theocratic socialism). Perhaps it is simply that power has so often been abused that people flee from the very mention of it.
But, without the esteem, influence and authority which was held by Black pastors during the Jim Crow Era, it is doubtful that the Civil Rights movement would have gotten off the ground. It was the authority of the pastors that gave them the wherewithal to lead their parishioner’s places that many would not have gone on their own, and thereby led society into a radical transformation.
Could it be that some Asian-American pastors need to lean into rather than running away from the cultural preference for hierarchy and lead their congregations into radical directions for the sake of the gospel? Could the respect and honor given to these pastors be leveraged for the sake of challenging the principalities and powers that are arrayed against Asian Americans and others, thereby preventing them from achieving their God given potential? Perhaps there is a place for hierarchy and pastoral authority that does not dominate nor subjugate but genuinely leads courageously into places that many 1st and 2nd gens don’t really want to go.
I don’t know the answers to these questions; and the issue itself is complex, but I know that simply blaming “hierarchy” is not a solution.