Hierarchy & the church


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.

Author: elderj

I was born the fourth child and third son of godly parents in Nashville Tennessee. After leaving home for college I got involved with InterVarsity, then graduated with a degree in finance. After that I got a masters in history. Nowadays I spend too much time reading, writing, thinking, and occasionally doing my job.

7 thoughts on “Hierarchy & the church”

  1. Interesting question…not sure how I feel about this one. I see where you’re coming from, and have an accompanying question for you. Does the black family have a similar hierarchical structure? Is it abused at all? Is the family situation a sore spot for black families, in the hierarchical sense?

    I think that most AAs, especially in the 2nd gen context, have a hierarchical family structure that they don’t like and in many cases, is not healthy. The father is often the unquestioned authority and while he may do what he believes is best for the family, there’s little affection that gets translated with a cultural/language gap. It often is a very strained and uncomfortable relationship that can lead to dysfunction and wounding.

    When you bring up the point about trying to maintain or restore hierarchy for the sake of the gospel, my brain is like, what? trying to compute what that would look like. It’s hard to do that well as a pastor these days. After all, we’re just now getting to the greying of the 2nd generation. Very few of us have really acquired verifiably outstanding leadership qualities…and oh btw, ordination and doctorate doesn’t count.

    And if you have been around Koreans for a little while at all, there’s this weird mentality that goes around that says, “Anything you can do, I can do better.” So sure, in a lot of cases Koreans adhere/subvert hierarchy at the same time. You have your hierarchy, I’ll have mine. I’m not out for these small fiefdoms, I’m out for the King, you feel me?

  2. The “weird mentality” you mention that is present among Koreans is also apparent in the Black church; many pastor simply WILL NOT relinquish any real authority or raise up new leaders, so they often leave to start their own thing – or go somewhere where their “gifts” will be more appreciated. So that is a somewhat shared problem.

    As far as the Black family and even church, there are counter balancing things that place constraints on the hierarchy. Traditionally, black women have very key roles in the family and in the church – extending back to our roots in Africa. So within the family, the woman holds quite a bit of sway and often, due to the dysfunctions and dislocating effects of slavery and oppression – has dominance. In the church the pastor’s power is often constrained informally, but powerfully, by the “mothers” (comparable to ajummas) whose displeasure or unwillingness to support can entirely derail the pastor.

    Because women have such a key role; one that is apparently not parallelled in AA community, hierarchy itself is not easily abused.

    As for talking about hierarchy at all, I do not argue for it for its own sake. I am suggesting that perhaps this is an element of culture that need not be rejected outright, but which needs to be redeemed in light of the gospel. Instead of redemption we usually get rejection – which then leads to a replication of the same thing i.e. the “weird mentality” you mentioned earlier.

  3. Hi Josh,

    Interesting post. I definitely think that hierarchical church polity is legitimate and is even found in Scripture. However, I don’t think it works in most multi-ethnic church situations. The Antioch Church of Acts 11 & 13 did not have powerful head pastor, but a leadership team to which it is difficult to discern who held the most authority.

    I personally feel that those of us who want to see mult-ethnic/multi-cultural churches thrive in the States, that we have to give up hierarchical structures of doing and being church.

    Finally, I don’t think that the pastors were the ones doing all of the leading. You also have to look at the contributions of SNCC (the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) and strong lay people like Fannie Lou Hamer who were doing heroic work in the South, without the presence of any black pastor.

  4. I second that comment. I think there is a flattening of the structure of contemporary church and most definitely in the emerging sense. How else to empower believers and make available the whole of the gospel without taking away some of the hierarchy? The postmodern problem with hierarchy is the suspicion of power and the self-interest that it generates. Leadership in this day and age needs to be willing to be held accountable and vulnerable at every stage, is that true leadership? I think that with respect to a particular mission statement and goal, it can be, but everything must be contextualized first.

  5. I agree that hierarchy – or any leadership for that matter must be held accountable. I believe there is significant space for believers whether they be the “leaders” or not to listen to one another and endeavour together to follow the Spirit of God.

    Equally however I believe it is needful for people to submit to authority when it is invested in someone (which was the original point of ordination)in recognition of their unique calling. This mutual submission is, I think, a healthy corrective to our sinful propensities.

    As for postmoderns difficulty with power, I have to disagree. They are suspicious and reluctant to submit to OTHER people’s power or authority, reserving to themselves the power to define reality or any other thing. It is many times just a personal manifestation of the institutional sin that many rail against.

  6. ElderJ-

    Thanks for the post. It makes me think of a book by Bobby Clinton called “The Making of a Leader.” One of the hardest yet most insightful points in the book is it’s discussion on the need for submission in our development. I don’t think any of us like it, but it’s definitely necessary. I know that doesn’t address the issue of heiarchy and church structure, but it’s definitely a part of the overall picture that we need to struggle with. Thanks again.

  7. As a white member of a historically Black church, I have stumbled over that one. The specially-reserved parking spot for the pastor; the men who jump up when the pastor arrives, to carry his briefcase for him: those were difficult for me to swallow.

    Until I saw how unbiblically harshly we treated our pastors in the (white) churches I grew up in.

    I don’t agree with Marc that successful ME churches will do away with hierarchical structures. Rather, the successful ME churches will be self-aware enough to make their unwritten codes explicit for the minorities in the church.

    At my church, we’ve been holding periodic white meetings, where we (older members) explain the symbols and codes to the younger members.

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