Monday, October 15, 2018

Are Hierarchies Evil?

(Note 10/15/2018: This is an article I wrote in February, 2006. It was published at that time in our church newsletter. In the light of the vote taken yesterday at #GCAC18, it seems timely to share it once again. LLF)

Are Hierarchies Evil?

© 2006 Pastor Loren L. Fenton
Canyonville Seventh-day Adventist Church

            A few weeks ago, I made an “off-the-cuff” statement in the Sabbath School class that meets in the back of the sanctuary, which seems to have stirred up quite a bit of discussion here and there.  I don’t remember the exact discussion that precipitated my remark, but as I remember it I said something like “I believe hierarchies were invented by the devil.”  It is amazing how something like this can be taken out of context and changed quite dramatically as it flows along the grapevine.  (Did you ever play the game of “telephone” at a party?)  Now, I don’t deny that I made the statement, but I thought maybe it would be profitable for us all if I commented a little more on the subject here.

First, I want to apologize for causing distress for some of our people.  I guess it was assumed by my statement that I do not believe in church organization.  Let me assure you that is not the case at all.  I very much value and respect the way the Seventh-day Adventist Church is organized, and I am thrilled to know how God has led this denomination in its organizational history.  It is a blessing to me personally as I receive my monthly paycheck from our Oregon Conference headquarters, and I count it a great privilege to return a faithful tithe, and give additional offerings, for the support of God’s work, not only here in Oregon, but around the world through the General Conference and related entities.  Yes, I am loyal to the Seventh-day Adventist Church and its organizational structure!

As I have thought about this question of organization and hierarchies, I suppose a more accurate representation of my thoughts would be that I object to the abuse of power so often found in hierarchical organizations.  A study of the history of secular hierarchies reveals that they are characterized by one dominant element: control of the many by the few.  The early Christian church of the Dark Ages absorbed this spirit when Roman authority was imposed on all believers under its influence.  In some places such as Ireland, however, the church flourished for centuries outside of the Roman influence.  The result was an entirely different organizational structure, which, although eventually overwhelmed by the power of Rome, became the seedbed for the Protestant Reformation.   If you would like to read more about this, a good reference is The Celtic Way of Evangelism: How Christianity Can Reach The West . . . Again, by George C. Hunter III, published by Abingdon Press, 2000.

In sharp contrast to this abuse of power through top-down, command-and-control authoritarianism is the example of Jesus, the teachings of Paul, and the example in the Old Testament of Moses and Jethro.  Jesus taught and lived by the principle of “whoever is the greatest among you, let him be your servant.”  Paul declared, “I will glory in my weakness that the power of Christ may rest upon me.”  Jethro’s counsel to Moses to organize the people into tens, fifties, hundreds, and thousands (see Exodus:18)  was not for management or control of the masses, but to effectively serve their needs.  Thus, it is plain to see that the purpose of any church organization, whether hierarchical or otherwise, is to serve the needs of the people and to give glory, worship, and honor to God.  
The church is neither a kingdom (in the classical, human sense) nor an oligarchy.  Rather, it is the body of Christ, empowered by the Spirit of God, and called to a holy purpose.  The purpose of church organization must ever, and always, be to effectively empower the people of God to live their calling.

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