As you may have read, I completed a dissertation this summer. The topic was something I have been thinking about for a while. In the paper, I summarised the problem I was addressing with the word Hierarchy. However, I wanted to address issues of authority, abuse of power, and what are unquestionably malformed leadership structures in the church. A simply question I wanted to examine was, “is abuse of power a feature or a bug of the church’s hierarchical leadership?”

My basic premise was based on the question (to borrow a phrase from Skye Jethani’s book series), “What if Jesus was serious about leadership and power?” and begins with a statement he made during the Last Supper.

Jesus said to them, ‘The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who exercise authority over them call themselves Benefactors. 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. 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: 25–27 (NIVUK)
abuse of power...a feature or a bug

While that was the core passage, the New Testament resonates with the idea that one person should not have authority over another in the church. (I’m sure some have a verse here or there to argue this point… don’t worry, we’ll get there.

The Impact of Christendom

From that passage, it is difficult to argue that Jesus was unclear regarding how he viewed leadership within his kingdom and church. Yet, the advent of Christendom in the 4th century saw the institutionalisation of the church’s gradual shift from a communal leadership structure to a rigid hierarchical leadership model. (I wrote a bit about Christendom over here last year)

That shift has forever changed the church and how it functions.

As the church became increasingly hierarchical in structure, the church’s ministry shifted into the control of a small group of men, while the remainder of the church became passive spectators. Rather than the church being a family one was part of, it became an event one participated in each Sunday. 

While the Reformation addressed some abuses existing within the church, the church’s hierarchical structure was not one of them. While the leaders of the Reformation did initially reemphasise the New Testament theme of “the priesthood of all believers”, in the end, they simply replaced the priest with the pastor. Church continued to be an event, and faith continued cut off from the day-to-day lives of most people.

At the same time that the connection with the church waned in most people’s lives, the authority of the church over people’s lives grew. Inquisitions. Burning of Heretics. Here in Ireland, things like the Laundries and the Mother and Baby homes demonstrate the horrible abuse of power the church exerted upon those under its authority. 

Not only was the church no longer a family we belonged to, it had also become a brutal enforcer of the life it envisioned for its adherents.

The more power it gained—the more power it had to protect—the more brutal it became.

The Definition of Insanity

It is often said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing and expecting different results.

And it is here where for many, a disconnect exists.

While few church leaders would deny the church’s history of control and abuse, the disconnect comes when the hierarchical leadership structures which facilitated that abuse are defended as our best, and perhaps only leadership option.

I believe there are many pastors who sincerely desire to see transformation happen in the lives of their congregation and their community. However, they work within systems that do not tolerate challenges to that system (again, those with power will protect their power).

I believe most pastors sincerely want to see the people in their churches living as a family. They want to see people more involved in the life of the church. They desire to see people’s faith integrated into their whole lives.

But, they are attempting to accomplish this within the Christendom model—the very model that centred the church around the priest/pastor while relegating all remaining Jesus followers to spectators. They are trying to build community using the very system that ended the church as community.

The Christendom model bears great responsibility for the current state of the church. Using that model better or more effectively will not…it simply cannot produce different results…let alone undo what Christendom has done. 

In the weeks ahead, I want to dig more into issues of power and its uses and effect on the church.

And rather than simply yelling into the void, I will present an alternative. A shared leadership model, which I believe aligns with the words of Jesus and the thrust of the New Testament.

A Feature or a Bug?

There is a well-known question regarding software which asks if an aspect is a bug or a feature. Meaning does the problem happen because there is a glitch, or is the problem inherent in the system?

The question the church needs to wrestle with is similar.

” Is the seeking of power and abuse of power a bug in our hierarchical leadership model, or is it a feature?

If it is a bug, then we can tweak it and “fix it.”

If it is a feature, then the whole structure needs to be reimagined. I believe Jesus gave us a way forward. We’ll dig into this a bit more in the weeks ahead. I’d love to hear your initial thoughts.