I’d like to continue looking into this issue of authority and hierarchy in Christianity. Roger E. Olson wrote a blog post last month on “Truth, Authority and Roles.” In it he raised the very valid point that the problem with human hierarchical authority structures is that they are so prone to misuse of power—because deference to power becomes an end in itself, regardless of the rightness or wrongness of the issue at hand. As he puts it:
Hierarchy. . . emphasizes roles and “authority over” and “submission to” based on them. In other words, to put it bluntly, hierarchy is the manner of organization of a social unit (especially the family) so that assigned (or assumed) roles matter more than truth. When I was growing up. . . [p]eople who dared to criticize or question those “in authority” were labeled “negative” and ostracized. It wasn’t just a matter of how one did it; simply doing it was considered unspiritual. This mentality led to all kinds of abuses in our church and denomination and movement.
Olson uses Galileo and Luther as examples in church history. The issue the church leaders had with both was not so much about whether or not they were right, but whether or not they were in sin by not submitting to the ecclesiastical authorities. The rightness or wrongness of the actual issues at stake (the fact that the earth actually revolved around the sun, or the sale of “indulgences” so that forgiveness of sins was based on who could pay) took a back seat to whether or not Luther or Galileo had the right to confront their superiors. This was the moral problem in the eyes of the authorities: speaking in contradiction to an authority was rebellion, and rebellion was sin. Whether or not the underling was speaking the truth ultimately didn’t matter.
This is also what often happens when a woman in a hierarchical church tries to get help with her oppressive marriage. Her legitimate concerns are often left by the wayside, while the church focuses on whether she is being properly submissive. It’s not that they don’t care about her—if asked, the church would strongly deny that they didn’t care about the woman. It’s not so much that “is she making a legitimate point?” is intentionally ignored—but it’s subordinated to “who’s in charge?” Because the issue of proper submission is nearly always the first issue raised, it trumps the lesser point of “who’s in the right?” And the underling is effectively silenced.
So when husbands are given unilateral authority over wives, this is the situation. If the man is gentle and humble, as Christ commanded– then he’ll listen to his wife and concede when he perceives truth. If he doesn’t perceive truth, though– even if she’s still in the right, her voice is often hard to for him to truly hear. He is aware, deep down, that his opinion is the one that ultimately matters.
And if he’s not humble and gentle-- not inclined to listen to his wife— eventually she will get weary and discouraged from not being heard, from having her personhood overridden by his in the name of “submission,” from the injustice of having her truth not seriously considered as to whether or not it may be truth, and she may leave him. And then, of course, she will be the one who gets blamed.
Similarly, when a person or a couple with low status in a church hierarchy leave a church, they may have a legitimate complaint which ought to be listened to by the church authorities. The authorities ought to be able to say, “Hey, they’re right and we’re wrong. We need to make some changes.” But often the very existence of the hierarchy renders this impossible. They can’t hear, “Your leadership practices, or the policies you’ve implemented, are hurting the congregation.” All they can see is a church member “in rebellion.” So when the member leaves, who gets blamed? The member— who may even be disfellowshipped for causing strife. Even if he or she was actually in the right.
I saw it too many times when I was in the hierarchical church I attended in college. How much better it would have been if the church authorities could have practiced the wisdom set forth in James 3:17: “But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, unwavering and without hypocrisy.” (Emphasis added.) But instead their leadership was full of “jealousy and selfish ambition,”(verse 16) as they held onto power and insisted on deference as their God-given right.
None of these are intended results of hierarchy. But when you have a system that is inequitable by its very nature, and then you set it up as the divine plan of God– this is what can happen. And no one stops to ask, “are we sure this inequitable system was really being endorsed by God in the Bible, or is it just that the Spirit was helping people already living under an inequitable system in the first-century Roman Empire, to work around it?”
So having said all that, I’ll say this. Many churches today blame "worldly feminist culture" for the increase of divorces in evangelical marriages. But here’s what I think is really going on in many cases. Women once believed they really were inferior to men. When their legitimate concerns were ignored or silenced, they accepted it. What else could they do? They had no power, and it was their lot in life. But the evangelical church as a whole is putting forth a new doctrine, even while claiming it is what Christianity as a whole has taught through the ages. The traditional doctrine, taught by Jerome, Origen, Augustine, Luther, Calvin and many others, said point-blank that women were by nature inferior. Today the evangelical church generally teaches that men and women are equal in nature, but have different “roles,” with women meant for the subordinate roles and men meant for the roles of authority.
Today, then, an evangelical woman may say to herself, if she is in an oppressive marriage, "I have chosen to be submissive, but I’m not inferior. I deserve to be listened to and heard. And if I am speaking the truth, it is not less true because I am the one who has it. If my husband’s perceived ‘truth' is weightier and more important than mine, that isn’t right."
This feeling of injustice, of not being heard, will eventually affect her feelings about the marriage, and if things get bad enough, she may in self-preservation seek divorce. But is this truly “worldly feminism”? Or is it a correct understanding of her worth and value to God, and her responsibility of self-stewardship as a temple of the Holy Spirit?
So what is the answer? Go back to the easier time when women knew they were inferior, and so did not expect to be heard and listened to? When it didn't bother them as much when they were overridden by their husbands, because they accepted it as a matter of course? But in that case what do we do with the truth the church has now embraced, because it is, manifestly, the truth, spoken by God in Gen. 1:26-28 and proven by the blood, sweat and tears of women over the last hundred years-- that women really are equal?
If we want to lessen the divorce rate in evangelicalism, we need to address the problem of deference towards authority trumping legitimate truth. And the best way to do that is to finally implement the policy Jesus set forth: “not so among you, but whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave.” Matt. 20:26-27.
The purpose of human hierarchy ends up being to uphold human hierarchy. In the kingdom of God, it is of no ultimate help to those it purports to serve.