Monday, 31 January 2011

Pitfalls of Hierarchy: Is Change Even Possible?

[Note: This article was written just prior to the upheaval in Egypt and is not intended as political commentary on that situation, though much of the article may/may not be applicable.]

(1st in a series of articles exploring how hierarchical paradigms negatively impact culture)

Hierarchy is the primary foundation of the world's systems. Military model. Corporate model. Winners vs. losers. Rich vs. poor. Powerful vs. weak.

The reason hierarchy prevails is because it works so well for us. It's what we're used to. It's what we know. We're so wrapped in our hierarchical, pyramid-like thinking that it's difficult for us to conceive of, much less implement, a different paradigm.

Throughout history, hierarchy has most often manifested itself negatively as patriarchy, with racism and economic inequities running close behind. Males of all races, rich or poor, generally have more power and status than females throughout the world, with few exceptions. Hierarchy pervades all societies.

As our world keeps evolving, some progress is being made towards leveling the gender and racial playing fields in parts of the world, but economic equity still lags far behind. When Jesus said, "The poor you will always have with you" (Mark 14:7), perhaps he knew the hardest thing for humanity to overcome would be the greed and narcissism that sustains unjust hierarchical systems.

Pockets of egalitarianism do thrive here and there, however. And the movement against patriarchy and racism seems to be gaining some ground, in spite of major setbacks.

Most of the progress that's been made can be attributed to Jesus' influence upon humankind. Without Jesus, egalitarianism and mutuality would have little hope of existence. Women, minority races and the poor would have little chance for equal respect, freedom and opportunities.

Jesus initiated an egalitarian movement, showing people how to live and love without dominating each other. But Jesus--and courageous others since his time--paid the ultimate price for challenging the status quo. Progress is rarely achieved without conflict and casualties.

Amazingly, some modern Christians are among those thwarting progress toward egalitarianism, all in the name of biblical fidelity. Fundamentalists and inerrantists keep trying to push society backwards to the hierarchical world of the Bible, where women basically had no rights and slavery was common.

An exaggeration? Perhaps. But even if societies only reverted to the attitudes of the 1950's, not the first century, the world definitely would be headed in the wrong direction. Pushing backwards is futile, anyway. The egalitarian cat has worked its paw out of the proverbial bag; there's no going back to the way we were.

Hierarchical models of adult relationships are especially problematic at the top and bottom tiers. People at the bottom of the pyramid constantly struggle to improve their status, often looking upon those at higher levels with envy, sometimes hatred because they feel trampled upon, hopelessly stuck near the bottom due to a system over which they have no control. They are determined to rise higher than the bottom tier.

People at the top of the pyramid often have a sense of entitlement that accompanies their elevated status. They sometimes think they deserve to be at a high level because they are smarter or work harder or are simply destined to be in that position.

Many are grateful to God for their high status. Some even believe that God placed them at the top just because they are male, or white, or good, or American, or… While they enjoy power and privilege, their biggest struggle is with constantly having to scramble just to keep their place on the pyramid. They are determined to perpetuate the hierarchical system that keeps them at the top.

In her wonderful allegory, Hope for the Flowers, author Trina Paulus tells of Stripe, a caterpillar who tries to climb a huge pile of caterpillars, all trampling on each other in their blind quest to reach the top of the pile. Ultimately, Stripe reaches the top and discovers that there's "nothing there" except other caterpillars struggling with all their might to maintain their high position.

Stripe finally quits playing the game, gets trampled to the bottom, crawls away and eventually is transformed into a beautiful butterfly, able to soar above meaningless caterpillar piles everywhere.

Like Stripe, in order for all of us to be transformed and have a better life together "more than we can ever imagine," we must somehow find the courage to move beyond hierarchical systems and work towards implementing better relationship paradigms. Difficult? Extremely. Impossible? Not with God helping us.

[Upcoming: The next article in this series will explore alternative paradigms and the unique perspective of the middle class.]


  1. Naomi,
    A good article, but I would ask a question. You assert that the inerrantists is one group that keep pushing back against egalitarianism. Is that because they believe the inerrancy of God's Word or because they use that belief in an attempt to back a fundamentalist position. I personally have no problem with believing in the inerrancy of God's Word along with egalitarianism for that is what Jesus and Scripture teaches and I believe it is without error. When someone tries to use his or her own interpretation as being equal or synonymous with the inerrancy of God's Word, yes, there is a problem, but it resides with the person, not God's Word. Many "inerrancists" do equate the two. I personally do not. Just my 2 cents.

    Reverend Jim Laupp
    First Baptist Church (ABC-USA)
    Fort Dodge, IA

  2. Jim -

    Thank you for your thoughtful comments. You seem sincere (and I'm grateful for that!) in your quest to dialogue and explore different points of view.
    I've never claimed to hold "all the answers," but I do know that God has a claim upon my life and my calling as a minister.
    My following God's lead throughout my life has often been incongruent with what my conservative background taught me about "mainstream Christian/Baptist theology," and I've spent a lifetime searching for answers.
    If you skim my first blog post (June 3, 2010) you'll get a sense of my perspective.
    A more direct answer to your above question is found in my October 19, 2010 blog post, "My Bible Clearly Says...," although that article will likely raise even more questions.
    Again, thank you for responding.
    - N. Walker

  3. What a great blog! I have a question about your church: would they allow a female "senior pastor"? My own church will allow women ministers, but only if under a male senior pastor. This seems to be a major hurdle, even for churches that are open to women having leadership gifts. What is your experience with that?

  4. I was referred to your blog today from an Egalitarian Web forum, and am looking forward to reading your essays. I've posted a link to your blog for my friends and readers on my Facebook page.

    Re: inerrantists and patriarchal hierarchicalism, Philip Barton Payne is an inerrantist, an egalitarian, and the author of the most recent heavyweight scholarly book on Paul's egalitarianism, MAN AND WOMAN, ONE IN CHRIST: An Exegetical and Theological Study of PAUL'S LETTERS -

    χαρις και ειρηνη

  5. @ EricW -
    Thanks for helping "spread the word."

    @ Kristen -
    It repeatedly has been my experience that one can never predict what any congregation--especially a Baptist congregation--will do! LOL
    Ten years ago, I'm not sure if our church would have seriously been open to having a woman senior pastor. But now I think they would follow the "right" woman as senior pastor, just as they would follow the "right" man as senior pastor.
    Our church has had women deacons for years, and so far, 2 women have been elected (and each re-elected) by their peers as chair of the deacon body. There are a couple of women who have long been spiritual leaders in our church--but neither have preaching skills.
    Our church did ordain a woman minister several years ago; she preaches from our pulpit several times a year and does a fine job.
    Conservatives have had to keep "raising the bar" of what they will/will not allow in their churches, because of effective challenges to their theological positions by others. The senior pastor position is the glass ceiling yet to be overcome....but it is definitely cracked, and some women are beginning to climb through.

  6. --there I go with "hierarchical imagery" again...UGH.

  7. @ Eric, thank you for the reference of Payne's book. I definitely am going to purchase that one.

    @ Naomi and Kristen, within the American Baptist family, both men and women are ordained and serve in roles as senior pastors as well as executive ministers of regions and other positions of leadership within the national organization. While this is true, there are still churches within our family that disagree with that. That just goes to show that if you ask 3 Baptists for their opinion, you'll get 4 answers.

    @ Naomi, I'm please to hear that you have and are following God's call on your life. I hope that you didn't my initial post as a position against women in ministry. I believe that, to truly be an inerrantist, one must allow the text to speak for itself and understand it within the context to which it was written. It is my position that many within the "inerrantist" camp have hijacked what it means to be an "inerrantist" by requiring the perfect truth of God's word to line up with their own beliefs and positions instead of the other way around. I've just today posted a note on my church's facebook page about this very thing. If you'd like to look at it, the address is

  8. f.y.i. - This blog posting was published online by on February 8, 2011 with the title, "Kings of the Hill? The Pitfalls of Hierarchy."