Emergent Theology: Hierarchy, Power and Change

The root word of hierarchy is hieros.. the latin word for "priest." Emergent ecclesiology requires change and contextualization, and since fundamental change is going to be grassroots, we might as well start at the top. We start at the top for a new beginning at the bottom.

There is wide agreement that radical change is needed. But if we need permission from the top to make changes, we are back to hierarchy. This is one of the fundamental dilemmas we face in the emergent church as we work toward significant change in praxis. If we hold positions of leadership in the established church, and if those positions come with titles and authority, and if we want to use that authority to bring change that is FUNDAMENTAL and RADICAL (going to the root).. we are faced with a problem. Those around us are taught by the system and the context to look to us for permission to change. If we don't give it, we fail to recognize and release what God is doing. If we do give permission, we subvert our true intention. We reinforce the old system and its methods. No matter what we say about authority given directly to each part of the Body by its Head, no matter how much we preach and teach that all believers are priests, the medium itself is the message and we undermine our words with our position and actions.

In order to model the truth, we must either have a quality of relationship that constantly undermines our position in favor of who we are known to be (and I submit that most leaders in paid positions have no idea what their status really means to those around them and how it separates them into a class of their own). Or we resign the position in order to achieve a working brotherhood of equality and learn a new way of leading.. leading from below, leading from the margins. TO me this will be an acid test of emergence toward a new reformation. In "Reframing Paul," Mark Strom writes,

"Professionalism, even elitism, marks the sermon and the service and distinguishes clergy from congregation. Paul faced something similar at Corinth. The strong had transferred to themselves certain social and religious marks of rank and status—education, eloquence, a leader’s style, even clothing. They had also come to regard the fruits of Christ’s work—the Spirit and the evidences of his presence—as further marks of status, even ‘spiritual’ status. Paul would not tolerate this creation of new rank within the assembly. He urged the Corinthians to see what they had as gifts of grace. They must honour the least honourable. This was not conventional. This was not moral. This was not theology. This was not about words. This was the meaning of grace.

"Little in modern Christian experience matches this. Academic, congregational and denominational life functions along clear lines of rank, status and honour. We preach that the gospel has ended elitism, but we rarely allow the implications to go beyond ideas. Paul, however, actually stepped down in the world. His inversions of status were social realities, not intellectualised reforms.

"Paul urged leaders to imitate his personal example of how the message of Jesus inverted status. He was at pains to dissociate himself from the sophists, those travelling orator-teacher-lawyers of his day (1 Cor 2:1-5). Though undoubtedly educated and skilled, he did not imitate the sophists’ eloquence and persona. In so doing, Paul set himself on a collision course with the contemporary conventions of personal honour—and with his potential patrons. He refused to show favouritism towards individuals or ekklesiai. The gospel offered him rights, but he refused them. Christ was not a means to a career. Yet the agendas and processes of maintaining and reforming evangelical life and thought remain the domain of professional scholars and clergy. Their ministry is their career."

Hierarchy is not only antithetical to the teachings of Jesus, it is antithetical to community and it is literally the stopper in the bottle. It limits natural growth and expansion by messing with our fundamental understanding of the authority and identity of the believer.

"It shall not be so among you."

Now, lest you think that this issue is confined only to the so-called "clergy," let me assure you that it is not. This morning I had email from a brother whose website proclaims him, "consultant, communicator, inspired leader." This brother was complaining about the cult of personality that surrounds U2. Yet at the same time I feel he has encouraged a heroic view of his own life and ministry by the labels that adorn his website.

We are all challenged to step down in the world. We are all challenged to take the lowest place at the table. We are challenged to live and walk in a different way than the world walks, and to make those choices daily in concrete areas that say to the world that our eyes are set on another city.. our values are different. We are all broken and redeemed children of the King, with equal value and equal authority. In fact, the weakest among us may be the strongest and most needful. The kingdom of God turns the kingdom of men upside down.

"Only what we build into people will last" http://www.thursdaypm.org/blog/rachelle/20050510/allelonfuller-day-two-delayed/ ____________________________ “the church, as an institution, tends to eat its young” Day two of the Fuller/Allelon consultation was even harder for me to bear than the first. Truthfully I’m not really sure why. Maybe it was all those leader-types (myself included) trying to be heard. Or maybe it was because I just wasn’t clicking with the format. Or maybe it was because I was in California, damn it, and it was pouring down rain. (Couldn’t’ I have saved several hundred dollars and just stayed in Seattle for that?!) Looking through my notes, I see that we were having a language problem. (Aren’t we always?) We felt we were being asked to look for a structure – as in “we need a structure for training new leaders.” I raised my hand in opposition. “I don’t think we need a structure. I vote no structure!” No one at my table seconded my motion. Dwight, who I am normally in agreement with, was all for structure. (I’m sure this has something to do with his excitement over the new MDiv program at Mars Hill Graduate School – which is not, I repeat NOT affiliated with the Mars Hill mega church here in Seattle.) But here’s why I’m opposed to structure. First off, a little voice inside me said “As soon as you systematize it, you’ll kill it.” I’m learning to listen to that little voice. It sounds like the Muse. Second, a structure is intentionally permanent. You build a house, an office building, a storefront and in order to significantly alter it you have to tear it down, you have to destroy it — or at least big portions of it. We see it every week on Extreme Makeover: Home Edition. I don’t want to be a part of building something so permanent, so inflexible that the only way to let it morph with the ongoing, unfurling process of time is to destroy it. Can’t there be another way to help people who are floundering around in the waters of postmodernism other than building a structure? Because if you build a structure someone has to pay for it. And if you have to pay for it, only certain people can get in on it. And if only the moneyed can get in on it, well then you can’t lead from underneath, or from the margins, or from the fringes, because those folks ain’t got no money. And if you create a structure, if you institutionalize something, then there’s a piece of paper on the wall that you have to have in order to play, in order to have a voice, in order to have power. And only some folks can access that, in the face of structure, and then where are we at? Right back in white guy, modern, patriarchal, class structure land. Sigh. Our whole conversation has been jumping off from a place of privilege, of power. The speakers and organizers aren’t speaking and launching this conversation from underneath – they can’t – they have position and title and power. But without those things, how can you create a gathering like this? There has to be a way. Steve Taylor said on the last day, “I’m not sure we are really as creative as we think.” I wonder. He might be right. Because we cannot seem to get around this problem of access, power, and privilege. We don’t know how to find (or how to listen) to the folks who can. Or maybe we do know, but we just don’t do it, because it costs so damn much and takes too much time. This is all very disjointed, isn’t it? Well, here’s what I wrote in my journal on day two, when I finally had to leave the room for awhile to breathe. “I don’t know why I keep doing this. Why I keep hoping I’ll be heard, I’ll find people – with power – who are like-minded. We’ll find a way to embrace the church’s children, and Her children…a way to get all God’s children’ dancing shoes. My frustration level is so high, and I’m not sure the session or the organizer or the participants merit it. It probably has more to do with me than with anything else. (It usually does.) I had only one hope coming here – that I could be helpful, could actually be part of a dreamers collective that could come up with a new way of thinking and going the thing formerly known as “leadership.” (Tonight the role of “leader” will be performed by our understudy, the lesser-valued “humanness.”) I was hopeful that I could actually be a part of the crew that turned the ships stern in the right direction. But that’s not happening–or maybe it’s just not happening as quickly as I had imagined–and I’m not sure why. “All good things start small and get smaller.” I keep on wanting to be a little bit big. But it rarely works. I don’t know. This frustration has something to do with patriarchy. I don’t know why, but I feel it in my bones. Modernity and patriarchy are so interlinked. It’s almost impossible to pick them apart. When the very shape of the conversation if formed by men, it’s different. I didn’t feel this at the Emerging Women’s Leadership Initiative or with the gals and friends-of-gals in San Diego. So there’s something subtle here that’s happening. Something the women tend to do that creates a shared experience – that shares power, spreads it out like butter across bread. These things pass through my gut and my mind: “all good things start small and get smaller” “the moment you systematize this you kill it.” “Patriarchy lies here” I keep thinking about an acquaintance of mine saying; “Every time women design something successful, men take it away.” Spencer Burke said, “I don’t want to give something to you to shrink wrap.” Last night I told Holly, “I feel like I’m about to give up my virginity to some guy who’s going to turn out to be a jerk in the morning.” These sentences ring with me, like the vibration of a gong. What’s up with that? What’s with this distrust of the process? It seems so unfair, as the organizers have been nothing but generous with us. Still I can’t stave off this unwillingness to fight through the rhetoric in order to give up the goods. “I speak __________, but it’s not my mother tongue.” (insert noun here: patriarchy, church, modernity, left brain…)


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• © 2005 Len Hjalmarson.• Last Updated on March 16, 2005