Hierarchy and discipleship

Some of our deepest theological conversations occur in our hot tub.

This past weekend was no exception. Some close missionary friends of ours who work in Asia came to stay. We always have fun  debates with them, Here’s the gist of one of our conversations that took place late at night in our jacuzzi:

Missionary: In Asia, our culture is very hierarchical. This hierarchy spills over into the church and it’s an asset to discipleship because the new believer is looking to learn from someone more experienced.

Me: God loves us enough that in his mercy he uses whatever culture we give him. But Jesus spoke against hierarchy. He said, “You know how the rulers of this world function (hierarchy). But it must not be so amongst you.”

Missionary: In the West, we are so individualistic and egalitarian. But that is not Scriptural either. In Asia, we are more communally and society minded. Because in English, it’s impossible to tell the difference between you singular and you plural, we miss the fact that much of the New Testament is addressed to groups.

Me: Neither hierarchy nor egalitarianism are Scriptural. Jesus spoke about and modeled something different–closer to an upside down hierarchy, Servanthood. We lay down our lives for others that they might grow.

What is your opinion on this? How do we best disciple others–using a teacher/pupil (hierarchical) model, as peers (egalitarian), or as servants? Does it depend on the culture we live in?

18 thoughts on “Hierarchy and discipleship”

  1. Might it progress over time? Jesus didn’t call the twelve “friends” until the end of his ministry. In other ways, could all three exist together? Jesus was a servant throughout his ministry and didn’t he serve his disciples by teaching them? A new believer isn’t as mature as an older believer, so they have things they can learn from the older believer. So there is hierarchy to some degree. But this doesn’t mean that the older believe is better than the new believer, so there is an extent equality too. And an older believer serves the newer in taking time to teach and coach the new believer.

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    1. Interesting ideas. To me the emphasis comes on Jesus serving others–thinking of Philippians 2–he took on himself the form of a servant. Jesus taught and others learned from him even though his basic attitude was that of servant. It depends on our attitude, and to a lesser extent, the format of our discipleship.

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  2. What if we see ourselves as being discipled together by Jesus? What if we’re learning from each other what he is teaching his body? Could it be the “one anothers” of scripture are expressions of Jesus and discipleship is our learning how to follow and express Jesus to others?

    What is Jesus up to in my life, family, and neighborhood? How does he want me to join him? How do we join him together?

    No matter what culture we live in, doesn’t Jesus call us into a new culture, a kingdom culture?

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  3. An excellent resource for the difference between personhood and individualism is Orthodox theologian John Zizioulas:

    The Orthodox theologian John Zizioulas is most often associated with the Christian doctrine of the person.
    The concept of the person holds together the two issues of communion and
    freedom. Zizioulas argues that if there is one person there must be many
    persons: the concept is intrinsically plural, relational and yet safeguards our
    particularity. By making a distinction between person and individual, Zizioulas
    contrasts the human who is related and integrated, and the human who is
    disengaged and isolated from all others. According to Christian doctrine,
    Christ is the person in whom we may all be persons. Christ comes to individuals
    without relation to anyone else, and brings them into communion so that they
    become persons, related to all others, indeed related to everything that is not
    themselves. This catholic being who is simultaneously one and many is coming
    into being in history, and at the eschaton will turn out to be truth of all
    humanity. In Christ, time and history move towards this reconciliation in which
    all creatures discover their proper unity and difference; this coming together
    of all things makes itself known in history in the Church and in the event of
    the eucharist. For Christian theology, the concept of the person relates to
    time and purpose and so to eschatology. His confidence in the theology of the
    Greek Fathers enables Zizioulas to lay out the logic of the Christian doctrine
    of the person with the utmost clarity, and it is this that makes his account of
    personhood distinctive and rewarding.

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  4. this debate over hierarchy verses egalitarian is always a battle of biblical interpretation the way I handle these kind of issues is to just let the indwelling lord in me decide–and you know how he always works is through loving self-sacrificing service.

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  5. I was thinking out my answer in my head before reading any others’ ideas than what was in your original post. I think my thoughts come closest to Webster’s and yours on servanthood. First, by asking an __, or __, or ___ question, you’re engaging in a logical fallacy – the two-sided coin fallacy (or maybe here we’d call it the three-sided coin fallacy 🙂 ). I think the fallacy can simply be summed up as “Unless the conclusions contradict each other, there can be more than one answer. Life is not like a coin (with only heads or tails) so sometimes or many times there is more than one option. It doesn’t have to be only “heads.” But you have already recognized that to some extent in your answer when you say that Jesus taught as a servant.
    Getting away from logic and moving to Scripture, I think it is clear that Jesus functioned as the Teacher (and the supreme example of the other four of the five-fold ministries as well, or if you buy Watchman Nee’s teaching – the four-fold ministry: teaching/pastoring being the same). Jesus clearly does teach us to get away from hierarchy as we are all brothers/sisters and not to call mere men “Rabbi” or “Father.” Also, Ezekiel 34 is a great critique of “shepherds” and demonstrates that God’s heart for shepherds is to serve and put others’ interests above our own. But I also think egalitarianism is relevant to the Kingdom. The hierarchy that exists in the kingdom is Jesus, under and over, all of us. If there’s any other hierarchy in the kingdom, it would involve brothers and sisters who lead by serving and lead by example. Leaders lead by “spiritual” influence as opposed to legal/positional influence. Elders seem to be one of the few NT people groups who are distinguished from the brothers/sisters. But again they are to lead by influence, example, and serving. Not the most organized lay out – but just some thoughts that come to mind.

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    1. Erin, these are some thought provoking ideas. In many situations I’m for both/and rather than either/or. And I totally agree with what you say about leadership.

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  6. I agree with a lot what has been written here so far. Here is one more point of view I would like to add:

    I often try to understand Kingdom things by looking at God’s original plan – which means often how things were even before the fall of Adam and Eve. How would things have been concerning people leading people or having authority if they had not fallen? The only kind of authority that God had given to man over man at that time was parental authority – Adam and Eve were to have children, so that they would multiply and fill and earth. Where there are children, there must be parental responsibility. This parental responsibility includes protection, provision, affection, teaching, disciplining, all with the goal of bringing the child to maturity so that it can live out the full potential of its very own divine design and calling. As they sometimes say, “the role of parents is to make themselves unnecessary”.
    If that was the original plan of God, then I believe it should be quite reasonable to expect God’s plan of restoration to build up on this or a similar principle. And let’s check – as far as I know there are only two functions of authority given to the church, and that is the function of elders and the function of the five-fold ministers.

    “Elders”, well the word already includes that these are more mature believers, and they are not called to rule over the others, but to watch over them as God’s household. They are exercising God’s fatherly role as his representatives to the younger believers. The role of parents is to bring the children to maturity, to enable them to live a healthy life where they fulfil their divine calling, live out the divine original personality as which they were created, and put their God-given gifts into practice. This includes providing for the children, protecting them, teaching them, supporting them, encouraging them, passing on skills, showering them with love and affection, and where necessary also to discipline them. Do they “rule”? Yes and no. In a healthy family, they do not rule in the sense of simply being the commander-in-chief over everything the children do, where the kids are there to serve the desires of the parents, and where the parents do not let the children develop their own life. But they rule in the sense of setting up a perimeter, a set of rules and values, that the children are to live by, and where the children will have to face consequences if they break them. That is the same in the Kingdom – Jesus left clear commandments, and if we want to be a citizen of the kingdom, we must observe the commandments of the king. We see an example in 1 Corinthians of how a member of the body was disciplined for refusing to repent and align with the values of the kingdom – he was expelled from the fellowship of his family in Christ. So, elders are not to impose their lives, desires, ministries or whatever on the children of God entrusted to them, but they do have to watch over the children to walk in the commandments that God has given.

    Regarding the five-fold ministry, I find it very intriguing how its role is described – it is given so that the believers will come to maturity, to the full measure of the stature of Christ, not driven around by any wind, able to do their God-appointed ministry. Coming to maturity? Growing to the full measure? Being a solid and stable character? Able to do their own work? That speaks of children being raised to adulthood. The five-fold ministry is given to raise spiritual children to maturity. It is a parental role, and that includes the same parental responsibilities as it does for elders, although with different specialisations and anointings.

    So, what is the bottom line? Parents lay down their lives to raise their children, and that includes teaching them the rules. Spiritual parents do the same. They lay down their lives to care for the children God entrusts to them, and that includes “teaching them to obey everything Christ has commanded” – not teaching them to obey everything the elders want. It is not my role to pick for my child if he/she likes painting or singing more, become a scientist, lawyer or artist, wear long or short hair etc. – but it is my responsibility to teach them to tidy up their room, do their homework, and discipline them if they lie, steal or bully others.

    Maybe a much faster, simpler and better way to put it is that authority in the church is not given to lead, but to make sure Christ leads?

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  7. I don’t think Jesus was against hierarchy. In my opinion, he was teaching against the structure of hierarchy but the attitude of “lording it over” in kingdom leadership. Even the business community is discovering the truth behind Jesus words not as an upside down triangle but one that is toppled on its side. I think one of the best expressions of that in the business community is what Jim Collins in his book, Good to Great, calls Level 5 Leadership. This is a leadership that is not driven by ego but by serving the best interest of the community/organization. I think this is closer to what Jesus was talking about.

    I could be wrong, but I think if you want to disciple men, hierarchy is a good thing. Men respect and respond to someone who embodies authority because of their character and experience. We like hierarchy because it makes things clearer. We want to know our place and our role in the organization/community.

    The major New Testament metaphor that the housechurch community latches onto is the church as family. In a family, parents have authority over their children. Older children have authority and responsibility over their younger siblings. A healthy family has a hierarchy.

    Personally, I think this is needed in discipleship. We need an older brother to show us the way. And we need spiritual fathers to exemplify godliness, instruct and discipline us.

    How can a disciple learn submission and obedience to God whom they cannot see if they don’t want to submit to and obey a leader or discipler that they can see? I’m not talking about the destructive Discipleship movement from the 70’s or controlling someone’s life. What I’m talking about is accountability for one’s character, behaviour, and shared goals.

    Isn’t submission and obedience key characteristics of Kingdom life? I mean even the Trinity has a hierarchy: The Son submits to the Father and the Spirit is sent from the Father and Son. Though they are equal in substance, Son and Spirit submit to the Father. Meanwhile, the Father gives all authority to the Son.

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    1. And yet I often think of Jesus washing his disciples’ feet. His comment was, “And since I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you ought to wash each other’s feet. I have given you an example to follow. Do as I have done to you.”

      Whatever happens, it’s the attitude that’s important. As you say, Jesus was against people lording it over others.

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      1. Agreed. I find it interesting that even while Jesus was washing his disciples’ feet, he reminded them that he was their “Lord and Teacher.” This is hierarchy as its meant to be.

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  8. Jesus chose his disciples and they chose him back because he served them. I think servanthood is the most effective way of discipling others. In hierarchical contexts, the disciple may become disillusioned by how the leader’s life does not necessarily match his/her teachings. In an egalitarian model, we don’t always listen to one another enough to have our hearts changed by a different perspective – we can become too focused on being right. When someone truly serves others and asks how they can be of benefit to others, we are more open to hearing their input because it’s clear that they are putting us first. We chose Jesus because he first loved us not because he was perfect and he knew what he was doing.

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