Dear James (9)–Hierarchy and the Good

Dear James,

Once again I’m sorry for the delay in writing you—yes, I have received both of your letters in the meantime. I was away for three weeks in the summer, was recovering from illness, and have been otherwise swamped with church work overall. I am glad to get back to my correspondence at last (especially ours).

I am as surprised to hear as I expect you are to report that your pastor has chosen to stick through this difficult time. It certainly sounds like it has been rough. And I can attest to how difficult it is to perform the pastoral office faithfully while every move and motive is being examined by committee. I shudder at the thought. Does his perseverance elevate your opinion of him, or do you begin to think that he is stubbornly refusing to see the truth? Ironically, every pastor needs stubbornness—in positive language we would call it “backbone.” The only question is where we pastors should choose to dig in, and wisdom is the business of choosing those battles correctly.

If you think about it, to choose anything always means to choose between good and bad, and sometimes even between one good and another. I bring this up because of one of your objections—you say that “doesn’t the kind of inequality you are talking about point to hierarchy, and isn’t hierarchy oppressive?” But I think you are wrong to assume that hierarchy is bad—hierarchy, in fact, is necessary for us to make any discerning choices at all. All choices depend on our ability to discriminate between goods, and the process of discriminating requires us to employ hierarchy.

This is actually a process that is grounded in the basis of human thought—that we have the ability to discern between good and bad, and then within goods to discern between good, better, and best. For any given set of choices I have there is often a choice between good and bad itself. For example, I have a son, and the good choice is to feed him, while the bad choice is to neglect him. But within the good choice I also have a ranked series—a hierarchy—of goods to choose from. I can feed him bread and water (good), or I can feed him a bologna sandwich (better), or I can prepare him a proper meal with spaghetti and salad (best). The differences between the three kinds of meals are relative goods. Surely it is better to feed him bread and water than to neglect him, but it is also best of all to provide him with regular, proper meals. The point is that we are making these discernments all the time, and in every circumstance we make choices between goods by utilizing a hierarchy of thoughts.

It is interesting that we see Jesus displaying this process during the temptation narrative. Satan there prompts Jesus to feed the multitudes, perform miraculous signs, and inherit the nations. Jesus refuses Satan in all three temptations, but then goes on in his ministry to do all three of those things. The problem, we see, wasn’t that Satan tempted Jesus with evils, but with goods that were outside of God’s timing. Jesus didn’t really refuse to feed the multitudes, he refused to do it on Satan’s schedule. He made a choice based on relative goods.

So, it is incorrect to claim that hierarchy is evil, or wrong. In fact, even to make that claim you have to argue that hierarchy is bad, and in arguing that it is bad you are arguing that something else is better, and therefore using hierarchy to argue that hierarchy is wrong. You can hear the saw working at the branch even now.

Perhaps this brings us back to our discussion of equality and inequality. I have argued that equality is always a fiction, and that just behavior in the world demands acknowledgement of those fundamental inequalities. This, you have observed, appears to imply a hierarchy among people, and this is a concept which the world finds abhorrent. But revulsion is not an argument, and hatred cannot equalize except by violence. There are people in the world who exceed me in virtue, as well as others who exceed me in power and influence (they are rarely the same people). They are my betters (relative to those particular categories), and I must function in the world acknowledging those differences, aspiring to greatness in virtue and to justice in using the power I have been given. I am not intrinsically more valuable than someone else, but by virtue of the gifts I have been given by God I must administrate those gifts according to their good. Hierarchy, in this way, is inseparable from responsibility and stewardship.

What I think has happened is that we humans fear power and hate pride—at least we fear and hate it in others, because we love it plenty well enough when we have it ourselves. Once again, envious of power and discontented that any should be exalted over us, we use the language of equality to violently reject the differences. The person who says, “Hierarchy is oppressive” is also saying he or she hates that any person would be higher than them. It is pride, rejecting the natural humility of life as a human. Hierarchy is not naturally oppressive, it simply exists. We might well reject actual oppression, and we will rightly condemn all misuses of power. But to reject hierarchy itself is to reject thinking at all. Human discourse decays into meaninglessness. Nothing can be done because nothing can be thought of as right or wrong.

You mention the parable of the vineyard workers from Matthew 20, where the master hires men at different times of the day but pays them all equally at the end of the day. This parable does not, in my estimation, argue for equality—certainly not as the world argues for equality. The point of the parable highlights the order of salvation. The Jews, who were God’s first workers in the vineyard, will receive the same reward (God’s kingdom) as the Gentiles who come in late. The final word gives away the game, “Are you envious because I am generous?” It hearkens to the sin of Jonah, filled with bitterness because God saved the Ninevites. Stated in Paul’s language, this is exactly what it means for there to be “neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female.” These factors no longer give us privileged access to God’s kingdom, which is open to all. There is no place for racism among God’s people. But that does not mean there is neither status, nor roles, nor hierarchy. All are part of the people of God; those exalted by God with power are expected to steward their power for the benefit of others.

So, as you continue to walk with your pastor, try to help him discern these goods. What is the best choice? And is there a better set of options available to him? Remember that at this time you have been given an exalted place—access to his heart and mind. You are “above” many others, but he is “below” the committee. You cannot escape these hierarchies, but you can act as a faithful steward within them. I am eager to hear how the situation develops.

Every Blessing,

Jeremy Rios

3 comments on “Dear James (9)–Hierarchy and the Good

  1. Jamie Carter says:

    Hierarchy is great – so long as I benefit from being at the top, always getting my way, always getting the last word. Hierarchy is terrible – so long as I am disadvantaged from being at the bottom, never getting my way, never getting the last word. The problem with Christian hierarchies, is that it says: “men have higher status than women” so even the worst man is better than the best woman. It denies that God likes to point to an individual and upset the apple-cart by choosing the youngest son of Jesse (not the eldest.) The second-born (not the first-born.) Huldah, Junia, Phoebe, Anna, Elizabeth, Mary – and not only the Tom’s, Richard’s and Harry’s to be his servants. Hierarchies give people permission to decide which gender, which race, which status has more freedom and is better than the others. It was how Ancient Rome organized itself, and as a consequence the Christian church had little choice but to go along to get along but not once did Jesus tell his followers to believe as Romans do, that hierarchy was how society ought to be governed. Jesus’ own take was to turn them upside down. Putting the few at the bottom, and the good of the many at the top.

    • jmichaelrios says:

      Hi Jamie, thanks for commenting.

      First of all, you need to consider whether you believe your position to be better than mine. If you think it’s better, then you’ve just brought a hierarchy of ideas into the discussion–it’s only that you are favoring your hierarchy over the one I describe. Furthermore, it becomes clear that as you disparage hierarchy you have merely replaced one hierarchy for another–look at the language of “top” and “bottom.” Even your last sentence, “Putting the few at the bottom, and the good of the many at the top” is expressly hierarchical. The question is not whether or not hierarchies exist, it is how we use and live within them justly.

      Hierarchy is not evil. Hierarchy simply exists. How we use it may or may not be evil. How we examine the early church using it, and Jesus using it in particular, is quite informative, and might produce some fruitful discussion, don’t you think?



  2. keijo says:

    So nice that we all can involve in to say our meaning and share the word to joy and be chosen of God in his plan to work and to make differents by the Holy Spirit with us to help and quard and living inside us to joy and give us wisdom to chose right and the truth in love of God,thanks and bless and pray,keijo sweden


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