In postmodern thinking, humanity’s greatest problem, and the greatest source of conflict, is power. A ‘power-play’ is an attempt by one person to gain power over another, whether by means of wealth, position or attempting to convert others to our way of thinking. Christian religion is seen as a major offender, claiming to have the final Truth, seeking to convert the world to its doctrines through dictatorial preaching, insisting that lives and cultures change in its wake, and promoting hierarchies and titles and formal church structures.
For Christianity to become postmodern, it would need to get rid of hierarchies and other unequal relationships, it must stop trying to change and ‘convert’ people as though they are somehow culturally inferior, and preaching of Truth would need to be replaced with mutual dialogue and sharing of stories. An attentive read of The Shack reveals that this is exactly what is happening. Is the postmodernising of Christianity a necessary update? Or what should be the Christian’s attitude to postmodern criticisms of formal church and hierarchical relationships?
The Shack teaches that relationship can only be genuine if there is equality. Relationship is destroyed by inequality of rank or by power. Even God must be down-to-earth, off-beat, a joker, a crier, a pal. How can I have a genuine relationship with God if He’s not like me? Observe the conversation between Mack and the Trinity starting on page 121:
Mack: “Isn’t one of you more the boss of the other two? … I have always thought of God the Father as sort of being the boss and Jesus the one following orders, you know, being obedient… The Spirit always seemed… a free Spirit, but still under the direction of the Father.”
[The Trinity express mock surprise and confusion, as though never having thought of it before.]
Spirit: “Mackenzie, we have no concept of final authority among us, only unity. We are in a circle of relationship, not a chain of command… What you’re seeing here is relationship without any overlay of power. We don’t need power over the other because we are always looking out for the best. Hierarchy would make no sense among us. Actually this is your problem, not ours.”
Jesus: “It’s one reason why experiencing true relationship is so difficult for you. Once you have a hierarchy, you need rules to protect and administer it, and then you need law and the enforcement of the rules, and you end up with some kind of chain of command or a system of order that destroys relationship rather than promotes it.”
And on page 124, Papa says:
“We created you, the human, to be in face-to-face relationship with us, to join our circle of love.”
So, the first question is whether or not hierarchies exist within God’s person, and then, secondly, whether hierarchy can possibly exist within Godly relationships.
My first quibble with the dialogue on page 121 is that it doesn’t represent a fair comparison. Young claims that a hierarchy immediately requires rules to protect it from abuse, which lead to systems of order that allegedly destroy relationship. In other words, in the presence of sin, hierarchy would lead to tyranny and exploitation. In the place of hierarchies, he is advocating relationship without power struggles, which seemingly would not need rules to protect it, and would require no system of order. However, this might possibly be true of the Godhead, because there is no sin, and therefore no chance of abuse. But is he sure that everyone will always be happy with an equal share? This dialogue entirely avoids proper discussion of whether or not hierarchy is actually to blame for abuse and exploitation, nor does it explore why hierarchy couldn’t work equally well under those same sinless conditions that saw the democratic ‘circle of relationship’ become his ideal.
In classical Greek literature, such as Plato’s Republic, long, careful discussion of the ideal form of government seeks to find what is the happiest form of individual and corporate life. Plato and Aristotle both agree that monarchy, an extreme hierarchy, is the ideal form of government, as long as the monarch is the best of us. If the monarch abuses it, it becomes tyranny, the unhappiest system. The weakest government, however, though the least open to tyranny, is Greek democracy, which, unlike modern democracy, was a flat, anarchical form of government.
How, then, does scripture view this issue? What kind of relationship does scripture teach?
HIERARCHY IN THE GODHEAD?
I fully support the view that there is unity and co-equality between the persons of the Godhead, and that obedience within the Godhead is springs from love, not fear. What is unsettled is whether a ‘chain of command’ or even a hierarchy upsets that love, unity and equality. The question of whether there is order in the Godhead depends on two things: Firstly, is the father-son relationship equal or hierarchical (because that is the way God has chosen to describe the relationship that exists)? Secondly, is Jesus God’s Son from eternity, or does sonship describe only the relational role that Christ took on when he took on flesh?
I am not sure that it matters too much whether we are able to answer these questions for certain. For what it’s worth, I do not think that the father-son relationship can be seen other than in terms of hierarchy (especially in God’s case, because it does not indicate that God biologically fathered Jesus; it is being used metaphorically to describe a relationship), and I understand Jesus’ sonship to be eternal. Consider the following verses:
“You heard me say, ‘I am going away and I am coming back to you.’ If you loved me, you would be glad that I am going to the Father, for the Father is greater than I… the world must learn that I love the Father and that I do exactly what my Father has commanded me.” (Jn. 14:28-31)
“No-one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” (Mk. 13:32)
“To him who overcomes and does my will to the end, I will give authority over the nations — ‘He will rule them with an iron sceptre; he will dash them to pieces like pottery’ — [Psalm 2:9] just as I have received authority from my Father.” (Re. 2:26-27)
The coming of the Spirit is also at the direction of the Father (Jn. 14:16-17; Ac. 5:32) and of the Son (Lk. 24:49). The fact that it is the ascended Jesus who receives authority from his Father in Revelation 2, and that Jesus directs the Spirit from heaven in Luke 24, suggests to me that both Sonship and the Trinitarian giving of orders are part of the eternal relationship.
HIERARCHY BETWEEN GOD AND MAN?
Whether or not these verses settle the issue of Christ’s eternal sonship is not too important. Even if we assume that ‘sonship’ is only a function of Jesus’ humanity, dozens of passages in scripture teach that the ideal man (Jesus), in ideal relationship with God, enjoyed a hierarchical relationship with Him. If this can be scripturally demonstrated, then we are forced to conclude that hierarchy and order without sin is the best way to relate to God and one another.
So, look at the following scriptures:
- Jn. 17:1-10 – God sent Jesus, and Jesus’ authority and people are God-given (cf. Mt. 11:27).
- Mt. 20:23 – the Father determines places of honour in heaven.
- Mt. 26:39 – Jesus follows God’s will, not his own (cf. Jn. 6:40).
- Lk. 22:29 – the Father confers Christ’s kingdom on him.
- Jn. 10:17-18 – “The reason my Father loves me is that I lay down my life — only to take it up again… This command I received from my Father.”
- Jn. 5:19-30 – the Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing. The Father has entrusted all judgment to the Son. As the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son to have life in himself (cf. Jn. 6:57; Jn. 8:28; Jn. 12:49-50)
No doubt, there are many things that show a reciprocal relationship between Jesus and God. He remains divine. It is telling, however, that the Father always occupies this place as commander, and Jesus always the place of obedience. This is never reciprocal. So, at the very least, ideal humanity does recognise God’s supremacy, and submits to Him in obedience.
IS POWER EVIL?
The Shack assumes that power hierarchies are the cause of human conflict and misery. If we were in a ‘circle of relationship’, we’d have no need for rules and conflict. Contrary to postmodern preferences, God is also not ashamed of His power and authority over men. Jesus’ teaching was with authority and power (e.g. Lk. 4:36), and Jesus was given authority over people, notably from our eternal good (Jn. 17:1-2). Jesus urges us to fear God because He has the power to kill the body and throw it into hell (Lk. 12:4-5); and His wrath and power serve to advance His greater glory (Ro. 9:22-24). Finally, worship of God in scripture is based on His glory, power and authority (Jude 25; Re. 4:11). Hierarchy and power in God’s hands are not tools of evil, but rather tools of ultimate, eternal good.
If God is not ashamed of hierarchy, and if power can be a force for good, then how should we think of submission of the ‘lower’ to the ‘higher’ in hierarchies? The Greek word for ‘submit’ literally means ‘to arrange yourself under’, and so the idea of hierarchy is inherent to it. Here are some of the relationships in which submission is commanded:
- Ro. 13:1-7 – We are to submit to rulers, both because law and order is God-given, and because if respect is owed, it must be paid. “Consequently, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves” (cf. He. 13:17; 1Pe. 2:13-16).
- 1Co. 16:15-16 – We are to submit to those who have given themselves to church ministry.
- Ep. 5:21-26 – We are to submit to one another, but this does not mean that everyone submits to everyone (just as when we say ‘They killed one another’, we don’t suggest that everyone we’re talking about dies). It is a request to submit to any authorities that may be over us. Paul goes on to give examples. Wives, submit to husbands, children to parents, and slaves to masters (but there is no suggestion that this works in reverse too). Paul makes it clear that the husband is the head of the wife, as Christ is head of the church. Notably, though, headship is for love and for the benefit of the one who submits (cf. Col. 3:17-19; 1Pe. 3:1-6).
- 1Co. 14:34-35 – Women should remain silent in the churches, and be in submission. “If they want to enquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church”. This may be hard to stomach, but it’s no good pretending the Bible doesn’t say it. Hierarchy is certainly evident here (cf. 1Ti. 2:11-14 – “For Adam was formed first…”
- He. 5:7-9 – God heard Jesus’ prayers ‘because of his reverent submission’, and ‘learned obedience’, even though he was a Son.
- Ja. 3:17 – Heavenly wisdom includes submission
- 1Pe. 3:21-22 – All powers have been placed under the authority and power of Jesus.
- 1Pe. 5:1-5 The Elders are urged to serve in their leadership, not to lord it over others, the young men are told to submit to them, and all are to be humble, because, “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.”
- Ja. 4:7 – James gives us the crux of the matter. Submission to earthly authorities is a picture of willingness to submit to God. “Submit yourselves, then, to God” (cf. He. 12:9-10).
Conversely, rejection of authority is one of the characteristics of corrupt and sinful men (Jude 7-8; 2Pe. 2:9-10). So, we must be cautious about our attitude towards authority structures.
DOES AUTHORITY AND POWER LEAD TO ABUSE?
The great postmodern complaint with those in power is that power is easily abused. Scripture recognises that abuse is a great evil, but it does not take the unreasonable step of discarding authority entirely. So, leadership and headship exist, but it matters entirely how one leads. The ideal of leadership is service. Although Jesus is Lord, and demands obedience, he is also called our servant. So, there is hierarchy, but it is hierarchy of an unusual kind. Power is exercised for the benefit of those who are subject to it (cf. Mt. 20: 26-28; Jn. 12:26; Jn. 14:15; 1Pe. 5:1-5 in which elders must serve, and the common call for husbands to give up their lives for their wives).
WHAT IS THE CHURCH?
Perhaps more important than the question of hierarchy, is the question of whether formal religious structures, such as church programmes and professionals, are God’s plan, or a human perversion.
On page 178, Mack says that he can’t believe that the church is like a woman that Jesus is in love with.
Jesus: “Mack, that’s because you’re only seeing the institution, a man-made system. That’s not what I came to build. What I see are people and their lives, a living breathing community of all those who love me, not buildings and programmes… It’s all about relationships and simply sharing a life. What we are doing right now—just doing this—being open and available to others around us. My church is all about people and life is all about relationships.”
Mack expresses relief that church is not ‘a bunch of exhausting work and a long list of demands’, and sitting in endless meetings, but just sharing life. Or consider page 179:
Jesus: “Religious machinery can chew up people! … I don’t create institutions – never have, never will… That’s an occupation for those who want to play God. So no, I’m not too big on religion.”
Once again, the sentiment here is somewhat true. Church is not only institutions and buildings and positions. Church is a community in relationship, certainly, but it is a gathered community, and one that is governed by leaders in authority, and by rules governing conduct. Consider just some of the verses that indicate what the church is to be like, in contrast to the institution-free, ‘just-being-open’ church envisioned by Young.
- Ac. 20:28-32 – The office of elder / bishop is the doing of the Holy Spirit, and their role is to protect the church from false teaching.
- 1Co. 5:11-12 – The church is to judge the conduct of those who are part of the community, and expel any Christian who persists in sin and rebellion (cf. 1Co. 6:3-5). There is church discipline.
- 1Co. 11:17-22 – Christians ‘come together as a church’, which suggests that it is a formal gathering, and in that gathering, there must be unity, and there is a right and wrong way of celebrating the Lord’s Supper.
- 1Co. 12:27-31 – In the church, people of certain gifts and offices are appointed by God.
- 1Co. 14:4-6, 19, 23-35 – Gifts exist primarily for the edification of the church, which suggests that in this meeting, the main point is teaching, but not to the exclusion of other gifts that build up the body. Outsiders who attend church meetings are thus convicted of sin and turn to Christ. As people share insights into the gospel, it is essential that there is order and restraint in the service, “For God is not a God of disorder but of peace.”
- 1Co. 16:1-2 – On the first day of every week, which seems to have been the day on which the church met, collection for the church should be set aside.
- 1Ti. 3:1-15 – There are offices of Elder, Deacon, and (probably) Deaconess in the church. There are a number of qualifications that office-bearers must exhibit.
- 1Ti. 5:16-18 – The church has welfare structures (that should not be abused), and elders who direct the church, especially in preaching and teaching, are worthy of honour and a working wage from the church.
- Ac. 15:1-2 – Serious church disputes were adjudicated by the Apostles and elders in Jerusalem.
- Tit. 1:4-9 – Paul commands Titus to ordain elders of certain qualifications in every town church (cf. Ac. 14:23).
- Ac. 2:41-47 – There were basic practices that characterised church meetings.
- He. 10:25 – Christians are warned not to give up meeting together.
So, our God is a God of orders and structures. Church offices, such as eldership, and ‘paid ministry’ do in fact originate in the mind of God, and the church expresses itself by gathering. As much as the postmodernist would like Christianity to be devoid of structure and meetings and expectations, these are quite clearly there, and they exist for our good. Young would have us all being in vague relationships, rather than defining ourselves by titles and structures called Christianity (“Jesus: “Who said anything about being a Christian? I’m not a Christian…” – Page 182), but Christianity is defined by scripture, and is something worth protecting. Our eternal hope depends on it, and the church is God majestic plan to see our hope realised (Ep. 3:10-11).
Relationship, then, is indeed the centre of God’s plan and purposes for people, but it is a modern assumption that hierarchies are necessarily an impediment to that. It seems to me that God’s plan for us is to give each person his due, but not necessarily to treat each person identically. A hierarchical arrangement of society can be good, as long as we all observe godly character within that structure: and godly character is demonstrated by our Lord, who though divine…
“… did not come to be served, but to serve.”
UNNECESSARY PARTING SHOT
Young has a final dig at hierarchies and order by criticising the idea that God should be our priority.
206 – Mack: “But don’t you want us to set priorities? You know, God first, followed by whatever?”
Spirit: “The trouble with living by priorities is that it sees everything as a hierarchy, a pyramid… If you put God at the top, what does that really mean and how much [time given, etc.] is enough?”
Papa: “I don’t just want a piece of you and a piece of your life… I want all of you and every part of you and your day.”
[This is followed by the image of a mobile in which God is the centre and everything is connected, and the Spirit moves everything “in an incredible dance of being”].
As true as it is that God wants every part of our life, the call to prioritise and the ‘incredible dance of being’ are in fact different images for much the same idea. The trouble with ‘God connected to everything in a dance of being’ is that people have a tendency to be lazy and presumptuous, even (or perhaps especially) in relationship. If you let a relationship ‘be’ for too long, you might find that you need to prioritise it in order to keep it vital.