Hierarchy: Blessing or Bane?

“Hierarchy” is a loaded word. In my circles this word can spark fire in the eyes with quick examples of oppression that follow. Feeling uneasy, if not hurt from both coercive power and hierarchy, many in my “tribe” want to organize our lives and life together free of both. I submit, this is dangerously simplistic.

Hierarchy: blessing or bane — which is true? I argue for a “both/and.”

First, the “bane” side. Some of us know, up close and personal, the abuse of power from a parent, parents, older sibling, teacher or other faces of domination. Decisions are made, demands given; obedience is expected. Add to this, all of us have experienced working within domination-systems, including the church, where coercive force, directly or indirectly, is the norm. Particularly, women, gays, African-Americans and the less privileged among us know the sharp edge of subjection in a way that I have not experienced. And, daily we watch across the globe the countless instances of top-down decisions that benefit the few at the immense suffering of the many.

Because oppression often comes packaged in hierarchical structure, it’s understandable that hierarchy and coercive power become joined together at the hip. As we awaken to the freedoms inherent in partnership and inclusion and equality, the conclusion seems obvious — we must free ourselves of hierarchies as well. Yes, I agree but only if they are domination hierarchies.

But there are natural hierarchies that appropriately structure differences. Given their position in biological life, molecules function at a higher level than atoms. Given their position in evolution, humans function at a more complex level than monkeys. Parents, given their position in a family, function at a higher level of responsible caring than children, that is, until the children become adult.

A human body needs a head — the very image for Paul of the church. He plays off the metaphor, challenging the Philippian Christians to “Let this mind [consciousness] of Christ be in you. . . “ And he writes of the “body,” the church, as having separate, very distinct, unequal parts brought together in joint desire to embody the mind or Spirit of Christ.

Additionally, a favorite concept for church leader in the early church was “over-seer,” translated as “bishop.” Bishops are titular heads of large sections of the church, hierarchical in structure. But the original word, “over-seer” deserves a second look. An “over-seer,” sees over much of the body, not because of its superiority, but because of its position in the body. If the eyes were positioned, say, on the arm or leg, their capacity to over-see would be severely limited. Eyes in the body function to encourage cooperation, note growth, see dysfunction, and scan the environment — just what a good parent or good bishop or good pastor or good leader does. The role names the position; it does not grant powers of domination. The role as “over-seer” is for empowering, for powering-with, not for powering-over, not for coercive force.

The question for me, as I look at organizations, is — what kind of hierarchy? Those who, by their position in a system, are leaders will lean either toward being empowering or toward powering-over in controlling, coercive ways. By itself, hierarchy is neither blessing nor bane. It’s a matter of how power by leaders is understood and used: one with humility, challenge and support; the other with control, self-inflation and manipulation.

Don’t you find examples of both coming readily to mind?

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