Christianity, like other world religions, has a strong sense of community and institution. To some extent, especially in Catholicism, the communal and institutional dimension is stronger compared to that of such religions as, for instance, Judaism and Islam; there is a globally centralized authority in Catholicism in which Vatican is at the center, while there is no such thing as Jewish or Muslim Vatican-like centralized authority. Some scholars have acknowledged that among the significant factors of the successful growth and spread of Christianity are “self government in a bureaucratic world and the power of Christianity’s organization” (Ferguson, p. 18). The existence of community and institution in Christianity has very much to do with order in the community and representation as an institution. In maintaining these order and representation, there must be those in authority to lead, rule, and represent the community, some of which are held in a ‘democratic’ way, and some are hierarchical. And particularly in the hierarchical way of holding authority—the thing that I am going to elaborate in this essay—there is the positive aspect (in which order can be more well-maintained and representation can be more united) as well as the negative one (in which lies the idea that those holding authority are independent of accountability of truth so that it has the potentials leading to abuse of power).
Let me begin with the negative aspect, that is, in the hierarchical authority of leadership to determine the truth, exist those in power to rule and those, the lay Christians, submitting the truth to those in power, one which in turn can incline toward power abuse because the truth is subject to power-over. In the hierarchical authority, truth can matter less than roles, which are based on ascending ranks, like a ladder, where those in the top have almost no accountability and blame is often ascribed to the subordinates. In this respect, the subordinates criticizing or rejecting those in the top are wrong just because of that criticism and rejection. These all are exemplified, for example in the history of Catholicism, by the case of Galileo who was brought before the Inquisition because he was found guilty of committing heresy, the case which was applied also to Copernicus. In fact, those in power, as a consequence of having authority to determine the true interpretation of Christianity, have the authority to determine the limits of deviancy and as such excomunicate those transgressing the boundary. The history of so-called Protestant Reformation and later the Inquisition was actually about this: the Catholics trying to eradicate herecies committed by Protestant Christians who were no longer willing to concede the authority of determining what a Christian should believe and do to the papal institution (without overlooking another factor that the papacy had an affair with the emperor). Besides the abuse of power, hierarchicalism can lead to the abuse of Christian teachings (at least as seen through the rival’s perspective): those having authority can misuse a biblical passage, for example, to justify certain political interest or even their authority itself (by quoting, for instance, 1 Chronicles 16:22 saying, “Touch not mine anointed”, interpreted as “never criticize those in authority over you”). To summarize it bluntly, hierarchical authority inclines toward an authoritarian leadership.
That is one of the reasons why, in responding to hierarchicalism of the Catholics, Protestant denominations hold their authority not in a hierarchical system where pastors/priests at the top have no accountability (hierarchicalism is reflected in the “episcopal polity” of church governance, led by bishops whose presidency is both sacramental and political and whose authority is claimed to have been derived from an unbroken apostolic succession from the Twelve Apostles of Jesus—this episcopal polity exists in the Roman Catholic Church and Orthodox Churches). Some Protestants then hold “congregationalist polity” in which local church congegration is independent and ecclesiastically sovereign or aoutonomus (as exemplified, for example, by the Baptist churches). Others employ some sort of the middle way between the episcopal and the congregationalist, that is, “presbyterian polity” in which each congegration is independent but the limited-yet-important authority is held by the assembly of elders knwon as the presbytery. In the presbyterian polity, authority flows both from the top down (e.g. ordaining ministers, installing pastors) and from the bottom up (e.g. officers are elected by and from among the members of the assembly). It might be able to be analogized that while hierarchicalism is like a ladder, the other two are more or less like a round table. All these kinds of church governance have in a way their own biblical justification; (as a matter of fact, the history of schisms in Christianity is also a history of battle of interpretations). Catholics may say that their Church is the Church holding the authority that was referred to by God in Romans 13:1-8.
Having said that, however, the primary arguments for those supporting hierarchichalism is the idea that the Church must institutionally embody the spiritual presence of Jesus inherited through the apostolic lineage (Ephesians 2:20 says, “Built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone”). Hierarchicalism predicates its validity on the fact that it continues the legacy of the Apostles through direct, unbroken link. This is why, at least as seen from the Catholic perspective, a church is legitimate not only as long as it conforms to the scripture but also it belongs to the ‘sacred Tradition’ (while in Protestantism, it is only the ‘scriptural authority’ [known also as the doctrine of sola scriptura] that determines the legitimacy of a church). For Catholics, the Church speaks on behalf of Jesus on earth: it is not only teachings that Jesus came to bring but also redemption and salvation. Catholics themselves claim that they cannot save themselves, since salvation, for Catholics, is a supernatural gift that can only be received from God through Jesus Christ, in obtaining which a Catholic needs a real contact to Jesus. This contact can be held through the Church in the sacraments. According to Catholics, the Apostles and their successors have passed on the sacramental power given to them by Christ to priests in every generation. Bishops, then, are successors of the Apostles; they are consecrated in succession from the Apostles. In this respect, lies the importance of a structured, institutionalized Church instituted by Christ without which the link to Christ would be lost. The Catholic church, it is claimed, exhibits the “Mystical Body of Christ”: by being part of the Church, then, is meant to be incorporated into the Body where Christ is the Head (1 Corinthians 12:27-28 says, “Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it”).
As analogized with body, it needs to have structure and the ability to act in a unified way in which Christ as the Head of the Body constitutes the ultimate unifying principle of the Church. One of the biblical legitimations for this, in the Catholic interpretation, is that Jesus gave a specific authority to Peter: “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Matthew 16:19). This is different from the church and the authority as interpreted, for example, by those in the World Council of Churches (WCC). WCC interprets the Body of Christ not in literal way: it is built up “by proclaiming the Word of God, by celebrating the sacraments, and by guiding the life of community in its worship, its mission and its caring ministry” (WCC, 1982:18-19). So is the authority: it “accords public recognition to a particular person”, is not “understood as the possession of the ordained person”, “has the character of responsibility before God”, and “is excercised with the cooperation of the whole community” (WCC, p. 19).
Besides the apostolic-lineage argument, hierarchicalism makes the institution more able to maintain the order with a unified voice (at the least as to the fundamental doctrines) and ‘political’ representation (in Catholicism, the papal voice is the Catholic voice). The Church-as-the-body-of-Christ analogy can support this: in order for a body (along with its ‘head’) to work well, parts of the body must be in the same body. Another analogy: it is more or less like a country; many citizens may vary in terms of political views, but as long as they have the same citizenship, they are in the same nation, with the same president, working in a unified way; the state, which is hierarchically governed, represents the nation. In relation to church, the Church is possessing the country-like governing authority: any groups (local churches) that are not under the government of the Church’s hierarchy are not fully united to the Body of Christ in the Church. Also, the order is maintained through those who meet the requirements (educational, spiritual, and moral) to be priests, and these requirements in Catholicism is institutionally ruled top-down (while, as a comparison, there is no such an institution to ordain Muslim ustadhs/ulema, one which may lead to chaotic fight among interpretations, particularly in today’s Muslim world).
No less important, the representational role of the church matters very much when it comes to ‘worldly’ affairs. In the Catholic perspective, the church “bears the fullness of God’s politics through history” (Cavanaugh, p. 403) as “there is no separate history of politics apart from the history of salvation” and the church is indispensable to the history of salvation” (Cavanaugh, p. 394). Another view on the role of church is from Anabaptists insisting on “the separation of the church from the world, that is non-conformity of the Christian to the worldly way of life” (Bender, p. 18). To see how the political power of the Christian church has manifested in the last century, we can see it through, for example, the 1934 Barmen Declaration addressed to the German Christians who were supporting Nazi Germany and making the church subservient to the state; or, another example, Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1963 Letter from the Birmingham Jail addressed to the clergymen who disapproved the demonstration against politics of racism for being against the law, yet the law was considered unjust by King so that civil disobedience is imperative.
Those three things (apostolic lineage, order, and representation), in my view, are the positive aspects of hierarchicalism. Yet the negative aspect (inclination toward the abuse of power) cannot be overlooked: faith is certainly a matter of individuals and very often it cannot be encompassed enough in the Church; the order, then, has the problem of representing the faith. The history of religion having hierarchical authority (including Christianity and other world religions) has been and is about the history of back-and-forth battle between the institution and the individuals as to the true faith and the right interpretation.
Bender, Harold. 1944. “The Anabaptist Vision,” Church History (1944).
Cavanaugh, William. 2004. “Chuch”, Blackwell Companion to Political Theology (2004).
Ferguson, Everett. 2010. “Community and Worship”, The Routledge Companion to Christian Thought .
King, Jr., Martin Luther. 1963. “Letter from the Birmingham Jail”.
The Barmen Declaration. 1934.
World Council of Churches. 1982. “Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry”.