John Darby, Bible translator and dispensationalist, preached far and wide, including numerous tours throughout North America. He left an indelible mark on Evangelical Protestantism through his teachings on dispensationalism, eternal security, and the rapture. His views regarding authority, which can be termed "religious anarchism," never took hold to the same degree, but neither did they ever die out. Those ideas are still present among some Protestants, and that spirit of anarchy can be found among some who left the Worldwide Church of God.
Abundant examples in Scripture demonstrate the authority and structure of the church. However, just like the dispensationalist response to all of the verses about God's law, those examples from the inspired Word of God will hold little weight with us if we feel our experience invalidates them! Consider Paul's teaching in I Corinthians 12:27-29:
Now you are the body of Christ, and members individually. And God has appointed these in the church: first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, after that miracles, then gifts of healings, helps, administrations, varieties of tongues. Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Are all workers of miracles?
Paul does not just list various positions of responsibility (and thus authority); he puts them in a definite order. What Paul is describing here is a hierarchy of spiritual gifts. Sadly, the word "hierarchy" has come to be despised by some because of the baggage that comes with it, rather than what the term truly means. What is often affixed with the label of "hierarchy" is actually authoritarianism, which is a grave error on the opposite extreme.
Remember that an-archy means "without a leader." Hier-archy has the same root—archos—meaning "leader," but the prefix hier- means "sacred" or "set apart." Hierarchy, then, literally means a "set-apart leader." It can mean a "holy leader" or "a leader of sacred rites." In its highest sense, our hierarch is our High Priest, Jesus Christ.
A second, and more common, meaning of hierarchy is "any system of persons or things ranked one above another." When Paul says that God has appointed "first apostles, second prophets, third teachers," etc., he is ranking these positions. The ranking is not based on worth or on potential, but on gifting, authority, and responsibility. God has not given everybody in the Body the same gifts. The Parable of the Talents shows that even though everyone has the same potential, God gives us differing levels of spiritual gifts—and "to whom much is given, from him much will be required" (Luke 12:48).
This directly contrasts with Gnostic thought, which holds that everybody is completely equal, since everybody ostensibly has a divine, immortal soul. While it is true that believers are equal in some ways, this passage in I Corinthians 12 shows God has gifted some in the Body differently than others, and He has given responsibility, and thus authority, to some that He has not given to others. It is God who has made us different in this, though Paul also teaches that these differences should not be a cause for boasting because they are God-given rather than inherent (I Corinthians 4:7).
Just a few verses prior to his ranked list in I Corinthians 12:28, Paul warns against one part of the Body saying it has no need of another part of the Body: "But now indeed there are many members, yet one body. And the eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you'; nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you'" (verses 20-21).
If we are going to discern the Body properly (I Corinthians 11:29), we cannot discriminate against parts of it that we feel we have no need for. Following this principle, we do not get to decide that we have no need of someone to whom God has given greater authority and/or responsibility!
Those who claim that "God hates hierarchy" are often working from a personal rather than a literal definition. Adding in the instruction in I Corinthians 12 (and other passages that will be examined), it is clear that God is very much in favor of hierarchy. For example, and along the same lines, Paul mentions another hierarchy of authority in the previous chapter, writing, "The head of every man is Christ, the head of woman is man, and the head of Christ is God" (I Corinthians 11:3). What God does hate is sin, wickedness, and oppression, and there have been times when men, acting carnally, have misused the God-given structure of authority, both in the church and in marriage.
What follows this chapter on the workings of the Body of Christ is I Corinthians 13—the "more excellent way" (I Corinthians 12:31)—that should be everyone's governing principle, regardless of what spiritual gifting he or she may have received. Sadly, many of our former church associates stopped reading with the listing in I Corinthians 12, never continuing on to the "love chapter" to complete the instruction.
There will always be those who desire to be "in charge," to rule by their own authority rather than God's. Those who are without true knowledge of God lord authority over others rather than using it to serve as Christ did (Matthew 20:25-28; Mark 10:42-45). The problem is the carnality of those involved, not the order and authority that God has established. Therefore, modifying the order might ameliorate the symptoms of authoritarianism, but only complete conversion will actually heal the spiritual disease.
How those differing roles are to be fulfilled—whether within marriage or within the church—or what happens when those positions are abused, is beyond the scope of this series of essays. What is being shown is simply that the church of God is not anarchistic. Part Three will gather more evidence from the New Testament concerning order, responsibility, and authority in God's church, explaining why it is necessary.
- David C. Grabbe
If you would like to subscribe to the C.G.G. Weekly newsletter, please visit our Email Subscriptions page.