The Tree of Life
In Revelation 22:2a we read, “In the middle of the city square and on either side of the river was the Tree of Life”. Tree, not trees. But how can this be? As explained at Mostly Odd, there is an entire forest in Utah that is really only one tree, a quaking aspen called the Pando. It spreads by extending roots through the ground and then back up to the surface, thus appearing to be separate trees. It also resembles the Biblical “Tree of Life” in that it is impervious to forest fires, because the roots are too deep and extensive.
Now let’s use this as an illustration of sin. Too often we only look at the symptoms, the outward expressions, rather than the roots. This failure to uproot rather than cut at the surface is why we have so much trouble expunging sin from our lives. But it is no more obvious than the current scandal of the Duggar family regarding the admitted incest committed by their son Josh against his little sisters.1 It makes the point that the teaching of hierarchy, at whatever level, is the root of the scandal du jour. While the particulars of this case must certainly be faced and dealt with, we need to remember that it is but one “tree” from the same massive, hierarchical root.
There are many places to learn about the so-called Christian Patriarchy movement, and the reader is encouraged to read about it, such as at Hacking Christianity or Spiritual Sounding Board, or the pro-patriarchy site Denny Burk. The last link, ironically, seeks to “address… root causes behind egalitarianism”, and it goes on to prefer the word “patriarchy” as more honest and accurate than “complementarianism”. So we have it here from the horse’s mouth, so to speak, that “complementarianism” really is meant to obfuscate the teaching of hierarchy with the cloak of equality of being.
So the root of the Duggar and other scandals is in the teaching of patriarchy, which is part of the larger issue of hierarchy.2 To divide mankind into what is, in practice, two separate species, is of course to also divide the Body of Christ, and it is the teaching of division (Rom. 16:17), on the basis of not character or spiritual gifting but the flesh alone. Scripture teaches that in Christ we are all one entity (Gal. 3:28), one body with many parts (Rom. 12:4ff, 1 Cor. 10:17, 12:12ff), none of which can play the part of the Head which is Christ (Eph. 1:22, 4:16, Col. 1:18, 2:19). Jesus directly forbade such hierarchy in his rebuke of the disciples seeking positions of authority in the coming kingdom (Mark 9:34–37, 10:35–45, Luke 22:24–27), and he lived out the example of all who would be Christian leaders, both in coming to serve (Phil. 2:5–11, Mark 10:45) and in washing the feet of his own followers (John 13:3–17). All who claim to follow Christ must follow His example of humility and lay privilege aside.
Privilege, or entitlement, is the true root of the many scandals that have come to light in recent years in the Christian community. If someone believes they have been given divine privilege, that person is not only in violation of scripture but also is institutionalizing a system that provides ideal soil in which abuse can grow. Certainly there are times and places for hierarchy, such as the military or a business, but the church is neither of those: it is one body, and the hand cannot boss the foot. Even in one of the favored proof texts for patriarchy, the fifth chapter of Ephesians, Paul’s emphasis on the behavior of husbands is that they love their wives, not lord over their wives. The comparison Paul makes between the church and a marriage is not that men should rule their wives as Christ rules the church, but that men should love their wives as Christ loves the church (see the “bookends” in Eph. 5:25 and 5:33). Verses 21 to 23 have been twisted from the Greek emphasis on support and unity into idolatry, since translations add the word “submit” to verse 22 when it isn’t there at all, but instead gets it from verse 21— which is clearly mutual, a two-way street. This interpretation matches Paul’s teachings cited earlier about the head and body being a picture of unity rather than authority. All of this is examined in detail in the book referenced below as footnote no. 2.
Yet this teaching of hierarchy is not limited to matters between male and female, but also to the so-called clergy/laity division. To believe that Paul overturned Jesus’ command that “It must not be so among you” is to badly twist scripture in favor of the pervasive and historical cultural tradition of religion. But Paul taught no such thing; not once does he ever make “pastor” an office or “elder” an authority. Rather, in keeping with what Jesus taught, Paul describes Christian leaders as examples, as mentors, as wise and mature people to whom others can look for help and encouragement. The actual Greek of the proof texts Heb. 13:7 and 13:17 is not at all about authority; the words mean to imitate their lives and consider the wisdom of their teachings (see The Gift New Testament, the letter to the Hebrews, or TGNT Interlinear and choose the reference).
A person who feels entitled to exercise authority over other Christians, especially their own spouse, is unfit to lead. This desire to control is especially egregious between a husband and wife, the one place where a person should feel safe and equal. To ordain that a sexual relationship entails hierarchy is not only despicable, but it also opens the door to the most intimate violations of a person’s being. And the person with the perceived authority is harmed as well by the fact that they get their way, not by persuasion but by force— and this, on no other basis than the flesh one was born with. But God is still not one to judge by appearances (1 Sam. 16:7) or social privilege (James 2:1ff).
God’s habit throughout scripture was to go against social norms: Abel over Cain, Isaac over his older brother Ishmael, Jacob over his older brother Esau, Joseph over all ten of his older brothers, David over all seven of his older brothers, and lowly Joseph and Mary over all the prominent families in Israel. And in the New Testament, “Brothers and sisters, consider the circumstances of your appointment: not many of you were considered wise, not many had power, not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish to shame the wise; he chose the weak of the world to disgrace the strong; he chose the lowly, the outcast, and that which does not exist, to neutralize what does exist, so that nobody could brag before God” (1 Cor. 1:26–29). And we must not forget that it was women to whom Jesus first appeared after his resurrection, to whom he also gave the first evangelistic commission. Even when God confronted Adam and Eve after they sinned, it was Eve by whom Adam’s “help” would come, through her “seed”, which would be Jesus.
Many more examples could be given for how God does not teach hierarchy in the Christian community at large or the intimacy of marriage, or for how God has not made Christian leaders as authorities. The only disciples to whom authority was assigned were the Twelve, plus Paul, since he too had been directly taught by Jesus (Gal. 1:12), a claim none of the other apostles challenged. Authority to write scripture (2 Peter 3:16) was never passed down to anyone else.
So anyone who claims authority, especially that they have been granted privileges denied to others, is a false teacher and a divider of the Christian community. Whether between male and female, or leader and follower, there is no part of the Body of Christ that can legitimately claim hierarchy, privilege, or superiority. Humility is the first and most important quality in anyone claiming to lead others. We are meant to work together, with Christ (not humans) as the Head and the Holy Spirit as our guide and protector. To think that humans require other humans to enforce compliance with God’s commands is to accuse the Holy Spirit and the Scriptures of being inadequate. It is Jesus who died for us, the Holy Spirit who indwells us, and the Bible that guides us; anyone trying to circumvent any of those is usurping God Himself.
The root of sin is pride; the root of pride is privilege/entitlement; the root of privilege/entitlement is the twisting of scripture. But know also that those who crave control cannot have it unless their followers give it to them. The “evil twin” of control is laziness; those who wish to avoid personal responsibility before God and hand it to a fake intermediary are just as much a part of the problem.
But knowing human nature and the fact that so many people know nothing about our equality in Christ in every relationship, we have an obligation to step in, step up, and step out. We cannot sit idly by while people are being abused, in the name of peace or freedom. In Christ, being all of one Body, we are tasked with renouncing the roots of abuse and reaching out to the victims. But, sadly, too many Christians think that forgiveness is cheap and without consequence (ref. the aftermath of King David’s rape of Bathsheba and subsequent murder of her husband Uriah), or they call it “suffering for Christ”, in spite of the fact that such suffering is never to come from the hands of those claiming to belong to Christ. Paul specifically told Timothy to show no favoritism in disciplining errant leaders (1 Tim. 5:20–21). They are to be held to a higher, not lower, standard; no excuses are to be made for them simply because they’re leaders. We must think first of the victims, instead of the common habit of rushing to protect the perpetrators.
The Christian community is a body, not a democracy, and it is ruled by God, not man. We are to live on principle, not pragmatism, and to uproot evil at its foundations. That means strongly opposing hierarchy between Christians, and stopping the support of any churches or organizations that promote it. Inaction is tacit approval, and we will be held to account by God for not renouncing and opposing this insidious and gangrenous teaching. It is not a question of degree but of kind; there is no way to have just a little hierarchy, or to justify it as long as it’s benevolent. Jesus did not tell us to put a fine polish on lording over, but to get rid of it completely. It matters not whether the crown a person wears is made of gold or of cardboard; the problem is the wearing of the crown at all, the hierarchy the crown symbolizes. If the elders in heaven can throw their crowns at the feet of Jesus (Rev. 4:10), then what of the elders on earth? Can they keep theirs, and the entitlement such crowns on earth represent? By now the answer should be clear.
For Christ’s sake… get rid of hierarchy down to its roots, and you will destroy the foundation of scandal and abuse. Jesus said that whoever harms “one of these little ones” should have a large millstone tied to their neck and be thrown into the sea (Mat. 18:6). And Paul said, “Expel the evil one from among you!” (1 Cor. 5:13). What are we waiting for?
- This particular source is just one of many, and the standard disclaimer applies: This is no endorsement of all opinions or other stories at the site. For example, home schooling is done also by atheists, and many simply on the basis of the poor quality (and politicization) of public education. The reason this source was chosen was because of its overview of sex scandals among fundamentalist Christians, not its detailed account of the Duggars’ case.
- The book You Are All One: Debunking Hierarchy in Christianity is a detailed Bible study on the matter of hierarchy.