Not a Hierarchy, Not a Democracy, But a Pneumatocracy: The Church’s True Politics

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Yesterday I said on twitter:

Take hierarchy away from most Christians and they default to democracy which is almost worse. We don’t know how to live into pneumatocracy.

Allow me to expand on this a little.

Despite most N. Americans growing up in democracy, we are most used to living within organizations that run on hierarchy. Our churches, jobs, schools, governments, most often, run via top down authority. For sure there is some kind of democratic legitimization, but our leaders operate with an authority that operates over us. In other words, after all the conversation, all the discussion, in the end, the leader at the top makes the decision. They tell us what to do. A good leader cannot be a despot for long unless he or she gets good results (in a business). Generally, he or she has to have the broad support of his or her constituency. Even monarchs can’t go on forever abusing their people. But they are all ultimately still in a position over the people, they rule, and the buck stops with them.

I have been arguing for years (along with some streams of Anabaptism) that hierarchy has been overcome in Christ. The church is a new politics. So Jesus told his disciples over and over again “You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. (Mark 10:42-44). Instead of hierarchy, the church now is a live body of the Spirit where the gifts of the Spirit embody Christ’s authority in mutual submission to Christ the singular head of the body and in mutual dependence (and servanthood) upon one another (1 Cor 12; Eph 4 1-16).

But when we get down to doing all this, say in church planting, or in organizing missional communities, or even in organizing larger churches around the five-fold gifting, it seems we default into a mode of democracy. In the name of flat leadership, we operate as if all voices are to be treated equal on all concerns. We end up now in endless conversations discerning the issues a community is facing. And what developed is the church as a bunch of individuals talking a lot and in the end going nowhere together. Instead each individual goes their own way on any number of issues. This is why people persist in saying things like “flat leadership is no leadership.”

But the model of the New Testament is not hierarchy (or aristocracy) or democracy. It is pneumatocracy. It is the gifts of the Spirit recognized and empowered to fulfil and lead in certain gift areas (or we might call them tasks) in mutual submission one to one another under one Lord the head of all. It starts first with a set or recognized leaders in certain gifts: apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, teachers (Eph 4:11) OR apostles, prophets, teachers in (1 Cor 12:28). These leaders are the “first” leaders which then set into motion the rest of the gifted body. They are not only to lead, but to always encouraging, affirm and call the rest of the body into its giftedness in the various contexts of tasks and arenas the church is serving in. These first gifts get recognized in order to then “equip” the rest of the body for ministry (Eph 4:12). This beginning leadership circle is polycentric, not one singular leader at the top. It demands of each leader mutual submission, because one person cannot see or know everything considering the issues of a political body (the church).  And this leadership circle models for the rest of the church how we are all together to operate.

The gifted one always leads out of their giftedness only and then submits to the rest of the body. A conversation is not leadership. The teacher teaches. The pastor pastors, etc. (1 Cor 12: 8-11; Rom 12:6). The Lord of the church distributes to each as He determines (1 Cor 12:11). So I always ask whoever is leading on an issue to a.) talk about what drives their concern and discernment, b.) make a proposal and then c.) submit it to the rest of us. We discuss, we might have some other angles on the issue, and make another proposal with slight changes. It becomes our joint decisions as led by the one with a particular gift. The apostle (are we engaging!) will generate different issues for concern than the pastor (are we caring for!) than the teacher (are we heretics!!) than the evangelist (are we reaching these hurting people!!) . But in the end we together discern the mind of Christ (1 Cor 2:16).

This is a stunningly different form of leadership than is possible in the world. It is made possible only in Christ. It displays a different politics before the world: noncoercive, mutual, coalescing instead of antagonistic. It recognizes diversity, not a false unity or endless tolerance in a conversation that goes nowhere. For sure there will be leaders who are more visible given their gift. (Paul acknowledges as much in 1 Cor 12). But this does not mean the less visible are any less important. The body of gifts empowers all, not a few. It disperses power instead of amassing it in a few. It is the way of the Kingdom. What do you think? 

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15 responses to “Not a Hierarchy, Not a Democracy, But a Pneumatocracy: The Church’s True Politics

  1. Have you read the book Holacracy by Briam Rpbertson? Appears from first blush to be a business model attempt at what you are saying. Like where you are heading with this and the book gives some insights into how this can work in "real world" applications. Many of my margin notes are about how to use in a church. The interesting part to me is that the difficulty that is found in execution of this in the business world is that they are attempting to do what only the Holy Spirit working through surrendered lives can accomplish.

    1. @John – I was thinking the EXACT same thing as I read this. I’ve been doing some research lately on "manager-less" oganizations (like Valve Software), Holocracy, and the fantastic studies found in the book "Reinventing Organizations" by Frederic Laloux ( http://www.amazon.com/Reinventing-Organizations-Frederic-Laloux/dp/2960133501 ), and all I keep thinking of as I read this stuff is "geez, this sounds just like polycentric, gift-based leadership". And I think that is encouraging, because that means that the path forward is being discovered both in the overarching theme of scripture, the teachings of Jesus and the new Kingdom ethic, as well as the scientifically/results-based findings of secular practitioners. The future of human organizing in the world is clear.

    2. @ John – one more thing I noticed as I read your comment again. The business world is actually finding A LOT of success in this! It’s a common misconception that it isn’t working. Seriously, read the book I mentioned in my previous comment: Reinventing Organizations. Brilliant, inspiring stuff. Real examples, of real organizations, that are organizing themselves in radically different ways. None of them even knew about each other, they all thought they were the only ones doing it, and yet their methods are surprisingly similar. It works!

  2. David,
    I have long agreed with what you that the church is a "live body of the Spirit where the gifts of the Spirit embody Christ’s authority in mutual submission to Christ the singular head of the body and in mutual dependence (and servanthood) upon one another (1 Cor 12; Eph 4 1-16)." What I have always failed and continue to fail to understand is why you put this in contrast to hierarchy. On what basis do claim that Jesus overcomes hierarchy?

    As someone in the Reformed tradition, I believe that Christ overcomes the sinful distortion of authority. I see hierarchy (like parents in a family over the children) as a creational structure that is distorted and misdirected by sin. It seems to me that Jesus doesn’t throw out authority, but transforms the way those who carry authority exercise it. At this point, I largely agree with what you say about how authority will look in the church. Though I believe sometimes the leaders command and the rest of the church obeys (how else can we read direct calls for obedience to leaders like in Hebrews 13?).

    This is a genuine inquiry. I have long appreciated the insights you have to offer when it comes to leading in the church, but I continue to miss how this must be in opposition to hierarchy.

    Thanks for your work.

    1. Derek .. what part of Mark 10:42 ff do you not understand? What part of the gift structure do you not see in pauline epistles? Do you not see that even monarchy in OT is a concession (1 Sam 8). That hierarchy was the result of sin (and he shall rule over woman Gen 3:16) now overcome in Christ?. I cannot do justice to how this stream runs throught the entire Scripture and culminates in Christ. It is everywhere. In light of this Hebrew 13:16 must be interpreted as "Obey (submit to) those leading among you ( NOT OVER YOU)" Hierarchy is always a temptation, and it is always tempting to interpret all these passages in someway hierarchically. This has been the pattern in Christendom. But it shall not be so among us who are the first fruits of Jesus new Kingdom. This brief excursus of a few sentences doesn;t do justice to all that must be said in response to your legitimate [email protected]

    2. Derek,
      Maybe some of this is semantic? It may be helpful to name that Fitch is not saying authority is bad. It seems to me he fully agrees that "Jesus does not throw out authority." For Fitch, the sinful distortion of authority IS hierarchy.
      Broken authority = hierarchy
      Redeemed authority in Christ = pneumatocracy
      Maybe that helps…?

  3. Dave,

    Right there with you. Though as you know, there are many forms of hierarchy– vertical, flat, and rhizomatic. That is to say, at the core, hierarchy is a form of organization. So to pneumacratic, I would add that our organization is also one of service. Maybe we can extend it to say that the NT vision of organization is kenotic pneumatocracy.

    So we Brethren are basically democratic in function– congregational business meeting, and representative bodies at the middle adjudicatory and denominational levels. In our best moments, these are understood as a body of discernment where the priesthood of all gathers in some functional way to "discern the mind of Christ." At our worst, however, these simply become gatherings for positional advocacy similar to referendums in (not-so) civil politics. One thing I have asked is if we can ever really say we have discerned the mind of Christ in such moments of antagonism. Or put this way- can we say we have actually done the work of discernment if the Fruits of the Spirit are not recognized in the midst of the process? Now that would be a true pneumatocracy!

  4. This raises a question for me about polity? Is “the church” a collection of virtually independent communities living in face-to-face community but with little collaboration or connection beyond that? Or is there a more corporate connected expression? I think that matters.

    Face-to-face community consists of people who are known to each other. They know intimately the circumstances of their community. They can function, at least fictively, as family. There is an upper limit on the size of community if this dynamic is to remain true. Social Scientists will say in the 100-120 range. (It is at 120 people that the Hutterites split and form new communities. I can also tell you that in the Church of the Nazarene, founded 1908, that the hold of distinctive teachings began to decline as average congregation membership topped 100.)

    If you want to function beyond F-t-F, then the members no longer have intimate information about all the other members. Decision-making must come via other means. Simply projecting F-t-F community writ large to larger decisions is a disaster. The sociological dynamic inescapably changes. What I think I hear you describing sounds dependent on F-t-F community.

    Presbyterian structure (I am PCUSA) is not hierarchical or democratic, though it incorporates hierarchical and democratic elements. Communities of elders are to make decisions, not individuals. Structures are designed to frustrate excessively episcopal (hierarchical) or congregational (democratic) models. But, of course, Presbyterianism is grounded in being “connectional” beyond the congregation and – consciously or not – is rather pragmatic about the inescapable dynamic of being larger than F-to-F.

    I hear people across a range of denominations complain about the church being to “corporate.” I think they misunderstand the dynamics. It isn’t church vs. corporate, it is small vs. large. Without defending any particular manifestation of large denomination structures, it is a fallacy to believe the large church can be F-t-F community writ large.

    1. "… it is a fallacy to believe the large church can be F-t-F community writ large." I tend to agree … that the future of mission in N America is not the large churches. However I do think the large churches can disperse, create a diaspora front he center, and disempower the center so as to bless the gifts at work in local incarntional communities. But we have few examples of this so far … so let’s see…

      1. "But we have few examples of this so far…"
        Are there any examples so far? There are several other fallacies of large church besides the lack of f-t-f community that systematize against a "diaspora from the center".
        1. Centered consuming of the giving forces a centering of the hearts. The corporate church forces the hiring of professionals to manage which also forces the need for rented or owned facilities for the large gathering to feature the hired managers. The demand for hired staffing and large group facilities forces the consuming of 84% of the giving on average according to Leadership Journals article on "normal budgeting". Only 16% of the giving will disperse out the door from the center. If the giving does not go out, the hearts will not go out either. "Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also." This reality can be seen in every church with even one hired guy and some facility.
        2. Any time one man is the focal point of any event because he is seen as a Bible expert he must continue that dependency to justify his salary. (The example of Paul was to equip and leave, then follow up later with letters and other men for temporary problem solving.) When a man see’s is position as too important to reproduce to the other saints he will not reproduce to support the diaspora. A diaspora requires full reproduction 2 Tim. 2:1,2; the whole example of Jesus. Is there a church anywhere without perpetual dependency to some hired expert? Pneumatocracy requires full reproduction. I realize this confronts the status quo but maybe I’m missing some scripture that calls for perpetual dependency on one or several Bible experts.

  5. I agree with pneumatocracy. I am concerned with the five fold gifts becoming an elite gift among the other gifts, just like it is practiced today. The pastor teacher gift is the only gift that wears a title. Then he dominates the gathering with one-way communication for the whole time and calls it teaching, even though he never "fully trains" his students to "be like him". Luke6:40. They always remain dependent upon him.

    Most people who complain about flat leadership have been inoculated to true participation by being raised in the hierarchy system. It is very difficult to be raised in the pew and then grow to be a full weekly verbal expresser of truth. It is very difficult as well to have been raised in the pulpit and then actually help every believer to "speak the truth in love" every week. "Let’s try flat leadership and see if it works" is a bogus attitude. "You are all brothers" is flat leadership, except for the head of the church.

    I think there is room to reconsider the 5 fold gifts as elevated or most essential, etc orientation. Every list of gifts is not a complete list. Eh. 4 is not either. The gift of mercy must "equip the saints" to function in mercy. The gift of giving must "equip the saints to do the work of the ministry in giving. Turning 5 gifts into the jack-of-all gifts to equip all the rest in what they are gifted in does not make much sense with the rest of the NT on gifting. It seems to me 5 fold gifts is part of the old hierarchy justification and a key trumping text to call for titles and dominant function so subjugate the rest of the gifts. Human nature loves to be subjugated and pacified for an easy and comfortable faith.

    Hierarchies are necessary for an institution. Since our identity is organic, we should not pervert our identity and take on corrupted alternative spiritual identities. Since we can’t obey all the "one another" instructions in a large group we would easily understand our desire to always regroup into obedience-capable gatherings. No hierarchy is needed in a simple small gathering of believers. There is also no need for voting. When believers are intimate with each other at the heart level, there is no need for all voices to be treated equal. The voice of Jesus speaks louder through many to a few. Many believers never get passed trying to do church by their personal preferences. Their personal preference seems to always trump the clear scripture. Many coming to bear on the one or few is powerful. The old way to influence is one lecturing the rest in one-way communication with everyone else silent. There is a big difference in influence between the two approaches. One reflects body function and the other institution function.

    1. My intention with the five fold is not to elevate them but rather give them a chronologicaal priority. In a sense they model the submission that the pneumatocracy runs on. In other words, them being first, illustrates their non-hierarchy. 🙂 They also then set into motion the rest of the gifted body.

      1. I understand. That makes sense across the NT. I understand you are trying to bring correction to many of the long standing rules regarding these five gifts that have little if any exegetical basis, only long standing claims by godly men in the past that usually led to hierarchy and dependency. There is so much compartmentalizing with the gifts. The result is many people are fenced out of functions in an area if they are not perceived to have that gift. From my reading, there are texts that instruct all believers to function in every area of gifting regardless of whether they are gifted in that area or not. We are all called to evangelize even if we are not gifted as evangelist. We are all instructed to give even though we don’t have that gift. The same is true of every arena of ministry for which there is also a gift. Compartmentalizing is part of the hierarchy – elitism problem.

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