Throughout church history, there have been various debates and disagreements about the nature of church leadership and whether or not it should be hierarchical. Some Christians have argued that Jesus intended for a hierarchical system of leadership, while others have held to a more egalitarian view.
One of the earliest examples comes from the New Testament itself. In Matthew 20:25-28, Jesus says, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. 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 your slave.” Here, Jesus is contrasting the way that secular rulers exercise authority with the way that his disciples are to lead. Rather than being hierarchical and based on exercising authority over others, Jesus teaches that leadership should be characterised by humility and service.
This idea was taken up by many of the early church fathers, who emphasised the importance of servant leadership. For example, in the second century, Clement of Rome wrote, “Let our whole body, then, be preserved in Christ Jesus; and let every one be subject to his neighbour, according to the special gift bestowed upon him. Let the strong not despise the weak, and let the weak show respect to the strong. Let the rich man provide for the wants of the poor; and let the poor man bless God, because He hath given him one by whom his need may be supplied.”
Similarly, in the fourth century, John Chrysostom wrote, “The highest point of philosophy is to be humble, and to speak truth; the highest point of Christianity is to despise the things of the present life, and to aspire after the good things that are eternal.” Here, Chrysostom emphasises the importance of humility and selflessness in the Christian life, rather than the exercise of power or authority.
As the church grew and became more institutionalised, there were certainly instances where hierarchy was emphasised more strongly. However, there were always those who pushed back against this and advocated for a more egalitarian model. For example, in the 14th century, John Wycliffe argued that all Christians should have access to the Bible in their own language, rather than relying on priests to interpret it for them. This was a challenge to the hierarchical system that had developed in the Catholic Church at the time.
In the 16th century, the Protestant Reformation brought renewed emphasis to the idea of the priesthood of all believers. Martin Luther, for example, wrote, “The Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. The Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.” Here, Luther emphasises the dual role of the Christian as both free and servant, and suggests that there is no inherent hierarchy within the church.
Therefore, while there have certainly been instances of hierarchy in the church throughout history, there have also been voices that have pushed back against this and advocated for a more egalitarian model. From the earliest days of the church, Jesus’ emphasis on servant leadership has been a powerful influence on Christian thought, and this has continued to shape the way that Christians think about church leadership today.