Some Christians have a myth among them that the early church was pure and without problems. However, long before either a scientific study or psychological analysis, the early church recognized a major human tendency: the desire for power through judgment and persecution.
Interestingly, as the Christians themselves were being persecuted, even killed, they were setting up systems of exclusion. We know this because many of Paul’s writings address these issues head on, though many people overlook them, either intentionally, or at times, unintentionally.
There is an interesting study within Paul’s epistles concerning hierarchy and faith. Very much in line with the gospels, one of the essential tenets of the faith is the fact that when it comes to humanity, there is a very simple hierarchy. It goes like this: there is God, then there is humankind. Humans are not, nor can they be, God; and thus no human can assert a hierarchy over another.
Much of this comes from a debate in the early church about who was “in” and who was “out” when it came to the new Christian sect. Many argued that people needed to be born a Jew, others claimed that they could convert, and others still, with Paul being the biggest proponent, argued that they could bypass Judaism and just become a Christian through a profession of faith. Obviously our tradition, as well as most of western Christianity, follows the Pauline understanding.
But the reality of superiority, along with the judgment of who is welcome and who is not, is very present in Christianity, as it is within our society. This is problematic for the expression of faith in the same way as the misuse of witness we explored last week. There we saw that everyone witnesses things differently, and those witnesses are often shaded by our past and our influences. The same is true when it comes to hierarchy.
Though often unintentional, most organizations have a litmus test for who belongs and who does not. Sometimes it is silly things, like when I lived in New Jersey, people took pride when they drove around with the older version of the license plates. It showed that they had something on everyone else. OK, that might have just been in their minds. But you can see how that plays out every time you are in a situation where people have differing amounts of time with the organization or of life experience. Have you ever heard someone say “Oh, that was before your time?”
That is not an earthshattering thing, but it is an example of hierarchies we set, and how often those with power are able to assert it over others. I have seen this through many of the testimonies that I have heard in our work with the Beloved Community and the Black Lives Matter movement. I see that there are many assertions of power we make over other groups within our community, many that we don’t even recognize!
There are some who believe that the purpose of church is to put people in their place. The Westboro Baptist Church is a good example of that. But this is not the gospel Christ preaches. Our call is to put ourselves with people, meeting them where they are at, and if that makes us uncomfortable, all the better! It is in our discomfort that we are able to begin to see the struggles and difficulties of their lives, and recognize the ways in which we can meet them where they are.
Rev. Dr. Bryan James Franzen