Church Hierarchy is not a Corruption

Jul 2nd, 2010 | By | Category: Blog Posts

The Catholic Church teaches that nature is ordered by God. The heavens are superior to the earth, and angels are superior to men.1 Even within the angelic order, not all are equal; for there are angels and arch-angels, cherubim and seraphim.2 Men naturally arrange (order) themselves into hierarchies as the ancients knew well and accepted without hesitation. 3 And even within man himself there is a natural hierarchy. The neck is subordinate to the head, the shoulders to the neck, and so on; but more pertinently, the powers of the soul are ordered towards proper operation. 4 In fact, it was this hierarchy of the soul’s powers that was disrupted at the fall of mankind. Without God’s grace, man’s lower powers cannot be subject to his higher power of reason.5 The force behind the modern attempt to flatten hierarchy (ordered inequality) of any kind, i.e. the force behind the egalitarian movement, is the same force that intentionally tempted man to sin knowing that it would disrupt the hierarchy of the soul’s powers. Understanding these truths is a step towards appreciating the ‘theology of the body’ and the pedagogy of the creation narrative, particularly what it means for man to be created in God’s image.6 Thus St. Augustine says:

The peace of body and soul is the well-ordered and harmonious life and health of the living creature. Peace between man and God is the well-ordered obedience of faith to eternal law.7

The Early Church was Hierarchical

One common error in modern thought is that the Church hierarchy grew up from a simple egalitarian society.8 It seems that such an idea could only come out of a post 1960s America. Hierarchy is such a clear foundational principle in the cosmos that all societies until the last 500 years have naturally ordered their governors and religions in such a way. But even in recent times, this rejection of natural hierarchy is largely restricted to Western culture.

While some aspects and particulars regarding any hierarchy can and do develop, the concept of hierarchy itself does not develop from an anarchical or egalitarian vacuum. Hierarchy is assumed from the beginning in all instances and especially so in the first century Mediterranean culture. The first century Jewish Christians did not stand in need of developing the concept of hierarchical rule. Hierarchy was not a new development that the early Christians needed to adopt; it was already firmly in place. If a man asserts that the early Church was egalitarian, then the burden of proof is on him to show how and why the Christians discarded the ubiquitous idea of hierarchy. Hierarchy itself did not develop, it was only the logistics of how hierarchy would be implemented that stood in need of development. Some of those developments did come slowly. But this organic growth was not a development of hierarchy from a vacuum of authority, nor was it a corruption of egalitarian “innocence.”

The Church is a body and it belongs to a body to be hierarchically ordered. Now violence is an act performed against nature. Order naturally belongs to the cosmos, and therefore corruption of hierarchy would be an example of violence. A development of a thing into something else is not an example of violence unless the new aspect threatens the existence of the old thing insofar as the old thing takes on the new aspect. So in the case of the Church, hierarchy would not be an example of corruption because the Church is a body and hierarchy in a body does not threaten its existence; it sustains the life and preserves the unity of that body. If a thing organized itself into a stronger hierarchy, i.e. into a body with more particular hierarchical functions, this would be consistent with the natural principle of organic growth, not contrary to it. On the other hand, if a body discarded its existing hierarchy, generally speaking, this would be a corruption.

Furthermore, a body contains a hierarchical principle by definition. Something must organize matter into a unity in order for that thing to be called a body. Now an egalitarian society does not have a hierarchical principle because it is a set of multiple things. It is not united into one thing as is a body. Nothing which lacks a hierarchical principle can be called a body. If a thing begins without a hierarchical principle, then it is not a body, and the Church is a body.9 Therefore the Church is not, and never was, an egalitarian society.

The modern evangelical concept where the believer has an immediate relationship to Jesus Christ, is something like a body where the foot is connected directly to the head. The foot is immediately related to the head by means of the soul, but is mediately related to the head only via other members of the body in proper hierarchical arrangement. We are not denying direct access to Christ, the Head. We only insist that it must be understood in its proper sense and that this immediate access to Christ does not circumvent the need for mediated authority according to the divine order of the Church. This unnatural model is a result of the view that the Church is invisibly united. It looks something like a spoke and wheel with Jesus at the center. On the other hand, the Catholic and biblical model of the Church’s role of mediating salvation to the believer is one wherein the believer is connected to Christ through the bodily hierarchy of the Church. In this way, the foot is connected to the head, but through the natural hierarchy of the body via the leg, hip, torso, etc.

Without this hierarchical principle, it is impossible to say that the Church is visible as demonstrated by Bryan Cross and Tom Brown.10

  1. St. Thomas Aquinas quotes Matthew 11:11 in support of his claim “The inferior angel is superior to the highest man of our hierarchy.” St. Thomas Aquinas Summa Theologica 1.108.2; Hebrews 1:14, if used as an objection, does not disprove the superiority of angels because a superior being may be sent to serve an inferior being for “even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve.” (Mark 10:45) []
  2. For an explanation of the hierarchical ordering of the angels, see St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica 1.108 ( http://newadvent.org/summa/1108.htm ) []
  3. Eastern cultures have preserved this intuitive arrangement, but somehow the West has come to resent it. []
  4. That the body’s parts were arranged by God for its particular purpose see 1 Corinthians 12:14-24; On the powers of the soul see St. Thomas Aquinas Summa Theologica 1.78.1 online at http://newadvent.org/summa/1078.htm#article1 []
  5. See Bryan Cross’s Series “Aquinas and Trent” especially part two ( http://www.calledtocommunion.com/2009/03/aquinas-and-trent-part-2/ ); that man was created in a state of grace see St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica 1.95.1 ( http://newadvent.org/summa/1095.htm#article1 ) []
  6. Genesis 1:26-27 []
  7. Augustine, City of God 19.13 []
  8. An extreme example of this error can be found in the book: Pagan Christianity: Exploring the Roots of our Church Practices by George Barna and Frank Viola (2008). Most of the confessional Reformed are far removed from these extreme positions and simplistic understanding of early Church history, but many of these themes can be found even in mainstream, conservative, Reformed theology. []
  9. Ephesians 5:23; Colossians 1:18,24 []
  10. http://www.calledtocommunion.com/2009/06/christ-founded-a-visible-church/ []
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  1. The modern evangelical concept where the believer has an immediate relationship to Jesus Christ, is something like a body where the foot is connected directly to the head. The foot is immediately related to the head by means of the soul, but is mediately related to the head only via other members of the body in proper hierarchical arrangement. We are not denying direct access to Christ, the Head. We only insist that it must be understood in its proper sense and that this immediate access to Christ does not circumvent the need for mediated authority according to the divine order of the Church.

    Maybe it’s just me, but I can’t make any sense of these statements. The first statement implies we don’t have immediate access because the foot isn’t directly connected to the head. But statements 3 and 4 say we do have “direct” and/or “immediate” access. But yet it needs to be “mediated” which implies that it’s not direct.

    Sorry but my head’s spinning at this point . . .

  2. Steve,

    It’s not written as clearly as it could have been. Perhaps I should have said it this way. The head is a visible principle of hierarchy in the body. The foot is not directly connected to that principle – only mediately. The soul is an invisible principle of hierarchy in the body. The foot *is* directly connected to that principle.

    Invisibly, we have a certain direct access to Christ, but visibly we are connected through the hierarchy of the Church and the invisible connection does not circumvent the visible connection anymore than the foot’s connection to the soul circumvents its need to remain correctly situated in the visible hierarchy of the body. I think most Reformed can agree with that. What I’m arguing against is more of the “me and Jesus” mentality here. That’s why I said “modern evangelical” to distinguish it at least from the high Church minded Reformed.

    Hope that helps clear it up.

  3. Tim,

    I just wanted to say thank you for all the time you spend working on these posts and articles. It’s not as if you don’t have “another life” other than this website. All of you guys are to be commended for the effort you put into ecumenical dialogue.
    I pray for Our Lord’s blessing to continue upon you and the other men who fulfill their call to use the media to spread the truth of the faith.
    Pax Christi,
    Teri

  4. Thanks Teri! Sometimes my wife doesn’t think that I have another life other than this website!

  5. Tim,

    It seems your argument here is to reason from the starting point that human organizations are hierarchal by nature, to which I would concur. But I’m sure you would agree that just because a human institution is more hierarchal than another does not make it a better one. A human institution that is more centrally administered is not necessarily better than one that it less centrally administered. Would you agree with that? From my perspective there is a balance between central and local authority that mush be struck in any human institution.

    So on the Church, how do we decide where the balance is? Again, it seems that you want to say that the most hierarchal system would be the best. The RCC is certainly the most hierarchal system, but does this make it the most correct ecclesiological system when we compare RCC, EO, and Reformed?

    I was looking for something theological that would back up your claims and I could not find it except that you referred to Aquinas who uses Dionysius to bolster his claims. I’m sure I don’t need to point out the problems of using Dionysius/Psuedo-Dionysius to make the case for RCC ecclesiology. Aquinas also adduces the writings of Aristotle (the Philosopher) as proof, but we are speaking here of special revelation, not the matters of general revelation that Aristotle addressed.

    The Apostolic and Sub-apostolic congregations had a rather decentralized ecclesiological model. Of course in time this model evolved into something that was very hierarchal. But did it evolve correctly or incorrectly? That;s the question to be resolved between you and me, at least on the matter of a correct and biblical ecclesiology.

  6. Andrew,

    You said:

    It seems your argument here is to reason from the starting point that human organizations

    That’s not my argument. The ‘thesis’ of this brief post is that hierarchy is not a corruption of nature. Also note, this was an excerpt that didn’t make the cut for the article on Holy Orders because it wasn’t syllogistic enough. If someone was utterly convinced that hierarchy was a corruption, this post by itself probably wouldn’t be enough to convince them – but it might be a helpful point in the right direction.

    A human institution that is more centrally administered is not necessarily better than one that it less centrally administered. Would you agree with that?

    I don’t know – it depends on what the institution was ordered to and what is meant by central administration. My argument was not based on human institutions though (and I don’t recall mentioning them either). So I don’t know why you’re asking this.

    So on the Church, how do we decide where the balance is?

    Well *we* don’t decide anything. The Church decides. We discover her and adjust our beliefs to what she says. See St. Augustine on Discovering Truth.

    I was looking for something theological that would back up your claims

    Which claims, in particular, did you find lacked back up? If there were many claims that weren’t backed up, let’s just start with the first one. I don’t doubt that some of the things claimed could stand for a great deal more demonstration. But I need to know which one(s) in particular you found lacking.

    Aquinas also adduces the writings of Aristotle (the Philosopher) as proof, but we are speaking here of special revelation, not the matters of general revelation that Aristotle addressed.

    Which of Aquinas’s arguments on Catholic ecclesiology depended on Aristotle?

    The Apostolic and Sub-apostolic congregations had a rather decentralized ecclesiological model.

    Well that’s a controversial claim. I made a lengthy argument of what I believe the early Church hierarchy was in my lead article on Holy Orders. Until that is refuted, I’ll stand my ground.

  7. That’s not my argument. The ‘thesis’ of this brief post is that hierarchy is not a corruption of nature.

    Tim,

    Nobody would argue with this. The question I am posing concerns how far to push this idea of hierarchy.

    My argument was not based on human institutions though (and I don’t recall mentioning them either). So I don’t know why you’re asking this.

    You speak of the “development of a thing” and then you bring the specific case of the Church. So what is this “thing?” I’m assuming you are speaking of institutions which are not the Church. But maybe not. And if not, then OK, what is the “thing” you speak of.

    Well *we* don’t decide anything. The Church decides

    But Time, we do decide. You and I have to decide what a biblical conception of “Church” is. We have to determine what ecclesiological model the Apostolic and subsequently the Sub-apostolic Church affirms. This is a fundamental question that we have to answer concerning the nature of the Church that Christ founded.

    Which claims, in particular, did you find lacked back up?
    Which of Aquinas’s arguments on Catholic ecclesiology depended on Aristotle?

    I’m not sure you have backed up anything in theological terms. You speak generally and philosophically of hierarchy but I don’t think that these matters of general revelation can speak to a specific ecclesiology which is a matter of special revelation. So I was looking for theological backing. The only thing I could see was your reference to Aquinas, and as I look at your reference to Aquinas, I could only see two references, one to Dionysius (a now discredited source) and Aristotle (certainly an authority on matters of natural revelation, but not so on special revelation). So you are left with a discussion of hierarchies in general,, but I don’t see how you can prove RCC ecclesiological authority with an appeal to hierarchy not being a corruption of nature. Again, I agree hierarchy is not a corruption of nature. So what then is the case you are making with respect to Christian ecclesiology?

    Concerning the model of Early Church ecclesiology, when you compare the biblical data on the structure of the Church and then subsequently the data from the Church immediately following this time, do you find the same basic hierarchical structure as you find in the High Middle Ages? If so, I would be interested if you could defend such a contention. In the Apostolic Church and the years immediately following, I see the case for a visible church composed of congregations as outlined in Scriptures with bishops/elders and deacons. But I don’t see anything further. The various congregations come together when there is an issue but there is no definition as to any superstructure which unites the congregations. From my perspective, in the High Middle Ages we have a very different situation. Is it really obvious to you that the ecclesiology of the Early Church and that of the High Middle Ages is fundamentally the same?

  8. Andrew,

    You speak of the “development of a thing” and then you bring the specific case of the Church. So what is this “thing?”

    I mean any natural thing – especially a body since that’s what we’re talking about.

    But Time, we do decide. You and I have to decide what a biblical conception of “Church” is.

    You’ve been around here long enough to know we all disagree with that and have provided extensive reasons why that’s not the case.

    So what then is the case you are making with respect to Christian ecclesiology?

    The case I am making is just what I said – “that hierarchy is not a corruption.” I am not making a case that you should be subject to the Roman Pontiff. Let’s save our disagreement for that discussion.

    Is there something in the article you disagree with? If so, what is it exactly? You said I haven’t backed up anything, but you haven’t mentioned something that I’ve not backed up. Again I repeat my request, ” If there were many claims that weren’t backed up, let’s just start with the first one.” Please just state the first thing that I said that wasn’t adequately backed up and I’ll try my best to fix that.

    Also, you didn’t tell me which of Aquinas’s arguments on Catholic ecclesiology depended on Aristotle. Are you planning on sticking with that claim or dropping it? If you’re going to stick with it, I think you should show which one you’re referring to because I’ve been reading Aquinas for a long time and haven’t run across an argument for Catholic ecclesiology that depends on Aristotle (then again, I’m still a beginner so you might know better than me).

    Concerning the model of Early Church ecclesiology, when you compare the biblical data on the structure of the Church and then subsequently the data from the Church immediately following this time, do you find the same basic hierarchical structure as you find in the High Middle Ages?

    Yes.

    If so, I would be interested if you could defend such a contention.

    I think so – make your own judgment.

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