What is Wrong with Hierarchical Leadership?

What’s the problem with hierarchical leadership? Can I shoot from the hip? We’re not built for it. We’re not designed to handle positional power or the celebrity-like adulation that often stems from it. It is simply not how God created us. Have you ever tried to play football with a brick or run your car on prune juice or cut your hair with a chainsaw? (I know I’m being ridiculous—but that’s the point).

Jesus Himself not only underlined this truth by making it clear that spiritual leadership is completely at heads with hierarchical leadership (Matthew 20:25, 26) but directly confronted the corruption associated with it (Matthew 23:1ff). To paraphrase John Dalberg-Acton: power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely.

Continue reading as we look at one of the most powerful lessons the Old Testament teaches us and why we ignore it at our own peril. While unmasking the horrors of hierarchical leadership may not sound like the most thrilling topic, it is one worth thinking through deeply. Applying its content may save you from pursuing a dead-end path littered with the lives of those who chased a dangling carrot in contradiction to how God has created us.

So, What’s Wrong with Hierarchical Leadership?

There are no great men of God today … actually, there never has been—there is only a great God. And in His great and astonishing mercy, He uses ordinary men and women to do extraordinary things. We have the privilege of being a vessel in His hands. John’s glimpse of heavenly worship reveals that the “twenty-four elders”—a reference to redeemed humanity—“cast their crowns before the throne” (Revelation 4:10): even the rewards we receive, for faithfulness to His call, will be quickly laid before Him as we acknowledge that it is all from Him and for Him. As Jesus emphatically said: “for without Me you can do nothing” (John 15:4). These seven words should be emblazoned in our hearts so “that no flesh should glory in His presence” (1 Corinthians 1:29).

One of the dark spots on the history of the church has been the rise and fall of notable men and women of God. When a veteran or well-known saint falls into gross transgression the damage has enormous repercussions. Not only does it discredit the Name of the Lord but it often leads to the shipwreck of those whose faith is weak. And while, yes, we should not “look to man,” this advice is often too-little-too-late for some; whose entire church-world experience has too often been conditioned to become reliant on celebrity-like church leaders.

This article is not a criticism of those who have fallen from grace. While this is of course a travesty, I heed Paul’s advice with fear and trembling: “let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall” (1 Corinthians 10:12). I know the frailties of my own heart and can honestly say, without meaning to be clichéd, “but for the grace of God there go I”.

So what’s this article about? So glad you asked.

It is my strong conviction that we, as human beings, were not built to occupy positional places of power or bask in celebrity-like adulation. We were never created to “boss” over others in some hierarchical matrix nor were we designed to be put “on the stage” in people’s hearts and minds. God never intended us to build one-man ministries in which one man becomes so far removed from reality that he evolves into a law unto himself. We just cannot handle it; we’re simply not made for this purpose. As vessels made to worship, we implode when made the focus of worship.

There is far too much truth in Lord Acton’s well-known statement “power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely” for us to simply nod our head in agreement … and then get on with our church-world version of power and prestige, thinking somehow we are immune to such corruption.

Having personally served in a mega-church setting two decades ago, I have since then sought to be part of a church ministry experience which is decentralised; that is, purposing to release leadership and multiply ministry. Along with those that I’ve had the sublime pleasure of walking with, we’ve always tried to build into Christ and away from ourselves; avoiding hierarchical structures and micro-managing systems. In a nutshell, we’ve tried to work—sometimes successfully, sometimes unsuccessfully—from a simple church perspective; one that is organic, relational and fluid rather than institutional, hierarchical and rigid1.

Thus, through nearly three decades, I’ve come to a concrete conclusion about the phenomenal beauty found in the redeemed heart, on the one hand, while also coming to grips with the insane tragedy that is the fallen human ego, on the other hand. It seems to me that no matter how sincere we are, no matter how close we walk with God, if our ego is stroked with the promise or experience of positional clout or human adulation, none of us are immune to straying over to the dark side.

I am certainly not saying that there is no place for mutual affirmation of relationships or sincere honouring of those who serve. There is for sure; in fact, this is a Biblical imperative (Romans 12:10; Philippians 2:3, 4). Nor am I saying that we should fail to appreciate gift ministry and leadership. Again, this is a Biblical must (Hebrews 13:7, 17; Philippians 2:25, 29; 1 Timothy 5:17). However, too much of what fuels our church world “celebrity adulation” today is an ego-stroking lust for fame; more akin to the world’s ideals than the Kingdom’s values. And while many smell the rat in Christian celebrity circles, occupying a hierarchical position of authority plays to the same base nature even if it avoids the extremes of the Christian “red carpet”.

Have we simply capitulated to the world’s pressure or is this the inevitable consequence of distorting the way God has made us? The answer is probably a little bit of both. But before we just write it off as mere worldly compromise, let’s explore the fallen human ego; otherwise, we may settle for making cosmetic judgements rather than laying the axe to the root.

Consider Saul, Israel’s first king.

Most of us think of king Saul as a wicked monarch; a man notoriously headstrong and throttled with jealousy and rage. And yes, this was sadly the end of the man. But he didn’t begin this way; in fact, it seems he started out as a humble man, sincerely amazed at the call of God upon his life.

When Saul was on a seek-and-salvage-mission to find his father’s lost donkeys, he asked Samuel for help (1 Samuel 9:1-14). To his utter surprise, the donkeys were in cahoots with God’s plan to ordain him as Israel’s first king (vv. 15-20). While certainly not nearly as sensational as Balaam’s talking donkey, these rather dumb animals’ hide and-seek game brought Saul to the open door of destiny.

Yet the first words out of Saul’s mouth, in reply to Samuel’s announcement that he was to be king, was this self-effacing confession: “Am I not a Benjamite, of the smallest of the tribes of Israel, and my family the least of all the families of the tribe of Benjamin? Why then do you speak like this to me?” (v. 21).

This is hardly a man looking for fame and fortune. Rather, he was a faithful son fulfilling his father’s request. This is not a man looking for a shot at stardom, hoping to get a prophet’s endorsement that would propel him to instant-popularity. Instead he, at cost to himself and his servant (vv. 5-10), sought the help of the prophet only to aid in the search of his father’s pets. He was looking for a donkey and got a throne. And even when presented as Israel’s king, Saul was modest and shy (1 Samuel 10:14-16, 20-22).

So what happened to this bashful, self-effacing and faithful man? Power corrupted him; absolute power corrupted him absolutely. And this was not an isolated case either, rather it happened exactly as God had predicted. Saul was, in fact, an example of what was to follow throughout Israel’s sad plunge into captivity; through a succession of kings, twisted by power and fame.

Let’s have a look at the undoing of a good man so perhaps we can prevent the undoing of other good men and women.

Demanding a King

First Israel demanded a king, “now make us a king to judge us like all the nations” (1 Samuel 8:5), and then added further to their list of requirements: a “king [who will] judge us and go out before us and fight our battles” (v. 20).

Samuel was displeased with this childish, misguided notion, but his irritation was the proverbial drop in the ocean to how God felt. Broken-hearted, He said: “they have rejected Me, that I should not reign over them” (1 Samuel 8:7). God took this as a personal assault against His loving Fatherhood.

And then, as is His longsuffering nature (see Psalm 106:13-15), He conceded to their juvenile request but made it emphatically clear, outlining in detail, the consequences of such a demand. To Samuel He said: “solemnly forewarn them and show them the behaviour of the king who will reign over them” (v. 9).

Now listen to Samuel’s prophetic warning and notice the stress on the king’s actions in the phrase, “he will”.

This will be the behaviour of the king who will reign over you; He will take your sons and appoint them for his own chariots … He will appoint captains over … [he] will set some to plough … and some to make his weapons … He will take your daughters to be perfumers, cooks and bakers … And he will take the best of your fields, your vineyards, and your olive groves … He will take a tenth of your sheep. And you will be his servants. And you will cry out in that day because of your king whom you have chosen for yourselves, and the Lord will not hear you in that day”

(1 Samuel 8:11-18)

The result, in sharp contrast to Father God’s heart for them to be priests and kings under His loving rulership, is desperately tragic: first, “you will be [the king’s] servants” and second, “the Lord will not hear you” when you then cry out for relief.

The next verse is horrifying; even though God had solemnly warned them, “Nevertheless the people refused … and they said, ‘No, but we will have a king over us’” (v. 19).

Now enter Saul.

First, he had some natural qualities that made him the perfect candidate for king. He certainly had the “look”. “There was not a more handsome person among the children of Israel. From his shoulders upward he was taller than any of the people” (1 Samuel 9:2). While there is nothing wrong with being tall, dark and handsome (although I certainly don’t have this problem; I’m short, blonde and … well, I do have a nice personality)—these qualities certainly made him even more susceptible to the lure of an inflated ego.

Second, the position of power and elevated popularity would then play to his base nature, seducing and deluding him. Eventually, despite his original noble intentions, he would expect the people to serve him and do his will—rather than using what seemed, at first, to be an opportunity to serve them and do God’s will.

Like Saul, we have noble intentions too. We want to help others. We desire to be an answer in a world full of problems. But positional power and celebrity fame, without question and without prejudice, appeals to our fallen human ego. And once it has drawn us into its warm, deceptive embrace, it throttles and chokes the life out of us.

Did God set Saul up for a fall? Was he just a pawn God used to make a point? I don’t believe so. God empowered him with “the Spirit of the Lord” (1 Samuel 10:6) and “gave him another heart” (1 Samuel 10:9)—both phrases referring to all the supernatural enabling possible to set him up for success. And God was careful to point out the choices Saul would have to make (v. 7).

Through Israel’s blind demand for a king and how easily Saul, and most of the kings who followed him, was seduced by power and adulation, we learn this important lesson. In fact, given the Scriptures’ weight of focus on the failure of Israel’s king it must be one of the most important lessons we learn from the Old Testament. After the nation divided into two kingdoms, all 19 kings of the northern kingdom were wicked—not one righteous!—and only 8 of the 20 kings of the southern kingdom were righteous. Even Israel’s best king, David, abused his position of power in the most heartbreaking way, seducing Bathsheba and murdering her husband. And of course, we all know what happened to king Solomon. The phrase, “from hot to not” does not even come close to describing his fall from grace.

The Biblical record pulls no punches; surely one of the chief lessons we learn from its flagrantly honest account of Israel’s kings is that we are simply not wired to handle positional power and celebrity adulation.

These 410 years of tragedy were forewarned by God and could’ve been avoided. These four centuries speak to us today with chilling accuracy and should bring to an abrupt halt the celebrity adulation we give “Steve Stunning, the Evangelist” types. It should also drive those who are given a large sphere of influence to a wholesome fear of the Lord and an otherwise “hidden” life (Colossians 3:3).

Even in creation, when God made mankind in His image and entrusted us with the dominion mandate, He did not appoint Adam and Eve king and queen to rule as lords of-the-manor. Rather He created them to be a mother and father who, in tending the “garden” given to them, would beget children who in turn would also reproduce family after their own kind – even as they tended the “gardens” given them. Thus, little by little, family by family, “garden by garden” God’s rule would be established on the earth. Without question, the dominion mandate is about authority and rulership; however, the “vehicle” that it’s ushered through is spiritual family (community) not human power (institution).

Jesus could not have been clearer. In referring to the institutional systems that propagate fallen man’s corrupt lust for power over others, Jesus seemed to almost indignantly envision His people otherwise:

You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them … yet it shall not be so among you … whoever desires to become great among you, let him be your servant”

(Matthew 20:25, 26)

Grave Consequences

I recall reading a renowned secular magazine that studied the corruption of morals that occurred in top businessmen, sports men and men involved in politics. (In this case study, they focused specifically on men not women). The result? They concluded that power and adulation ultimately leads to one of four A’s: Arrogance, Aloneness, Adventure-seeking and/or Adultery.

Remember this is a secular magazine studying the real failings and flaws of once successful men in the sports, business and political arena. Of course, these facts speak to the very issue I’m addressing in this article. The same cesspool of sin characterised the fallen kings of Israel and has sadly characterised many men and women of God who have fallen today. And the same consequences lie in wait for me if I don’t heed the warning: “let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall” (1 Corinthians 10:12).

Yet still we’re tempted to say, “But I can manage the responsibilities involved, after all many haven’t fallen”. Or “I’ve learnt from the mistakes of others and compensated for this by building up a team around myself to whom I’m accountable”.

First, I contend that even though many don’t publicly fall, positional power and celebrity adulation corrupts all to some degree; it creates untold, unnecessary stress upon them and their loved ones; it (often unintentionally) perpetrates a worldly model of ministry that indulges people’s desire toward hero-worship, robbing from God’s glory; and tempts many others, especially good young men, to jump on the red-carpet of ministry fame—often to their undoing. (The full list of consequences are too numerous, and depressing, to register).

Second, while accountability and team ministry are without question nonnegotiable, neither are safe-guards against a construct that God Himself has warned will ultimately end in abuse. For me—having felt this very urge ripple through my own ambitious heart in the past, and having personally seen its devastating effect in people I’ve known—the drama plays out something like this:

The person becomes convinced of his own self-importance; the world definitively needs his message or vision, he comes to believe his own propaganda. Thus, nothing is more important than his ministry—right now. He comes to believe that “his cause” is solely God’s cause; thus, everything else and everyone else must fit into “his cause” to have any validity. Adulation from others serves to fuel this inflated sense of significance. Criticism from others is worn like a badge of honour, serving only to confirm his higher meaning. This self-deception distances him from reality and filled with pride, he becomes a law unto himself.

Accountability, in this case, is little more than lip-service; in fact, it provides a veneer of respectability further strengthening his place in God’s priority. And team, in this case, means a group of “yes-men” committed just as blindly to the cause, often vigilantly defensive of the senior man; they come to believe that he must be defended at all costs. And should one of this team challenge the senior man, allegations of insubordination and mutiny quickly silence his voice. And when this “team” is the senior man’s staff, and their job security is on the line, can they honestly be objective? (Or even if they aren’t the employees, the threat to their place in the pecking order and the vested interests they clutch with both hands, means their voices are entirely subjective).

Perhaps I’ve been too dramatic in the last two paragraphs. But the tragedy does unfold in this way, to one degree or another. The litmus test is this: Can I lay down my cause, my ministry, my message?

Of course, we’re tempted to quote Jeremiah—“I cannot hold my peace” (Jeremiah 4:19; 20:9)—and feel urged to remind others of the importance of our cause again (and again, as if intensity equals truth.) Yet all this proves is how tied to it our identity lies.

Or, we claim that we have laid it down before; in fact, many times.

But in reality, our cause is our god and to truly lay it down would kill us. (Of course, this dying to self is just the death that we need but boy, our ego fights tooth and nail against it).

Personally, I have been so blessed; through spiritual fathers and brothers, I’ve been saved from myself.

In my early ministry days I had no spiritual fathers in my life and with resources to burn; my peers and I had the church-world at our feet. We were out of the starting blocks at break-neck speed; we had no idea where the finish line was but we knew we would get their first. Don’t worry God, we’re here!

Concerts to run (the bigger the better), seats to fill (by hook or by crook), messages to preach (more ear-tickling than the next), music to play (the trendier the better) and conversions to count (and double count if the first count wasn’t so good), the only way was up – bigger, fuller, better, trendier, more.

The problem with peers-spurring-on-peers is that while you may get a great fireworks display, it doesn’t last long (probably just as well); all flash-in-the-pan, yet no lasting fruit. (God is still cleaning up the mess!)

Then I met a true spiritual father2. A man whose influence was enormous in the country of my birth but whose influence was “hidden”. On the “outside”, there were no bells and whistles; no glitz and glamour. This precious man took the time to disciple me. A man who wasn’t impressed with my gift; he would only be impressed if I was a responsible steward of my gift. However, I didn’t exactly take it meekly.

This change in my world was a terrible shift to my hugely inflated ego. Yet, for some reason—I still don’t know why—I hung in there, dying to my lust for power and adulation. It was nearly three years into serving with this precious servant of the Lord that I finally realised how deep this lust for power and fame ran in my heart. It took that long for the gravity of my previous self-deception to strike home … and make me sick in the stomach.

God revealed Himself to me in an amazing display of mercy when I got saved. But He then saved me a second time, from myself, by bringing spiritual fathers into my life after church-world had resurrected my ego, the very ego the cross had put to death.

Now, I’m committed to a “hidden” life. For sure, I want to be about my Father’s business today and play my part in the church’s finest hour on planet earth. Without question, I desire to see the multitudes in the valley of decision be loved into making the right decision. Without doubt, I trust for countless thousands to find Christ in power. But I also know that positional power and celebrity-like attention will sabotage these holy desires; firstly, through them I will end up disqualified; secondly, through them people are misled and ultimately abused.

As Jonathan Edwards said, “A true saint is more suspicious of his own heart than anything else”.

A hidden life?

Didn’t Jesus call us to be the light of the world and warn against putting a lamp under a basket (Matthew 5:14, 15). Yes, for sure. But this has nothing to do with glamorising a personality, promoting self or sensationalising ministry. Jesus was certainly not implying we should shine our ego-lamps, fuelled by a worldly spirit. Rather He was clearly talking about “good works” that “glorify the Father” (Matthew 5:16); that is, works that reveal God’s counter-worldly nature outlined in the Beatitudes (vv. 3-12). You may recall: those who are “poor in spirit … [those who] mourn … the meek … the merciful … the pure in heart … the peacemakers” and those “persecuted for righteousness’ sake.” It goes without saying that these are unequivocally different to the spirit of this world that props up positional power and celebrity adulation.

And, of course, the gift ministries listed in Ephesians 4:11 exist for the sole purpose of equipping believers to “do the work of ministry” (v. 12) so that the believers’ “good works” shine brighter and add more flavour in a world so void of light and substance. This is in sharp contradiction to the flagrant self-promotion of gift ministries and fan-club adulation propagated too often by church-world today.

Have I not focused too much on the more extreme versions of churchianity? Perhaps … but, in my opinion, a root of this plunge into a celebrity spirit is a hierarchical construct of church that is in contradiction to the way God has made us. While many, many avoid the extremes I’ve mentioned, holding positional authority in a hierarchical construct distorts our identity and plays to our base motivations no matter how much we try to walk righteously.

We are simply not created to handle positional power or celebrity-like attention.

Post Editorial Musings …

When I finished my final edit of this article, I realise one criticism of it will be that I’ve been guilty of overgeneralisation. And I will be quick to admit that I have.

I pondered long and hard about rewriting it with less animated drama but decided to leave it as it is. And here is my reasoning.

By being over-dramatic I’ve painted a worst case scenario, a picture that elicits strong feelings of disgust and loathing, at least to me. It makes me say, “There is no way I want to go down that path—ever!”

And then as I look into my own heart I realise that the same destructive seeds of seduction are within my fallen ego. And while I’d like to believe it is presently restrained, I know oh so well that it is capable of breaking out with venomous hostility in a heartbeat should I ever minimise the evil I’ve attempted to unmask in this article.

So please forgive me if you feel that I have attacked a certain ministry or aimed my sights at any one person. I have not. I actually had no person or ministry in mind when writing this article; not because I’m above that, it is just that I didn’t need to. I simply looked into my own soul and saw the dark potential I’m capable of if my own ego escapes from its cage.


1 Please see the following article that outlines, in my opinion, the Biblical context for leadership and authority.

What are Hebrew values?

2 Ron & Ann Robinson mentored my wife and I in a context of reality and authenticity. They modelled the value of spiritual parenthood and introduced us to Tony & Marilyn Fitzgerald who continue to walk with us as spiritual parents today. “Thank You Father for these precious men and women”.