The Uncontrolling Leadership of God
By Gabriel Gordon
God’s nature of Uncontrolling Love is non-hierarchal, and we should model our own leadership after God’s leadership.
Is leadership the same as hierarchy? Within my personal experience, as a member of the Anglican Communion our leadership structure is three-tiered with Bishops, Priests, and Deacons, which seems hierarchical. We have what might be called a top-down or pyramid model. We share this same basic structure with Roman Catholics, and the Eastern Orthodox. Lest anyone think hierarchy is just found in these traditions, let me assure you they are in the majority of the Christian world. In fact, this system of leadership is in most of the world, Christian or not!
However, is hierarchy the model of leadership that aligns with who God is? My opinion (as an edgy Anglican) is that it is not. God’s nature, as Uncontrolling Love, exhibits itself not in hierarchy. Since hierarchy seems to be at some level controlling, there can be no hierarchy found in God. As the author of the epistle of Diogentes says, “There is no compulsion found with God,” thus if hierarchy is controlling it is not compatible with God’s nature of Uncontrolling Love. Instead, God’s nature is enacted in egalitarian ways—what we may call a flat model of leadership. As an example, the Incarnation itself is an egalitarian, non-hierarchical action of God. Through the Incarnation, we get a glimpse into the nature of God. God relates to free creatures not as an overlord, that is by being over them; instead, as shown in the Incarnation, God relates to free creatures by being among them. “And the Word became flesh and lived among us.” This was not a one-time event where God was not Incarnational prior to that point. Rather, the Incarnation reveals what God has always been like. There has never been a time in which God has not interacted through and in creation in a similar way to the Incarnation of Jesus Christ. Creation itself has always served as a vehicle for God enacting God’s presence among God’s creatures. In this way, God has always been among creation rather than over it.
When discussing leadership, one also thinks about authority. Leadership and authority go hand in hand. But what is authority? How do we define it in light of God’s nature of Uncontrolling Love? Society has been built on a distorted and misunderstood definition of authority and power. The church is no less built on these same assumptions as the rest of society. According to the popular definition, authority is over and above, top down. It assumes that coercion is in reality the essence of power and authority. Servant leadership has been a concept used to dull the edge by the church. Or perhaps used to deviously cover-up our shared desire to rule over our fellow human beings. Too often, those who espouse servant leadership also assume the same faulty definition of power and authority; whereas true servant leadership is non-hierarchical.
For Christians, this worldly definition of authority is rooted in their view of God as one who controls. They see God as over and above creation. As ruling from the top down. They see God’s Trinitarian nature as hierarchal. The Father is at the top giving command to the Son, who further delegates command to the Holy Spirit. But as we have already seen in the Incarnation this is not how God relates to creation, as an over-and-above type of leader. Otherwise, why did God come as a marginal Jew rather than as the king of the Roman Empire? Why would God have come among us humans at all? Yet, God comes among us, instructing us to reflect God’s nature in how we do leadership. Indeed, it is because we are created in the image of an uncontrolling and non-hierarchical God that all humans are called to model that image. We do this by being uncontrolling and non-hierarchical. Just as the members of the Trinity are all equal before one another, so are all human beings equal before one another and the rest of creation, of which we are one part.
This also seems to be what Jesus teaches in regard to leadership. Jesus’ teaching to his disciples is always a call to imitate God. “Do this, because God is like this.” As image bearers, we are to reflect God’s nature by being like God. In Matthew, Jesus contrasts Rome’s “over them” leadership by using the phrase “among you” to indicate how his disciples were to practice leadership. “But Jesus called them to him and said, ‘You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them.It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant,and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.’” Jesus calls his disciples to practice a flat, among-them type of leadership rather than the common over-and-above leadership.
While hierarchy may still be assumed among church leadership, practicing hierarchy in other aspects of life are frowned upon. One of which is hierarchy in marriage. Some still believe the man is the head of the household, where he alone is the leader, over and above his wife. However, this view is starting to fall out of favor in Western culture, especially among mainline Protestant churches. Another example where a hierarchical practice was initially upheld but then stopped was slavery—humans owning other humans. In the 19th century, this was such a heated topic it created schisms in various denominations. Many denominations believed hierarchy between a slave and master was not only acceptable but part of God’s design. This view has largely, if not completely, been abandoned in the Western church.
There seems to be a slow but steady abandonment of hierarchy in the church. First with hierarchy between slaves and masters, now steadily between husbands and wives. However, hierarchal leadership is still largely accepted and assumed. Even mainline or evangelical churches that have rejected hierarchy in slavery or marriage still hold over-and-above forms of leadership. This seems inconsistent to me. Why would hierarchy be bad in marriage but not in church leadership? Or between a slave and a master? Or a Jew and a Greek but not in church leadership? Is it consistent to reject hierarchy in one situation but not another? It seems as though we are in need of a fundamental redefinition of power and authority. Especially in the light of God’s nature as Uncontrolling Love. When concepts like leadership, authority, and power are defined in terms of a person holding position over another, it can too easily become a justification for the act of devaluing our fellow human beings, plants, animals and the whole of creation. The language we use forms us into a certain kind of people. When we use this kind of hierarchical language, we become the kind of people who abuse others and use creation for our own selfish gain.
The theology of the Uncontrolling Love of God says God’s very nature is love. Love, as the apostle Paul says, is never controlling. God acts in ways that are always consistent with God’s nature. A truly orthodox view of the Trinity accepts that no one member of the Godhead is above or over the other. All stand on equal ground with one another. If they did not, could we say that God was truly one God and not three? If this is the case for God, then it also should be the case for humans in how we interact with one another. Particularly in our models of leadership.
Good theology should be practical. The study of theology is never an end in and of itself, but rather it is a means to an end. The goal is that through our study of theology we become more like God. If God is truly Uncontrolling Love, and by extension non-hierarchal, then to become more like God we must conform our whole lives to this image of God. This includes our notions of leadership. The church has begun this process by rejecting slavery and in some circles by rejecting one spouse as the head of the household. Yet, if we are to be consistent in our transformation into the likeness of Christ, we must also reject hierarchal leadership in all its forms.
Gabriel Gordon graduated with a double major in anthropology and cross-cultural ministry from Oklahoma Baptist University. He is currently working on his master of theological studies at Portland Seminary. He is the director of student ministries with Christ Church Episcopal and a co-founder of The Misfits Theology Club, a blog dedicated to working towards unity amongst diverse Christians.
To purchase the book from which this leadership essay comes, see Open and Relational Leadership: Leading with Love.