Authoritarianism and Egalitarianism In Church Leadership

After decades of observation I can say with some assurance that churches in America tend to lean toward either authoritarian or egalitarian philosophies in their polity and leadership structures. And, that an increasing number of Protestant churches have made a conscious and determined choice to embrace patriarchal authoritarianism. Further, most see patriarchal hierarchy as divinely ordained and planned by an orderly and authoritarian God.

The Case For Authoritarianism and Egalitarianism

For authoritarian led churches verses from Ephesians 5 and 6 are the most important. They are held out as God’s divine plan for not only churches but political institutions and marriages as well. For these churches these authoritarian top down directives are God’s design for the order of the world and all of mankind, and Paul outlined it clearly in his letter to the Ephesians. These verses in Ephesians also formed the theological basis for the political platform of the Religious Right.

Further, Ephesians oriented churches created a position they called complementarianism, meaning that while all human beings are equal in dignity, they have different (and complementary) roles in God’s plan.

Egalitarian led churches also look to Paul for guidance, but instead of giving emphasis to the Ephesians passages, they prefer the Galatians 3 passages that read, Now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian, for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, these is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.

These Galatians influenced churches argue for egalitarian forms of polity, believing that Jesus had decisively broken down the boundaries of religion, class, and gender and that the Kingdom of God he proclaimed permanently ended hierarchies of role, status, and privilege.

The Choice

These two opposing positions may seem a matter of interpretative choice, you simply prioritize which of Paul’s passages you like or want to follow. But they represent a tension, even a contradiction that has resulted in significant arguments, if not all out ecclesiastical war in Christian circles. Each choice also carries significant consequences. Many Galatians-Egalitarian oriented churches and denominations have moved toward ordaining women and have begun to address racism and sexism, based on theologies drawn from Paul’s words in Galatians. More Ephesians-Authoritarian oriented churches and denominations maintain that to remain faithful to God means reasserting Paul’s male authoritarian order for home, church, and society.

Just as importantly, at this time there appears to be no middle ground or tolerance for opposing positions. It is one or the other and all dissent must be crushed. Sadly, churches and denominations have split over these differences and many clergy have lost their jobs.

Yet there are those, myself included, who have vacillated between the two positions— submission to authority reflected in the Ephesians approach or the all are one solidarity reflected in Galatians? Is there some way to hold the two? I’m not sure that there is. It may be a choice that each individual, church and congregation has to make.

For me, I have witnessed the abuses and harm that comes with some forms of authoritarianism and the confusion and lack of direction that comes with some forms of egalitarianism. Neither system is perfect. Yet, I have come to see that Jesus’ teachings and actions were more egalitarian than authoritarian. And, that the most ancient wisdom of Christianity — wisdom recorded by Paul in Galatians and observed by the earliest Christian communities — is that there is no Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female. All such distinctions were destroyed by Christ. Exclusion and subordination simply had no place in the earliest Christian communities. And, if Jesus really is our hermeneutic, the lens through which we interpret all Scripture, it should have no place in our churches either.

I find the words of New Testament scholar Stephen Patterson most compelling. Patterson says “The words from Galatians must have been about imagining a world in which female slaves could be leaders of free men, where foreigners and native born stood with equal power and equal rights, where Baptism was about solidarity in the knowledge that everyone is a child of God.”

That sounds like a world I want to live in.


Posted on September 14, 2021

Jim Baker

Jim is a Church Organizational Leadership and Management Coach, Consultant and Trainer. Throughout his career Jim has demonstrated a passion for showing Pastors and Ministers how to use organizational tools for church and personal growth and health.

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“For I may be absent in body, but I am with you in spirit, rejoicing to see how well ordered you are and the strength of your faith in Christ.” Colossians 2:5