The Inverse Pyramid: A Comparison of Secular and Ecclesial Hierarchy

Parikia – Panagia Ekatontapiliani; Synthronon, June 2010, © Gerhard Huber

Competition has defined human existence since time immemorial. As Jordan Peterson often points out, hierarchy always forms in intelligent communities of living creatures—from wolves all the way down to the humble lobster. Like other species, we humans challenge one another in a bid for dominance, automatically creating ranks within our family and tribe, our community and nation, and even our business enterprises. In the social sciences, hierarchy always refers to this power structure or prevailing social order that results from such negotiations.

The visual image used to demonstrate hierarchy is a pyramid, where the most dominant individuals rise to the top and rule over the various levels or ranks of subservient persons beneath. The association of rank with power, in light of contemporary movements towards egalitarianism, means that societal recognition is directly linked to hierarchical status. Unless representatives of a disadvantaged group are able to rise to the top of the pyramid, the entire group cannot consider itself to have achieved parity. Thus, obtaining positions of power is integral to the perceived self-esteem of a group, or individual within a group.

This secular understanding of hierarchy cannot be transposed onto the Church. Our first clue comes from the etymology of the word hierarchy. Derived from the Greek words for “sacred” (hieros) and “order” (archē), it signifies a reality referring not to domination, but to the interpersonal relations of the three divine persons. Early Christian theologians, such as the Cappadocians, rejected the idea that any person of the Trinity is subordinate to another.

While there exists order (the Father is unbegotten, the Son is begotten from the Father, and the Spirit proceeds from the Father), it does not entail that the Father possesses greater power or authority than the Son or Spirit. Jesus Christ says, “The Father is greater than I” (Jn 14:28); and yet, he informs us, “I and my Father are one” (10:30). As trinitarian theology was worked out in the age of the ecumenical councils, it was affirmed that all three persons (according to nature) share one will, one power, one authority, and that hierarchical rank pertains only to their uncreated etiology.

Building on patristic sources, modern theologians such as St Sophrony (Sakhorov), Fr Dumitru Stăniloae, and Christos Yannaras have envisaged the hierarchy of the Trinity as an icon for human relations. The eternal and perfect self-emptying love of the three persons for one another binds them together in co-inherence, without the danger of creating a tension due to self-assertion. This ideal of perichoresis (a term first employed in a triadological context by St John Damascene) presents us with a perfect image of something imperfectly achieved amongst created persons (even those who are called Christians).

As the infinite difference between us and the uncreated God causes every analogy to quickly breakdown, we need to look for yet another image in order to understand hierarchy in the Church. Peering again into the scriptures, we discover another paradigm, one that St Sophrony called the “inverted pyramid.”

The New Order from Christ

With the advent of Christ, God begins to establish a new order in the midst of human society. We read in Mark’s Gospel:

But Jesus called them to himself and said to them, “You know that those who are considered rulers over the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. Yet it shall not be so among you; but whoever desires to become great among you shall be your servant. And whoever of you desires to be first shall be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many (10:42-5).

Elsewhere, Christ avers that “the last will be first, and the first last” (Mt 20:16). This dominical teaching on authority is not simply a call to humility—although it is certainly that—it is a radically different way of envisaging human relationships. Whereas in normal human interactions there is a negotiation rooted in power and self-assertion, Christ calls his followers to the opposite.

Rather than vie for authority, which is a desire to ascend upward through the secular hierarchical ranks, Christians are called to descend downward, imitating the self-emptying love of the Messiah who died for the sake of others. Here the worldly pyramidal structure of society is turned upside down. Summarizing St Sophrony’s explanation of this new reality, Fr Zacharias (Zacharou) writes, “Christ, in order to heal all mankind, to break the deadlock of human injustice and to raise up high all those who are of ‘low degree’ upon the earth, overturns this pyramid of human existence, placing the apex at the base, and thus establishes the ultimate perfection” (Christ, Our Way and Our Life, South Canaan: STS Press, 2003: 54-5). Christ places himself at the very “bottom” of this inverted pyramid, and hence calls humanity to follow after him by descending into the depths of selfless love for others.

Within the Church it is possible to apply the inverted pyramid to all Christians in a very general sense; but it also pertains more specifically to the hierarchical structure of ecclesial vocations, of the relationship between the ranks of clergy and their interactions with the laity. Turning again to the Gospel narratives, we find a clear example of spiritual hierarchy. In John, Christ symbolically demonstrates the meaning of apostolic authority by washing the feet of his disciples. It is important that he places this act in the context of his last supper, and the institution of the tradition of the eucharist and its impartation to the apostles. Jesus tells them, “You call me teacher and Lord, and you say well, for so I am; if I then, your Lord and teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet” (Jn 13:13).

Although the apostles will be called to minister before God on behalf of the people, and even be granted the authority to “bind and loose,” their work must always be one of humble service, not of worldly power. It has been noted that, while all Christians approaching the chalice are called “the slave of God” (doulos tou Theou), the specific titles of the earliest two clerical ranks are derived from terms for household slaves: the deacon (diakonos) was one of the many servants in the home, and the bishop (episkopos) was the slave tasked with managing (over-seeing, hence epi + skopos) the other servants. Thus, role of the clergy is not to attain to or emulate a rank within secular hierarchy, but as slaves obedient to God they must descend towards the apex of the inverse pyramid where Christ himself remains.

Ecclesial Order in St Paul

The epistles of St Paul provide us with tangible applications of spiritual hierarchy, particularly in his instructions to St Timothy sometime after his ordination. Never does St Paul exhort St Timothy to exercise authority according to force, but rather by love and humility. The shepherd is to be a model to his flock, not a despot. “Be an example to the believers,” St Paul tells him, “in word, in conduct, in love, in spirit, in faith, in purity” (1 Tim 4:12). In giving specific qualifications for a bishop, St Paul writes that a candidate must not be “violent, nor greedy for money, but gentle, not quarrelsome, not covetous” (3:3).

Particularly, when correcting others, “a servant of the Lord must not quarrel but be gentle to all, able to teach, patient, in humility correcting those who are in opposition” (2 Tim 2:24-5). St Paul’s instruction to model faith to the laity, rather than impose it, is in line with his own example: he enjoins his readers, “Imitate me, just as I also imitate Christ” (1 Cor 11:1). Therefore, the authority bestowed by Christ upon his continual succession of apostles, the clergy, has nothing in common with the hierarchical structure of power prevalent in the world; it is the tangible expression of leadership in the form of self-emptying love.

The Bishop and the World

A uniquely ecclesial view of hierarchy is evident in the development of clerical administrative duties and liturgical roles. In his seminal work Eucharist, Bishop, Church, Met John Zizioulas outlines this early development in the second to fourth centuries. The primary role of the bishop was that of proistamenos—the “one who presides” over the eucharistic assembly. He was chosen from amongst the local council of presbyters (synthronon: those seated with the bishop) to lead the people of God in worship, and his authority as a shepherd to his flock was rooted in this weekly liturgical act. As the local church continued to expand in the post-Constantinian era, it transformed into a diocese with multiple parishes and its cathedral at the center, encompassing a much greater geographical area and membership.

But with this growth came a movement towards choosing bishops from monasteries. Hence, it was precisely at a time when the Church was gaining political advantage (worldly power) that it began to seek out spiritual leaders whose lives had been molded by Christ-like vows of chastity, poverty, obedience, and stability.

As the convention of appointing monastic bishops was standardized, it was then reflected in the Byzantine rite of an hierarchical liturgy (as still practiced in the Russian tradition): the bishop enters the temple wearing only his monastic garments and mantle; he is stripped down to his simple under-cassock; and then, in the center of the nave, he is vested with the elaborate garments of a high priest. It is there in the midst of the worshipping Church that he most clearly exercises his pastoral authority, whether through the preaching of the word or the consecration of the eucharist. And yet, in regards to mundane affairs, we find the opposite: canon law dictates that a bishop may not “undertake worldly business,” lest he be deposed (Apostolic Canon 6). A clear dichotomy exists between ecclesial and secular hierarchy.

A New Call to Ecclesial Order

The ideal is not often the reality. The historical interplay between ecclesial and political life has often led to abuses of power by the clergy. Bishops have, at times, allowed themselves to be treated as princes, and have resorted to the government for imposition of their authority. Men have pursued a position in the clerical ranks for the sake of self-aggrandizement, looking to fulfill their own desires rather than sincerely seeking the discernment of fellow believers.

But distortions of the ideal do not negate its importance, or the possibility of its attainment. Any man pursuing the vocation of ordained ministry in the Church must carefully examine his motivations. There must be a sincere desire to serve humbly, to pursue self-abnegation, and to abandon all pretensions to power or prestige.

And perhaps this model of service to others is more needful now than in past centuries, in light of growing cynicism towards religion, and animosity towards the power structures of modern society. As Christ offered himself up for the salvation of the world, the clergyman must likewise sacrifice himself daily for those entrusted to his care—both his parishioners and those potential servants of God in the greater community. A model of selfless leadership should begin with the bishop and flow to the presbyters, deacons, and laity.

There is a constant temptation to impose secular standards on the Church. Many would see the Body of Christ subjected to nonreligious egalitarian objectives, or restructured to mirror modern principles of democracy. But the spiritual hierarchy of the inverted pyramid, upon which the Church is founded, must never reflect these profane power structures. Its raison d’être necessarily precludes an agenda defined by self-affirmation, whether of one’s self or of their societal group (race, ethnicity, or sex).

Ordination should not be a means of obtaining standing in the world, nor conceived of as an advantage over others. Rather, the calling to ordained ministry is a unique appointment within the Church that exemplifies the general calling of every Christian man and woman: to descend into the depths of agapē in order to be united to the very source of love, the incarnate Lord.


  1. I once tried to explain to the youth of our parish that the authority of the Church is based in love, not secular notions of power. They actually had a difficult time grasping that.
    This is an excellent article, Father. Many thanks!

  2. Beautifully written and vastly important when considering our current ecclesiastical conflict with Constantinople and recognizing autonomy as well as the jurisdiction issues throughout the world. I pray that we emulate this ideal as laymen, priests, and bishops and be slaves to Christ.

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