The Bible has a lot to say about hierarchy and order in society. Going all the way back to the Old Testament, there are examples of God instituting structure, leadership, and authority among His people. This theme carries through to the New Testament as well. Here is an overview of some of the major biblical passages that deal with hierarchy and order in society:
Old Testament Examples of Hierarchy
In the Old Testament, God establishes a clear hierarchical system among the nation of Israel. After freeing them from slavery in Egypt, He gives them order and organization on how to live as a society:
- God appoints Moses as the leader of Israel (Exodus 3:10). Moses acts as the central authority figure who communicates God’s laws and instructions to the people.
- Under Moses, there are appointed elders who help lead the people and settle disputes (Exodus 18:13-26). This provides a structured system of leadership under Moses.
- The Levitical priesthood is established, with Aaron and his sons being anointed as high priests and the rest of the tribe of Levi serving as priests (Exodus 28:1, Numbers 3:5-10). The priests act as spiritual leaders and intermediaries between God and the people.
- The 12 tribes of Israel each have their own leaders and areas of land (Numbers 1, Joshua 13-19). This allows each tribe to have autonomy while still being part of the nation.
- In the Promised Land, cities are appointed to have their own elders who judge local matters (Deuteronomy 16:18). This distributes authority across the nation.
- Kings are eventually established in Israel as central figures who rule over the entire nation (1 Samuel 8-10). David and Solomon exemplify strong kingly leadership over Israel.
Through these examples, it is clear that God instituted a hierarchical system in Israel with distributed levels of leadership and authority. This provided order and unity among the people. The hierarchy was not authoritarian in nature, but allowed different leaders to guide the nation in an orderly way according to God’s law and purposes.
New Testament Examples of Order and Authority
The New Testament also provides guidance on hierarchy and leadership within the church. Jesus models servant leadership, and the early church fathers exhort believers to submit to authorities in an orderly way:
- Jesus teaches that the greatest in the kingdom of God are the servants of all (Mark 10:42-45). He models leadership through servanthood and humility, not domination.
- Church leaders like elders/overseers and deacons are appointed to guide and instruct the early churches (1 Timothy 3:1-13, Titus 1:5-9). There is a biblical model of leadership roles in the early church body.
- Paul urges Christians to submit to governing authorities, since all authority comes from God (Romans 13:1-7). There is an acknowledgement that God institutes earthly authority structures.
- Believers are called to submit to one another out of reverence for Christ (Ephesians 5:21). This mutual submission does not negate authority roles but highlights humility and service.
- Church members are urged to obey and submit to their leaders, since leaders keep watch over their souls (Hebrews 13:17). There is a responsibility to recognize spiritual authority figures.
While the New Testament calls for mutual love and service among Christians, it still acknowledges the necessity of structure and authority in the church. Leaders are called to serve humbly, and believers are to submit to and honor the authority placed over them by God. This upholds order and unity in the body of Christ.
Principles for Hierarchy and Leadership
Throughout the Bible, there are governing principles that apply to all Christians regarding hierarchy and leadership roles in society:
- All authority is instituted by God, so even earthly hierarchies reflect His design for order (Romans 13:1).
- With authority comes responsibility and servanthood, not domination (Luke 22:24-27).
- Leaders should be humble, self-sacrificial, and sober-minded (1 Peter 5:1-4).
- Followers should honor, respect, obey, and pray for their leaders (1 Timothy 2:1-3, Hebrews 13:17).
- Rebellion against God-given authority is ultimately rebellion against God Himself (Romans 13:2).
- The greatest leaders have a servant’s heart and use power/authority to benefit others (Mark 10:42-45).
- All believers in Christ ultimately have equal status and are brothers and sisters (Matthew 23:8-12).
God cares deeply about social order, authority, justice, and human dignity. Biblical hierarchy is not about rigid control or status-seeking. Done correctly in a Christ-like spirit, societal structure and leadership roles can promote peace, care for the vulnerable, and human thriving under God’s design.
Examples of Hierarchy in the Old Testament
The Old Testament provides many examples of God establishing hierarchy, order, and leadership roles among His people Israel. Here are some of the key passages:
Moses as Leader of Israel
“Come, I will send you to Pharaoh that you may bring my people, the children of Israel, out of Egypt.” (Exodus 3:10 ESV)
God appointed Moses to directly lead the Israelites out of captivity in Egypt. Moses served as the authoritative prophet and leader who conveyed God’s word and laws to Israel.
Appointment of Elders
“Choose some wise, understanding and respected men from each of your tribes, and I will set them over you.” (Deuteronomy 1:13 ESV)
“Moses chose capable men from all Israel and made them leaders of the people, officials over thousands, hundreds, fifties and tens.” (Exodus 18:25 ESV)
Elders and officials were chosen to help judge and organize Israel under Moses’ leadership. This provided greater distribution of authority.
“Have Aaron your brother brought to you from among the Israelites, along with his sons Nadab and Abihu, Eleazar and Ithamar, so they may serve me as priests.” (Exodus 28:1 ESV)
God established Aaron and his descendants as priests. The Levites were set apart to minister before God and make atonement for Israel through sacrifices.
“The LORD said to Moses and Aaron: The Israelites are to camp around the tent of meeting some distance from it, each of them under their standard and holding the banners of their family.” (Numbers 2:1-2 ESV)
Israel was divided into 12 tribes descended from the 12 sons of Jacob. Each tribe had its own leader and role. This created an organized structure.
Kings of Israel
“Then Samuel took a flask of olive oil and poured it on Saul’s head and kissed him, saying, “Has not the LORD anointed you ruler over his inheritance?” (1 Samuel 10:1 ESV)
Saul, David, and other kings were anointed to rule over Israel as God’s chosen authorities for their time. The king was the pinnacle of the social hierarchy.
Examples of Hierarchy in the New Testament
The New Testament also provides guidance and examples regarding authority structures in the growing church. Here are some key passages:
Jesus on Leadership
“Jesus called them together and said, “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all.” (Mark 10:42-44 ESV)
Though He came as a humble servant, Jesus has ultimate authority as the Son of God. But He condemns domineering leadership, calling His followers to instead model humility and servitude.
“The reason I left you in Crete was that you might put in order what was left unfinished and appoint elders in every town, as I directed you.” (Titus 1:5 ESV)
“An elder must be blameless, faithful to his wife, a man whose children believe and are not open to the charge of being wild and disobedient.” (Titus 1:6 ESV)
Elders (or overseers/bishops) were appointed to lead local churches just as elders had helped lead Israel. The Bible gives qualifications for servant-hearted, spiritually mature elders.
“In the same way, deacons are to be worthy of respect, sincere, not indulging in much wine, and not pursuing dishonest gain.” (1 Timothy 3:8 ESV)
Deacons had a distinct serving role in the early church separate from overseers. They assisted the elders and ministered to needs within the church body.
Submission to Governing Authorities
“Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God.” (Romans 13:1 ESV)
Paul urges believers to uphold earthly authority structures like government, since ultimately God is the supreme authority establishing order in human society.
Principles for Modern Hierarchy and Leadership
While each church or organization may apply them differently, some overarching biblical principles should guide modern hierarchy and leadership roles:
- Jesus should be the supreme example for leaders. True greatness comes through humility and service, not status.
- Positions of authority are meant for coordinating God’s purposes, not self-promotion.
- Human authority structures are meant to promote order, justice, welfare, and human dignity as image-bearers.
- Followers should do their part through honor, prayer, cooperation, and holding leaders accountable.
- Heart motivations matter. Leaders should seek wisdom and check prideful attitudes.
- Responsibility rises with the role. Greater authority means greater accountability before God.
- Christ-centered servant leadership builds up others and evokes willing cooperation, not forced submission.
- As much as possible, organizational structures should distribute and share authority to avoid consolidated power.
The Bible does endorse proper hierarchy, leadership, and authority roles. But these should always be exercised with sacrificial love and sound, humble judgment for serving God and people well. Shared governance and mutual accountability provides checks against the ever-present human tendency toward greed and abuse of power.
When carried out according to biblical values, authority structures in society can help order, safety, morality, care for the disadvantaged, and human flourishing. But without a commitment to servant leadership and concern for the common good, hierarchies easily devolve into exploitation that does harm. Christians in positions of influence have a responsibility to ensure the biblical ideals of hierarchy are upheld.