Quis imperat? Who’s in charge around here?

Elaine Pagels in Gnostic Gospels, p. 107, brings out the inherent tug of war in any group of people. She writes thus about the early Christian church:
Such ethereal visions of the “heavenly church” contrast sharply with the down-to-earth portrait of the church that orthodox sources offer [note small o, not Eastern Orthodox]. Why do gnostic authors abandon concreteness and describe the church in fantastic and imaginative terms? Some scholrs say that this proves that they understood little, and cared less, about social relationships. Carl Andresen, in his recent, massive study of the early Christian church, calls them “religious solipsists” who concerned themselves only with their own individual spiritual development, indifferent to the community responsibilities of a church. but the sources cited above show that these gnostics defined the church precisely [sic] in terms of the quality of interrelationships among its members.

Orthodox writers described the church in concrete terms because they accept the status quo; that is, they affirmed that the actual community of those gathered for worship was [sic] “the church.” Gnostic Christians dissented. Confronted with those in the churches whom they considered ignorant, arrogant, or self-interested they refused to agree that the whole community of believers , without further qualification, constituted “the church”……. they intended to discriminate between the mass of believers and those who truly had gnosis [sic]….”

Every human group faces this conundrum: do we function as individuals or as a group? If as a group, leadership arises; whether based on connections, personality, power, wealth, identify or whatever, someone, and usually not just one, rises up as a leader. Once that occurs, hierarchy ensues. With hierarchy comes order. Order in turn generates more hierarchy. The hierarchy’s sense of order is determined by conditions, culture, the situation, natural events, and so on, but the sense of order is by no means uniform across the human race, thus the immense varieties of governance and government. Each polity has its own “style”, one might say.

It is hard to see how the early Christian church could have organized itself, despite wide-spread enthusiasm for the new religion, without hierarchy. But the Gnostic Christians eschewed hierarchy and, at bottom, organization, preferring to leave “order” up to the individual. In terms of pure efficacy, hierarchy wins hands down b/c it can impose order. Occupy Wall Street eschewed hierarchy and where are they now?

And yet, all such ordered hierarchies grow dissenters and the unorthodox like mushrooms. Such proliferation of practices and views demands reordering, and the cycle starts over. Do we need both? Vast organizations, or better, institutions, periodically need renewal, fresh blood, and the opposition and even revolt of those dissatisfied with being stifled by orthodoxy generates both disorder and renewal. Managing it all from above is…..????

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