What is “hierarchy”? Let me answer in the words of etymology dictionary:
c.1343, from O.Fr. ierarchie, from M.L. hierarchia “ranked division of angels” (in the system of Dionysius the Areopagite), from Gk. hierarchia “rule of a high priest,” from hierarches “high priest, leader of sacred rites,” from ta hiera “the sacred rites” (neut. pl. of hieros “sacred”) + archein “to lead, rule.” Sense of “ranked organization of persons or things” first recorded 1619, initially of clergy, probably infl. by higher.
(hierarchy. Dictionary.com. Online Etymology Dictionary. Douglas Harper, Historian. http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/hierarchy (accessed: March 19, 2011).)
(Dionysius the Areopagite was a philosopher, not to be confused with Dionysos, the wine god. It wasn’t delirium tremens talking. 😉 )
I’ve heard from some people, that they experience the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as a hierarchy, a structure where it’s very important to suborn to one’s leaders. And I’m always equally surprised, because I have always thought that the Church is a remarkably egalitarian as an institution. Granted, there are leaders, who use their leadership positions for self-enhancement, but that would be the case in any organization at all.
One thing could be, that I’ve lived in an area, where people are not very conservative at all, which seems to have a bearing on one’s attitude towards ecclesiastical leaders, as well as the attitude of of those leaders toward those whom they are responsible for.
And the most important words may be the responsibility of the leaders.
Mind you, a Bishop, say, holds the keys to the Aaronic Priesthood in his ward, and thus all ordinances of the Aaronic Priesthood need to receive his blessing. You can not just decide to bless the emblems of the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper at home; you need to ask the Bishop for his permission. Likewise, nobody gets baptised (validly) without his blessing. But those are what I’d call institutional ordinances.
But a major important point was made in a General Conference address by Elder Oaks in October 2010. He talked about two lines of communication. One line, the institutional line, does indeed follow a hierarchical Priesthood line. A Bishop is not entitled to revelation outside his own ward. A Stake President is the president of the one stake, not some other one. And, as you go to the next level, the Apostles are the only ones with ecclesiastical authority over the whole world.
The other line of communication is the personal one. That means, that any member of the Church has a right, nay, an obligation, I would say, to call on God for revelation in the member’s own life and family life. (Again, not so much in someone else’s life.) Brigham Young stated, to paraphrase his words, that if a member hears anything from “brother Brigham” that member has a duty to ask God to confirm it to him or her. The direct quote? Read on:
Brigham Young had to know for himself. He later taught the Saints that God did not intend them “to be led entirely by another person, suspending their own understanding, and pinning their faith upon another’s
sleeve” (DNW, 24 Aug. 1854, 1). “It is my duty to know the mind of the Lord concerning myself,” he told them (DNW, 22 Sept. 1875, 4). “It is your privilege and duty to live so that you know when the word of the Lord is spoken to you and when the mind of the Lord is revealed to you” (DNW, 22 Sept. 1875, 4).
(Pp 1 – 2, Teachings of Presidents of The Church, Brigham Young, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City 1997.)
Again, remember that it is often not an easy thing to know the mind of the Lord. We have challenges, and Father Lehi talked at length about why we need them.
Anyway, let’s again underline that we are not to be blind followers. “[B]e ye doers of the word, and not hearers only” said Apostle James of old in James 1:21.
Naturally there are, as I said, leaders who use their leadership position as a tool for self-enhancement, thinking they have a commanding authority over the members, for whom they are responsible. Priesthood leaders in the established churches of the Apostasy did have a commanding authority, going very far to micro-manage people’s lives, and some of the leaders, who have a convert history, may be under the influence of their upbringing.
The more I hear the Apostles of the Lord teach how Priesthood leadership is supposed to work, the more I’m convinced that the Church is a common cause for her members. Especially in the mission districts, basically any temple recommend holding Melchizedek Priesthood holder can find himself in the position of a Branch President. That, in my opinion, has an effect on how they sustain their current President, because many people do understand the Golden Rule.
One thing to give the impression of a strict hierarchy is that people do love titles. Joseph Smith was known as “brother Joseph” to most members, but somewhere along the line the developments of culture within and without the Church has lead to many members being quite picky about talking about “President Jones” instead of “Jake” when talking about their Stake President (any allusion to a real person is accidental and unintentional, and I’m sorry if there is a Jake Jones who gets kidded about this; it doesn’t strike me as a name to give my son, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a perfectly good name).
Well, when I address my Priesthood leaders by their titles, it is in a context, where their administrative position matters, such as council meetings or Sacrament meeting talks. And then I do it out of respect for the calling they have–it’s not as though they were more valuable than any child of God. If I’m just shooting the breeze, we are on first name basis with most of the ward or stake level leaders. When I meet an Apostle, I do call him something like “Elder Petersen”, until we are what you might consider friends–not that I’ve been close enough to any for that, despite meeting them now and again.
So you see there’s a world of different connotations and value systems, cultural conditioning etc. that can have a bearing on what you experience. Furthermore, it is my understanding that in the Mormon Corridor, there is pressure experienced by some from other Saints to talk and act as if a Bishop were something that’s between the Prophet and the Lord.
Go figure. And then go pray.
P.S. For most of those, who do experience a pressure like I describe, I’d suggest an experience like Boot Camp to compare
with it it with. It’s a completely different world.