Beware the Subtle Shade of Oligarchy

Written by Mark Van Steenwyk : June 11, 2007

Today, Len at NextReformation quotes a 1999 article by Ginny Hunt (the article, in its entirety, can be found here):

Sociologists have discovered that in virtually all forms of social organizations, from friendship groups to nations, a small self-perpetuating group grabs most of the power. This tendency to concentrate power in the hands of a few persons is called the law of oligarchy. Through His various words and actions that we read in the Bible, Jesus condemns oligarchy in social, economic, political and religious spheres of life. Kraybill wrote, ?Designating Himself as a waiter and criticizing the scribes? drive for prestige touches the social area. ? His hard words about economic stratification where rich dominate the poor?The comment that His disciples should not be like the kings of the Gentiles who lord it over their subordinates strikes at oligarchy in the political sphere. Jesus? harsh words and acts against the oral law and the temple demonstrate His rejection of oligarchy in religious institutions.?

image The article proposes rejecting oligarchy for allelon-based ways of organizing (allelon being the Greek word for “one-another”). Here are five principles for allelon-based organizing, based upon Jesus’ way of handling power:

1) Power should be used to help others become powerful. This is the opposite of what usually happens. Power usually begets more power, but in the Kingdom of God, the citizens seek to use power to equalize power.

2) Power should be distributed as widely as possible among individuals and organizations. The law of oligarchy says that power usually concentrates in the hands of a few people. While there will always be varied degrees of power within human organizations, we ought to work to diffuse and decentralize power where possible.

3) Hierarchy in social governance should be reduced to a minimum. Kraybill uses the analogy of a ladder to demonstrate social hierarchies. He says the ladder should be flattened out. As that happens, coordination and cooperation replaces domination.

4) Authority for leadership should be freely given by the led. Leadership should not be imposed on a group nor self-appointed. Leadership naturally arises when it is freely given by the ones being led to the leader in response to the leader?s servant posture.

5) The Christian perspective looks down the ladder. The normal human tendency is to climb the ladder as quickly as possible, but the followers of Jesus work to serve the powerless at the bottom.

As I read the article, I couldn’t help but notice the irony that the organization called “Allelon” has been moving away from these sorts of principles (which were at the heart of Allelon in the beginning). Allelon used to be almost exclusively about fostering conversation. But over time, it has become about a particular ecclesiological/theological agenda (which I happen to affirm), has become centered around the personality of Alan Roxburgh, and has been trying to move into publishing. Does this sound familiar? It is the same trajectory that Emergent has been on. The New Monasticism has begun to move in the same direction as well.

I am the coordinator for the Twin Cities Emergent Cohort. I’m no longer the outsider decrying the “system.” I’m an insider now. I value Emergent and the relationships tied into my involvement with Emergent. I love what we’re trying to accomplish. And I don’t believe that the reason for this is that intentional.  I don’t believe that the shift towards oligarchy has been premeditated, intentional, or desired.  But it is what has happened, subtly. So, I’m conflicted.  However, I have two major critiques.  I offer them as a loving insider, not as a raging outsider:

  1. These groups have moved from decentralized networks that foster conversation to conversation brokers to oligarchical institutions (though, to be fair, institutions that strongly value dialogue, process, and sharing).
  2. Such groups play too much into the consumer mindset–fostering brand identity, celebrity spokespersons, and publishing deals.

Emergent (and Allelon) are both moving away from the empowerment of the many (through conversational events) to an oligarchical orientation. They actively seek the respect of strong institutions like seminaries, denominations, and the like. And they seek to have a strong voice in North American Christianity through publishing deals. These things aren’t “evil” per se. But it is deceptive and sneaky to say that Emergent Village is simply a conversation. It is an institution. That’s not so bad, except that the strong gravity of institutions like Emergent Village and Allelon has exerted a centralizing force on the emerging and missional movements. In other words, instead of organic, decentralized conversations, conversations are happening in the orbits of groups like Emergent and Allelon. Let’s all be honest about the fact that this has happened instead of pretending that nothing has happened.

Such groups have played into the consumer mindset. Both have become brands with clearly identifiable (celebrity) spokespersons. And it is those celebrity voices that shape the “conversation.” In other words, we have an oligarchy. I’ve gotten into a spat or two with Tony Jones about this phenomenon within Emergent. When I first started griping about it, I wasn’t friends with Tony. Now I am. And it makes it all the more difficult to criticize the centralizing effects of Emergent. For the most part, I really enjoy my involvement with Emergent. I enjoy the friendships and the events. But I’m still as uncomfortable as ever with the way in which the conversation orbits around a handful of people.

So, now when I critique Emergent, I’m critiquing myself too. I get that. I’m no longer interested in merely lobbing stones. Instead, I want to make some general suggestions:

  1. Those of us who are active participants in Emergent (or Allelon) should be honest about what our organizations are and not “spin” things to make them sound better.
  2. We should recognize that we’re at a point where such organizations are beginning to dis-empower, as well as empower, folks in the broader emerging/missional church movement.
  3. We should all be willing to speak to the newly forming power structures within our movements. Have candid conversations with those folks whose voices have become dominant in the conversation.
  4. We must kill the Buddha.
  5. Believe it or not, there are ways of fostering conversation, holding events, and accomplishing great things that don’t center around particular personalities, or strengthen particular organizations. When you plan your next event, try to think through whether or not you’re contributing to the centralizing impulse. This is something I’m thinking through as I plan the Justice of Jesus Conference for the spring. It would be too easy to invite particular celebrity voices. And while more folks will show up if I invite celebrities to speak, it can communicate the message that these folks are at a higher level of Christianity or are more important. I need to have solid speakers who have earned the message they’ll share, but who will still be seen as mere mortals. It is a delicate, fragile dance–but one worth dancing.

Most of this is as much our fault as it is the fault of those “inside” the oligarchy.  When I planted Missio Dei, my desire was to foster decentralization.  But my own understanding of how I should lead made it hard to be decentralized.  Even more challenging, though, was that everyone in Missio Dei looked to me to lead them in a way that undermined decentralization.  In other words, the shift towards oligarchism has come because we wanted it.  We want people like Tony Jones and Doug Pagitt and Brian McLaren and Alan Roxburgh and Shane Claiborne and Jonathan Wilson Hartgrove etc. to come and define “Emerging Church” and “Missional” and “New Monasticism” for us–because that is easier than us having to figure it our for ourselves.  And so, we invite them to come tell us how it is, instead of inviting them to come chat with us. And so, we end up with Oligarchy by will of the people.

My goal here isn’t to promote the destruction of these groups. I’m not about that. But neither do I think status-quo is an option. How do we constructively promote a retreat from the centralizing impulses while, at the same time, a continued fostering of conversation and networking? What do you think?

for further reading . . .

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17 Responses to “Beware the Subtle Shade of Oligarchy”

  1. Jonas Lundström on June 12th, 2007 3:28 am

    You are definitely right, I think. Historically, movements and churches that valued every bodys sharing, making the decisions together, and non-ruling leadership, have tended to be swallowed up by the hierarchichal system. In our time, “effeciency” might be the biggest motivation. I believe that this has historical reasons, the first step towards the corruption of the church was the development of hierarchical leadership along the lines of Ignatius. It is hard to say what to do, but I think one important thing is being comfortable with being small, vulnerable and having low impact (at least in the short perspective). I also think we need to separate as much as possible from the system. I respect your non-separatist stance, but I think it is naive. Of course there might be huge problems even in non-hierarchical groups, but these groups will probably disappear over time. Hierarchical organisations on the other hand, tend to be demons that hang around, oppresing people and quenching the spirit…

  2. Anna on June 12th, 2007 8:22 am

    Mark, I’ve been tasting the same flavor from the groups you mentioned over the past several months. In the conversations I’ve had with certain leaders, the issue of the leaders being very humble and time-tested sorts was put forth as a defense of their being the spokesmen. I felt like my head was patted and told to run off and play in the forum.


  3. markvans on June 12th, 2007 8:42 am

    I appreciate the comments, Jonas. I mostly agree–except the part about me being naive ;) The funny thing is that establishment types call me naive for my separatist, anarchist tendencies. I guess I’ll have to be comfortable being naive on both fronts. There is a tension between freedom and unity. I guess I’m ok being constrained by the system a bit for sake of unity. The question is how one negotiates that tension.

    Anna–I know exactly what you mean. Thanks for the comment.

  4. Beyond Words on June 12th, 2007 10:24 am

    How are women contributing actively or passively to this trajectory? Just curious. The celebrities all seem to be men.

  5. Richard on June 12th, 2007 4:31 pm

    In other words, instead of organic, decentralized conversations

    It sounds, from the quotes and examples in your entry, that decentralization is not organic, but rather centralization is. I’m wondering if it wouldn’t be better to use the centralizing impulse as a strength that can be used to distribute/equalize power.

    I’m sort of picturing it as the function of a moderator in a debate who makes sure that all the speakers have equal time and opportunity to have their voice be heard in the conversation. The moderator has the opportunity to direct the conversation in ways they choose, but a good moderator would not. And without a moderator, the debaters will probably not have equal time/power in the conversation, but instead the one who shouts loudest or is more forceful would be most heard.

  6. Bill Kinnon on June 12th, 2007 4:48 pm

    I find it disconcerting that you make a categorical statement about Allelon rather than posing your apparent concern as a question. “Is it” rather than “it is.”

    I would humbly ask how you are engaged in conversation with the Allelon team? How have you experienced this supposed oligarchy? On what do you base your analysis?

    I write this as I’m sitting in a room at Fuller, filled with church leadership folk (women & men, multi-generational and multi-ethnic) engaged in open and active conversation about missional leadership - gently facilitated by Mark Lau Branson, Al Roxburgh, Eddie Gibbs, Rick Beaton and Scott Cormode. Oddly enough, it’s the Allelon Summer Institute.

  7. markvans on June 12th, 2007 5:06 pm

    Bill, you’re right. I should have posted in terms of “is it” instead of “it is.” But I don’t think I’m stretching too much to be a bit concerned about it. I mean, I go to the site and see Al Roxburgh’s face right away and some of his books.

    On what do I base the oligarchy? When you have a few voices representing a movement, that is oligarchy. Allelon is certainly more about a particular message that is being communicated by a few spokespeople…isn’t that oligarchical? It is quite certainly possible that I’m just porting my experience of Emergent onto Allelon. But it certainly feels like the expression of Allelon has centralized.

    Nevertheless, I should have blogged in a gentler way.

  8. Brother Maynard on June 12th, 2007 8:00 pm

    Mark, I’ve got similar concerns as Bill laid out - but also similar concerns to the ones you laid out.

    Clearly you can call yourself an Emergent “insider”, but not so sure about your Allelon affiliation. I can tell you that I personally (and not just me) wanted to know more about what Allelon is all about and what they’re up to and so forth… so we invited Al to come and do a public forum-type evening here in Winnipeg. Don’t know if you follow my blog at all, but it does show comments following the event from people who were there. In addition to that, I had the good fortune to be able to sit with Al over several coffees and a few meals and begin to share our hearts together as I sought further insight into what Allelon is all about. End result, short version: I asked Al straight out how I could become more involved with what they’re doing.

    With the things you’re saying about leadership, not lording it over people, decentralized structures, etc. etc. etc., you had me at hello. Or way before that - as anyone who knows my writing will attest (seriously, read my work - or Len can tell you).

    I’m not going to speak to Emergent, where I’m not an insider and you are - my outside impression fwiw is that it’s a good flag to raise. However, I don’t think you’re reading Allelon correctly. I’m going to grant you that I don’t think the website communicates a lot of this as clearly as it could… I do know the site’s been revamped not long ago, some changes are in the works (don’t know all about what’s changing) and that no website is ever complete. Perhaps more clarity on this message will ‘emerge’ yet.

    As for oligarchy, “oligarchy by will of the people” is pretty much an oxymoron, particularly in the arena you’re describing vis a vis Allelon. Who exactly does Allelon hold power or control over? A bunch of Allelon regional cohorts? I don’t think the charge sticks, and this is one reason I’m in the process of looking for ways to support what they’re doing. And believe you me, I’m the last guy around who’s going to fuel an oligarchic abuse of that thing we call leadership. A whiff of that and I’d be drawing my distance… precisely because I care about the kind of leadership Jesus talked about. Ask around, anyone who knows me will vouch for me on this count.

    All that said, I do appreciate your response to Bill in that you could have been softer on it… but I also think you should have held your critique just to Emergent at least until you’d investigated Allelon further - and more directly.

    My 2 cents ;^)

  9. Bill Kinnon on June 12th, 2007 8:13 pm

    Mark, I’ve always been rather fond of Alan’s face, but I digress. And you will certainly find a lot more than Alan’s books on the site.

    If you dig a little deeper in the site, you will also find that Alan has been acting as a missional reporter, as it were. He has engaged in audio and video conversations with folk like Pernell Goodyear, Steve Taylor, Andrew Jones, Pat Keifert, Eddie Gibbs, Ryan Bolger, Craig van Gelder, Darryl Dash (granted, Double D ended up interviewing Alan) and later this week, Jonny Baker and Graham Cray.

    You will also find articles from a host of people including David Fitch, Sara Jane Walker, Mark Priddy, Andrew Menzies, Jannie Swart and even me at one point, along with many others.

    So my question to you would be who are the “few spokespeople”? What is the particular message? How has the expression of Allelon been centralized?

    And my response would be, no it isn’t oligarchical.

  10. len hjalmarson on June 12th, 2007 8:50 pm

    It’s important to have this conversation, and Mark you know I have my own doubts about organization, but I think we need to recognize also that its not a win-win either way. In organizing we gain some things, and we lose some things. THe qustion is then how to maximize the gains and minimize the losses. My guess is that this comes as much in the “who” as in the “how.” The “who” in Alan , Mark and crew are the very best.. that gives me more confidence in the future. Further, ALLELON like EMERGENT is only one conversation among many.. one path to this surprising new future. I think that is easily recognized by the ALLELON crew… who clearly feel called by God to the path they are on. Can we affirm and support that path while also maintaining a gentle critique? I think so.. and in taht way we can all benefit and grow together.

  11. markvans on June 12th, 2007 9:01 pm

    Thanks for the gentle rebukes. I jumped the gun on this. I think I’ve been overly sensitive towards this sort of stuff lately. I apologize for jumping to conclusions. I think I was sorta forcing my broader concerns to fit into some specific examples.

    I worry about the way in which clearly identifiable leaders and spokespeople have emerged in some of the new movements that I care about. When, for example, “new monasticism” is so strongly tied to the name “Shane Claiborne” it has a way of solidifying and centralizing a movement. Future participants in the movement have their involvement mediated through the insights and voice of one person. The same could be said for a handful of leader/authors in Emergent. My assumption was that the same dynamic was at play with Allelon. I’m assuming at this point that my assumption was wrong.

    I haven’t had much direct relationships with folks at Allelon–though I’ve been a “member” of the online stuff for a while now. I’ve never been to events (because of the cost…you all know how that goes).

    If I have any critique remaining for Allelon at all, it would be that folks would take greater pains to articulate an openness for people to be involved in various ways. I know that I’m not alone in my “hyper-vigilance” to organizational centralization and the codification of a single message.

  12. len hjalmarson on June 12th, 2007 9:17 pm

    After dinner conversation, some more thoughts. What is the heart of the issue in terms of authority.. isn’t it how it is used… to serve, or to cultivate personal status and advantage. Translation in organizational terms.. is an organization about its members, or about the mission? This whole emergent conversation is generated because the church lost its mission and became a private club. So now we re-organize around the mission: both locally and through networks. And now also through monastic orders, which is a particular kind of network perhaps. All these things are merely wineskins which will serve for a time, and probably not as long as we would like. When they outlive their usefulness we will abandon them. We know historically there are always those who continue to defend them and who hold to power. But should that prevent us from experimenting with new forms and cultivating new wineskins? .. concerns for EMERGENT notwithstanding. The caution for all of us was stated well by David Ruis: “be careful what you build.. you will have to serve it.”

  13. len hjalmarson on June 12th, 2007 9:20 pm

    Mark, you are a quality guy :) and I’m glad to know you..

  14. Brother Maynard on June 12th, 2007 10:21 pm


    Thanks for your humility and receptivity in this. Sorry if I came on stronger than was necessary. btw, I just now noticed the disclaimer in the footer on this page… and I love it, well done. I enjoy your blog, hope to have further conversations about non-hierarchical leadership etc. Shoot me an email, we’ll compare notes.

  15. Jonas Lundström on June 13th, 2007 3:51 am

    It almost seems I am the only separatist around, commenting on this one, so I will go for some more. I do not think there is a tension between freedom and unity. The unity Jesus spoke about is based on the commitment to following him and all his instructions (John 17), including the ones about hierarchy and leadership. I believe God´s unity has to grow slowly through relationships between the geniun followers of The Leader. To bow before the established, fallen church is not promoting true unity. One example of this is that big organisations always (?) excludes the marginal voices. I believe God´s people is/should be made up of churches that are free, not acknowledging other leaders than Jesus. So true unity is based on the church´s freedom from worldly structures, and there is not tension between unity and freedom.

  16. dlw on June 13th, 2007 9:12 pm

    Hej, Hej Jonas!

    I guess my ecclesiology nowadays affirms both the local house church and the parachurches, which ideally shd be as similar to the local house churches as possible, with thirty or less stewards from various house churches.

    I think that the sorts of parachurch orgs we need varies historically and we could have dealt with the problems of heresy and the polemical attacks by greek philosophers like Celsus via parachurches of varying degrees of separation from local churches. Ie, parachurches of degree one are composed of stewards from 30 or less local churches and parachurches of degree two are composed of stewards from 30 or less parachurch organizations of degree one, as parachurch organizations of degree n woud be composed of 30 or less parachurch organizations of degree n-1. The sorts of parachurches would be “specialized” and reformed. Local churches would grow but always split into more local churches when the exceeded the size limitation mandated to keep things decentralized.

    That’s my vision of how the church shd operate. I think one could then have both coordination in provision of the sorts of services that we value and decentralization. I believe very much in the need and biblical nature of teaching hierarchy, which can and should be grown to be flatter, but I don’t believe that such teaching authority leads to administrative authority, as sadly tends to happen quite a bit…

    ps, It’s not official, but I probably got the job in Idaho.

  17. dlw on June 14th, 2007 4:32 pm

    Oh and spend enough time with Ukrainians or others in the former soviet union, and you learn not to use the term oligarchy terribly freely. It can be quite bad.


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