As a history of humanity, the Bible often refers to the hierarchy of various societies. Very early in history, we can see stratification in society, with landowners being separate from laborers, slaves, and foreigners in a region. In most ancient societies, widows and orphans also ranked among the lowest in the hierarchy.
Ancient Israel, like all nations, was organized in a hierarchy of authority: Moses and Aaron were the leaders of the Israelites after their time in Egypt (Exodus 4:27–31). Aaron led the priests (Exodus 29). Each clan or family had a group of leaders (Numbers 36:1). There were appointed “officials over thousands, hundreds, fifties and tens” (Exodus 18:25). Later, during the monarchy, the hierarchy included a king at the top (1 Chronicles 28:4).
Besides hierarchies of authority, the Bible alludes to hierarchies of class, military rank, religion, and socioeconomic status. An example of class hierarchy mentioned in Scripture is found in Esther 1:16, which speaks of the king, the queen, the nobility, and “the peoples of all the provinces”; later in the same passage, the whole of society is referred to in terms of “the least to the greatest” (verse 20). Examples of military hierarchy abound the Bible: one example is the centurion in Matthew 8:9 who speaks of himself as “a man under authority, with soldiers under me.” Examples of religious hierarchy in the Bible include the Levites, who were the only ones who could carry the ark of the covenant (1 Chronicles 15:2); and the teachers of the law and the Pharisees who “sit in Moses’ seat” (Matthew 23:2). Finally, an example in the Bible of socioeconomic hierarchy is seen in Jesus’ words that “the poor you will always have with you” (Mark 14:7).
A social hierarchy of some type is normal and natural and even necessary to maintain order. In fact, God instituted authority structures (Romans 13:1), and He commanded first-century Christians to “honor the emperor” (1 Peter 2:17; cf. Proverbs 24:21). Even in the millennial kingdom of Christ, a hierarchy will exist. Christ will be King, and the twelve apostles are promised to “sit on thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel” (Luke 22:30). So, there is nothing sinful about a hierarchy, per se.
It’s important to remember that a person’s place in a hierarchy is not indicative of his or her worth as a person. The Bible teaches that everyone, from a king down to the lowest servant, is created in the image of God. Humanity often confuses the issue, assigning a certain value or worth to those with more authority, more money, or higher rank. Such thinking is unbiblical. God is no respecter of persons (Acts 10:34), and neither should we show favoritism (James 2:1–9).
Also, just because God establishes authorities doesn’t mean that all hierarchies are pleasing to Him. Some hierarchies in this world are the result of the fall of humanity and the broken, sinful state of the world. The caste system of Hinduism, for example, is a thing of evil. And just because the Bible acknowledges a hierarchy exists doesn’t mean God approves of everything that takes place within it. The Bible is clear that God does not approve of discrimination, exploitation, or the abuse of power.
The Bible acknowledges that social hierarchies exist, but it also repeatedly calls for the protection of widows and orphans (Exodus 22:22). The Mosaic Law provided far more humane and protective regulations of slavery than any other nation at the time (Exodus 21). And Israel was given a direct command to treat immigrants fairly: “Do not oppress a foreigner; you yourselves know how it feels to be foreigners, because you were foreigners in Egypt” (Exodus 23:9).
We should not confuse God-established authority with human-made social structures or hierarchies occasioned by sin. God’s structures are meant for our protection and provision, even as mankind attempts to corrupt them; human hierarchies are meant to elevate some and subjugate, abuse, or exploit others.
One day, “every valley shall be raised up, every mountain and hill made low” (Isaiah 40:4), and those who abuse their power, marginalize the weak, or in any way degrade human life will face justice (see Psalm 36:6; Revelation 19:11). We can count on God’s righteous justice to make all things right when He accomplishes His will at the end of the age.