I am very interested in what Huifeng posted. Out of the whole discussion, I'm curious enough to ask - how much of this hierarchy is implicitly 'merit-based'?
It reminds me of when I found myself unable to attend the sangha closest to me, I was told in not so many words that my circumstances were a factor of merit. Not so much that I am a bad person and don't have enough merit to be there, but that it helps turn the mind towards virtue to start practices that increase the possibilities of being closer to dharma. Dharma teachers may simply have accumulated more merit to get to that place in that they ARE teaching dharma - clearly via cause and effect - they have cultivated that merit through their past actions. I (like many lay people) simply have not because I've not habituated myself, or perhaps applied myself with quite the same fervor to work through my obscurations, I have not dedicated as much time or effort, etc etc... Does this mean that I have no chance for respect from those who have attained more, or that I'm 'worth less' as a person - I don't think most teachers would think this way (I might be completely mistaken). If anything I might elicit a bit more compassion for my ignorance, the way a child might be seen by a parent..?
In terms of expecting worldly 'equality' for all people would be no different than expecting people to all make roughly the same amount of money. The truth is far more complex than any blanket statement, there are so many choices that put people in so many places, and so, perhaps the factor of hierarchy accounts more for circumstantial merit attained - but does it rule out that the lay population can attain awakening? Unless I'm mistaken, I don't see anything that says that it can't. That different people attain different positions seems a convergence of the innumerable factors that gained them the various opportunities they chose to pursue (like we all accumulated merit here to have taken a human birth). Note, this does not mean people (including teachers) don't just burn through past accumulations with present and future actions that may be less than appropriate for their continued office/path.
If anything, it's like when you're deep in debt, you gotta dig harder to get to the same place of being debt free than someone who's managed their books a bit better. They're not a more valuable person, or more enlightened, they simply followed some basic principles you didn't. Their cause and effect created a bit of a more direct path to their awakening. But at any point, we can make bad choices, endorse poor things, engage pride, etc etc. That's why the way is long, and arduous and most of all persevering will, action, and the just doing it make teacher and lay person ultimately equal in the scope of samsara.
I resonate with Huifeng's post, it seems to account for the basic fact that no one can really quantify another's attainments, but as we live in a society, there must be a practical way to handle intrinsic diversity. Of course, this alone can be (and historically has been) manipulated by any institution, the politics of human ignorance can muddle up a whole lot of our predecessor's clarity. In this sense, how is the Buddhist institution any different in this sense from the Catholic church? There are people, there are politics, there is animal hierarchy - this seems to go hand in hand with community/society/civilization living. I think the bottom line is that you have to be the change you wish to see in the world, because the rest is pretty big and always gets tweaked by those less aware into half-superstitious, often unquestioned politics.
I also recognize from the OP's question, there is an issue - but this is nothing new, and so how does one meet the old problem with a new solution? "Be the change you wish to see in the world" - Gandhi.
apologies if my post is vaguely ranty...