From Waco to Isis: Eschatology and the “Rules of Engagement”

As time passed after Waco, I learned more about the theology of David Koresh. Koresh did not have much formal training in the Bible, but he had the ability to memorize large portions of the Bible and to explain in a convincing manner texts that puzzled most people, like the Seals and Trumpets of Revelation and chapter 11 of the book of Daniel. Koresh was particularly fascinated by the seven seals of Revelation. In many ways he was a man of contradictions. He could enforce strict dietary rules on his community, but break them on a whim. He could be lovable one moment and scary the next. He was funny sometimes and deadly serious at other times. He was very spiritual much of the time but could be quite carnal at other times. This led some to call him “the sinful Messiah.”

Koresh did not believe that he was Jesus Christ re-incarnated, as many have come to think, but he believed he was the end-time Cyrus (Koresh) who would come from the east (Isa 45:1-4; Dan 11:44-45; Rev 16:12) and be God’s final messenger on earth. He considered himself the last in a line of such messengers as Luther, John Knox, John Wesley, Ellen White and Victor Houteff, the founder of the breakaway Adventist movement (“Shepherd’s Rod”) that spawned the Branch Davidians. He reported that on a trip to Jerusalem in 1985, God gave him a vision of seven angels anointing him (the biblical Cyrus was God’s anointed messenger [Isa 45:1] as the last living prophet on earth. The Bible, in his view, was full of clues as to just when and how Jesus would return and how His people were to prepare. End-time salvation would come from believing Koresh’s message regarding the seven seals of Revelation (Rev 6:1 – 8:1), which he considered the last message to a lost world. The practical aspect of the message was to “endure to the end, no matter what the cost” (Matt 10:22), and so find end-time salvation. He was raising up an exclusive end-time people who would become God’s sole channel of salvation. They were the bearers of “present truth.”

As God’s last-day prophet, he anticipated a violent, apocalyptic end to his life. Death was not something he feared, he believed it was part of the path God had laid out for him. His death would come at the hands of end-time “Babylon” (Rev 17:1-5). He saw that Babylon everywhere; in mainstream religion, the US government, and even in his former spiritual home, the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Apparently his view of God allowed him to believe that taking up arms to defend “the truth” was in harmony with God’s plan for the end of time. In this belief he deviated greatly from the end-time convictions of Seventh-day Adventists, who have been largely pacifist from the beginning. SDAs believe that deliverance in the end-time will not come from guns, but from direct deliverance by God.

In spite of many differences, his free-wheeling use of proof-texts from the Bible, interspersed with quotations from Ellen White, mean he was a bit more Adventist than most Adventists would like. The Branch Davidians kept the Sabbath, were vegetarians, abstained from tobacco, alcohol and most drugs, were constantly talking about Bible prophecy, and believed that the King James Bible was the only true and authoritative version. The Branch Davidians were culturally very similar to the most conservative of Adventists.

This came home powerfully to me when my family and I spent two weeks in New York City in 1999. As a family we stayed in a small apartment behind and above my childhood church, now called Church of the Advent Hope, in Manhattan. One evening the kids (12, 14 and 17 at the time) got a little bored, so I went down the street and rented the documentary “Waco: Rules of Engagement.” I had seen it at a scholarly conference (where I met James Tabor) some time before and thought they would find it interesting. The documentary includes footage of both federal attacks and also video from inside the compound between the two attacks (February 28 and April 19).

My children were not easily frightened by videos, but this documentary completely traumatized them. They couldn’t sleep the whole night afterward. When I questioned them about it later, they emphasized several things. The Davidians inside the compound talked and acted so “Adventist.” As children in Sabbath School they had been taught that the end-time persecution was coming, and it would affect them personally. To them the video was evidence that what they had been taught was beginning to happen. So when my children saw the charred bodies of Davidian children, they identified very strongly with them and feared that the end-time persecution was about to happen. Koresh in many ways deviated strongly from Adventism, but the similarities are troubling. While commitment and faithfulness are important things, in an end-time context they can be carried too far. And that reality will bring us eventually to ISIS, which also has some troubling similarities. . .

From Waco to Isis: My Own Personal “Near-Miss”

On February 28, 1993, scores of federal agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms approached the Branch Davidian compound near Waco, Texas. Their mission was to serve a search and arrest (to arrest Vernon Howell, aka David Koresh) warrant on weapons charges due to the large amount of weapons the Branch Davidians had accumulated. While the ATF would have preferred to arrest Koresh outside the compound, they were incorrectly told that he rarely left it. Surprise was lost when a mailman tipped off Koresh that the raid was coming. The Branch Davidians were armed and in defensive positions when the federal agents arrived around 9:45 AM. It isn’t clear whether the Branch Davidians or the federal agents fired first, it is likely an accidently discharge on one side or the other triggered the shooting on both sides. A cease-fire was arranged a couple of hours later, but by that time five Branch Davidians were dead (another was shot and killed trying to enter the compound that evening) and the ATF had suffered four dead and sixteen wounded.

The incident brought the Branch Davidians and their Seventh-day Adventist “cousins” into the international spotlight. In the course of the siege and after the its tragic conclusion on April 19, 1993, I was contacted by the BBC, CNN, ABC and NBC to answer questions about the situation. The roughest question came from a BBC reporter, “What is it about Seventh-day Adventists that breeds these kinds of people?” But the most disturbing phone call of all came in early March from a fellow Adventist, Dan Serns, at the Texas Conference. He told me that the FBI was looking for an Adventist scholar familiar with how Adventists think about the book of Revelation and the End-times to help in the negotiations with Koresh. To be honest, I wanted nothing to do with the situation, yet I felt that it would be wrong for me to ignore the request. I took the FBI number I was given and gave my contact information to Serns for them to call if they wanted to.

I called the FBI number three times but no one picked up. In retrospect I think my lack of enthusiasm for the potential assignment caused me not to try too hard to reach the federal authorities. As far as I know, the FBI never attempted to call. I wonder what would have happened had I tried a little harder. The role that I might have played was offered to James D. Tabor, a religious scholar at the University of North Carolina (Charlotte) and J. Philip Arnold, a religion scholar from Houston, Texas. From what I have seen in the media and my one meeting with Tabor six years later, they seem to have been good choices. They warned the federal officials that the harsh siege tactics they were using would only encourage the Branch Davidians to think this was a truly apocalyptic event with cosmic implications. The Davidians’ beliefs were sincerely held and they were willing to die for them. I understand that these scholars’ interpretations were convincing enough that Koresh was willing to leave the compound. But in the end, the advice to federal officials appears to have been ignored. The final assault began before the date Koresh had agreed to leave. The siege ended tragically on April 19 with the death of some 75 Branch Davidians when a fire broke out during the final assault using Bradley fighting vehicles (essentially tanks). Among the victims were 21 children.

I still wonder if I could have made a difference. Given the fact that Tabor and Arnold gave sound advice which was ignored anyway suggests it wouldn’t have mattered, but. . .

In this series I plan to compare the events at Waco with the “war on terror” and what we know about ISIS to note the similarities and differences. Many of the similarities are surprising. In the process I will draw implications for both Adventists and Muslims as they move forward into an uncertain future.

Summary of NT Language of Leadership

Christian leadership is grounded in God the Creator. The clearest revelation of God is in the person of Jesus Christ. The clearest revelation of Jesus is the New Testament. And within the New Testament, the leadership principles of Jesus are most extensively exhibited in the letters of Paul.

When the early Christians were choosing language to describe leadership in the New Testament church, there were three basic models in the Greco-Roman world to choose from; 1) Judaism and the synagogue, 2) the every day household, and 3) the institutions of the Greco-Roman society. Language drawn from the civil, military and business affairs of the Greco-Roman world is widely used in the New Testament in relation to God, Christ, and demonic powers, as well as secular authorities. But with one exception, it is never applied to human leadership in the church. The one exception (proistēmi) has a strong related meaning of caring concern and the giving of aid.

Instead, the church blended the leadership language of the household with that of the synagogue and Judaism. Early Christian leadership language had strong overtones of parental concern, service, divine guidance and delegation of authority. In the earliest church, leadership was charismatic. But toward the end of the first Christian century, appointed leadership became the norm and adopted more hierarchical forms.

The bottom line of New Testament leadership is attention to God’s way of leadership through observing the examples of Christ and the apostles. It exercises itself in loving concern for those being led, with the attitude of a servant. As we seek to learn from the language of the New Testament, Christ-like, servant leadership must always be the goal.

The Trajectory of Leadership Language in the First Christian Century

Shortly after the close of the New Testament canon (110 AD), the early church father Ignatius describes a three-part system of leadership that had developed by his time:
“You must all follow the bishop (episkopos), as Jesus Christ followed the Father, and follow the presbytery (council of elders– presbuteros) as you would the apostles; respect the deacons (diakonos) as the commandment of God. Let no one do anything that has to do with the church without the bishop. Only that Eucharist which is under the authority of the bishop or whomever he himself designates is to be considered valid. Wherever the bishop appears, there let the congregation be; just as wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the catholic (universal) church. It is not permissible either to baptize or to hold a love feast without the bishop. But whatever he approves is also pleasing to God, in order that everything you do may be trustworthy and valid.” (Ignatius, Letter to the Church at Smyrna, 8:1-2. Translation taken from The Apostolic Fathers: Greek Texts and English Translations, second edition, edited and translated by J. B. Lightfoot and J. R. Harmer, edited and revised by Michael W. Holmes (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1992), 188-191. Material in parentheses is mine.)

In many ways an outline like this is more structured and defined than the realities exhibited in the New Testament. For the New Testament offices were a means to an end, not the ends themselves. For Ignatius, on the other hand, each office has a fixed place in a hierarchy with an overseer (bishop) at the head with a council of elders subordinate to him and a group of deacons serving both. The question to be addressed here is when such a structure developed and what stages led from the charismatic leadership of the earliest church to the situation described by Ignatius around 110 AD. The primary body of evidence for the situation of the first century church is in the New Testament itself.

The earliest church began with a charismatic leadership made up of apostles and prophets, who emerged naturally through giftedness or a direct appointment from Jesus or the original twelve. As the church grew and the apostles spread out or died off, a non-charismatic leadership of appointment was soon required. To be an overseer or a deacon was also based on a “gift” (Rom. 12: 7-8; 1 Cor. 12:28), but these gifts could only be exercised after a person was elected and called by the community to a position of leadership.

While the first century cultural context was preoccupied with titles of office, Paul often refers to the leaders of churches without any reference to titles, and does not mention the term “elder” until fairly late. There seems to have been a concern not to encourage pride in leadership and hierarchy and to emphasize the Christ-centered nature of Christian leadership. Nevertheless, offices and titles came to be needed within a generation of the church’s first leaders.

One thing to keep in mind when assessing church organization in the first century is that most Christian gatherings occurred in private homes and were fairly small, even in urban settings. A city like Rome or Ephesus might have hundreds of Christians but they would be scattered in groups of 10-50 all over the city (compare Rom. 1:7 with 16:5). The fact that an important qualification for the position of “overseer” is to be able to handle one’s own family is a natural consequence of the house-church reality (1 Tim. 3:4-5). House churches were not much bigger than an extended family.

In developing offices and titles, the earliest churches had three major models of leadership to choose from in defining their own patterns of leadership: 1) what they had experienced  in Judaism and the synagogue, 2) those displayed in the Greco-Roman family system, and 3) patterns of governance observed in the Greco-Roman state and society. We have observed evidence that the New Testament writers deliberately avoided the leadership language and titles associated with the Greco-Roman political and social environment. Such titles and language were considered inappropriate to the servant model they had observed in Jesus Christ.

The Ignatian pattern, therefore, seems to have resulted from a somewhat awkward  merging of the other two models of leadership, those found in the synagogue and the home. The well-to-do Greco-Roman household had an overseer, usually the patriarch of the family and it also had a number of servants, who cared for the physical needs of the household. In a spiritual context, this could have given rise to the positions of overseer and deacon in a typical house church. From Judaism and the synagogue, the church inherited the concept of “elder” and a council of elders, although, as we have seen, there were analogies to the positions of overseer and deacon as well.

Andrew Clarke, building on the work of R. Alastair Campbell, surmises that each house church might have come to be run by an overseer/elder. Over time, cities with multiple house churches would have developed a council of elders made up of the overseers of all the house churches. Eventually, in the absence of apostles, the council would select one of its members to be the overseer of the whole group of churches in a given city or region. This hypothesis is supported by 1 Timothy 5:17, which indicates that all elders had a ruling role, but not all elders were teachers.

Since Paul does not use the title “elder” in his earlier letters, only in the later letters to Timothy and Titus, the household model seems to have held sway at first in the Pauline churches, linking up with the synagogue model only toward the end of Paul’s lifetime. By the time of Ignatius, some forty years later, the process seems to have reached a settled conclusion.

The kind of structure the church developed by the beginning of the second century was not the result of perverse decisions, it was the natural development of a process where one decision leads to another and the outcome is often unforseen. The question that remains is how those who know the New Testament today should do leadership differently as a result of that knowledge.

Later Leadership Language in the NT Church

With the close of the first Christian century the office of apostle seems to have died out and prophets have become increasingly rare. Well before then, charismatic leadership was increasingly replaced with appointed leadership. Timothy and Titus are excellent examples. As a successor of the apostles, Timothy was ordained both by a council of elders (1 Tim 4:13-15) and by Paul himself (2 Tim 1:6) to leadership over multiple churches (see 1 Tim 5:17-22). Titus not only exercised authority over multiple churches, he also appointed elders and overseers to guide them (Tit 1:5-7). But although Timothy and Titus functioned like apostles, they were not themselves called apostles. The second generation of leadership functioned under three titles in particular.

(episkopos– overseer)
The term episkopos was a common title in the ancient world for someone “who watches over,” therefore it is often translated “overseer.” It means something like “supervisor,” a position of responsibility within a wide range of contexts and applications, “one who has the responsibility of seeing that something is done the right way.” In the non-biblical context episkopos was associated with very specific responsibilities, in today’s terms, the title came with a job description. There can be an element of service and caring relationship in the broad usage of the term.

The word occurs only three times in the New Testament (Phil. 1:1; 1 Tim. 3:2; Tit. 1:7) and the related noun episkopē (evpi,skoph) occurs twice (1 Tim. 3:1 and Acts 1:20). 1 Timothy 3:2-7 and Titus 1:5-7 offer a lengthy list of qualifications and disqualifications for those holding the office, things like gentleness and ability to teach while avoiding arrogance and greed. There is very little overlap in the two lists so the job description had not yet been standardized in Paul’s lifetime. Overseers had the same qualifications as deacons (compare 1 Tim. 3:2-7 with 1 Tim. 3:8-12), with the one exception that they must be “able to teach.”

(presbuteros– elder)
Presbuteros refers to someone of relatively advanced age in comparison with others. Elders, as a leadership group, existed as far back as patriarchal times in the Old Testament. Based on usage within Judaism and also in the Greco-Roman world, presbuteros became a major title for church leaders in Jerusalem (the apostles and the elders– Acts 15:2, 4, 6, 22-23; 16:4) and much more widely throughout the Empire later on (1 Tim. 5:17; Tit. 1:5; Heb. 11:2; James 5:14; 1 Pet. 5:1; 2 John 1; 3 John 1). It usually occurs in the plural, suggesting that elders did not normally function alone, but as part of a ruling council. A heavenly version of such a council is found frequently in the Book of Revelation. According to 1 Timothy 5:17-18, elders were normally paid for their efforts, which implies that they were to have a full-time focus on their ministry. While not all elders engaged in teaching, many did. They may have been somewhat equivalent to congregational pastors today.

To some degree the titles of overseer and elder seem to be used interchangeably, as a comparison of 1 Timothy 3:2-7; 5:17-18 and Titus 1:5-7 indicate. According to Acts 20:17-35, the overseers and elders together are the guardians of the traditions of the apostles. Having said this, however, episkopos in Timothy and Titus is always in the singular and presbuteros is always in the plural, which would suggest that the overseer has a top leadership function. So it is likely that overseers were drawn from the council of elders as their leadership qualities were recognized.

(diakonos, deacon)
The term diakonos in the ancient world designated a person who served at tables or took care of other people. There are many terms for service in the Greek, but diakonos particularly emphasizes the personal touch, a one-on-one kind of service. It was widely used for an intermediary or a courier, so like apostolos there is a sense of delegation. But serving others was not highly regarded in the ancient world; ruling, not serving was what brought dignity to a man. So the use of this term for leadership in the church went strongly against the culture of the time.

Diakonos is used in the New Testament, first of all, for Jesus Christ (Rom. 15:8), the ultimate diakonos. All human ideas of greatness were reversed when the Son of God Himself not only served at table (John 13:13-17; 21:11-13) but laid down His life for His friends (John 15:13). The Christian diakonos learns the position by serving Jesus and following Him (Luke 22:24-27; John 12:26).

Over time the word naturally came into wide Christian usage for individuals singled out for special ministerial service in Christian communities (see Rom. 16:1; Phil. 1:1; 1 Tim. 3:8, 12), but these texts do not tell us much about the nature of the office. Evidently, both men and women were permitted to serve as deacons (Rom. 16:1).The original task of the deacon may have been to assist overseers in their work of caring for the church. It is possible that early Christians built on the synagogue model which had a “head of the congregation” (archisunagôgos) and an assistant, who was called a hupēretēs rather than a diakonos.

The office of deacon is often thought to have been established in the early Jerusalem Church by the direction of Peter in Acts 6. But the title diakonos does not appear in the chapter, instead the verb form (Acts 6:2, 4) and a related noun form (diakoni,a–  diakonia: Acts 6:1) are used. The seven “deacons” selected in Acts 6 all have Greek names and function more like apostles than deacons. But since they were appointed so that the apostles would not neglect “prayer” and “the ministry (diakonia) of the word,” it may be inferred that the office of deacon came to focus more on the social and practical side of ministry than the teaching-oriented roles of overseer and elder.

It is clear from these titles that the New Testament church valued service above dominance or “power over” when it came to leadership. But the question remains of how the early church eventually moved away from the servant characteristics of leadership to more structured and hierarchical models.

Early Leadership Language in the NT Church

In the earliest church, shortly after the death and resurrection of Christ, leadership was charismatic rather than appointed. In other words, people emerged as leaders because they were particularly close to Jesus while He was on earth and/or the church sensed a special working of God in their lives (see Acts 1:15-26 for example). Over time these charismatic leaders became known by the titles apostle and prophet.

According to Luke 11:47-50, the ancestors of the scribes and Pharisees killed the (Old Testament) prophets (verses 47-48), just as the scribes and Pharisees would kill the “prophets and apostles” that God sent to them (verses 49-50). So both apostles and prophets in the New Testament are the successors of the Old Testament prophets (see also Eph 2:19-22). The apostles and prophets together were agents of God’s revelation to the fledgling church. As such, they naturally became the leaders of the first generation of believers in Christ.

(apostolos– apostle)
The root meaning of “apostle” concerns one who is “dispatched for a specific purpose,” a messenger or ambassador of some kind. The status of such an “apostle” depends on the status of the one who sends him or her (John 13:16). The “apostle” can be simply a messenger between ordinary individuals. But when the “apostle” is sent by a king or by God, his or her status becomes extraordinary. It is as if the sender is present in the person of the one sent. The title “apostle” is rare in Greek outside the uniquely Christian context.

In the New Testament, therefore, the apostle is highly honored by other believers as a special envoy direct from God. In the fullest sense, Jesus is the ultimate apostle (Heb. 3:1-2), in Him the definitive revelation of God has taken place (Heb. 1:1-3). All other apostles derive their authority from Him. These became the pre-eminent leaders of the church after the ascension of Christ. Although the term originally applied to the twelve disciples alone (Matt. 10:2; Mark 3:14; Luke 22:14, cf. Acts 1:26), the body of apostles eventually extended beyond the twelve to include Paul (Rom. 1:1; Gal. 1:1, etc.),  Barnabas (Acts 14:14; 15:2), James (brother of Jesus– Gal. 1:19)  and others (Rom. 16:7).

The office of apostle required some sort of direct calling from the New Testament Jesus, in Paul’s case a call to reach out to the Gentiles (Acts. 9:15; Eph. 3:1, 8). Powerful leaders of the second generation, such as Apollos and Timothy, who did not have a direct call from Jesus, are not called apostles (1 Cor. 3:3-9; 2 Cor. 1:1; Phil. 1:1; 1 Thess. 3:2). So the office seems to have been limited to the first generation of Jesus’ followers (1 Cor. 15:8). The duties of the office centered on traveling from place to place proclaiming what the apostle had experienced with Jesus (1 Cor. 9:1, 5; Eph. 3:5). In the process apostles would found and administer new churches (1 Cor. 15:10-11; Eph. 2:20). They would appoint elders to head up those churches but would retain an authoritative role over them.

(prophêtês– prophet)
The Greek root of “prophet” is a compound word, combining a Greek word for “speaking” with the prefix “pro” which is ambiguous in meaning. It can mean “speaking openly” or publically, much like preaching. But it can also mean “speaking ahead of time” or “in advance.”

We see New Testament prophets at work in the Book of Acts (Acts 11:27-30; 15:30-32; 21:10-14). Their messages were accepted as authoritative by the church and an obedient response was expected, so prophets had a significant leadership role in the earliest church. At the same time the church struggled in one case with just how to apply the prophetic message to a specific situation (Acts 21:12-14).

It is interesting that although Paul speaks prophetically to the churches (1 Cor. 14:6), he never calls himself a “prophet.” This suggests that the designation “apostle” includes the gifts and activities of the prophet and more (2 Cor. 12:1-7: Eph. 3:3-7). Apostles and prophets are equal when it comes to being the objects of direct revelation. But the apostle’s authority is even greater than the prophet because of the special commission of leadership and the unique relationship in time to the first-century Christ-event. The apostles were more directive while the prophets led by influence.

With the close of the first Christian century the office of apostle seems to have died out and prophets have become increasingly rare. Well before then, charismatic leadership was increasingly replaced with appointed leadership. We’ll look more at that in my next blog.

What Makes Christian Leadership Different

In the previous blog I reviewed the major words for leadership in ancient government and society. We noticed that such words could be used in the New Testament for secular leaders, God, Christ and even demons. But they are never used for human leadership in the church, except for proistēmi, which had a strong extended meaning of service and caring concern. Most of these words focused more on dominance, superior rank, authority over and heirarchy, which are not appropriate in the church.

In this blog I will share the three most important leadership passages in the NT (in my opinion) and briefly comment on their significance. The first is the “poster child” for Christian leadership: the footwashing example of Jesus in John 13. After washing the disciples’ feet, Jesus said the following (John 13:13-17, ESV): “You call me Teacher and Lord [one of those dominance terms in ancient Rome], and you are right, for so I am. 14 If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. 15 For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you. 16 Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master [lord again in the original], nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. 17 If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them.” While Jesus is willing to apply a dominance term like “lord” to Himself (as Creator He has that right), He here transforms the meaning of this term. The one who leads in the church is to be the chief servant. Real greatness is measured not in power, fame or position, but in willingness to serve.

The second major passage is 1 Thessalonians 5:12-15 (ESV): “We ask you, brothers, to respect those who labor among you and are over you [this is proistemi, the one secular leadership word used in the church] in the Lord and admonish you, 13 and to esteem them very highly in love because of their work. Be at peace among yourselves. 14 And we urge you, brothers, admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all. 15 See that no one repays anyone evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to everyone.” The first two verses express how members are to treat their leaders. They are to esteem them highly and to seek peace among themselves rather than strife and rebellion. Paul doesn’t address here what to do when leadership roles are abused, but offers a basic attitude that will shield us from the pride of thinking we know better than those who are over us. The last two verses express the style of leadership that is appropriate for the church. Admonition can include “knocking sense into” for those who need that, but centers in encouragement, help and patience. There is no place in the church for leaders who retaliate on account of criticism. Their role is to seek what is best for those they are leading.

The final passage is the best of all, in my opinion: Matthew 10:20-28 (ESV): Then the mother of the sons of Zebedee came up to him with her sons, and kneeling before him she asked him for something. 21 And he said to her, “What do you want?” She said to him, “Say that these two sons of mine are to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom.” 22 Jesus answered, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I am to drink?” They said to him, “We are able.” 23 He said to them, “You will drink my cup, but to sit at my right hand and at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared by my Father.” 24 And when the ten heard it, they were indignant at the two brothers. 25 But Jesus called them to him and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. 26 It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, 27 and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, 28 even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” The behavior of Jesus is the measure of Christian leadership. We are not to lead the way secular rulers and bosses lead, we are to move among followers like a servant or even a slave, whose sole interest is in assisting those under him or her to be the best that they can be in Christ. The interesting thing is that “servant leadership” is catching on in the corporate world, just as many leaders in the church forget their original mandate.

I have chosen to use the English Standard Version because it has the same kind of clarity as the NIV, but stays a lot closer to the original structure of the Greek text. It is not perfect, no version is, but seems to cut the middle of many issues as well as any translation in the English language.

Leadership Options in the Early Church

The ancient world had a number of words for leadership in politics and society. A very common word group is a;;gw (agô) and the related word h`gemw,n (hêgemōn), from which we get the English word hegemon. The root meaning of the verb means “to direct the movement of an object from one position to another” The noun form hêgemōn is used in civic and military contexts (see Mark 13:11; Luke 22:54; John 8:3; Acts 17:15; 20:12). In the NT this word is used for the leadership of God, Christ or the Holy Spirit in human lives (Rom 2:4; 8:14; Gal 5:18) but it is never used for human leadership in the church.

Another common word for leadership in the ancient world is avrch, or a;rcwn (archē, archōn), from which we get English words like monarch (rule of one), patriarch (rule by father) oligarch (rule by the few, the one percent!), and archaeology (study of old things). The word group has a double root meaning, “beginning” (first in time) or “ruler/authority” (first in power or position). It is used in the NT for governors or other secular rulers (Luke 12:11; 20:20; Titus 3:1), demonic powers (Rom 8:38; 1 Cor 15:24; Col 2:10, 15) and Christ (Col 1:18; Rev 3:14). It is never used in relation to leadership in the church.

Another common leadership word in the ancient world is kefalh, (kephalē), the word for head, the part of the body that contains the brain. It is used for people of high status or superior rank like the patriarchs (Exod 6:14, 25), the leader of a tribe (Num 7:2; 2 Chr 52), and leaders in general (Exod 18:25; Num 25:4; Judg 11:11). It implies a hierarchical leadership system (Exod 18:21) with some people over others. In the New Testament, it can be used in the basic sense, as a metaphor of Christ and the church or for the husband’s role in the home (Eph 5:25-27). Since the church is a living organism, “head” is applied only to Christ, it is never used for the human leaders of the church.

A fourth ancient word for leadership is kuri,oj (kurios), often translated as “lord.” The root meaning of the word is “having power.” It combines a sense of might (power, ability to compel obedience) and right (legitimacy, legal authorization). The verb form implies control and dominance. It was used as a title for the gods as well as earthly kings and emperors. In the NT is it used for owners of land, slaves and animals, also for husbands (1 Pet. 3:6), fathers (Matt 21:30), high officials (Matt. 27:63), respected individuals (Acts 16:30; Rev 7:14), and the emperor (Acts 25:25-26). The NT applies the term in OT references to Yahweh (Matt. 4:10; 5:33; Acts 4:26) and with reference to Jesus (Matt. 4:7; Phil 2:9-11), but it is never used with reference to leadership in the church.

The last ancient word we will look at is proi<sthmi (proistēmi), one who is “over” others. The root meaning of this term is “to put before,” “to go first,” “to exercise a position of leadership, rule, direct.” But this word also has a related meaning: “to have an interest in, show concern for, give aid.” It combines leadership with a strong sense of caring concern. This is the only major leadership word in ancient society that was used by the early Christians for leadership in the church (1 Tim 5:17; 1 Thess 5:12).

Conclusion: The common words for leadership in ancient Greek all occur in the NT. They can be used with reference to secular leaders, God, Christ, and demonic powers. But even though these words were commonly used in the Greek Bible of the early church (the Septuagint), they are never used for leaders in the church, except proistēmi, which has a strong sense of service and caring concern. The NT uses alternative terms for leaders in the church. Why? We’ll look at some of the key NT texts in the next blog, but suffice it to say now is that there are forms of leadership that are not appropriate in the church, forms that focus on dominance, superior rank, authority over and heirarchy. Christian leadership is to have a servant focus, driven by caring concern rather than the privilege of authority. In the ancient world, this made Christian leadership distinct.

Models of Christian Leadership

One of the biggest challenges in any kind of faith work these days is leadership. Without leadership few good things happen in this world, yet how do you do good leadership? Do you follow the models of western corporations? How about those of democratic governments? Or would you prefer the more autocratic leadership style of a Vladimir Putin or a Bashar al Assad? Does the New Testament have anything to say about these various styles of leadership? Should followers of Jesus exhibit a leadership style that is different from the models in the popular consciousness?

It goes, perhaps, without saying that the ultimate source of all leadership models is God, the author of creation. Like the manufacturer of an automobile, who provides a manual for that car’s use and care, God is in the best position to understand human beings and how they function as individuals and in groups. But this assertion does little to assist us in the project of understanding leadership principles. No one has ever seen, heard or touched God. So direct knowledge of God, or of the leadership principles He manifests in governing the universe, is not available to us.

In Scripture, however, God has chosen to reveal Himself in human language. The Bible is not a complete revelation of God, but it offers inspired testimonies of how God spoke and acted in specific human situations over many centuries. While God’s self-disclosure is limited by the human context, the Bible offers the clearest revelation of the eternal God available to the human race. This is the place where all Christian leadership models must be tested.

The New Testament portion of the Bible is centered on the life, death, resurrection and heavenly ministry of Jesus Christ. As God in human flesh, He is the clearest revelation of God. He models God’s way of leadership in terms that human beings can understand. As a result, nearly every leadership title in the New Testament is applied to Jesus at one time or another. He is called “servant” (Phil. 2:7), “apostle” (Heb. 3:1), “prophet” (John 4:44; Acts 3:22-23), “overseer” (1 Pet. 2:25), “deacon” (Rom. 15:8), “ruler,” (Rev 1:5), “captain” (Heb 12:2), “shepherd” (John 10:1-7; Heb. 13:20; 1 Pet 2:25), and “lord/master,” (Eph. 6:9; Phil. 2:11; Col. 4:1), among others. Any study of Christian leadership principles, therefore, must begin and end with Jesus Christ.

Jesus not only modeled on earth what God is like, He also mentored the apostles in the divine principles of leadership. After His ascension He sent the Holy Spirit to inspire the apostles and the Christian prophets to carry on the work that He had begun on this earth (John 14:16-17, 26; 16:12-13). The apostles then passed on to others what they had received from Jesus (1 Cor 11:23; 15:3; 1 John 1:1-4). As He Himself told them, “I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you.” (John 13:15, NIV, cf. 13:13-17) Those who were closest to the earthly Jesus absorbed His leadership skills directly. Jesus is the clearest revelation of God. His apostles have passed on the clearest revelation of Jesus.

In the New Testament, this role was particularly played by Paul (1 Cor 11:23; 15:3). While not one of the twelve disciples, Paul frequently applied the title “apostle” to himself (Rom. 11:13; 1 Cor 9:1-2; 15:9). In Acts 20:17-35 Paul gathered the elders of the church of Ephesus at Miletus to pass on what he had learned from Jesus. As the faithful disciple of Jesus (20:19, 24) he is able to mentor the elders of Ephesus. The heart of Christian leadership is to be like Jesus, doing and teaching what Jesus taught. Following in the leadership path of Jesus includes servanthood (Luke 22:24-27; John 12:26; Acts 20:19), self-sacrifice (Acts 20:19-23), a strong sense of accountability (20:26-28), vigilance in the face of spiritual threats (20:29-32), and service, not for pay, but out of a strong sense of being commissioned by Jesus Himself (20:33-35). This is the starting point for a New Testament view of leadership.

Conclusion (How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth)

In a series of three blogs I have briefly reviewed the two main approaches to Scripture exhibited in the discussions over women’s ordination in the Seventh-day Adventist Church. One is the proof-text method, designed to “take the Bible as it reads.” This method collects biblical texts on a particular topic to determine the Bible’s overall teaching on that topic. The other method explores the Bible as a whole, seeking to understand each portion in light of the issues Bible writers were facing. It seems self-evident that both methods have value and should be practiced by those who desire to know God’s Word. But what has distressed people is the discovery that the two methods have led people to opposite opinions in regard to ordination and the role of women in ministry. For some, this raises questions about the value of hermeneutics at all. They may abandon careful Bible study thinking that there is no reliable way to know the Bible’s actual meaning. Others reject the method that didn’t produce their desired results and limit themselves to one method or the other. But since the two methods naturally correct each other, rejecting one or the other subjects people to the weaknesses of their preferred approach, which I have laid out in the first blog in this short series.

At a time when the church is threatened with division, we should practice more careful study of the Bible rather than less. Devotional methods of reading, taking the Bible as it reads to me today, can be very beneficial to one’s spiritual experience. But when the church is divided, careful exegesis in context is required to make sure we are all reading the same text. Human beings are too prone to self-deception to simply “take the Bible as it reads.” Internal mechanisms frustrate our desire to know the word and leave us likely to read ourselves into the Bible. I have laid out in the previous two blogs a way to bypass some of those defense mechanisms and reconcile the two methods with a simple approach that anyone can do. This approach was presented in five parts.

1) Approach the Bible with prayer for the Spirit’s guidance and much self-distrust. 2) Use a variety of translations. 3) Spend the majority of one’s Bible-study time in the clear texts of the Bible. 4) Spend the majority of one’s Bible-study time reading the Bible rather than engaged in selective study. 5) Subject oneself to the criticism of peers who are studying the Bible as carefully as you are (if you are following the first four principles). This method does not guarantee that all things will instantly become clear. But this method puts one on a path where the Word of God can gradually transform one’s understanding of God and truth and become more attuned to the Spirit that inspired the Bible. It also builds humility, as broad reading of the Bible will make one aware of how little one actually knows about the Bible. The end result (after decades of careful study) will be true lay Bible scholars who know how little they know and, therefore, handle God’s Word with great respect and reverence.

Such an approach leads to the discovery that not every question we ask of the Bible receives a clear and unequivocal answer in the Bible. On such matters it is better to allow for personal conscience. Unity does not require complete uniformity. When our peers are divided on what the Bible means, it may clearly show us that the Bible is not clear on that subject. Such occasions are not invitations to violence (whether in word or deed) but opportunities to shower grace and charity upon each other.