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.