Monthly Archives: October 2015

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.