Monthly Archives: November 2015

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.