In my book, Reimagining Church (2008), I crafted a detailed exposition on what leadership in the first-century church looked like and the revolutionary principles that were clearly articulated by Jesus and Paul.
The second half of my book is entitled “Who is Your Covering?” (a title I created in the 1990s), and it goes into great depth on the issues of accountability, submission, and authority.
The Appendix of Reimagining Church answers every objection I’ve ever seen about my views on this subject along with my responses.
Here is an excerpt.
Is the New Testament Hierarchical?
For centuries, certain texts in the N.T. have been mishandled to support hierarchical/positional leadership structures in the church. This mishandling has caused no small damage to the body of Christ.
The notion of hierarchical/positional authority is partly the result of mistranslations and misinterpretations of certain biblical passages. These mistranslations and misinterpretations have been influenced by cultural biases that have cluttered the original meaning of the biblical language. Such biases have transformed simple words into heavily loaded ecclesiastical titles. As a result, they have eroded the original landscape of the church. Thus a fresh reading of the N.T. in its original language is necessary for properly understanding certain texts. For instance, a look at the original Greek yields the following insights:
- “Bishops” are simply guardians (episkopoi), not high-church officials
- “Pastors” are caretakers (poimen), not professional pulpiteers
- “Ministers” are table-waiters (diakonos), not clergymen
- “Elders” are wise old men (presbuteros), not ecclesiastical officers
Thankfully, a growing number of N.T. scholars are pointing out that the “leadership” terminology of the N.T. possesses descriptive accents denoting special functions rather than formal positions. Caring/serving in N.T. is non-official, non-titular, and non-hierarchical.
Doesn’t Acts 1:20; Romans 11:13; 12:4; and 1 Timothy 3:1, 10, 12 speak of church “officials”?
The word office in these passages is a mistranslation. It has no equivalent in the original Greek. Nowhere in the Greek N.T. do we find the equivalent of office used in connection with any ministry, function, or leader in the church.
The Greek word for office is only used to refer to the Lord Jesus Christ in His high priestly office (Heb. 5-7). It’s also used to refer to the Levitical priesthood (Luke 1:8). The King James Version mistranslates Romans 11:13b to be, “I magnify mine office.” But the Greek word translated “office” means service, not office. So a better translation of Romans 11:13b is “I magnify my service [diakonia].” Similarly, Romans 12:4b is better translated “All the members do not have the same function [praxis].” The Greek word praxis means a doing, a practice, or a function rather than an office or position. The NIV and the NASB reflect this better translation. Finally, 1 Timothy 3:1, says the following in the KJV: “If a man desire the office of a bishop…” But a more accurate translation puts it this way: “If anyone aspires to oversight…”
Doesn’t Acts 20:28; 1 Thessalonians 5:12; 1 Timothy 5:17; and Hebrews 13:7, 17, 24 say that elders have “the rule over” the church?
The words “rule” and “over” in these texts are a poor fit with the rest of the New Testament. And there’s no analog for them in the Greek text. This is yet another case where certain translations have confused the modern reader by employing culturally conditioned religious terminology.
The word “rule” in Hebrews 13:7, 17, 24 is translated from the Greek word hegeomai. It simply means to guide or go before. In his translation of Hebrews, N.T. scholar F. F. Bruce translates hegeomai as “guides.” This word carries the thought of “those who guide you” rather than “those who rule over you.”
Similarly, in 1 Thessalonians 5:12, the word “over” is translated from the Greek word proistemi. It carries the idea of standing in front of, superintending, guarding, and providing care for. Robert Banks and F. F. Bruce explain that this term doesn’t carry the technical force of an official designation, for it’s used in the participle rather than the noun form. It’s also positioned as the second in the midst of two other non-official participles. Bruce translates 1 Thessalonians 5:12-13 as follows: “Now we ask you brethren to know those who work hard among you and care for you in the Lord and instruct you, and esteem them very highly in love because of their work.”
The same word (proistemi) appears in 1 Timothy 5:17. It, too, is incorrectly translated “rule” in the KJV and NASB. In addition, in Acts 20:28, the Greek text says that the elders are “en” (among) the flock rather than “over” them (as the KJV puts it). In a similar vein, Paul’s statement that overseers must “rule [proistemi] their own houses well” in 1 Timothy 3:4-5 doesn’t point to their ability to wield power. It rather points to their capacity to supervise, manage, and nurture others. Incidentally, managing the household didn’t envision managing the nuclear family. It involved much more than that. It involved managing married and unmarried relatives as well as servants.
In all these passages, the basic thought is that of watching rather than bossing; superintending rather than dominating, facilitating rather than dictating, guiding rather than ruling. The Greek text conveys an image of one who stands within the flock, guarding and caring for it (as a leading-servant would). It’s reminiscent of a shepherd who looks out for the sheep—not one who drives them from behind or rules them from above. Again, the thrust of apostolic teaching consistently demonstrates that God’s idea of church leadership is at odds with those conventional leadership roles that are based on top-heavy rule.
Every physical body has a head. Therefore, every local body of believers needs a head. If it doesn’t have one, it will be chaotic. Pastors are the heads of local churches. They are little heads under Christ’s headship.
This idea is born out of the imaginations of fallen humans. There is not a shred of biblical support for such an idea. The Bible never refers to a human being as a “head” of a church. This title exclusively belongs to Jesus Christ. He is the only Head of each local assembly. The church has no head under His own. Therefore, those who claim to be heads of churches supplant the executive headship of Christ.
Doesn’t Hebrews 13:17 command us to obey and submit to our leaders, implying that church leaders possess official authority?
Again, a look at the Greek text proves useful here. The word translated “obey” in Hebrews 13:17 is not the garden-variety Greek word (hupakouo) that’s usually employed in the N.T. for obedience. Rather, it’s the word peitho. Peitho means to persuade or to win over. Because this word appears in the middle-passive form in Hebrews 13:17, the text ought to be translated “Allow yourselves to be persuaded by your leaders.”
This text appears to be an exhortation to give weight to the instruction of local overseers (and possibly apostolic workers). It’s not an exhortation to obey them mindlessly. It implies persuasive power to convince and to win over rather than to coerce, force, or browbeat into submission. In the words of Greek scholar W. E. Vine, “The obedience suggested [in Hebrews 13:17] is not by submission to authority, but resulting from persuasion.”
Likewise, the verb translated “submit” in this passage is the word hupeiko. It carries the idea of yielding, retiring, or withdrawing, as in surrendering after battle. Those who occupy themselves with spiritual oversight don’t demand submission. By virtue of their wisdom and spiritual maturity, they are to be accorded with respect. Christians are encouraged to be uncommonly biased toward what they say. Not because of an external office they hold, but because of their godly character, spiritual stature, and sacrificial service to the people of God. In the words of Hebrews 13:7, we are to “imitate their faith” as we “consider the outcome of their life.” By so doing, we make their God-called task of spiritual oversight far easier to carry out (v. 17).
Don’t the seven angels of the seven churches in the book of Revelation represent the presence of a single pastor in each local church?
The first three chapters of Revelation constitute a flimsy basis upon which to construct the doctrine of “single pastor.” First, the reference to the angels of these churches is cryptic. John doesn’t give us any clues about their identity. Scholars are not sure what they symbolize. (Some believe they point to literal angels. Others believe they are human messengers.)
Second, there’s no analog for the idea of a “solo pastor” anywhere in the New Testament. Nor is there any text that likens pastors unto angels. Third, the idea that the seven angels refer to the “pastors” of the seven churches is in direct conflict with other N.T. texts. For instance, Acts 20:17 and 20:28 tell us that the church of Ephesus had multiple shepherds (pastors), not one. This is true for all 1st Century churches that had elders. They were always plural.
Therefore, to hang the “sola pastora” doctrine on one obscure passage in Revelation is sloppy and careless exegesis. The fact is, there is no support for the modern pastor in Revelation or in any other N.T. document.
Note: I answer many more objections in the Appendix of Reimagining Church.
The Mess We Find Ourselves in Today
The primary reason why our ideas on church leadership have strayed so far from God’s will can be traced to our tendency to project Western political notions of government onto the biblical writers—reading them back into the text. When we read words like “pastor,” “overseer,” and “elder,” we immediately think in terms of governmental offices like “president,” “senator,” and “chairman.” So we regard elders, pastors, and overseers as sociological constructs (offices). We view them as vacant slots that possess a reality independent of the persons who populate them. We then ascribe mere men with unquestioned authority simply because they “hold office.”
The N.T. notion of leadership is markedly different. As previously stated, there’s no biblical warrant for the idea that church leadership is official. Neither is there any scriptural backing for the notion that some believers have authority over other believers. The only authority that exists in the church is Jesus Christ. Humans have no authority in themselves. Divine authority is vested only in the Head and expressed through the body. Good leadership, therefore, is never authoritarian. It only displays authority when it’s expressing the mind of Jesus Christ.
The basic tasks of biblical leadership are facilitation, nurture, guidance, and service. To the degree that a member is modeling the will of God in one of those areas, to that degree he or she is leading. It’s no wonder that Paul never chose to use any of the forty-plus common Greek words for “office” and “authority” when discussing leaders. Again, Paul’s favorite word for describing leadership is the opposite of what natural minds would suspect. It’s diakonos, which means a “servant”—a person very low on the social totem pole in the 1st Century.
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