At the beginning of the Bible, the author of Genesis tells us that part of God’s purpose for humans is to rule over every living thing except other humans (Genesis 1:26-28). They were to be co-equal partners in God’s mandate to make life in the physical realm flourish. This purpose does not change from the beginning to the end of the Scriptures, where God’s purpose is fully restored.
In the previous post in this series, I outlined some verses about church leadership that are dangerously misunderstood. Their misunderstanding creates levels of human status and participation in the church that violates God’s intention and Christian identity.
Instead of being partners as God designed, humans now jockey for position and status, and this can be just as rampant among what are identified as mature Christians just as much as anyone. This leads to all kinds of trouble.
In this post, we’ll look at a few more verses that are misunderstood and support this outlook on church participation. Go back and read that post for an explanation of how and why this happens.
It’s important enough to repeat here, what you’ll read below is just words. People can make words mean anything. Ultimately, no matter what kind of solid explanation using good biblical interpretive techniques is given, each must receive revelation from God Himself to truly understand His purpose for life together.
Both of the scholarly explanations of why these verses are mistranslations and get misinterpreted come from Frank Viola’s groundbreaking book Reimagining Church.
I follow each explanation with short thoughts of my own.
No one is “over” anyone else
- Acts 20:28 – Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood.
- I Thessalonians 5:12 – But we ask you, brothers and sisters, to recognize those who diligently labor among you and are in leadership over you in the Lord, and give you instruction…
- I Timothy 5:17 – Let the elders who rule well be counted worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in the word and doctrine.
- Hebrews 13:7 – Remember those who rule over you, who have spoken the word of God to you, whose faith follow, considering the outcome of their conduct.
A common misinterpretation:
Elders have the rule over a church; meaning they are the final authority in all matters.
Why it’s a misinterpretation:
Exousia is the most-used word for “authority.” People connect “authority” to all kinds of so-called church-related offices and ministries. This makes it all the more striking that exousia is nowhere specifically connected to:
- Husbands over wives
- Parents over children
- Elders/overseers/pastors and deacons over an ekklesia
The point is that in the midst of all the banter about the word “authority,” nowhere in the N.T. is it used with reference to any person or persons being “over” other believers. Which human or humans have “authority” in the ekklesia is a non-issue in the N.T. because it is clear that all authority resides in Jesus Christ.
In contexts where authority is “given” to humans, it has nothing to do with being “over” other people. This practice is completely out of touch with Jesus’ words, “not so among you.”
We need to re-visit just about everything we’ve ever learned about this topic, and jettison many assumptions we’ve accepted that really have no foundation in Christ.
The history of authority in the visible church has left a bloody trail of carnage and death. Whenever the aroma of the foot-washing Christ is snuffed out, power-hungry church leaders will fill the religious vacuum.
Authority comes from Christ, and is expressed through each and every part of His Bride, for Christ is in them with life.
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. 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. Bruce translates 1 Thessalonians 5:12-3 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. 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.
Now we need not sway too far the other way and say there is no special function for those proven worthy to be recognized as elders. A correct understanding of their biblical role is to be bold and stand firm in keeping the truth of the gospel of the kingdom front and center. As I’ve pointed out before, healthy church life takes a decent level of maturity.
But it is never the role of a human to exercise authority over another human. It is each Christian’s responsibility to submit to Christ’s authority regardless of who it’s expressed through. Many times it will be the more mature. Sometimes it won’t be. We are called to be discerning communities and submit to Christ’s authority; wherever it comes from.
When you observe someone that must always be involved in everything regarding the direction and decisions of a church, you are observing someone that does not understand how Christ’s authority works and is bound to be toxic.
Office means service, not office
- Acts 1:20 – For it is written in the Book of Psalms: Let his dwelling place be desolate, and let no one live in it; and, let another take his office.
- Romans 11:13 – For I speak to you Gentiles, inasmuch as I am the apostle of the Gentiles, I magnify mine office…
- Romans 12:4 – For as we have many members in one body, and all members have not the same office…
- I Timothy 3:1 – This is a true saying, if a man desire the office of a bishop, he desireth a good work.
A common misinterpretation:
People hold different offices in a church that carry inherent authority that comes with being placed in that office.
Why it’s a misinterpretation:
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).
The Greek word translated “office” means service, not office. 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 holders of offices hold and wield unequal control. Mutual servants share control. The holders of offices claim imbalanced responsibility. Mutual servants share responsibility. You can see how one word changes the whole paradigm from which life together is built on.
In the next post, I’ll be listing signs I’ve picked up on over the years that you might be in an unhealthy leadership situation. Some are subtle and some are not so subtle. But, these will all be red flags you should watch out for.
The rest of the posts in the Servants and Slaves series are here.