You ever wonder why there are so many different Bible translations? Why can’t we just have one translation that tells us in OUR language what the authors meant by what they wrote in THEIR language and be done with it?!?! You shouldn’t have to translate a translation, right?!?!
But unfortunately, we need really passionate and smart people to do that if we hope to understand the Bible’s message about life, and more specifically, Bible verses about leadership in the Church.
It’s because language is complicated. What a word means to me may not be what it means to you. So throughout the centuries, different versions of what the Bible actually says have been created. Each one contains the thoughts and feelings of each translations’ authors.
With good intentions, they attempted their most accurate attempt. They did so according to their own interpretations by their own knowledge, experience, and biases. They expressed these by translating using their own words.
That’s not what the author meant
But the problem with this is that readers think they’re reading what the Bible really says. They come across Scripture verses about topics like leadership and they’re faced with a gauntlet of not only each translators’ knowledge, experience and biases, but also their own. They then think the author means what they want them to mean or what makes sense to them given their experience, time and culture.
If readers were somehow able to sit down in real life with the authors of what they were reading and have a conversation to understand all the different aspects of what was being communicated, they would realize there’s instance after instance of their interpreted meaning being not what the author meant by what they wrote.
And since most Christians believe the words in the Bible were inspired by God Himself when they were written and display to us His purpose, they lock in on their ignorant and biased misinterpretations as being from God Himself.
Now we’re in the danger zone.
Some of these get spread far and wide. They become new strategies, models, movements, denominations and organizations. They are all built on specific recipes that are concocted for living life both individually and corporately.
Heck, this is the reason the amazing works in the Bible were put together in the first place. People who had the closest relationships with the One True God (his chosen people in the Old Testament and apostles in the New Testament) were writing down what they had received.
This way others could learn and know Him and His purpose as they had learned it directly from Him. They were trying to help people know and understand Him, His purpose and it’s implications for life in His good world.
Seeking understanding with humility
So what can we do to guard against this and better understand what the Bible is actually communicating to us?
First, you always approach the Bible with a great deal of humility; knowing that you may be applying your own meaning to what you’re reading.
Then, find people that have gone beyond reading the Bible. Find people that know and understand the things that need to be understood to understand it. This includes knowing the original languages, the cultures, the audiences, what was happening that inspired the writing, how each literary format works, etc.
All in all, we have to find people that can piece together, understand, and communicate the Bible as a story that leads to Jesus and His Kingdom. Having a deep understanding of these things makes understanding smaller details much easier, like what the biblical authors meant when they talked about topics like church leadership.
What does the Bible say about leadership?
In this post, I’m going to list key passages about leadership in the Church that the best biblical scholars have pointed out routinely get mistranslated and misinterpreted. These are wise people who have made it their life’s work to allow the Bible to stand on its own and communicate the truth of what the authors were saying as they can best make it out.
This is not all of the verses this happens to. It’s just a sampling so you get the idea of how different philosophies are concocted and the importance of seeking the Truth.
These are just words
But even this is not enough. Because what you’ll read below is also 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.
So ask the Lord to give you deeper revelation by His Spirit, as Paul prayed in written form many times throughout his letters to people he was trying to help.
Although he communicated with words, He knew it was only by the Spirit that anyone can see the Truth of those words clearly and understand what he was trying to communicate.
Each of the explanations of why these verses are mistranslations and get misinterpreted come from Jon Zens’ must-read-in-our-day-and-age book 58 to 0: How Christ Leads Through The One Anothers. I follow each explanation with some thoughts of my own.
“Head” does not mean “decision-maker”
NASB English translations:
- I Corinthians 11:3 – “But I want you to understand that Christ is the head of every man, and the man is the head of a woman, and God is the head of Christ.”
- Ephesians 5:23 – “For the husband is the head of the wife, as Christ also is the head of the church, He Himself being the Savior of the body.”
A common misinterpretation:
Men have the responsibility to be in charge and the final decision-makers in their households and in churches.
Why it’s a misinterpretation:
The Greek word for “head” used here is kephale. As is the case with the word “authority,” the word “head” has many clutching barnacles attached to it that muddy the waters. P.B. Wilson expresses the typical view of “head” in words addressed to husbands: “Be the head (final decision-maker) of the wife” (Liberated Through Submission, p. 69).
More often than not, then, the word “head” is assumed to mean “authority over” someone, usually the wife.
We have inherited the concept of “chief decision-maker” connected to the word “head.” But, we need to understand that in the 1st Century; it was thought that the viscera (gut) was the decision-making center, not the head (Linda Belleville, “What the English Translators Aren’t Telling You,” 2003).
So, for us now to assume that “head” in the N.T. means main decision-maker gets us off on the wrong foot from the get-go. The revelation in the N.T. will not sustain the traditional viewpoint of “authority over” and “decision-maker.”
There was nothing in the pristine garden to indicate that Adam had “authority over” Eve. Rather, the pre-fall language speaks of partnership—“He gave them dominion”—“He called them Adam.”
Thus, in 1 Corinthians 11, when Paul said that the man is not out of the woman, but the woman out of the man, etc., his conclusion of mutuality in verses 11-12 must not be missed—“nevertheless, neither woman without man nor man without woman in the Lord. For as the woman is of the man, even so is the man also through woman; but all things of God.”
The image in Colossians 2:19 is clearly organic, not chain-of-command. “Hold to the Head (Source), from Whom the whole body will grow with the growth of God.” This echoes Jesus’ words in John 15, “I am the Vine, you are the branches—abide in Me and you will bear fruit.”
Reflect on Ephesians 5:21-22 for a moment. First, Paul told all believers to mutually submit to one another. Then he said, “Wives to your own husbands.” There is no verb, so one must draw it from verse 21—“wives [submit] to your own husbands.”
Then it is stated that Christ is the “Head” of the ekklesia, and that the husband is the “head” of the wife. Does a military, chain-of-command, “authority over” picture fit here? The image is organic and relational. Just as Christ is the Source of the ekklesia, so the husband as the source is to cherish and nourish his wife.
This concept that a human being should have more control over another human being because of their gender or any other characteristic (intellect, status, money, maturity, etc.) is not supported by biblical authors.
From the very creation of the first humans where God said they should rule over everything in the world except other humans to the book of Philemon where Paul writes to a more mature believer that he should accept his immature slave as a brother and partner (the Greek word koinonia) in the Lord, the pattern is clear that humans are to be equals and partners in fulfilling God’s purpose in households, churches and every human relationship.
Leadership in a church is 100% based on the example of a person’s life and the specific ways God expresses Himself through each person relationally. Any other approach is corrupt.
Church decisions are for church congregations
NASB English translation:
“In the name of our Lord Jesus, when you are assembled, and I with you in spirit, with the power of our Lord Jesus, I have decided to turn such a person over to Satan for the destruction of his body, so that his spirit may be saved on the day of the Lord.”
A common misinterpretation:
Paul had “apostolic authority,” so he decided things for churches and commanded them what to do in different situations.
Why it’s a misinterpretation:
Assembly-life is the context for decision-making. Leaders are never mentioned in what Jesus teaches about problem-resolution in Matthew 18:15-20. The final context is “take it to the congregation.” The N.T. letters were written to assemblies, not to leaders. The Corinthian church had a lot of issues, but Paul assumed that the body could take care of them—“when you come together as a body.” Leaders are never chided for failing in their responsibilities.
Traditional church practice puts decision-making, and the nuts-and-bolts of church machinery in the hands of “leaders.” The N.T. puts the responsibility of carrying out the will of Christ on the shoulders of the entire body.
In the lopsidedness of our leader-dependence, we have lost the vision of an assembly listening to the voice of Christ together.
When an apostle had to be chosen to replace the traitor Judas, it is Peter who moves the motion, but it is the congregation who puts forward the candidates, (Acts 1:15-26). When men had to be chosen to see to the charitable work of the church, once again it is the Twelve who make the suggestion, but it is the congregation who do the choosing (Acts 6:1-6), and the apostles who do the approving and setting apart.
When Peter took the crucial step of admitting Cornelius the Gentile to the fellowship of the Church, it was to the congregation that he had to explain himself and to justify his action, (Acts 11:1-4). When the Council of Jerusalem took the great decision to open the doors to the Gentiles; the decision was approved by the apostles and the elders with the whole church, (Acts 15:22).
When Paul called upon the Church at Corinth to take disciplinary action against the man guilty of notorious immorality, that action is to be taken “when you are assembled,” at a meeting of the congregation, (1 Cor. 5:4). The decision was in the hands of the congregation.
This misinterpretation is a classic case of not understanding the story going on here, and has been used as a justification to create special teams of leaders that make decisions for churches.
The Corinthians reached out to Paul first about a bunch of situations going on in their community, not the other way around. In this situation, they were struggling to make the decision on their own with what to do with this man who had been sleeping with his stepmother and wasn’t repentant about it. Do we allow him to continue being a part of the community? After all, God is full of grace, right?
Now typically a person working with a congregation would want to go and check out the situation first. As we all know, there’s always two sides to every story and details about any situation can get sketchy when they’re relayed through multiple people.
The essence of what Paul means here is “I don’t even need to come check out the situation if what I’m hearing is true. If this man is doing what you say he’s doing and he’s not repentant, there’s really nothing to investigate or talk about. I’m fully confident the Lord would have you remove this person from the community. This is the decision I believe the Lord would have YOU make for the health of the congregation.”
The decision is in the hands of the whole church. This is why Paul says to make it “when you are assembled.”
Leader, submit and authority are problem words in English
NIV English translation:
“Have confidence in your leaders and submit to their authority, because they keep watch over you as those who must give an account. Do this so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no benefit to you.”
A common misinterpretation:
People that appear to have leadership qualities have been given more authority by God to handle the direction and decisions of a church. They are more qualified to know the will of God in every situation. Those that aren’t given this label need to accept other’s God-given authority and submit to them as submitting to God.
Why it’s a misinterpretation:
This verse has been used to badger the saints concerning their need to “submit” to leaders. But given the author’s purpose in writing Hebrews, such a use of 13:17 is totally out of context. The NIV translation of Hebrews 13:17 perpetuates some serious misunderstandings. The Greek verb peitho means to persuade, and it is in the middle voice— “let yourselves be persuaded by those…”
The contextual reason why the author is exhorting the people to be persuaded is because the guides were good examples of holding onto Christ in the New Covenant. There is no basis for the phrase “their authority.”
To “let yourself be persuaded” implies discernment, not a blind following of people just because they occupy an alleged “office.” These people needed to let themselves be persuaded by these particular guides because they were excellent examples of people who were focusing on Christ, and not going back under the beggarly elements of the Law.
While church leaders will milk Hebrews 13:17 for all it is worth, you never hear them talk about the implications of Hebrews 12:15. In Hebrews 12:15 the whole body of believers is to participate in the “oversight” of one another.
Compared to the 58 “one-anothers” in the New Testament, the inordinate emphasis on “leadership” that is found in the Western church is absent. In a family, the focus is not on those at the top—the focus is on relationships.
We have a real problem with the word “leader” in our culture. Words in the Bible that people translate “leader” are better understood by the words “servant” and “slave.” In the early church, someone that might be called a leader was someone that was recognized for not only knowing the gospel of the kingdom very well, but living out the implications of the gospel of the kingdom at a high level.
They were people who kept the Truth front and center in their own lives and the life of the church, weren’t easily swayed away by other philosophies that were brought in from the outside, and were good examples of what it meant to be Christ-like after being observed in all types of situations. That was it.
They didn’t get more say in matters. They didn’t have authority to tell anyone what to do. They didn’t form special decision-making teams that set the direction for the church. They just used their equal participation as protection to make sure the church didn’t proceed in ways that weren’t in line with the truth of Christ and the gospel of the kingdom.
In this way, they were wise, caring, non-controlling guides or shepherds. This is better biblical understanding of the word “elder” than you’ll hear many people put forth.
For those that hadn’t grown up as much, they were encouraged to pay special attention to these people and what they said and did. It wasn’t because they had any control over them. It’s because they were more likely to express the mind of Christ in matters.
Younger Christians were encouraged to freely and voluntarily give heavier weight to their direction, but everyone had equal membership and partnership in the church and its direction and decisions for life together.
These verses are a small taste of where distorted church “leadership” concepts come from. People knowingly or unknowingly concoct what they want the Bible to say to support either their desires for status and control, or their desire to freeload (be lazy and not responsible to do their part).
In the next post, I’ll run through another collection of verses so that we may just a little bit better understand the biblical message of God’s design for human relationships in church life. For more on how leadership in the church was designed to function, see the post Demystified! God’s Design for Church Leadership Structure Explained.
The rest of the posts in the Servants and Slaves series are here.