Early Christian Decision-Making: Wasn't Everybody Just Bowing to Kings Back Then?

“A democracy, Mr. Cromwell, was a Greek drollery based on the foolish notion that there are extraordinary possibilities in very ordinary people.” King Charles II of England, if he indeed said these words, believed what a good many educated people still hold to: that the Greek democracy was a brilliant, fleeting light in the panorama of history.

Classical scholars and professors of ancient history will tell you otherwise. When Alexander the Great set out to conquer the world in 334 B.C., Greek democracy was already over 200 years old. He took the idea with him in his heart and planted it everywhere. In prophetic vision, the prophet Daniel saw Alexander as a male goat speeding across the earth so fast that his feet seemed not to touch the ground. In ten years he conquered everything in the Near East from Asia Minor all the way to the Indus River. The Orientals were so amazed at Alexander’s success that the upper classes wanted above all to become Greeks. Their wish and its fulfillment persisted for centuries. When you read the term “Greeks” in the New Testament, that is the usual meaning: Orientals who had adopted the Greek way of life.

The Jews became as Hellenized as any other nation in the Near East. Even after the Maccabean Revolt, the Jews were a thoroughly Hellenized people. Jewish rabbis studied the Greek philosophy and Greek rhetoric to defeat Greek polytheism and establish Mosaic religion. The practice of rabbi-disciple was not original in Judaism, but came from the Greek practice of the philosopher and his pupil. Trade language was Greek, and major trade routes of the Near East passed directly through Galilee and Judea. Outside of Palestine, the Jews read the Old Testament Scriptures in Greek because most of them had quit speaking Aramaic. In Galilee, most funerary inscriptions were made in Greek. James, the brother of Jesus, grew up in Galilee and spent the last half of his life in Judea. He wrote in excellent Greek.

Greek culture included the Greek city, the polis, which was a democracy. The Greek kings after Alexander established 30 Greek cities in the area of Palestine.1 Each of those cities dominated its surrounding villages. In all of the villages (not just the cities) in the area of Philip the Tetrarch’s rule (Luke 3:1), the people elected magistrates by popular vote. In most places where Paul spread the Gospel, city, village, and regional governments practiced democracy, centered in the ekklesia.2

Of course, the Roman emperors manipulated the political system, by making the office of city magistrate only affordable to the wealthy. That was their means of control. But the emperors still had to respect the cities. The ideal of government in the minds of most people, if indeed not the reality, was the Greek city with its assembly. A notable exception to this rule of thumb was the Sanhedrin of Jerusalem. At times it was responsible for the political direction of all the Jews in Palestine, at times its power was diminished to Jerusalem only. It was not democratic. Its members were chosen either by other Sanhedrin members or by various kings, like Herod the Great. It was an aristocratic rule.

Democracy, synagogue and church

I want to dispel two possible misunderstandings at this point. I am not declaring that everyone in Jesus’ day was a thoroughgoing democrat. Nor would I ever say that the church was or is a democracy. But democracy is one form of group decision-making, and this form was widespread and well understood at the time the church began.

What about the Jews themselves? A few of examples suffice to demonstrate their views of group decision-making: first, the Qumran community practiced majority rule for many of its decisions (1 QS 6; Josephus Wars, 2.145-46). Philo, one of the leading Jewish writers of Jesus’ day, argued that Israel was always far more democratic than Rome (Philo, De Specialibus Legibus 4:151-57). His argument is an exaggeration, but shows what Jewish thinkers in Egypt believed about democracy, since Philo was one of the chief representatives of the Jewish people there. Likewise, the synagogue usually functioned in a democratic way (I do not say as a democracy).

There is a commonly-held error that the church obtained its idea of elders from the elders of the synagogue, who were its spiritual rulers. But the synagogue was not primarily a spiritual institution. It was more of a city center. Nor did every synagogue have elders. Instead, as Lee Levine, a scholar at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem points out, Jewish communities borrowed their titles for their leaders from the surrounding culture.3 The one officer that was in nearly every Jewish community with a synagogue was the “ruler of the synagogue” (archisynagogos: Mark 5:35, Luke 13:14, Acts 18:8). This man was responsible for the religious services in the synagogue but was not necessarily himself a teacher. He was elected to his post.

One finds, in fact, no mention of “elders of the synagogue” in the New Testament. The community, not a self-perpetuating elder board, ruled the synagogue: “It was the townspeople or their chosen representatives who had ultimate authority in synagogue matters,” and the synagogue officials “were only as strong as the power vested in them by the community.”4 Another Jewish scholar, Samuel Safrai says, “During the Second Temple period…authority, it was then held, belonged to the community and the assembly. Fundamentally, the ruling authority was the gatherings of the local citizens to deal with civic matters, and of all the Jews to deal with national matters.”5

Finally, Israel was called repeatedly to form an assembly in the Old Testament. Certainly there were elders in Israel, just as there were elders in nearly all cultures of the ancient Near East. But just like nearly every culture of that place and time, Israel also held assemblies (Lev. 24:10-13, Num. 35:24-25, Judg. 20:1-9, 2 Sam. 5:1-3, 1 Kings 11:12, Chron. 30:23). In some of those assemblies, the body unquestionably made the decision. Many times when reading books about the ancient Near East, one gets the idea that governments were autocratic and severe. Repeatedly kings avowed that they were chosen or especially commissioned by their god. But kings in the Near East also had to reckon with the assemblies of their people or with assemblies of cities in their realms. They had to compromise.6 Even kings chosen by the LORD were affirmed in their office by the assembly of Israel.

Conclusions

So what is the importance of all this history? It does not tell us what kind of government the early church practiced. That has to be answered by the Bible. But the secular activities of group decision-making in ancient times were part of the environment out of which the early church emerged. Group decision-making was not practiced everywhere, but it was very widespread in the Near East at the time Jesus was born. The idea of having an assembly that made decisions was neither anti-Jewish, nor humanistic, nor anti-Scriptural, nor worldly, nor ungodly to the minds of the Jews and Gentiles who received Jesus as the Messiah and were formed into local churches. No doubt, like Charles II of England, there were Christians who didn’t favor the idea of group decision-making. But to nearly everyone it would have seemed a very normal way for groups to get things done. In some ways the people of the ancient world believed that when gathered together “there are extraordinary possibilities in very ordinary people.”

Notes

1 Victor Tcherikover, Hellenistic Civilization and the Jews, translated by S. Applebaum (New York: Atheneum, 1977), 90-116.

2 A.H.M. Jones, The Cities of the Eastern Roman Empire, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971), 282-85.

3 Lee Levine, The Ancient Synagogue: The First Thousand Years, 2nd ed. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005) 452.

4 Levine, 169; 382.

5 Samuel Safrai, “Jewish Self-Government,” in The Jewish People in the First Century, ed. S. Safrai and M. Stern (Assen: Van Gorcum and Compant, 1974), 1:378.

6 Yves Schemeil, “Democracy before Democracy?” International Political Science Review, 21, no. 2 (2000), 104-113.

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B-Lowry's picture

The 'democracy' of ancient Athens, along with other democracies and republics, consisted only of male citizens.

Even our own republic did not allow women to vote until 1920, albeit many states had partial and total suffrage for female voters before that date.

Thus, any reference to decisions of the citizenry would mean "males only."

This may change the hue of the point Jeff is making, without changing its color completely.

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

Yeah, the gist holds true w/o the women's suffrage. The point is group decision making cannot be a novel idea we've only recently read back into the text.
I found the history very interesting, Jeff.

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

Ted Bigelow's picture

B-Lowry wrote:
The 'democracy' of ancient Athens, along with other democracies and republics, consisted only of male citizens.

Even our own republic did not allow women to vote until 1920, albeit many states had partial and total suffrage for female voters before that date.

Thus, any reference to decisions of the citizenry would mean "males only."

This may change the hue of the point Jeff is making, without changing its color completely.

Male citizens who were allowed to vote had to have completed military training. Those males who were currently slaves, ex-slaves, in debt to the state, or not trained in military service were not allowed to vote. Owning property was not necessary; that requirement came later in time to other self-styled democracies. The number of people who could vote in Athens was a small subset of the entire adult population.

Even today in churches fundamentally committed to democracy set arbitrary limits on who can and who can not vote.

For example, no one will deny that the Holy Spirit draws young people to salvation, and grants them full access to Christ and all spiritual benefits of being a child of God (Ephesians 1:3). But every church committed to democracy excludes them from voting until they meet an age limit - usually patterned after the world's age limit for voting - 18. IOW, no democratic Christian believes that regeneration makes a young person an equal part of the group decision making process that voting represents.

Or there is WELS - the conservative Lutheran denomination where only men of a certain age can vote. While that sounds funny to us, they are actually far more in line with democratic Christianity of the past two centuries. Women were only brought into voting in the last 50 - 60 years in most democratic churches.

Jeff Brown's picture

Calling citizenship in ancient Athens restrictive is similar to saying, "Well, if Athens had so many fine artists, why didn't they do any oin on canvas paintings?" An Athenian male came of age when he was 18 and enrolled in his father's deme. For the next two years he was liable for military service. At age 20 he was a voting citizen in the assembly.

Of an estimated 140,000 inhabitants, the adult male population is estimated to have been between 30,000 and 40,000. This was the group of Athenians who participated as voting members of the Athenian democracy. -- hardly a small subset.

Robert Browning, former professor of Classics at the University of London wrote the following:

"A modern criticism, which, I think desplays a lack of historical understanding . . . (says) citizenship . . . was artificially restricted. Let us recall that in my country it was not until 1919 that some women obtained the right to vote . . . . In the United States they had to wait until the Nineteenth Amendment to the Bill of Rights was passed in 1920, and in France until 1945, and Swiss women only recently achieved the right to vote in federal elections. Yet these countries were and are democracies, whatever their shortcomings. It is unhistorical to project back more than 2000 years our own quite recent attitudes to distinctions of sex or gender." The Good Idea, ed. Koumoulides, 62.

Likewise slavery was not eliminated until centuries later. Browning's point is well taken.

Any organization which uses group decision-making necessarily limits who may participate.

Jeff Brown

Ted Bigelow's picture

Jeff Brown wrote:
Calling citizenship in ancient Athens restrictive is similar to saying, "Well, if Athens had so many fine artists, why didn't they do any oin on canvas paintings?" An Athenian male came of age when he was 18 and enrolled in his father's deme. For the next two years he was liable for military service. At age 20 he was a voting citizen in the assembly.

Of an estimated 140,000 inhabitants, the adult male population is estimated to have been between 30,000 and 40,000. This was the group of Athenians who participated as voting members of the Athenian democracy. -- hardly a small subset.

Robert Browning, former professor of Classics at the University of London wrote the following:

"A modern criticism, which, I think desplays a lack of historical understanding . . . (says) citizenship . . . was artificially restricted. Let us recall that in my country it was not until 1919 that some women obtained the right to vote . . . . In the United States they had to wait until the Nineteenth Amendment to the Bill of Rights was passed in 1920, and in France until 1945, and Swiss women only recently achieved the right to vote in federal elections. Yet these countries were and are democracies, whatever their shortcomings. It is unhistorical to project back more than 2000 years our own quite recent attitudes to distinctions of sex or gender." The Good Idea, ed. Koumoulides, 62.

Likewise slavery was not eliminated until centuries later. Browning's point is well taken.

Any organization which uses group decision-making necessarily limits who may participate.

Thanks, Jeff. I totally agree. Perhaps we should better make a distinction between a republic and a democracy, eh?

Jeff Brown's picture

My expertise is limited on this one. The classical scholars I have read tend to use it synoymously most times. At other times they have used "Republic" to refer to an independent, self-governing state. For instance, Plato described the "Republic" but despised Athenian democracy. Cicero's "Republic" is more favorable to democratic functions. In Rome's republic, voting took place within the Tribes. A Tribe then functioned with one voice in the government of Rome (as I understand it). In Athens (and other Greek democracies), government was direct.

Modern authors tend to distinguish between "republican" (i.e. representative) government (as does The Federalist Papers), and "democracy."

But go ahead and say what you mean about the distinction.

Jeff Brown

Ted Bigelow's picture

Jeff Brown wrote:
My expertise is limited on this one. The classical scholars I have read tend to use it synoymously most times. At other times they have used "Republic" to refer to an independent, self-governing state. For instance, Plato described the "Republic" but despised Athenian democracy. Cicero's "Republic" is more favorable to democratic functions. In Rome's republic, voting took place within the Tribes. A Tribe then functioned with one voice in the government of Rome (as I understand it). In Athens (and other Greek democracies), government was direct.

Modern authors tend to distinguish between "republican" (i.e. representative) government (as does The Federalist Papers), and "democracy."

But go ahead and say what you mean about the distinction.

Like I'm an expert. But if there be a distinction, it’s what you mentioned - a representational government of elected officials who are to represent the citizens, vs. a pure democracy, in which all citizens have an equal voice. The two are closely related but are distinguishable. In reality there is no pure democracy because it's too unwieldy, as you found out in your experience with that church you pastored in the States.

When we come to consider the forms of church governance designed by men, various groups identify themselves as representational – usually confessional groups – like Presbyterian and Lutheran, CRC, many others. This distinguishes them from say Methodists, where a hierarchy of bishops exists.

For representational churches the vote is critical to their self-identity. They elect their leaders and will even hold elections for who will go to Synods and Assemblies. They don’t get a pass in The Titus Mandate any more than congregational churches do. The reason why is because of Titus 1:5. Titus was not told to establish a ruling group of leaders over a region of churches on Crete (Presbyterianism), nor was he to have leaders from all the churches on Crete get together on an annual or biannual basis and make ruling decisions that were binding for all the churches. No, the elders in each town were qualified by Scripture to be in leadership, so how can a higher human body of authority be safer than that? If Jesus Christ wanted churches to be representational, He would have had Paul told Titus to set up the churches on Crete that way. The fact that He didn't, nor does Scripture anywhere encourage such a policy, makes it the intrusion of men, replete with all its weaknesses.

The congregational model is a blend of representationalism and pure democracy. It’s workable/functional because churches are small.

For example, imagine the Representatives and Senators of the United States hammering out a budget, and then asking the citizens of the U.S. to vote on it. It would present a few problems, no? But that is what congregational churches do. Presbyterian (representational churches) do not typically vote on the budget, but mimic the pattern of the US government – the elected leaders decide the budget. No vote of the members (citizens).

Maybe that distinction helps.

Jeff Brown's picture

Ted, I am not sure what a pure democracy is. Probably one of the best sources for defining Greek democracies is Aristotle's Politics. He discourses at length on the strengths and weaknesses of three systems: monarchy, oligarchy, and democracy. He also talks about dictatorships and tyrants. I don't think that he seems to find any of them without fault. But that does not discredit the system. Democracy has never meant that the whole citizenship (or whole membership) makes decisions about everything. The Athenian citizens delegated a great many political responsibilities to various persons (officers) or groups (what we today might call committees). The council (boule) regulated all the agenda at every meeting of the ekklesia. Furthermore, all proposals for votes had to strictly adhere to the laws of Athens. I am not sure any classical scholar would call this delegation, or this sort of control "representative government" or that the Athenian democracy was no longer functioning as a democracy. There were in the Greek empire (later taken over by the Roman empire) regional representative governments. The elected members met in a regional ekklesia. This I would call "representative government."

The Athenian democracy was despised by, among others Plato and Alcibiades (who called it "madness"), but it never broke down until it had existed for several centuries. It was, in comparison to many monarchies of the same period, quite stable. And perhaps I did not communicate correctly before. I never found the congregationalism of the church I pastored in the US unwieldy. I found that we did things better when we used more consensus decision-making (much as families often do). In parliments and other democratic organizations around the world, consensus is looked at as a normal democratic procedure.

I do not say that a church, in the New Testament sense, is a democracy. Some would, and quite a few classical scholars would describe the early church as democratic. I find the church of the New Testament similar to a democracy, but it never becomes one. Democracies have always involved various factions and interests vying (usually peacefully) for power. Though factions arise in churches (of any order) they are not "built in." The NT does not envision campaigns for office in a church. For this reason, I would argue that the congregational model is not really a democracy.

Some Presbyterian theologians, like Robert Raymond will say that the Presbyterian church order springs completely from the New Testament (e.g. he finds synods frequently in the NT). I find he has a hard time proving his assertions. Other Presbyterian theologians will say the order began with John Calvin, and has its counterpart in the Geneva govt. of his day.

The elder-rule form of church order, which allows no congregational choice of the elders finds its worldly counterpart in the Oligarchy. In an Oligarchy which is a self-perpetuating body (like the Jewish Sanhedrin of Jesus' day), those deemed fit to rule were chosen by the existing leaders. Likewise, they did not call assemblies to enact legislation (usually) but rather made the decisions as a group. The structure is really quite similar.

Jeff Brown

Ted Bigelow's picture

Thanks for all your thoughts on democracy and church order. I think "unwieldy" was a bad choice of words on my part. I meant the process of voting on everything.

Quote:
Some Presbyterian theologians, like Robert Raymond will say that the Presbyterian church order springs completely from the New Testament (e.g. he finds synods frequently in the NT). I find he has a hard time proving his assertions. Other Presbyterian theologians will say the order began with John Calvin, and has its counterpart in the Geneva govt. of his day.

Reymond finds Presbyterianism in Acts 13 and 15. The text always and quite forcefully argues against him though (see my book, pp. 270-273. Maybe that's the topic of another SI article?

Quote:
The elder-rule form of church order, which allows no congregational choice of the elders finds its worldly counterpart in the Oligarchy. In an Oligarchy which is a self-perpetuating body (like the Jewish Sanhedrin of Jesus' day), those deemed fit to rule were chosen by the existing leaders. Likewise, they did not call assemblies to enact legislation (usually) but rather made the decisions as a group. The structure is really quite similar.

As I've said, I don't like the term elder rule becasue of negative assocations, but it is biblical - "Let the elders who rule well..." 1 Tim. 5:17. I didn't say it, God did. Smile. "Congregational rule" cannot be found in Scripture except as a theological deduction.

As my book shows in the very early chapters, eldership is not at all oligarchical. Hey, I pastor an eldership church! I would know!

As I show early on in my book in chapters 3 and 4, the congregation has a much higher degree of choice, control and influence in an eldership church than in a congregational church. The congregation, using Scripture, determines who is and who not in eldership. The elders participate in that - as part of the congregation - but not determinately so. The Scripture alone determines who is worthy of eldership, not the elders, and not the congregation. Those who are tested and approved by the scriptural data - "let them serve" (1 Tim. 3:10). We submit to Scripture, or try to. That's the goal - not to find out who gets voted in, but to judge men based on Scripture alone.

Oligarchies are a worldly form of governance in which a group of privileged people appoint their own into leadership. The NT however requires men who are qualified by God's standards in 1 Tim. 3 and Titus 1, not the standards of an oligarchy. If an elder board hinders qualified men from serving because they aren't "of their group" they sin against Scripture. Therefore, the charge that eldership is oligarchical is a crude characterization. I've pastored both congregational and eldership churches. Christians love eldership - check out the 30 or so testimonies in my book from all over the world. But people don't sing the praises of congregationalism (not in my experience). What is there to say about it? "I got to vote?"

Now if believers all over the world sing the praises of eldership, and eldership was oligarchical, then you would have believers extolling something that only kept the gentrified in power and themselves in voiceless suppression. What is there for God's elect to praise in that?

Jeff Brown's picture

Ted, I have ordered your book, but it will not arrive for six weeks. So I cannot comment on your interpretation of Elder Rule (or whatever you want to name it). I will comment on those with which I am familiar. These writer's views are very well known. I read John MacArthur's pamphlet on Elder Rule (1982) but do not have it in my possession. He does not give the choice of elders to the church. Gene Getz, who originally put his views in print ahead of MacArthur, and has continued to write about it, teaches that elder candidates are to be selected by elders and their wives. The rest of the congregation is allowed only to voice reservations about any candidate Elders and Leaders, 293ff. James White says that Acts 14:23 gives the pattern for elder selection (as best one can interpret White, I think, "elders select elders"), Perspectives on Church Government, by Brand and Norman. Alexander Strauch, Biblical Eldership, believes that congregational election of elders is a legitimate biblical practice, but does not mandate it. I have also talked with a number of people from Brethren churches (originally Plymouth Brethren), who are very opposed to congregational interaction in decision-making. Their type of church government is essentially, Elder Rule, even when they do not call it that or call their leaders elders. The earliest written work on the Brethren view of church polity is found in The Church of God, by William Kelly.

The differences between these churches, excluding Alexander Strauch's views, and those of congregationalists have absolutely nothing to do with biblical qualifications of elders. All say the same thing about qualifications (except that most Brethren churches with which I have been familiar would not require an elder to be able to teach the congregation the Bible). The differences have nothing to do with the number of elders. The distinction is not the belief in whether the Holy Spirit is supposed to guide. There are no differences in confession of Jesus as Lord of the church. The distinction is, at its heart, does the congregation participate directly in decision-making, including elder selection, or is this the domain of the elders only?

The ancient government pattern similar to Elder Rule churches of this kind is the oligarchy. Though usually in an oligarchy in those times, the rulers were wealthy. That would be a real difference, I would think from most Elder Rule churches. But in an oligarchy like the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem, the leaders selected other leaders to rule. Decisions were not taken to the Jewish public. The Sanhedrin did not call assemblies. Likewise, in the ancient world, qualifications, including moral qualifications for leaders were laid out many times by classical writers. There was no oligarchy whose leaders did not have to measure up to qualifications (though obviously scoundrels were selected at times).

Finally, there were plenty of governments in the ancient world, which were a mixture of oligarchy and democracy, or monarchy and oligarchy, etc.

So if congregationalism has its counterpart in the world in the democracy, Elder Rule has its counterpart in the world in the Oligarchy. If one is crass comparison, so is the other. If congregationalism is a human, not a biblical idea, so is Elder Rule.

(as an aside, if the term "Elder Rule" comes from the Bible - and it does - it is also belongs to the domain of congregationalism. Congregationalists stress the rule (or leadership) of elders. There are no real congregational exceptions to that)

Jeff Brown

Jeff Brown's picture

Ted, I may find that when I read your book, that I do not differ with you so much on church governance. But I will have to wait until that time.

Jeff Brown

Ted Bigelow's picture

Jeff Brown wrote:
Ted, I may find that when I read your book, that I do not differ with you so much on church governance. But I will have to wait until that time.

You do! smile. I hope to show you that Scripture gives a clear pattern on eldership and that is perspicuous, authoritative and as different from congregationalism as night is from day. Even though both congregationalism and eldership use the same terms "elder," the two mean very different things by that term.

Eldership is oh so different than oligarchy. Like I said, in eldership men who are qualified by Scripture have to serve (1 Timothy 3:10). In an oligarchy, it is only men who meet the qualifications of the ruling few who are granted to be in leadership.

You know, come to think of it, "elder rule" is not a biblical term. 1 Timothy 5:17 is very clear than one elder should never rule, but rather a plurality of truly qualified men. They rule the church like a godly father is to rule his house (1 Tim 3:4-5).

Jeff Brown's picture

Ted, I am glad that you have clarified the point. I have not read your book, so I could not make a judgment.

I will, however, say from those whose books I have read and from the churches I know which practice Elder Rule, the secular counterpart is an oligarchy. If Elder Rule churches regularly involve the whole church in decision-making, they do not resemble an oligarchy.

You assume that I have never learned, nor ever taught that an elder is perspicuous and authoritative in his leadership. I will refrain from any comment that.

I am glad to read your book, Ted, but if indeed your view of Elder is as different from the congregational idea "as night is from day," I surely do not want your idea. I have been enormously blessed by the elders of congregational rule, and watched them have incredible impact in the lives of thousands of Christians, as well as being used by Christ to win many to the faith. I frankly believe that many elders in Elder Rule churches serve the Lord in such a way that they will be told by the Chief Shepherd, "Well done, good and faithful servant." I believe just as much that many elders in congregational government churches will hear exactly the same - specifically because they fulfilled the role set out for them by Paul in Acts 20.

Jeff Brown

Jeff Brown's picture

I find 1 Timothy 3:4-5 less all-encompassing than you present it, Ted. Paul did not say that an Elder is supposed to rule the church like a father rules his house. He said that if a man cannot rule (or manage) his house, he will not be capable to manage the church. The types of leadership are not identical.

A wise father raises his children more strictly at the beginning, then continually gives them more and more freedom to choose. When, as adults they leave the home, he gives advice, but he does not tell them what they have to do. A church is full of adults, not just children. 1 John 2 describes a congregation as composed of young men, mature men, and aged men. They are to be led, but not treated as the elder's children. In the eyes of Jesus, their putting their moral and spiritual judgements under a "papa" is repulsive (Matt 23:8-9). This is, in fact, one of the primary arguments that free churches have had with the Roman Catholic Church through the centuries. An Elder leads, but not as a father. The paradigms for his leadershiop are rather elder, overseer, shepherd, teacher. His leadership is quite emphatic, but it is not the role of father. If you cannot manage your children as minors, you will never be capable at managing adults, which is a higher and more complex ability. I believe that is what Paul meant in the passage.

Jeff Brown

Phil Siefkes's picture

Good articles, Jeff. Keep 'em coming. Paul's apostolic ministry was indeed father-like (1 Thess. 2:11), though Paul was not an elder/pastor. Some have sometimes opted for the term "elder-grational" to describe Biblical church governance. There's certainly a blend, and that blend may look a bit different in each congregation. For those who like the black & white of either elder-rule or congregational-rule, the gray may be harder to accept. Thanks for sharing your studies and thoughts with us.

Discipling God's image-bearers to the glory of God.

Jeff Brown's picture

Well now, that is some term, Phil!

And thank you for the encouragement.

The concept of "father" in the apostolic ministry is an interesting one. Paul asserts it again in 1 Corinthians 4:15: "For though you might have ten thousand instructors in Christ, yet you do not have many fathers; for in Christ Jesus I have begotten you through the gospel." Thus, together with 1 Thessalonians 2:11 Paul appears to use the father concept to refer to the role of missionaries, people who first brought the Gospel, who were handling spiritual newborns. Through Paul's (and his co-workers') ministry, the churches in Thessalonica and Corinth came into existence. In the same chapter in Thessalonians, Paul refers to his, Silas, and Timothy's work as that of "nursing mothers" (v.7) Likewise, Paul refers to his relationship with Timothy as serving "like a son with his father" (Phil 2:22). The figure speaks volumes about what kind of relationship the two had. Finally, Timothy is instructed to handle older men in the church like fathers, and the older women like mothers (1 Tim 5:1).

The figures used to describe the roles of people in a church, or missionary ministry to one-another is worthy of a book, perhaps. They are beyond what I have time to comment on here (and perhaps anyone would have time to read!). I feel certain I could learn from someone who has taken up that discussion. I am willing to be corrected, but I do not notice in the NT that elders are to conduct their leadership with paternal authority, any more than they are supposed to be matronly. I think that Jesus pre-empted that concept prior to His crucifixion and resurrection. Likewise, 1 Timothy 5:1 makes the entire idea of paternal authority in elders become self-contradictory (am I a father to him, or is he a father to me?)

Jeff Brown

Jeff Brown's picture

The concept of the Church is so big in Scripture that we tend to become myopic as we talk about one aspect of it. The local church is (or should be) more like a family than anything else. It is little wonder that the NT uses the terms "brothers," "mothers," "fathers," etc. to describe the relationships of the church body.

Jeff Brown

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