Nearly a month ago I attended a conference at which I heard Graham Tomlin and Stephen Backhouse talk about leadership and authority. The post below is inspired by Stephen’s paper on the Kenotic hymn, who took a similar approach to that taken by Erik Heen in his "Phil 2:6-11 and Resistance to Local Timocratic Rule" in Richard Horsley’s "Paul and the Roman Imperial Order" (Trinity Press 2004) – which is well worth a closer read.
Today, somewhat belatedly I’m going to attempt to summarise and respond to Graham’s paper. This will be more challenging as Graham took a much broader scope, and I’m thinking I may need to split this post into two already. The first thing Graham did was striking in its simplicity, but has occupied my thoughts a lot for the last month. He did a simple NT word study on a leadership word, and his finding was so obvious, and yet so neglected it was like seeing something that had been hidden in plain sight.
Tomlin’s simple point was that Koine Greek had an obvious go-to word for leader, that any contemporary reader or writer would have used, and that most NT writers used frequently. The word is ἄρχων "archon", and it is often translated as "ruler" or "official". We see it in many places and here are a few examples:
· Matthew 9:18 – 23, Luke 8:41; referring to a ruler of a synagogue.
· Matthew 20:25 – "the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them"
· Luke 12:58 – referring to a judge or magistrate
· Luke 14:1 – referring to the leaders of the Pharisees
· Luke 18:18 – "a ruler / official asked Jesus; "Good Teacher…"
· Luke 23:13 – "Pilate called together the Chief Priests and the rulers"
· Luke 24:20 – "The Chief Priests and the rulers handed him over to be sentenced to death and they crucified him."
· John 3:1 – Nicodemus is referred to as a leader of the Jews.
· John 7:26 – "Have the authorities really concluded he is the Messiah?"
· John 7:48 – "None of the rulers or Pharisees have believed in him."
· The book of Acts is strewn with rulers, officials and authorities of various locations and levels…
· Romans 13:3 – "Rulers hold no terror for those who do right."
· 1 Cor 2:6,8 – We speak a message of wisdom among the mature, but not the wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are coming to nothing… None of the rulers of this age understood it, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.
· Eph 2:2 – "You followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient."
· John 12:31 – "Now is the time for judgment on this world; now the prince of this world will be driven out."
· Matthew 9:34 – "It is by the prince of demons that he drives out demons."
· Matthew 12:24, Mark 3:22, Luke 11:15 – "It is only by Beelzebul, the prince of demons, that this fellow drives out demons."
· John 14:30 – "I will not say much more to you, for the prince of this world is coming. He has no hold over me."
The word archon, is derived from ἄρχω "arche", meaning "first, or beginning" and has the sense of who is placed before all others, the one who holds primacy, or pre-eminence. As well as being a common NT word it is also used extensively in Classical and Koine literature and early non-canonical Christian writings. If we wanted to make some more modern translations we might reach for words such as "boss", "executive", "officer" or the more common generic "leader". People in the ancient world, as much as they do today, have a clear idea of what leadership is and what to expect from a leader. There might be some nuance to be drawn about good and bad leaders, but the underlying concept of someone in charge is well enough understood.
So far, all pretty obvious, but the observation of the truth that had been hiding in plain sight for all this time was the point Tomlin made about all these references…
Not one of them refers to a Christian. Not one of them refers to a "leader" in a church. The various NT writers, at various times, both demonstrate that they are familiar with the basic concept of leadership and equally clearly they avoid the concept – almost allergically – when they are talking about the new community of the Spirit, that arose in response to the resurrection. In the third post in this series I will discuss some of Tomlin’s analysis of some of the words that the first Christians did use for roles within the churches and draw some conclusions around the issues of laity/clergy, ordination and vocation. But for now I just want to stay on this point.
What is the significance of the early church’s rejection of the obvious norms of leadership as reflected in the dominant worldview, well it speaks of a radically different approach to leading people, as seen in these two dicta of Jesus himself…
Calling [James and John] to Himself, Jesus said to them, “You know that those who are recognized as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them; and their great men exercise authority over them.“But it is not this way among you, but whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant;and whoever wishes to be first among you shall be slave of all.“For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.”
I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you.
Leadership for Christians, according to the New Testament, is not a case of being in charge, nor even a matter of "first among equals". The NT rejects the notion of being first and foremost altogether – at least within Jesus’ alternative community. The implications of this are immense, not least at a conference that bills itself as being about Christian Leadership! I look forward to engaging with your comments and pushbacks!