Buried Talents: Reconciling Egalitarianism and Hierarchicalism, Part 2

C. Church Affairs

This brings us to the passages that deal more particularly with church affairs. In 1 Cor 14:33b-35 paternalists find ample basis to conclude that women must be silent in the assembly. But many hierarchalists agree with egalitarians that this passage must be limited to its historical and cultural circumstance. Many hierarchalists would permit women to speak in the assembly, so long as such speaking is not authoritative over men.

Rubel Shelly is a noteworthy hierarchicalist. Shelly writes,

The Bible is not against women ministering, using their God-given talents, standing up and speaking, administering church programs, singing (congregationally, small groups, or solo), reading Scripture, sharing information about church projects, testifying, teaching sub-groups of the church’s membership (whether female, male, or mixed), writing articles or poems, or otherwise participating fully in the life of local churches. …

The difference between females preaching and leading prayers for the assembly and these service roles is the difference between directing the group on one’s own initiative and ministering to it in a predetermined way. In the former, one chooses the course for the group and genuinely leads/guides it; in the latter, one follows a text and interprets it to the group.

“A Responsible Challenge to Our Traditions,” published in In Search of Wonder (Howard Publishing Co. 1995), Lynn Anderson, ed., p. 91, quoting Shelly, “A Woman’s Place Is …,” Wineskins (May 1993), p. 5.

Thus, 1 Timothy 2:11-15 becomes the central text of hierarchalist thought. Hierarchalists see in this passage a denial to women of the right to exercise authority over men.

The egalitarian view and hierarchicalist view of men and women in church organization and practice are not nearly as close as the two views as they relate to marriage. In fact, the differences are quite large.

A hierarchicalist might allow women roles that have been traditionally denied them — so long as these roles do not threaten the essence of male leadership and authority. Thus, women might pass out bulletins, pass out communion, and according to many, even read scripture in the assembly, since these practices do not involve any exercise of authority. But egalitarians would consider such limitations on the exercise of authority as a vestige of a culture that is dying out.

Thus, reconciliation of the two views appears to be impossible. And yet, I believe that the two views could be seen as being very close indeed.

First, there should be no hierarchy in a congregation — not in the sense that we think of worldly hierarchies. Every member must serve his church through works of service (which, of course, are ultimately for Christ). Elders, therefore, are not properly seen as bosses, employers, a board of directors, despots, or rulers. They are organizers and managers. They serve the other members by providing a service — organizing and caring for the congregation.

(Mark 10:41-45) When the ten heard about this, they became indignant with James and John. Jesus called them together and said, “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

The true meaning of leadership is not authority — it is service.

(1 Pet. 5:2-3) Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, serving as overseers — not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not greedy for money, but eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock.

Thus, Peter also denies elders the right to act as lords. Their ministry is one of service and of example.

Nonetheless, many would find in Hebrews 13:17 authority for elders to act as rulers.

(KJV) Obey them that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves: for they watch for your souls, as they that must give account, that they may do it with joy, and not with grief: for that is unprofitable for you.

(NIV) Obey your leaders and submit to their authority. They keep watch over you as men who must give an account. Obey them so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no advantage to you.

In the King James Version, which has shaped much of our doctrine, “leaders” is translated “them that have the rule over you,” suggesting a hierarchic eldership. The NIV translators prefer “leaders,” but speak of “authority.” Both translations command the members to “obey.”

A closer study of hegeomai, the word translated “leaders” or, in the KJV, “rule,” bears out the NIV translation of “leaders” rather than “those that have the rule over you.” W. E. Vine’s Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words translates, “primarily, to lead the way” (page 246 regarding “count”) and “to lead” (page 307 regarding “rule”).

Vine comments that while the word is translated “to rule” in the KJV, the marginal notes written by the original translators of the original King James Version (now omitted in most editions) offer “guide” as an alternative translation (page 307 regarding “rule”). Vine explicitly criticizes the translation “rule,” stating that Hebrews 13:7 more literally refers to “leaders” or “guides” (page 185 regarding “guide”).

A deeper sense of the word can be gathered by considering that in other contexts it is translated “count,” “think,” “esteem,” and “judge” (Vine, page 246 regarding “count.” See, e.g., Phil. 2:3 (KJV “esteem”); Phil. 2:25 (KJV “supposed”); Heb. 11:11 (KJV “judged”)).

Indeed, the one English word that would come closest to fitting all contexts is “judge.” The sense of the word in Hebrews 13:7 is thus of a guide, that is, one who judges or considers the best path to follow and, hence, a leader.

“Obey” is also mistranslated. As Vine says, peitho, the word translated “obey,” means —

to persuade, to win over, in the Passive and Middle Voices, to be persuaded, to listen to, to obey, is so used with this meaning, the Middle Voice, e.g., in … Heb. 13:17 … . The obedience suggested is not by submission to authority, but resulting from persuasion.

(page 124 regarding “obey”). The same word is used in numerous verses to mean “persuade” or “be persuaded” or synonymous words. See, for example, Acts 5:36, 37, 40; Rom. 2:8; Gal. 5:7; Jas. 3:3.

The passive voice refers to action by a third party. The middle voice is action upon oneself. Thus, in the passive voice, peitho would be translated “be persuaded,” but in the middle voice, we should translate “be persuadable” or, more precisely, “allow yourselves to be persuaded.”

But the NIV translates, “Obey your leaders and submit to their authority.” Even if we accept a milder meaning of “leaders,” surely we must still recognize their authority, one might argue. And yet “their authority” are words not found in the Greek but are added by the translators. The KJV more correctly translates “submit yourselves.” “Authority” was not written by the Hebrews writer!

Finally, “submit” translates hupeiko, found nowhere else in the New Testament. Vine translates, “to retire, withdraw … hence to yield, submit, is used metaphorically in Heb. 13:17 of submitting to spiritual guides in the churches.” The parallel structure and order of “be open to persuasion” and “submit” indicates that the writer’s thought is “allow yourselves to be persuaded, and as a consequence of being persuaded, yield to the church’s guides.”

Accordingly, we translate Hebrews 13:17:

Be open to persuasion by those who guide you and so submit to them. They keep watch over you as having to give an account. Be open to persuasion by them so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no advantage to you.

(“Men” is not in the Greek. Rather, the noun is implied and has no sexual connotation. Accordingly, our re-translation omits “men” from “having to give an account” to follow the Greek more closely.)

Therefore, we see that this verse has much the same thought as 1 Peter 5:2. Peter warns the leaders not to “lord it over” the flock but to be examples. The Hebrews writer speaks from the perspective of the flock, telling them to be open to the example and teaching of the leaders. From the King James Version in 1611 to the NIV, translators have inserted an authoritarian bias into the Hebrews 13:17 that is simply not present in the Greek.

The leaders of the church are not overlords, dictators, despots, or even bosses. They are not even rulers. They are leaders and guides, who teach, judge the correct path, persuade, and set examples. This hardly means that all within the church have identical authority, but neither are we to create a hierarchy based on worldly corporate or governmental patterns. The biblical pattern is not egalitarian — rather the pattern is gift based.

(Rom. 12:6-8) We have different gifts, according to the grace given us. If a man’s gift is … leadership, let him govern diligently ….

(“Man” and “him” are not present in the Greek but is implied. Thus, the command is gender neutral.)

The KJV translates “rule” while the NIV translates “govern.” Vine translates “‘to stand before,’ hence, to lead.” Titus 3:8 and :14 use the same word to mean “maintain” as in “maintain good works.” The NIV translates “devote themselves to good works.” Thus, the word has the flavor of a steward “keeping up” or “caring for” someone else’s property rather than an owner exercising dominion over his own property. Thus, even those with the gift of leadership have no dominion over the church, only the burden of devoting themselves to its management.

Elders are not dictators. The managing partner of my law firm has authority and we must submit to her or we will have anarchy in our law practice. But her authority is by our consent and she can be fired by the other partners. Thus, our “hierarchy” is that the partners are over the managing partner (setting her salary and having power to remove her) while the managing partner is over the partners (having control of the management of the law firm). It is, of course, a circle, and one that works quite well.

The structure is really not imaginable in terms of one partner being over or below others. Rather, we each have a role to play. Some manage. Some generate business. Some produce billable hours. Some train others. Some are in training. Therefore, we don’t see management — despite its considerable authority — as subordinating any partner to another.

Not surprisingly, many within the Churches of Christ have reviewed these same scriptures and concluded that the eldership is not so much an office as an attainment, more precisely, a gift from God. For example, Tolbert Fanning (who founded the first Church of Christ congregation in countless Southern communities), David Lipscomb (a founder of the Gospel Advocate and Nashville Bible School — later Lipscomb University), William Lipscomb (brother of David Lipscomb and a co-founder of the Gospel Advocate), E. G. Sewell (an early editor of the Gospel Advocate), and J. M. Barnes (an early contributor to the Gospel Advocate) all argued that there is no such thing as an “office” of elder. Indeed, Sewell wrote in 1872 that “elder” refers only to the greater age of certain men of the congregation, and that the “elder women” in 1 Timothy 5:2 “are just as much officers as the older men are.” He argued that neither are officers, but rather “senior members” who lead the congregation by example and teaching. These men took great pains to distinguish the organization of the church from corporate hierarchies. David Lipscomb contended, “So far as we have observed, the electing and setting apart of officers has been a complete farce in the churches.”

Most southern Church of Christ traditional practices can be traced to the teachings and writings of precisely these men — who dominated Church of Christ thought when the Churches were separating from many northern Churches over instrumental music and missionary societies and for many years thereafter. And yet they also taught views that did not gain wide acceptance. These views have been largely forgotten by the Church, doubtlessly due to the difficulty of organizing a church without someone put into a sanctioned leadership or management position. And yet these men were quite right in warning us not to view elders as rulers but as servants and teachers, as leaders by example and by Christian character — rather than chief executive officers, bosses, or rulers.

This view would not only take much of the politics out of Church affairs, but it would make the acceptance of women in “official” capacities much easier for many to accept. Many of our members blanch at the thought of female elders, but many of these same members see elders as virtual dictators. If they saw elders foremost as examples and servants, their resistance would not be so great. After all, who could protest recognizing a woman as an example to or servant of the congregation?

Summing up

And so we can conclude our meanderings with a fairly firm conclusion. In anyone’s view of scripture, many older women will be leaders by virtue of their examples and Christian character. Many women teach men quite effectively by their participation in classes and by their private rebukes and exhortations. Such women form the backbone of any church, and all would acknowledge their value.

The question is whether such women can be granted recognition in any formal sense or whether such women can be placed in a position to organize and manage the church — as servants of the membership, not as lords. The question of exercising authority, thus, has little to do with the matter. Properly understood, women can undertake leadership, management, and organizational responsibilities as servants — even slaves — of the church without violating 1 Timothy 2:11-15.

This approach would bring hierarchicalists and egalitarians much closer to agreement. Even if the hierarchicalist school of thought will not accept women as elders, they should be willing to allow women to exercise their talents of leadership at other levels. After all, women do not “usurp” authority when they are working under the oversight of a male eldership, even if men work “under” the women’s leadership. If the men are unhappy with the decisions being made by the women, they could always appeal to the elders.

Even allowing women leadership in only non-elder roles would be a vast improvement — not only in doctrine, but also in the quality and quantity of the work of the Church. We desperately need more leaders.

And so, the hierarchicalist and egalitarian views of men and women in marriage and in church should be considered very similar, with the primary distinction being whether women can be elders. Both views are very respectful of the inspiration of scriptures, and both views attempt to avoid adding rules to the Bible or subtracting rules from the Bible. Both views attempt to apply scriptures only to the extent that the historical and textual context permits. And neither view can be made into a test of fellowship.

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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2 Responses to Buried Talents: Reconciling Egalitarianism and Hierarchicalism, Part 2

  1. Alan says:

    As long as you're studying words related to the role of elders, you might want to study out "overseer." Here is what J. W. McGarvey said about that word in his Treatise on the Eldership:

    The term episcopos brought with it a more clearly defined significance, and furnishes more definite information in reference to the duties of the office. Among the Athenians it was the title of "magistrates sent out to tributary cities, to organize and govern them." (See Robinson's N. T. Lexicon, and references there given.) Among the Jews it had very much that variety of application which the term overseer now has in English. It is used in the Septuagint for the officers appointed by Josiah to [20] oversee. the workmen engaged in repairing the temple, 2 Ch. xxxiv: 12, 17; for the overseers of workmen employed in rebuilding Jerusalem after the captivity; Ne. xi: 5, 14; for the overseers of the Levites on duty in Jerusalem; Ne. xi: 22; for the overseers of the singers in the temple worship; Ne. xii: 42; and for subordinate civil rulers; Jos. Ant. 10. 4. 2. In all these instances it designates persons who have oversight of the persons for the purpose of directing their labors and securing a faithful performance of the tasks assigned them.

    Such a word when applied to a class of officers in the Christian Church, necessarily carried with it the significance already attached to it. It indicated, both to Jew and Greek, that the persons so styled were appointed to superintend the affairs of the church, to direct the activities of the members, to see that everything was done that should be done, and that it was done by the right person, at the right time, and in the right way. Anything less than this would be insufficient to justify the title overseer as it was currently employed in that age.

  2. Pingback: Buried Talents: Further on How Elders Oversee the Church « One In Jesus.info

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