Usually I greatly appreciate what the well known Methodist Bible commentator Ben Witherington III (BW3) writes on his blog – although I don’t always have time to read his longer posts. But I have some serious issues with what he writes in his latest post, the first part of a review of Reimagining Church by Frank Viola.
I haven’t read Viola’s book, and more or less all I know about it comes from BW3’s review. Here BW3 writes quoting a key pasaage:
[Viola] describes very straightforwardly how he reimagines how the church ought to be– “organic in its construction; relational in its functioning; scriptural in its form (aha! it has a form); Christocentric in its operation; Trinitarian in its shape; communitarian in its lifestyle; nonelitist in its attitude; and nonsectarian in its expression.” (p. 26). Now that’s a tall order. Let’s see how he develops these ideas and blueprints for the 21rst century church.
While BW3 appreciates many of Viola’s ideas, he offers sharp criticism of some aspects of them, and especially of Viola’s suggestion that the church should not be hierarchical. BW3 writes:
I also have a problem with those who have a problem inherently with the notion of hierarchial leadership structures, because in fact such structures are Biblical not merely in the OT, but in the NT as well, as documents like the Pastoral Epistles and Acts make clear.
Much later in the review he returns to this issue, and roots it in the doctrine of the Trinity:
the blueprint Godhead provides us with a reason to expect that in the church there will be a hierarchial pattern of ordering things. … it will involve a leader and follower, shepherd and sheep, pastor and congregation, apostle and co-workers hierarchy— something Frank wants to avoid at all costs, seeing it as either inorganic or simply fallen human structures.
But surely BW3 gets this wrong. The Bible, in the Old Testament as well as the New, offers stinging criticism of worldly models of hierarchy. When the Israelites asked for a king, this was God’s response through Samuel:
Samuel told all the words of the LORD to the people who were asking him for a king. 11 He said, “This is what the king who will reign over you will claim as his rights: He will take your sons and make them serve with his chariots and horses, and they will run in front of his chariots. 12 Some he will assign to be commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and others to plough his ground and reap his harvest, and still others to make weapons of war and equipment for his chariots. 13 He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. 14 He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive groves and give them to his attendants. 15 He will take a tenth of your grain and of your vintage and give it to his officials and attendants. 16 Your male and female servants and the best of your cattle and donkeys he will take for his own use. 17 He will take a tenth of your flocks, and you yourselves will become his slaves. 18 When that day comes, you will cry out for relief from the king you have chosen, but the LORD will not answer you in that day.”
1 Samuel 8:10-18 (TNIV)
But, despite “you yourselves will become his slaves”, the people insisted on having a king, so God granted their request (8:19-22), not because hierarchical leadership was his plan but because he respected his people’s wishes. Even then, God had special requirements for the king of Israel, to keep him humble and not like the kings of the surrounding nations,
so that he may learn to revere the LORD his God and follow carefully all the words of this law and these decrees 20 and not consider himself better than his fellow Israelites and turn from the law to the right or to the left.
Deuteronomy 17:19-20 (TNIV)
So it was really nothing new when Jesus gave his own teaching which effectively outlaws hierarchical structures among his disciples:
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. 43 Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, 44 and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. 45 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.”
Mark 10:42-45 (TNIV)
A dispute also arose among them as to which of them was considered to be greatest. 25 Jesus said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who exercise authority over them call themselves Benefactors. 26 But you are not to be like that. Instead, the greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who rules like the one who serves. 27 For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one who is at the table? But I am among you as one who serves. …”
Luke 22:24-27 (TNIV)
Indeed Jesus didn’t just teach this, he also modelled it, in his life as well as in his death:
When he had finished washing their feet, he put on his clothes and returned to his place. “Do you understand what I have done for you?” he asked them. 13 “You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am. 14 Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. 15 I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. 16 Very truly I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. 17 Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them. …”
John 13:12-17 (TNIV)
So, in the light of this fundamental teaching from God spoken out by Moses, Samuel and Jesus, what do we make of the evidence BW3 has in mind, that “hierarchial leadership structures … are Biblical … as documents like the Pastoral Epistles and Acts make clear”?
First, as always we have to be very careful about taking what we read about what happened in the New Testament church as normative. The early believers sometimes got things wrong, and were corrected for it. This means that we should always give priority to specific teaching of Jesus and the apostles over following examples recorded without explicit teaching to commend them.
Nevertheless, we must accept that the apostles did arrange (here I deliberately use a very generic word) that certain people would have leadership positions, such as being elders, in local churches, and Paul explicitly taught Titus to make similar arrangements (Titus 1:5). Since Paul called himself “a slave of Christ Jesus” (Romans 1:1, literally, Greek doulos), it is easy to infer here a hierarchy: Jesus > Paul > Titus > elders > ordinary church members.
But is this what the Bible really teaches? No, because Paul’s instructions must be understood in the light of the teaching of Jesus which I already quoted. And this was Paul’s understanding; in accordance with Jesus’ words “whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant” Paul called himself a slave of Jesus but a servant (diakonos) of the church (Colossians 1:24-25, compare 1 Corinthians 3:5, also 2 Corinthians 4:5 which uses doulos), and he notes that even Jesus took the very nature of a slave (doulos) (Philippians 2:7). Peter appealed to elders to be “not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock” (1 Peter 5:3, TNIV).
So what are the models of leadership which are commended in the Bible? As we have seen, clearly not the hierarchical model as understood by “the kings of the Gentiles”, in which each person is in effect the slave of the one in authority over them. I find the following models (I don’t claim that this list is exhaustive):
- Leader as steward or manager (oikonomos): This important model is obscured in many modern Bible translations, but the idea goes right back to the creation (Genesis 2:15) and is found in Jesus’ parables (Luke 12:42-46, 16:1-8) and in Paul’s instructions for overseers (Titus 1:7; also 1 Corinthians 4:1-2, 9:17, Ephesians 3:2,9, Colossians 1:25, 1 Timothy 1:4, 1 Peter 4:10). The point here is that leaders are commissioned by God to do his will, and have no independent authority to impose on the people entrusted to their care.
- Leader as shepherd or pastor: This image also goes back to the Old Testament, with God as the shepherd of his people (Psalm 23:1) and human leaders also as shepherds who are held accountable by God (Ezekiel 34). In the New Testament Jesus is the chief shepherd (1 Peter 5:4, John 10:14) and elders in the church are shepherds (or “pastors”, the same word in Greek) of the flock that has been entrusted to them (1 Peter 5:2-3). This model is similar to that of the steward.
- Leader as father or mother: This is a significant biblical model of leadership, and one which goes back to all eternity in that it is a Father and Son relationship, not one of master and slave, which is found in the Trinity. (This is the answer to BW3’s attempt to root hierarchical subordination in the Trinity; a son is not just in submission but he is also the heir to his father and so is or should be treated with respect and love by the father.) In the Old Testament authority was primarily through extended families known literally as “fathers’ houses” (Exodus 6:14, Numbers 1:2 etc, see KJV). The judge Deborah was called “a mother in Israel” (Judges 5:7). Paul made use of both of these metaphors: “Just as a nursing mother cares for her children, so we cared for you … For you know that we dealt with each of you as a father deals with his own children …” (1 Thessalonians 2:7-8,11), and he called Timothy and Titus not his servants but “my true son” (1 Timothy 1:2, Titus 1:4). Paul also saw the church as a family (patria) under one Father (pater), God (Ephesians 3:14-15) Nevertheless Jesus cautioned against human use of the title “Father”, along with “Rabbi” and “Teacher”, because of the way such titles are abused by “those who exalt themselves” (Matthew 23:8-12).
- Leader as servant or slave: We have already looked at this one, so I will reiterate it simply by quoting Paul’s instructions for relationships between Christians which must include those between leaders and those they lead:
In your relationships with one another, have the same attitude of mind Christ Jesus had:
6 Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
7 rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
8 And being found in appearance as a human being,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross!
Philippians 2:5-8 (TNIV)