“Elder” words (2)

Four biblical words pertain to the role of what should be the most significant (scripturally speaking, that is) church leader.  Briefly and simplistically, here are the four:

  • Poimen ≈ shepherd, pastor
  • Episkopos ≈ bishop, overseer
  • Presbuteros ≈ elder
  • Hegoumenoi ≈ leaders

Yesterday, I commented on the first three words above.  They are distinct from one another and yet, when considered together, help to form a more complete picture of one type of Christian leader.  In the process of writing this blog, I began to wonder more about the significance of the word hegoumenoi. Curiously, as of this writing, my blog is the only one referenced by WordPress as dealing with this word, and I’m a little surprised at that.

I’d previously almost discounted this fourth word, not being sure whether it is properly applied to a) church leaders or b) community leaders, and how far to take the idea of “obeying” (Heb. 13:17).  It’s a rather unique exhortation–to obey church leaders, that is–and as such, I’ve wondered how applicable this word is to church leadership.

[Aside:  a more megalomaniacal pastor-type, whether he calls himself “pastor” or not, won’t shy away from expounding on Hebrews 13:17 as though it certainly relates to him and his role.  Who wouldn’t want other people to obey him?  :-)]

Moving further with hegoumenoi … I note that not only it is perhaps more generic than the other terms above, but also,

  • it is used only in plural
  • it is used only in Hebrews 13 (although cognates are found in other texts)
  • it has other shades of meaning:  e.g., to think, to believe, to regard as

Hegoumenoi is, according to Kittel, used of “community leaders.”  Hmmm.  While this could run parallel to what Paul demanded in terms of the relationship between the Christian and government–does Heb. 13:17 mean “be subject to civil/community authorities?”–I wonder whether the Christian community might be in evidence here more than the civil one.  If the purview here is the church and nothing larger, then thinking and believing and regarding–“soft skills,” the business world might call them–could be understood as elements of Christian influence and relationship.

Let’s back up and “zoom out,” as my friend Greg puts it, when dealing with literary context.  A few years ago, I did some study in Hebrews and began to develop the sense that it is written primarily to a single Christian church of (mostly) Jewish converts.  As the theology moves into the practical, one might get the sense, too, that the exhortations are directed to a specific group rather than to Jewish Christians everywhere.  And in the final chapter, this sense of communication to a single Christian community grows.  Read chapter 13 with an eye toward discerning whether it is general or specific in its “target audience.”

If — and I do say “if” — I’m onto something here, then the hegoumenoi could easily be taken more as influential leaders in the Christian community. Since the word-concept “community” is one particularly apt description of what church should be, I’m drawn by this idea.

If church is community, and if community presupposes authentic relationships, it follows that “community leaders” are to be heeded and respected.  Leadership and obeying would not be, then, because of positional authority (which I believe is foreign to the New Covenant), but because of experience and trusted relationship with leaders of a community.

All this begs the questions of fallen human inclinations, and breakings of trust, and stupidities, and spiritual imbalances, and what may be seen as pie-in-the-sky vision for church as community.  I mean, really, we’re all so busy and fragmented and weak and mobile and fickle … and we all make so many mistakes … that genuine hegoumenoi and true Christian community can surely never be found over the long haul.  Not in this life.

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