“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.


“Elder” words (1)

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

Ever since I learned the first word, I’ve loved it.  There is so much shepherd/sheep imagery in scripture, and this concept of poimen is richly descriptive of caring for a group.  In any NC writings that are clear on this subject, poimenoi is a plural group.  Notably, 1 Peter 5:2 is a word from an apostle who views himself as a sort of “fellow shepherd” (NOT as a fledgling “pope,” mind you!) to other shepherds. I suppose that since Peter’s audience is a group of churches, not a single church, it might be that there is a single poimen in some church, but never do the NC writings assume one man has charge of a church.

Episkopos comes to mind somewhat less frequently.  It connotes considering, overseeing, reflecting on, and even visiting, e.g., the sick.  This word is also important when attempting to gain a more thorough understanding of the biblically based role of church leaders, and it should probably come to mind more often.  Overseeing is certainly an important part of some “leadering.”

I tend not to use, or even think about, the word-concept presbuteros much–it refers, in part, to seniority.  I’m more interested in spiritual qualities than checklists of “qualifications” and chronological age.  In this case, the connotation can be quite positive–not “old and decrepit,” but rather, “old and therefore experienced and worthy of attention.”

I knew a man who was an “elder” of a church at 35.  That made sense, because he had been a Christian for 20 years, had a believing family, and was in a very young church.  (Then there are those Mormon “elders”–20-year-olds sent on missions.  Not a silly practice, but a downright ludicrous label for them.)  The human context is important when considering the age factor:  if there are wise, spiritual men in their 60s, 70s, and 80s, no 35-year-old should be a presbuteros.

When disagreement occurs over doctrinal or procedural matters, I am hard-pressed to ignore the simple fact that I have been a Christian leader longer than one of my church’s presbuteroi has been a regenerate believer.  I don’t often claim much wisdom.  It’s not one of my gifts.  🙂  But I do have experience, and even though a “presbuter” may have a few chronological years on me and is in some ways a better “shepherd” or “overseer” than I could ever be, I could actually function as his “elder” in the faith.

I tried to squelch this observation a few weeks ago; truth be told, I’d prefer not to think about it.  But the man’s lesser spiritual experience (here, I’m avoiding the word “maturity,” because he’s probably more mature than I in several respects) keeps rising in my consciousness.

Next … hegoumenoi (more interesting stuff!)

Ekklesia values 6 (leadership and hierarchy)

Continuing in the “Church Values” stream today, and extrapolating a bit from the nondenominational, nonsectarian ideals  now.  My ideal church will employ

==> Non-hierarchical leadership

and is

  • mutually pastoral in terms of ministering to one another

and uses no

  • no extrabiblical (or reappropriated biblical) religious titles.

In the NC scriptures, I see contraindications of positional authority in the church.  Put negatively, I see no hint that there were, or were to be, hierarchical leaders.  Positional leadership is ubiquitous in churches these days–seen most starkly in such figures as the pope, but lived out in virtually every church I’ve ever been with, known of, or read about.

If we must have the “pastor” as a role, understood as most Christians understand that job today, let us at least not have “senior pastor.”  “Lead pastor” is more functional than positional, and I would rather see that modifier than “senior.”  In the eyes of some, as I’ve come to understand it, Timothy and Titus may have filled precursors of the modern-day pastor role.  But this is an assumption, an inference; it’s not particularly explicit.

In the CofC grouping, we tend to believe and write one way, and live out our polity another way.  If we really believe elders are pastors are shepherds are bishops, well, let’s do church that way.  Let us not have our preachers/ministers/evangelists in charge of everything.  Let us not conceive intellectually of an upside-down pyramid with elders at the top.  And by all means let us not live as though it’s a regular pyramid with the minister at the top, the elders in the middle, the deacons at the bottom, and everyone else referred to as “you” instead of “we.”  And, by the way, let us avoid the perception that eldering/pastoring happens primarily in the humanly invented institution called the “elders’ meeting.”

Although I’ve been taught it all my life, I’m not sure the NC scriptures really equate the bishop (episkopos) with the elder (presbuteros) with the pastor (poimein).  These may be describing similar, overlapping, but not identical functional roles.  Perhaps the ideal is more fluid than many of us have come to understand:  could it be that Timothy was primarily a functioning evangelist, and there were no deacons or elders or head “pastor” in Ephesus, while Titus was more of a “lead pastor” in Crete?  And further, could it be that

  • the churches in Galatia had neither a head pastor nor elders
  • the groups in Corinth and Colosse and Laodicea had several poimenoi each, like most CofC groups, and
  • the church in Rome had none of the above, because they had an apostle?

It deserves mention that the early church in Jerusalem appears to have been led by few apostles/elders, and James the brother of Jesus seems to have had executive influence (see Acts 15).  The Acts 6 precedent leads us to select servants to fulfill needed tasks–giving rise to modern-day “deacons” (same word as “minister,” by the way).  Let it not go unnoticed that deacons have jobs to do.  There is no deacon, biblically speaking, who simply has the title but no designated function in the local church’s work.

Nashville’s Belmont Church (which has Restoration Movement roots but left any real association behind years ago), at least at one point, separated its elders by function.  Some were executive, and some were pastoral (caring for sheep).  Some were paid, and some were not.  This devised arrangement made some sense to me, given that no particular hierarchy is specified in the scriptures, and given the size of that particular church.  But when all’s said and done, it’s more important that people not attempt to assert or exert authority based on position or salary.  Given that we are not in the apostolic age, spiritual authority should arise naturally, along the lines of relational, respected influence.  It should be invited by people, not inflicted on them.  “Having authority,” by the way, is different from “acting authoritatively” or “being authoritarian.”

In sum:  my church won’t obviously deal in positional leadership.  Not that there won’t be leaders.  There must be leadership, and leaders will emerge naturally!  But it will not be because of some mail-order license, or a degree-granting institution’s blessing, or a denomination’s “call” (whatever that is).

Leaders serve, their leadership is respected as an outgrowth of their service, and ideally, they begin to have spiritual influence because of recognized insight and genuine relationship.  Leaders are marked by service to humankind, beginning with the household of faith, in the name of God.