Strength for Today and Bright Hope for Tomorrow

Volume 8 : 11 November 2008
ISSN 1930-2940

Managing Editor: M. S. Thirumalai, Ph.D.
Editors: B. Mallikarjun, Ph.D.
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         K. Karunakaran, Ph.D.
         Jennifer Marie Bayer, Ph.D.



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How Authority and Leadership Evolve
A Study of Leadership Functions and Authority in
the New Testament Community

Noah Pashapa, Ph.D.


More than ever, this century, plagued by extremism and terrorism, needs a leadership that truly serves the people of all nations. As nations of this world have come to depend on each other for stabilizing democratic institutions, social order and economic prosperity, there is a dire need for developing leadership values and patterns that will help humanity to live in peace and prosperity. Going back to trace the leadership patterns in the ancient past will, perhaps, help re-learn what should be done to train those who will assume leadership roles around the world.

In this article, I propose to discuss how authority and leadership evolve based on textual examination of the books of the New Testament. Such investigation of classic texts in other religions and a variety of cultures will enable us to seek the best that human history offers to us.

In all these, language use reveals the values of the society, and the study of language used by the leaders reveals the leadership characteristics. Language provides us with a window to our inner most thoughts, even as it provides a revelation of our values and practices and an explanation for the personality traits that the leaders exhibit.

This study is a text-based investigation of characteristics of leadership and the nature of communities the leaders sought to build.

Differentiated Leadership Functions and Ministry Patterns

The New Testament witnesses to the existence of differentiated forms of leadership functions and ministry patterns among the early Christian communities. Any serious investigation of the N.T. in an attempt to establish the patterns that office- bearing, leadership function and ministry took in the early church communities will find it difficult to disagree with observations on the diversity that characterizes it made by Raymond Brown. He has observed that,

... we do not find a clearly defined and continuing pattern of leadership, nor given a definition of the functions of those who lead, nor agreed and uniform titles for leaders...The structuring of the church evolved, and variation between churches was quite marked...2

or those of Kevin Giles's when he says,

The New Testament does not give a definitive picture or suggest that only one order is God-given. But it does show how leadership emerged, the way it functioned, the various forms that appeared and how they managed to meet new needs. It helps us escape the feeling that we are locked into one order given once for all…reminds us of forgotten forms of ministry, and encourages the diversity and flexibility essential to meet the needs of our complex society3

Two diametrically opposed leadership structures?

This evidence for diversity has been interpreted by scholars such as Hans von Campenhausen and J.D. Dunn to indicate the presence of two diametrically opposed leadership and authority structures in the early church. One of these church orders is said to have been entirely free of structures and directed entirely by the Holy Spirit while the other is said to have been characterized by an institutional order with office-bearing elders4

Such scholars suggest that early Pauline epistles reflect the latter while the Acts of the Apostles; James; 1Pet 1 and 2; Timothy and Titus witness to the former. Hans von Campenhausen puts it this way,

Paul develops the idea of the spirit as the organizing principle of the Christian congregation. There is no need for any fixed system with rules, regulations and prohibitions... the community is not conceived or understood as a sociological entity, and the Spirit which governs it does not act within the framework of a particular church order or constitution. If you are led by the Spirit you are not under the law! In the church 'freedom' is the basic controlling principle... with the system of elders we move into the sphere of a fundamentally different way of thinking about the church, which can only with difficulty be combined with the Pauline picture of the congregation and certainly cannot be derived from it... it presents not merely a new phase, but a new line of development, the first and decisive pre-requisite for the elaboration of a narrowly official and ecclesiastical way of thinking...5'

This 'conflict theory ' as a framework for understanding what is happening on the ground with leadership functions and ministry development in the New Testament is attractive in that it provides a simple theoretical formula, that gives two clear alternatives between two opposing pictures of the church which cannot be harmonized. It appears though that such a simplistic linear developmental account might not do justice to the historical realities associated with these early church communities.

Different church communities with different ministry patterns

It appears more in keeping with the picture portrayed in the N.T. to posit the existence of different church communities, located in particular cultural contexts, which reacted differently to the needs associated with leadership functions and ministry patterns. In the Luke-Acts reports for example there are no precise instructions from Jesus on this matter. It is implied here that leaders arose to meet specific needs ( Acts 6:1-6).With time a group of elders emerge about whom no explanation is given (Acts 11:30; 15:2ff; 21:18) and they appear to assume the leadership functions first given to the apostles. It is likely that this does reflect a development at a later post-apostolic stage. A group of 'leading men among the brethren ' whom Luke describes as prophets also emerge and play an active leadership role alongside the apostles and the elders already mentioned (Acts 15:22). In one place these prophets are reported to have presided over the church community (Acts 13:1-3)6.

When one moves to the letters of Paul, the diversity is even more pronounced. In his letters to the Corinthians and Thessalonians for example, leaders are introduced who had no titles (1Thess 5:12-13; 1Cor 16:15-18) as well as those who had them (1Cor 12:28-30). Letters to the Romans and the Corinthians on the other hand portray a scenario where no individual or sub-group had preeminence when the church community assembled (Rom 12:3-8; 1Cor 12:4-7). The letters to the Philippians and to Timothy introduce leaders with titles 'Bishop (episcopos) and Deacon (diakonos)' (Phil 1:1; 1Tim 3:1-13) while 'Elders (presbuteroi)' are mentioned in Timothy and Titus (1Tim 3; Tit 3). Apostles, prophets and teachers (1Cor 12:28; Eph 4:11) are also reported to have been active leaders. Now with all this diversity reflected in the N.T., it would appear that the conflict model applied to leadership functions and ministry patterns in the New Testament by H. von Campenhausen, mentioned above, and others with similar views,does not correspond to historical realities on the ground witnessed to in the N.T. Rather, it reflects more the popular idealistic, dialectic conception of social structures typical of the Weberian dichotomy, with its 'charismatic' versus 'institutional' ideal types of authority, which has been superficially imposed on the N.T. evidence.

General consensus prevails among scholars that the development of leadership functions and ministry patterns in the early churches that we read about in the New Testament followed some kind of structural developmental process. B. Holmeberg , D. Tidball and Kevin Giles are among such scholars.7

This phenomenon of group development from less to more structured patterns of social organization which is referred to as institutionalism by social scientists, is typical of human interaction within groups, various types of associations as well as whole societies. Kevin Giles highlights this process in human organization when he says,

Human beings cannot exist without some structure on which to pattern their relationships. There is a latent and powerful force, once people associate, to establish norms of behavior, routine ways of acting and decision -making processes. In a small newly formed group, social interaction is personal and informal. In the first stage leadership is usually given by the person who has brought the group into existence and by those who have been called to assist. With the passing of time and the growth of the group, more structured forms of interaction develop. The group's needs demand differentiation in leadership (someone to chair meetings and someone to write letters), in due course these people usually become office bearers with specific titles (chairman and secretary). When a group has been formed by a 'charismatic leader' -which Paul was-, that person can in fact be the driving force in the process of institutionalization...those things that will give permanence and structure to the new associations are encouraged: in this the leader gives impetus to forces already at work. Such processes must be presupposed in studying the way leadership emerged in the Christian churches8

The guiding and facilitating role of the Holy Spirit

To be fair to the development that takes place with the early church community though, one must take into account the guiding and facilitating role claimed to have been played by the Holy Spirit in some such sociological process. Any account that leaves out this divine dimension, around which the reports on the early church community in the New Testament revolve, would not have done justice to them. And it is here that most sociological accounts of what is taking place with these early communities fall short as they are not designed to adequately deal with religious phenomena or truth claims so dominant in these religious texts. Another common pitfall that sociological studies on these communities fall into is the tendency to read onto the New Testament texts, perceptions and practices borrowed from the researcher's own world. This observation does not in any way imply that it is possible to eliminate the philosophical, cultural and conceptual distance between a modern day researcher and the historical conditions on the ground of these early church communities. This is simply to underscore the necessity to apply 'familiar' conceptual frameworks for analyzing and understanding the 'unfamiliar,' with due regard for the interpretive 'distance'. In my view Kevin Giles, in his work which has already been quoted above, avoids both these pitfalls successfully.

The household setting as background for leadership development and its functions

A lot of research on the cultural inheritance, the particular context and patterns characterizing the way in which these early Christians assembled for worship has already been carried out and one finds the results extremely informative. The scholarly works in this area that have been consulted in the writing of this paper are recorded in the endnotes. Notable among them are:

1.'Jews and Christians in Antioch in the First Four Centuries of the Common Era' by W.A. Meeks and R.L. Wilken and published by Scholars Press, Montana in 1978.

2.'The Social Patterns of Christian Groups in the first Century' by E.A Judge and published by Tyndale, London in 1960.

3.'The social setting of Pauline Christianity' by G. Theissen and published by T&T Cark, Edinburg , 1982.

4.'The Church with the Human face' by E. Schillebeck and published by S.C.M., London 1985. and

5.'Social Aspects of Early Christianity' by A. Marlherbe and published by Fortress Press, Philadelphia in 1983.

Aspects in the social world of these early Christians that have been generally highlighted to have had a bearing on their self awareness and organization include (i) the voluntary religious clubs or associations which were popular in the Roman world, (ii) its philosophical schools (iii) the Sanhedrin and (iv)the newly formed synagogues sprouting throughout the Greco-Roman world. In addition to this general socio-cultural environment, scholars highlight,9 first century Judaism, especially its household setting, to have been the dominant social setting for these early Jewish communities. It is consistent with the evidence in the New Testament to regard this background as the particular context within which to study the process of institutionalization in the early church communities.

Influence of the Jewish household setting

Scholars, some of whom have been highlighted above, have also generally noted that Jesus himself, the founder and archetypal model for leadership function and ministry, was a Jew. His disciples were Jews and the first Christians were Jews. Even apostle Paul, the great apostle to the Gentiles, was himself a convert from the most fundamentalist movement within Judaism, the Pharisees. Reports found in the Acts of the Apostles and the Pauline letters on the developments in these early church communities suggest that the household setting, more than any other cultural or social influence determined the patterns of social interaction and association that evolved among them. Christians are reported both in Acts of the Apostles (Acts 2:46; 5:24; 10:2; 11:14; 12:12-17) and in the Pauline letters (Rom 16:5, 10, 11, 23; 1Cor 1:16; 16: 15-16; Col 4:15; Phil 2) to have assembled in homes. It is most likely these homes were owned by new converts who would have had some significant social standing in their communities. Such people would have owned houses that could provide rooms large enough for the believers to assemble.

The reports listed above suggest that the head of the household most likely continued to exercise some kind of authority over the church assembly. The scenario appears to be that of these early Christian groups assembling as part of extended families in households whose heads played some leadership role with authority.

No need for rigid conflict theory

This evidence of some leadership role with authority exercised by the head of the household flies in the face of J.D. Dunn's view on this matter. He insists that the church communities in the Pauline era and epistles were completely unstructured, radically egalitarian communities which were based solely on free association and where office bearers of any sort were unknown. Egalitarian here refers to the equality of all members based on faith in Christ and possession of the Holy Spirit by all (1Cor 12:13), resulting in inclusion into the body of Christ. This he insists was so because the Holy Spirit was the only guiding principle. He says,

If leadership is required, Paul assumed that the charismatic spirit would provide it...10

This view is sponsored by using a conflict framework for analysis that insists on clearly distinguishing the charismatic from the institutional elements and understanding charisma exclusively in terms of ecstatic momentary manifestations such as speaking in tongues or uttering ecstatic prophecies. Contrary to this view, Paul in his letters highlights both the ecstatic momentary manifestations of the spirit (1Cor 12: 14-16) and the more organized ministries characterized by high levels of permanence (1Cor 12:28; Rom 12:7). These permanent and predictable ministries are said to have been supplied by the Holy Spirit too. Paul describes both categories as 'grace-gifts' (charismata). More significant on this matter though, is the fact that Paul's letters to the Ephesians and to Timothy, which present a significantly highly structured ministry pattern, do also highlight the Spirit's gifting for ministry (Eph 4:4-12; 2Tim1:6-7) and thus casting doubt on the credence of any rigid conflict theory that posits movement from unstructured 'charismatic' forms to structured institutionalized ones. As a matter of interest it is evident that when the Corinthians inquire from Paul about how spiritual gifts for ministry function, they use an elitist term ' spirituals' (ta pneumatikos) which implies the existence of a few spiritually enlightened people and those not so enlightened within the church11.

When Paul responds to their request in 1Cor 12 he appears to highlight the egalitarian nature of the church communities (1Cor 12:13) and the charismatic nature of ministry functions as momentary manifestations or permanent roles (1Cor 12:4-9; 14:1-12). In the words of N.H. Ridderbos,

charisma is everything that the Spirit wishes to use and presses into service for equipping and up building the church... what can serve for instruction and admonishing and for ministering to one another...12

Authority contours and impulses dominant in the New Testament

Having highlighted these issues of diversity and development as well as that of the house church (as the earliest expression of church) it will be necessary that we now move on to investigate in more detail the relevant New Testament evidence in the Acts of the Apostles, in the Pauline and Pastoral Letters. It is the majority view of New Testament scholars that these sources are 'primary' and key to any attempt at understanding the early church communities of the New testament. This is the most appropriate place to begin in preparation to highlight authority contours and impulses that are dominant in the New Testament.

This is only the beginning part of the article. PLEASE CLICK HERE TO READ THE ARTICLE IN PRINTER-FRIENDLY VERSION.

Evaluation of English-Manipuri Bilingual Dictionaries | Internet Projects of Language Learning - A Student-Centered Approach | Skype Voice Chat - A Tool for Teaching Oral Communication | Noun Classification System in Mizo | How Authority and Leadership Evolve - A Study of Leadership Functions and Authority in the New Testament Community | Trends and Spatial Patterns of Crime in India - A Case Study of a District in India | Problems of Visually Challenged With Special Reference to School Children in Coimbatore District, Tamilnadu | Tenor in Electronic Media Political Discourse in BBC News - A Functional Analysis of English-Arabic Translation | Materials Development in English as a Second language in India - A Survey of Issues and Some Developments at the National Level | An Eyewitness Account of the Third Indian National Congress in 1887 at Madras - Excerpts from Dr. Henry Lunn's Book A Friend of Missions in India | HOME PAGE of December 2008 Issue | HOME PAGE | CONTACT EDITOR

Noah Pashapa, Ph.D.
Bethany International University

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