Frank Viola author of Reimagining Church (David C. Cook, 2008) has answered questions about New Testament leadership. This is a short excerpt from Viola’s Appendix in the book.
For centuries, certain texts in the New Testament have been mishandled to support hierarchical/positional leadership structures in the church. This mishandling has caused no small damage to the body of Christ. The notion of hierarchical/positional authority is partly the result of mistranslations and misinterpretations of certain biblical passages. These mistranslations and misinterpretations have been influenced by cultural biases that have cluttered the original meaning of the biblical language. Such biases have transformed simple words into heavily loaded ecclesiastical titles. As a result, they have eroded the original landscape of the church.
Thus a fresh reading of the New Testament in its original language is necessary for properly understanding certain texts. For instance, a look at the original Greek yields the following insights:
• Bishops are simply guardians (episkopoi), not high-church officials.
• Pastors are caretakers (poimen), not professional pulpiteers.
• Ministers are busboys (diakonos), not clergymen.
• Elders are wise old men (presbuteros), not ecclesiastical officers.
Thankfully, a growing number of New Testament scholars are pointing out that the “leadership” terminology of the New Testament possesses descriptive accents denoting special functions rather than formal positions.
What follows is a list of common objections to the idea that church leadership is nonofficial, nontitular, and nonhierarchical. Each objection is followed by a response.
Objections from Acts and Paul’s Epistles
1. Don’t Acts 1:20; Romans 11:13; 12:4; and 1 Timothy 3:1, 10, 12 speak of church officials?
The word office in these passages is a mistranslation. It has no equivalent in the original Greek. Nowhere in the Greek New Testament do we find the equivalent of office used in connection with any ministry, function, or leader in the church. The Greek word for office is only used to refer to the Lord Jesus Christ in His high priestly office (Heb. 5—7). It’s also used to refer to the Levitical priesthood (Luke 1:8).
The King James Version mistranslates Romans 11:13b to be “I magnify mine office.” But the Greek word translated “office” means service, not office. So a better translation of Romans 11:13b is “I magnify my service [diakonia].”
Similarly, Romans 12:4b is better translated “All the members do not have the same function [praxis].” The Greek word praxis means a doing, a practice, or a function rather than an office or position. The NIV and the NASB reflect this better translation.
Finally, 1 Timothy 3:1 says the following in the KJV: “If a man desire the office of a bishop …” But a more accurate translation puts it this way: “If anyone aspires to oversight …”1
2. 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, and Titus are called the Pastoral Epistles. So that
means that Timothy and Titus were pastors, right?
No, it does not. Paul’s letters to Timothy and Titus were first dubbed the “Pastoral Epistles” as recently as the eighteenth century.2 But this is a misguided label.
Timothy and Titus were not local pastors. They were apostolic coworkers who were mostly on the move. They only occasionally spent a long period of time in a single place. (For instance, Paul sent Titus to Crete and Timothy to Ephesus to strengthen the churches there and sort out local problems.)
Because Timothy and Titus were itinerant church planters, Paul never called them pastors or elders. These men were not resident ministers. They were part of Paul’s apostolic circle—a circle that was noted for its constant traveling (Rom. 16:21; 1 Cor. 16:10; 2 Cor. 8:23; 1 Thess. 1:1; 2:6; 3:2; 2 Tim. 2:15; 4:10). Therefore, calling these three letters the “Pastoral Epistles” reflects a modern bias, not an objective processing of the truth.
3. Don’t Paul’s lists of qualifications in the Pastoral Epistles, namely 1 Timothy 3:1–7 and Titus 1:7–9, prove that elders are church officers?
All that’s written in 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, and Titus must be understood from the standpoint that Paul was writing to his apostolic coworkers, not to churches. This explains some of the differences between these epistles and the rest of Paul’s letters. In Timothy and Titus, for example, the body metaphor is absent. The “brethren” are only occasionally mentioned. And there is little emphasis on mutual ministry.
By the same token, we don’t find anything resembling nascent Catholicism in these epistles. The Spirit of God as well as His gifts are mentioned. And leaders are understood to gain recognition by their example rather than by any held position.
What we have in these texts, then, are the essential qualities of a true overseer, not a list of qualifications for an office that can be ticked off with a pencil.
The summation of these qualities is: spiritual character and faithfulness—godliness and responsibility. Paul’s lists, therefore, merely served as guides to Timothy and Titus in helping them identify and affirm overseers in the churches with which they worked (1 Tim. 5:22; Titus 1:5).
In addition, the flavor of these texts in the Greek is one of function rather than officialdom. Paul himself doesn’t call an overseer an officebearer, but a “noble task” (1 Tim. 3:1b). Moreover, functional language is employed when Paul commends honor to those elders who “guide well” and who “labor” in teaching (1 Tim. 5:17 nkjv).
Consequently, to conflate the overseers in these texts with modern ecclesiastical officials—like the modern pastor—is pure fantasy. It’s a function of our tendency to bring our organizational conventions to the New Testament and read them back into it. It’s the result of a learned cultural framework that we bring to the text and nothing more. In short, the language of function rather than office dominates the “Pastoral Epistles” just as it does Paul’s other letters.3
4. First Corinthians 12:28 says, “And in the church God has appointed first of all apostles, second prophets, third teachers.…” Doesn’t this text envision a hierarchy of church officials?
Again, this question is indicative of our penchant for reading Scripture with the tainted spectacles of human hierarchy. It’s a peculiarly Western foible to insist that every relationship be conceived in terms of a one-up/one-down hierarchical mode. Thus whenever we see an ordered list in the New Testament (like 1 Corinthians 12:28), we can’t seem to keep ourselves from connecting the dots of hierarchy.
While we twenty-first-century Westerners like to think in terms of organizational flow charts, the Bible never does. So it’s an unwarranted assumption to think that every ordered list in Scripture is some sort of a veiled command hierarchy. Simply put, to see hierarchy in Paul’s catalog of gifts in 1 Corinthians 12:28 represents a culturally biased misreading of Paul. The question of authority structures is not being asked anywhere in this text. Therefore, we do not exegete hierarchy from it; we impose it upon it.
A more natural reading of this passage understands the ordering to reflect a logical priority rather than a hierarchical one. In other words, the order reflects greater gifting with respect to church building. This interpretation meshes nicely with the immediate context in which it appears (1 Cor. 12, 13, 14). To unfold that, Paul is saying that within the scope of church building, the apostle’s ministry is the most fundamental. That’s because apostles give birth to the church and sustain it during its prenatal development.
Apostles break the ground and plant the seed of the ekklesia. Since apostles lay the foundation of the church, they’re also ranked first (chronologically) in the work of church building (Rom. 15:19–20; 1 Cor. 3:10; Eph. 2:20). Significantly, while apostles are placed first in the church-building scheme, they rank last in the eyes of the world (Matt. 20:16; 1 Cor. 4:9).
Prophets appear second in Paul’s list. This indicates that they immediately follow the apostles in their value to church building. Much confusion (and abuse) surrounds the function of the prophet today. Briefly, prophets supply the church with spiritual vision and encouragement through prophetic utterances. Like apostles, prophets unfold the mystery of God’s purpose for the present and the future (Acts 15:32; Eph. 3:4–5). They also root out the weeds so the church can grow unhindered.
Teachers are mentioned third. They follow the prophets in their value to church building. Teachers put the church on solid biblical ground. They supply instruction concerning God’s ways. They also shepherd God’s people through hard times.
To continue the metaphor, teachers water the seed and fertilize the soil so the church can flourish and blossom. If we examine the ministry of the teacher with an eye for chronology, teachers build the superstructure of the church after the apostles have established the ground floor.
This interpretation of 1 Corinthians 12:28 follows the path of Paul’s thought far better than that of a hierarchical command structure where apostles “pull rank” on prophets, and prophets do the same with teachers.
It also brings to the fore an important spiritual principle: The absence of hierarchical authority doesn’t mean egalitarian gifting. While the New Testament affirms that all are gifted and all have ministry, it equally demonstrates that God disperses His gifts in a diverse way (1 Cor. 12:4–6). Every gift is valuable to the body of Christ. But some gifts are greater than others within their respected spheres (Matt. 25:14ff.;1 Cor. 12:22–24, 31; 14:5).
This doesn’t mean that those with greater gifts are greater in authority (or intrinsic worth) in some formal sense. But God has called each of us to a different work. And some have greater gifts for different tasks (Matt. 25:14ff.; Rom. 12:6; Eph. 4:7).
Within the sphere of our gifts, each member is indispensable to the general upbuilding of the church—even those members whose gifts are not outwardly impressive (1 Cor. 12:22–25). Therefore, every Christian in the Lord’s house is responsible for using and increasing his or her gifts.
And we are all warned against hiding them in the napkin of fear (Matt. 25:25).
In short, the idea that 1 Corinthians 12:28 denotes some sort of church hierarchy lacks argumentative force. The text has in mind greater gifting with a subtext of the chronological order of church building (some plant, then some water, etc.—1 Cor. 3:6). It doesn’t indicate a pecking order of an ecclesiastical hierarchy or an authoritative ladder for Christians to climb.