DO ELDERS HAVE THE POWER TO RULE?
By Eric Snow
Much like Norman Edwards in his essay, "How Does the Eternal Governs Through Humans?," Garry Pifer argues in his article, "Who Are the Elders Who Rule Well?," that Christian elders have no authority or power from God to order laymembers to do anything concerning their spiritual lives. They both refer to the Greek meaning of words translated into English to buttress their viewpoints. But have they properly interpreted the Greek words translated as "rule," "obey," "submit," etc.? The Thayer's and Bauer-Arndt-Gingrich Greek-English lexicons show that limits exist to how seemingly ambiguous Greek words can be translated into English. Below, it shall be shown the ordained ministry may exercise spiritual authority over the flock, but not for their own selfish benefit, but for the good of those they care for.
ALTRUISTIC PATERNALISM OR EGALITARIAN DEMOCRACY?
What political model did Christ uphold in Mark 10:42-45?: "'You know that those who are recognized as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them; and their great men exercise authority over them. But it is not so among you, but whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant; and whoever wishes to be first among you shall be slave of all. 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" (NASB throughout, unless otherwise stated). The interpretation Pifer upholds implicitly assumes that whenever someone has authority to command another person to obey, the relationship is necessarily abusive. Therefore, hierarchy in human relationships by definition is an unacceptable state of affairs in church organizations. But in reality, the political model Christ upholds is altruistic paternalism, not egalitarian democracy. Although the ruling class is to be self-sacrificing towards the ruled, and rule for the latter's benefit, which wasn't the case among the gentiles as Christ mentioned, the rulers are still to have authority over them, and the power to command them to obey, as other texts reveal (such as Romans 13:1-7). Since today in the Western world we're saturated with notions of egalitarian democracy and individual rights, it's easy to mistakenly read these notions into Scripture. Notice that although Mark has Jesus as the supreme Servant, other Scriptures show He can compel obedience from Christians. How can Jesus be the "Lord" (or the Boss) of anyone if they can still do whatever they please? Would anyone claim that the "King of kings and Lord of Lords" (Rev. 19:16) can't compel obedience when it was necessary? It's incorrect to say that if someone is a spiritual servant of others that then they have no authority over them. Similarly, although a Christian husband should serve his wife, that reality doesn't cancel out his authority over her (Eph. 5:22-25).
WHAT DOES THE GREEK OF HEBREWS 13:17 REALLY MEAN?
Both Edwards and Pifer maintain that because of mistranslations the KJV contains verses that give the ministry of Christ the authority to order laymembers to do things concerning their spiritual affairs. A linchpin verse supporting hierarchy within church organizations is Hebrews 13:17: "Obey (peithesthe) your leaders (hegoumenois), and submit (hupeiko) to them; for they keep watch over your souls . . ." Both Edwards and Pifer maintain the word peitho means really means just "persuade," and the word hegeomai (translated "rule over" in the KJV) merely means to be the leader while referring to other possible meanings such as "think," "esteem," "count," or "manage." Edwards himself maintains that hupeiko doesn't mean "absolute submission" but only "peaceful cooperation." Hence, their analysis amounts to "Hebrews 13:17 proves nothing because all the Greek words can be translated other ways or interpreted to mean other things."
IS CAFETERIA-STYLE INTERPRETATION VALID?
Confronting this interpretation raises a major problem of exegesis, especially for the great majority of us who can't read Greek or other Biblical languages: When given a choice of different meanings for various Greek words in a Bible "help," can we choose whatever ones fit our fancy at the moment to prove whatever doctrine we've set out to prove? Is translating/interpreting the Bible something like a cafeteria, where whatever meanings the Greek (etc.) words in question that we find listed in a lexicon or word dictionary (such as Vine's) we don't like we can accept or reject as convenience indicates? For example, if a given Greek word has five different possible meanings, but one of them we dislike in certain scriptures, can we dogmatically say it can't ever have that one meaning in this or that text? Of course, here we may have to admit the raw ambiguity of Bible on certain questions when a multiplicity of meanings are possible in this or that context for a given Greek word. Hence, A priori (before the facts), both the pro-hierarchy and pro-egalitarian sides could be correct in how (say) Hebrews 13:17 should be interpreted. The mere fact a given Greek word more commonly may mean something else doesn't prove it can't ever mean a less common meaning in a text where our preconceived theological ideas indicate it shouldn't be.
HOW THE AMBIGUITY OF TRANSLATIONS CAN BE REDUCED
Despite this pitfall, the ambiguity in possible translations from the Greek into English can be reduced. The most basic way is to go systematically through the scriptures, using the Bible to interpret itself, while attempting to come up with an explanation for all the texts in question without creating any contradictions between them. Furthermore, limits do exist on the possible translations in a given scripture based upon the syntactical/ grammatical structure or the immediate context where the word appears. For example, the context of Acts 14:23's use of cheirotonesantes indicates a whole congregation couldn't have voted ("raised their hands") to choose the elders who were ordained, since only two men--the apostles Paul and Barnabas--did the choosing. We often can't just "take it or leave it" as we do in a buffet-style restaurant or cafeteria!
Returning to Hebrews 13:17, the syntactical/grammatical structure's constraints restrict how the word translated "obey," peithesthe, can be translated. According to Bauer-Arndt-Gingrich (B-A-G) (p. 639), the correct interpretation favors the hierarchical viewpoint:
3. pass[ive], except for the p[erfect].--a. be persuaded, be convinced, come to believe, believe abs[solute]. (Pr 26: 25) Luke 16: 31; Ac 17: 4; Hb 11: 13 . . . b. obey, follow w. dat[ive] of the pers[on] or thing . . . Ro 2: 8 . . . Gal 3: 1 t. r.; 5:7; Hb 13: 17; Js. 3:3; . . . c. Some passages stand betw. a and b and permit either transl[ation], w[ith] dat[ive] be persuaded by someone, take someone's advice or obey, follow someone Ac 5: 36f, 39; 23:21; 27:11 . . .
Note how the ambiguous "c" translation is specifically denied for Hebrews 13:17, which certainly points to something about the Greek's grammatical structure simply excluding the pro-egalitarian interpretation. Correspondingly, James 3:3 uses peithesthai as follows: "Now if we put the bits into the horses' mouths so that they may obey us, we direct their entire body as well." Notice other texts that use this word: Acts 5:36-37; Rom. 2:8; Gal. 5:7. For the texts in Acts, the NASB has "followed" in its main text, yet "were obeying" as the literal, marginal translation! The other texts cited under "b." above involve obeying the truth or something else similarly abstract. Hence, the grammatical structure in Hebrews 13:17 constrains the word translated "obey" into meaning just that, "obey," and not just merely "persuade."
THE WORD HEGEOMAI CONSIDERED
The next word worthy of examination is hegeomai, which is translated "rule over" in the KJV, and "leaders" in the NASB. According to the B-A-G (p. 343), "hegeomai" means:
1. lead, guide; in our lit[erature] only pres[ent] p[articiple] . . . of men in any leading position . . . ruler, leader (opp[osite] . . . the servant) Lk 22: 26. Of princely authority . . . Of high officials . . . Of military commanders . . . Also of leaders of religious bodies . . . of heads of a Christian church Hb 13: 7, 17, 24 . . ."
Similarly, Thayer's (p. 276) places hegeomai in Hebrews 13:17 under the "rule" meaning instead of the "consider, think" meaning:
1. to lead, i.e. a. to go before; b. to be a leader; to rule, command; to have authority over: in the N. T. so only in the pres[ent] [participle] . . . a prince, of regal power . . . a (royal) governor, viceroy, . . . chief, Lk. xxii. 26 (opp. to [o diakonon]); leading as respects influence, controlling in counsel, . . . among any, Acts xv. 22; with gen[der] of the pers[on] over whom one rules, so of the overseers or leaders of Christians churches: Heb. xiii. 7, 17, 24 . . ."
Although Thayer's favors the egalitarian viewpoint a bit more, both lexicons still avoid putting hegeomai as it appears in Heb. 13:17 under the "consider, think" meaning. This choice shows that grammatical/syntactical reasons exist for the translations that appear in the KJV ("that have the rule over") or the NASB ("leaders"). Using the Liddell & Scott Greek-English lexicon's entry on this word, John Wheeler observes that
the significance of the verb, used as such, depends on what [grammatical] case is used in context: "to the" or "of the". Moreover, the absolute form of the verb has to do with being first, or being a leader, guide or chief (irrespective of case). Whereas ho hegoumenos (the verb used as a noun, as in Hebrews 13:7, 17, 24 and Matthew 2:6) is always a "leader, ruler, chief", also as irrespective of case (since the verb form is definite and absolute). It refers to someone able to command or rule, not merely to "guide" as Vine's Expository Dictionary would have us believe (by suppressing evidence it takes into account with other words).
True, this word is more often translated in the KJV as "count," "esteem," or "think" than as "rule." However, that caveat doesn't prove it has that meaning in Heb. 13:17 because the "idiom-in-context" makes it "invalid and erroneous to try to fit this meaning into contexts where it doesn't fit" (personal letter, John Wheeler, July 12, 1998, pp. 2-3).
WHAT ABOUT HUPEIKO?
Although Pifer doesn't deal with it, the word translated "submit" in Hebrews 13:17 is hupeiko. It only appears once in the New Testament--just here!--making comparative use within Scripture impossible. The B-A-G (p. 838) says about "hupeiko": "yield, fig. give way, submit to someone's authority . . . w[ith] dat[ive] of the pers[on] to whom one submits . . . Hb 13: 17." Thayer's (p. 638) is slightly more favorable to Edwards' cause: "fr[om] Hom[er] down; to resist no longer, but to give way, yield, (prop[erly] of combatants); metaph[orically] to yield to authority and admonition, to submit: Heb. xiii. 17." Both lexicons concur in saying some are being told to obey others over them in spiritual authority. John Wheeler notes that the primary (and Classical Greek) meaning in the Liddell and Scott as "to retire, withdraw." Even assuming one could read this meaning into the New Testament, it doesn't allow for one to resist ministerial authority in the church.
HEBREWS 13:7 AND 24 EXAMINED
Although posing a weaker threat to the egalitarian viewpoint than v. 13 does, Hebrews 13:7 still presents a problem: "Remember those who led you ('them which have the rule over you'--KJV, hegoumenon). The same word appears again in v. 24: "Greet all of your leaders ('them that have the rule over you'--KJV, hegoumenous) and all the saints." Note that this word draws a clear distinction between the laity and its leadership. Again, the text discusses those considered to be in charge of the flock who, in the Kingdom Interlinear Translation, are "governing" those in their charge. Fundamentally, Hebrews 13:17 (KJV) has three words egalitarians such as Pifer and Edwards would object to as the function of an elder over laymembers--"obey," "rule," and "submit." It strains credulity to claim all three of these rather redundant words in a single verse mean nothing substantive about authority of ministers over the flocks in their care.
DO ELDERS "RULE" OVER THE LAITY?
Consider the texts where the word proistemi appears about elders and their role of authority in the congregations of God. "Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who work hard at preaching and teaching" (I Tim. 5:17). "But we request of you, brethren, that you appreciate those who diligently labor among you, and have charge over you in the Lord and give you instruction" (I Thess. 5:12). "He [an overseer] must be one who manages ('ruleth,' KJV) his own household well, keeping his children under control with all dignity (but if a man does not know how to manage ('rule,' KJV) his own household, how will he take care of the church of God?)" (I Tim. 3:4-5). The word proistemi has two basic meanings, as the B-A-G (p. 707) informs us: "1. be at the head (of), rule, direct . . . 2. be concerned about, care for, give aid . . ." So now--which one applies to I Tim. 5:17? Do we get a choice? May ambiguity reign? May we have what we want? The B-A-G denies us a free choice for syntactical/grammatical reasons:
1. be at the head (of), rule, direct w[ith] gen[der] of the per[son] or the thing . . . manage, conduct . . . I Tim. 3: 4f. . . . vs. 12. Of officials and administrators in the church . . . So perh[aps] (s. 2 below) . . . [for] I Th. 5: 12 and the abs[olute] . . . Ro 12: 8 (s. 2). [but, NOTE!>] Certainly . . . I Ti 5:17
Thayer's (p. 539) confirms this:
1. in the tran[sitive] tenses to set or place before; to set over. 2. in the [perfect pluperfect] and 2 [aorist active] and in the pre[sent] and imp[erfect] mid. a. to be over, to superintend, preside over, [A.V. rule] . . . I Tim. v. 17; with a gen[der] of the pers[on] or thing over which one presides, I Th. v. 12; I Tim. iii. 4 sq. 12.
Importantly, although I Th. 5:12 or Rom. 12:8 may be ambiguous, this uncertainty is DENIED for I Timothy 5:17. This difference in translation is well reflected in the NASB (quoted above), which uses the stronger translation "rule" for I Tim. 5:17, but other words for Rom. 12:8 and I Thess. 5:12. If indeed overseers are to "rule" over us--for our good, as servants to us, not abusing their authority--the egalitarians' case takes a major blow.
THE ROD OF IRON
Pifer labors hard to attenuate the main thrust of the term "rod of iron" as used in the following texts: "And he who overcomes, and he who keeps my deeds until the end, to him I will give authority over the nations; and he shall rule them with a rod of iron, as the vessels of the potter are broken to pieces, as I also have received authority from My Father" (Rev. 2:26-27). "And she gave birth to a son, a male child, who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron" (Rev. 12:5). "And from His mouth comes a sharp sword, so that with it He may smite the nations; and He will rule them with a rod of iron; and He treads the wine press of the fierce wrath of God, the Almighty" (Rev. 19:15). Although putting much effort into inserting a "weak" definition of the word "poimaino" into these texts, he does this mistakenly thinking "shepherding" is necessarily opposed to "ruling." Consider literally how a shepherd controls sheep, which are (with today's breeds) almost helpless without him: He will use physical force (hence, the staff/crosier) to put them where they should go, yet he will live with them continuously (not hardly taking a vacation) and stay up all night helping ewes give birth in lambing season. The sheep are under the authority of the shepherd, and can't just go off and do their own thing, since that makes them vulnerable to predators such as wolves. Notice that the good shepherd has the ability and power to compel the obedience of the sheep, yet he is self-sacrificing (cf. John 10:11-14). When examining the immediate context in which the term "rod of iron" is used, how can the one-sided portrait of Christ, "meek and mild," be possibly reconciled with it? The massive war Christ wages when he returns isn't going to lead to a system of government where Christ doesn't have the power to compel obedience when necessary. Notice that if the nations don't go up to the Feast of Tabernacles in the millennium, they will be punished by receiving no rain, and in Egypt's case, plagues as well (Zech. 14:16-19). Similarly, "when the Lord Jesus shall be revealed from heaven with His mighty angels in flaming fire, dealing out retribution to those who do not know God and to those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus" (II Thess. 1:7-8). There are undeniably violent metaphors in the context where the "rod of iron" is mentioned, since Rev. 2:27 notes "the vessels of the potter are broken to pieces," and Rev. 19:15 describes "a sharp sword, so that with it He may smite the nations" and "He treads the wine press of the fierce wrath of God, Almighty." In Rev. 2:26-27, the authority in the world tomorrow those Christian who overcome receive is compared to the authority Christ receives from the Father, which surely includes the power to compel obedience. Although, of course, Christ will rule in everyone's best interests, that doesn't exclude the judicious use of force against those resisting his good and righteous rule, just as parents inflict punishment on disobedient children when it is in the latter's best interests (Heb. 12:5-7; Prov. 13:24). Again, the political model Scripture upholds is paternalism, not egalitarianism.
AVOID READING THE WORLD'S PRESENT-DAY POLITICAL PHILOSOPHIES INTO THE BIBLE
Basically, the egalitarian/congregationalism approach to church government lacks support from the New Testament because it has very little to say about democracy, republicanism, voting, or individual rights, but lots to say about obedience, hierarchy, submission, and ruling. We must avoid reading the modern Western world's culture, especially that of us Americans, heirs of the revolution of 1776, into the New Testament. Although my own brand of human politics borders on libertarianism, I freely admit that the New Testament contains little to support it. For example, the New Testament says we should obey the state: "Remind them to be subject to rulers, to authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good deed" (Titus 3:1). "Submit yourselves for the Lord's sake to every human institution, whether to a king as the one in authority, or to governors as sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and the praise of those who do right" (I Pet 2:13-15). Rom. 13:1-3: "Let every person be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God. Therefore he who resists authority has opposed the ordinance of God; and they who have opposed will receive condemnation upon themselves. For rulers are not a cause of fear for good behavior, but for evil. Do you want to have no fear of authority? Do what is good, and you will have praise from the same." Clearly, Paul would have denied the American/French/English revolutionaries' "right to revolt"! The only explicit exception to this principle need to obey the state appears in Acts 5:29; 4:19, which concerns any law that makes us disobey God, such as worshipping a false god (Dan. 3:14-19).
SLAVES, WIVES, CHILDREN ORDERED TO OBEY HUMAN AUTHORITIES OVER THEM
Slaves are ordered to obey their masters, not given permission to revolt against them: "Slaves, in all things obey those who are your masters on earth, not with external service, as those who merely please men, but with sincerity of heart, fearing the Lord. Whatever you do, do you work heartily, as for the Lord rather than for men" (Col. 3:22-23). "Slaves, be obedient to those who are your masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in the sincerity of your heart, as to Christ; not by way of eyeservice, as men-pleasers, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart" (Eph. 6:5-6). "Servants, be submissive to your masters with all respect, not only to those who are good and gentle, but also to those who are unreasonable. For this finds favor, if for the sake of conscience toward God a man bears up under sorrows when suffering unjustly" (I Pet 2:18-19). Paul tells children to obey their parents, a notion often especially unpopular with the 'Sixties crowd: "Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right" (Eph. 6:1). "Children, be obedient to your parents in all things, for this is well-pleasing to the Lord" (Col. 3:20).
Feminists today especially dislike the texts commanding wives to obey their husbands: "Wives, be subject to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord" (Col. 3:18). "In the same way, you wives, be submissive to your own husbands so that even if any of them are disobedient to the word, they may be won without a word by the behavior of their wives. . . . For in this way in former times the holy women also, who hoped in God, used to adorn themselves, being submissive to their own husbands. Thus Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him lord, and you have become her children if you do what is right without being frightened by fear" (I Pet. 3:1, 5-6). Paul makes an analogy between a wife obeying her husband and the church obeying Christ (Eph. 5:24): "But as the church is subject to Christ, so also the wives ought to be to their husbands in everything." The text (v. 21) where believers are to submit to one another is connected grammatically to the Scripture where (again) wives are told to obey their husbands (v. 22): "Wives, be subject to your own husbands, as to the Lord." Does v. 21 cancel out the husband's authority over the wife in v. 22? Obviously not--in context it means a husband should go out of his way to consider his wife's feelings and desires, and avoid ruling like an arbitrary tyrant. Nevertheless, the final decision-making authority lies with the husband on family matters (admittedly, an unpopular notion these days!)
HIERARCHY WITHIN THE GODHEAD
Even Christ has to obey God the Father: "For He has put all things in subjection under His feet. But when He says, 'All things are put in subjection,' it is evident that He is excepted who put all things in subjection to Him. And when all things are subjected to Him, then the Son Himself also will be subjected to the One who subjected all things to Him, that God be all in all" (I Cor. 15:27-28). Consider this hierarchical structure in Scripture: "But I want you to understand that Christ is the head of every man, and the man is the head of a woman, and God is the head of Christ" (I Cor. 11:3). What was one reason for Jesus becoming flesh?: "Although He was a Son, He learned obedience from the things which He suffered" (Heb. 5:8). Would this not imply we are to learn a similar lesson, since we are to follow in His footsteps? What are Christians destined to do in the world tomorrow?: "And Thou has made them to be a kingdom and priests to our God; and they will reign upon the earth" (Rev. 5:10). Of course, all humans are supposed to obey God: "And we are witnesses of these things; and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey Him" (Acts 5:32). (However, need any texts be cited about this?)
THE NEW TESTAMENT'S SPIRIT OF HIERARCHY
Since the spirit of hierarchy, ruling, obedience, and submission saturates the New Testament, it's totally unpersuasive to manipulate a few texts to establish democracy, a right to revolt, and individual rights in relationships between the laity and the ministry within the church. How can Scripture possibly reveal that there is hierarchy and paternalism for every other major structural human relationship in society except for church governance? Our protection against unjust rulers (kings, presidents, husbands, ministers, parents, bosses, etc.) is to remind them of God's commands to them to be humble and loving towards the ruled (Matt. 20:24-28; John 13:12:17; Eph. 5:28-29; 6:4, 9; I Pet. 3:7; Col. 3:21). I take little pleasure in drawing this conclusion: I stir uneasily, thinking that, when John Locke in the First Treatise of Government counterattacked Robert Filmer's Patriarchia, or the Natural Power of Kings, the weight of Scripture is (ahem) on the latter's side. The same goes for Thomas Hobbes, who in Leviathan propped up his brand of totalitarianism by citing texts in support that he surely didn't believe were literally inspired by God. Just as Israel's demand for a human king was based on the surrounding nations having one already (I Sam. 8:4-7, 19-20), we today in the church often demand egalitarian and democratic structures and procedures for church government that have no support in Scripture because democracy and egalitarianism are the (ahem) ruling political philosophies in our societies today. The mere fact all humans who are saved are equal in the sight of God spiritually (Gal. 3:28; Rom. 3:22; I Cor. 12:13; Col. 3:11) doesn't preclude inequality and hierarchy in the human relationships we have on earth today. Clearly, it's time to stop reading the world's reigning political philosophies into the New Testament to support what our human reason thinks is just or because of bad emotional and personal experiences we had in the Worldwide Church of God. The notion that hierarchy necessarily leads to abuse ignores that the Bible's political model is a loving, self-sacrificing paternalism that gives the superior the ability to command the subordinate for the latter's own good, a model many in the Church of God have evidently forgotten because of contemporary America's nearly overpowering political climate of egalitarian democracy.