The Gospels and the Telephone Game

For hundreds of years, we’ve had Bibles in our hands. For Protestants, 66 books bound together including 27 books in the New Testament and 4 Gospels that communicate the story and teachings of Jesus.

Biblical scholars of various backgrounds attempt to estimate the dates at which each of our 4 Gospels might have been written, and their conclusions vary somewhat, but even the most conservative scholars place some of the Gospels decades after Jesus.

Yet when we open the pages of the rest of the New Testament, from Acts to the Letters to the Revelation, it becomes apparent that while the life, death, resurrection and ascension are taught as well as several of Jesus’ teachings, none of our 4 Gospels are ever specifically referenced by name as whole documents.

This leaves us with a period of time sustained by a primary form of communication that makes many of us today uncomfortable: oral tradition.

It’s highly possible and even quite likely that there were earlier forms of written material, but we’re left with more questions than answers as to exactly what that would have consisted of. By the time Luke writes, he notes that others have ‘undertaken to draw up an account,’ without commenting on the adequacy of such accounts. He could be referring in part to Mark or Matthew or less complete accounts. We would like to know more.

In any case, we have to think more deeply about the first generation of Christians not having gospels in their churches much less on their nightstands. That wasn’t the plan.

The teaching about Jesus was primarily passed on verbally.

Which makes us think of…

The telephone game.

Yes, that game that is fun to play with kids and in youth groups. Everyone who has played it knows how consistently it works. The leader whispers something to the first person and that person whispers it to the next person. This continues around the circle until the last person says the message aloud. And the message at the end is almost always significantly different than the way the message began.

Was the early Christian movement 40+ years of the telephone game?

Both those who are skeptical of the Christian faith as well as believers who want to dig in deeper can legitimately ask this question.

Although much can be said about the differences between written and oral cultures, low rates of literacy and the time and cost to reproduce documents as well as the fact that memorization as far more possible than we tend to think it is, this post will suggest two reasons why they were not playing something like the telephone game in the first decades of the Christian movement before the Gospels we have today began to circulate.

The first is the importance of the message. When we play the game, the message passed along is typically something inconsequential. But imagine a group of adults are seated in a circle to play and they are informed that the message going around is the combination to a safe. If the last person gets it right they will share the million dollars locked in it. I suspect the the chance of the message being transmitted precisely goes way up!

Even if you approach this discussion with a significant degree of skepticism about who Jesus is, it doesn’t seem hard to accept that Jesus’ disciples who spent 3 years with him would have had a solid understanding of whose message they were sharing. Students of other Rabbi’s would memorize and pass on teaching reliably. How much more with the belief that this Rabbi was also the long awaited Messianic King! This was important information.

A major difference between the early believers and the telephone game is that the message was frequently shared out loud (not whispered) and in community gatherings. As today, even if I shared something partially incorrect with a neighbor or coworker, once they were a part of a bigger group and repeated that idea, others would quickly correct them.

Imagine that I wanted to share the good news about how fun the game of golf is with someone who had never heard of it. They are interested in getting outside, learning about the different clubs and techniques. I tell them that the goal to winning is the get the highest score, like most sports.

I told my friend a lot of good and true things about golf, but I also got something absolutely essential wrong about how golf is scored. That is no small mistake and is akin to how some skeptics might imagine the Christian message getting curropted over time.

Even if my friend told another person who had never heard about golf my wrong information, the first time they actually showed up at a golf course or spoke with anyone else who had even a basic knowledge of golf, they would immediately be corrected. “You have a lot of it right, but that thing about the scoring is totally wrong. Let me help you…”

We see this very type of correction happening on the pages of the New Testament.

“Meanwhile a Jew named Apollos, a native of Alexandria, came to Ephesus. He was a learned man, with a thorough knowledge of the Scriptures. He had been instructed in the way of the Lord, and he spoke with great fervor and taught about Jesus accurately, though he knew only the baptism of John. He began to speak boldly in the synagogue. When Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they invited him to their home and explained to him the way of God more adequately.” Acts 18:24-26

People’s understanding could be incomplete or it could be off base in some ways, but there were correctives built in. This included the understanding of the gathered community, teachers and elders in the local communities, as well as others more directly connected with the Twelve Apostles themselves.

“And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable people who will also be qualified to teach others.” 2 Timothy 2:2

Trusted people like Priscilla, Aquila, Timothy, Titus, Barnabas and Silas among many others could provide whatever correction was needed. If it was a really rough situation, one of them could stay in a place for awhile to get things back on track.

“As I urged you when I went into Macedonia, stay there in Ephesus so that you may command certain people not to teach false doctrines any longer.” 1 Timothy 1:3.

At the beginning of all the other reliable testimony about Jesus and his teaching are the eyewitnesses to his life and ministry, in particular the 12 Apostles.

When they were looking for a replacement for Judas, look at the qualification:

 “Therefore it is necessary to choose one of the men who have been with us the whole time the Lord Jesus was living among us, beginning from John’s baptism to the time when Jesus was taken up from us.” Acts 1:21-22

These disciples/apostles were eyewitnesses to all of Jesus life, teaching, signs, death and resurrection. If the truth of the message got off track, they would be the ones with the greatest ability to correct.

The conclusion that we are left with is that the telephone game comparison doesn’t work very well. The message is much more important and all along the way there are opportunities to correct any mishandling of the essential information. The apostles were, after all, the ones who not only heard but saw with their own eyes.

It’s probably no coincidence that the written Gospels began circulating as the eyewitnesses got older, and martyrdom was a real possibility.

Today we continue to keep each other accountable in community and with reliable teachers. Yet the core source of that information remains. In the first few decades it was the living eyewitnesses. Now it’s their testimony preserved for us and available everywhere.


Reading Through the Bible

I am reading straight through the Bible this year using this plan. This post is to share some resources that I find valuable along the journey.

You can click through to my youtube page below or follow me on facebook to follow my video reflections on the readings. I will be trying to do them most weekdays – usually in the afternoon around 2:30 although they can be viewed anytime.

If you are following this plan, you might be interested in the book that it comes along with. The book is mostly space to journal your response to what you are reading as well as a weekly reflection / devotion based on that week’s reading. The author, Trillia Newbell, is also doing a weekly podcast with Bible scholars and teachers. More info, including signing up for email updates that include monthly reading plan calendars, can be found here.

While certainly not required, I like getting either a new Bible for this that you feel comfortable writing in, a journaling Bible, or individual book Scripture journals that have space for writing etc. I mark mine up a lot.

I also love listening to the Bible and this is a great way to do your daily ‘reading’. I intend to listen and read much of it. If you use the free YouVersion Bible app, there is a ‘play’ button at the bottom of most translations that will play the audio. I prefer the paid dwell app– currently $28/year. It has a lot of features that make it well worth the cost for me.

Remember, we are reading through the whole Bible so we are primarily looking at the big picture in this project, not analyzing every detail. The aim is to get a solid idea of the big picture of what’s going on in each book of the Bible and across the storyline of redemptive history more broadly.

A great resource for understanding big picture books and themes is the Bible Project. I highly recommend their videos (and longer podcast). There is a phone app as well that will help grasp the big picture.

As you read, you will likely have questions. Don’t get too bogged down in every question but do make an note somehow so that you can come back and dig deeper in the future.

I will update this page with more resources and thoughts in the future…

One question you could be asking is, where do I bring my questions when I don’t understand what I am reading? An internet search could help but is also likely to give odd information. This year could be a great opportunity to start building a resource library.

I recommend every serious student of the Bible acquire these two volumes at some point as one easy to turn to resource for some background information.

The Gospel of the Kingdom

In my last post, I suggested a method of assessing our understanding of the gospel and the big picture of the biblical storyline. Our gospel should make sense of the most scripture. If lots of the teaching of Jesus and the Apostles, don’t fit, perhaps we need a bigger gospel.

In this post, I will attempt to propose what I believe to be an expression of the gospel that makes better sense of more of Scripture. In the next post I will run it through my own test. I’d also love for you to challenge me with some scriptures.

Here’s my challenge: I want to propose something as simple as possible without it being simplistic. We should strive to avoid overcomplicating as this makes it harder to understand, remember and communicate to others. Yet if we strive only for brevity, we run the risk of selling short what God is doing among us. So, to do this well may require more explanation than a simple – sinners in need of a savior size formula. I will get to a one sentence statement, offer a few key factors and tell the basic story behind them as briefly as I can, admittedly omitting a lot of material that adds significant texture and depth to the story.

Here is what Jesus preached out of the gate so to speak, according to Mark and Matthew:

Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. “The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!”

Mark 1:14-14

From that time on Jesus began to preach, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

Matthew 4:17

According to Jesus, the kingdom and it’s nearness is the good news (gospel) to which we are called to respond. We can call this the gospel of the kingdom.

In order to understand what this means, we need to back up to the beginning and note some key moments in what has come before.

All the way at the beginning of the story, we can see a people in a place living under the authority of God in his presence. When God made the heavens and the earth, he placed humans on the earth, in a particular place, to live in relationship with God and one another and to expand that special place from there across the whole planet. ‘Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth…’ (Genesis 1:28). Although the word kingdom is not used here, these are the constant dynamics of the kingdom of God – God’s people in God’s place under God’s reign in God’s presence.

From there things go seriously wrong. Because of human sin – not wanting to live under God’s reign, we forfeited the unmitigated fullness of God’s presence and we eventually return to the ground from which the Bible says we are made. Basically, we have failed at our vocation to be God’s representatives in the world with and under his reign.

Yet God has not given up. His kingdom will become a reality. Here are some major actions God takes and promises God makes.

To Abraham, he promises that his offspring will become a special people in a special place with a blessing that will ultimately extend widely!

I will make you into a great nation,

and I will bless you;

I will make your name great,

so that you will be a blessing.

I will bless those who bless you

and curse those who curse you;

and all the families of the earth

will be blessed through you

Genesis 12:2-3

God rescues the extended family of Abraham from slavery in Egypt (the exodus) and gives them a place to thrive and instruction to live under (Exodus 20:2-17 and following). God reintroduces his unique presence among them in the Tabernacle and later Temple. Although there are stipulations and limitations to entering the fullness of God’s presence, this people would live with God at the very center of their life together.

See the kingdom dynamics here – God’s people in God’s place under God’s reign with God’s presence.

Eventually the people ask for a human king. Although the big idea is that God himself is the true King, he graciously grants his people a human king with the aim to lead them to follow God’s ways faithfully. God even made a covenant promise to one particular king, David, that he would always have a descendant on the throne of the kingdom. (2 Samuel 7:11-16)

Yet the same problem from way back in the Garden arises – the people choose not to live in faithfulness to God and God’s way. They who are supposed to lead the way in faithfulness become themselves deeply unfaithful.

Because God’s people are not living under his reign, the intimacy of his presence is withdrawn (Ezekiel 10) and they are removed from their place. This is called the exile. Just like the first humans were exiled from the special place of Eden, so God’s people are again exiled from the promised land.

One the one hand we can simply say that the kingdom is God’s people in God’s place under God’s direction with the intimacy of God’s presence. On the other, we simply cannot understand much the specific language of the New Testament good news without the story I just recounted briefly.

The Prophets of the Old Testament set us in expectation in many ways. Since the exile, there is no Davidic king (Messiah) on the throne, only a partial return to their place which is under the control of a foreign kingdom and no specific mention of the return of God’s powerful presence in their midst. Although God’s people are now well aware that they must be diligent in their devotion, there are many differences of opinion about how to best live that out.

Into this moment comes the Gospel of the Kingdom.

The good news is that Jesus is the King who announces and embodies the kingdom.

Matthew 1:1 makes sense now. Jesus is the rightful descendent of God’s promise to Abraham – and everyone from all nations who trusts in him will live in God’s blessing. He is the descendant of David and the one who’s reign as king will endure forever, as God promised.

The gospel of the kingdom is all about King Jesus and his reign!

Remember how although God himself is the true king, he graciously gave his people a human king? In Emmanuel Jesus – God with us – we have the Divine and human King! Fully God and fully human. Paul makes these two aspects of kingship clear in Romans 1 (a gospel passage that we rarely use in our too small gospel):

the gospel he promised beforehand through his prophets in the Holy Scriptures regarding his Son, who as to his earthly life was a descendant of David, and who through the Spirit of holiness was appointed the Son of God in power by his resurrection from the dead: Jesus Christ our Lord.

Romans 1:2-4

It may have taken non-Jewish citizens of the Roman empire some time to understand the Old Testament background, but they knew what the word Lord meant. The common refrain in the ancient Roman world was ‘Caesar is Lord.’ He’s the big boss with all the power and whatever he says goes. A core confession among early followers of King Jesus in this environment was and is ‘Jesus is Lord.’

Jesus is the Lord and King and he is a King like no other and God’s kingdom is a kingdom like no other.

Jesus is the promised anointed King of the kingdom and Lord of all. He is God’s presence among us (Matthew 1:23, John 1:18). He reconstitutes a people of with the summons to ‘come and follow me.’ The place moves from only Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria to ‘the ends of the earth’ and ‘to all nations.’

And so the kingdom is available to us – it is near, if we will repent (turn) and enter it, we live as his people and learn his ways and experience his presence with with.

“your kingdom come,
your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.”

Matthew 6:10

One day the King will return and the kingdom will come in it’s fullness and death will be no more. (Revelation 21 -22)

Although much more can be said – after all we have a whole Bible – one essential aspect of Jesus’ kingdom and Kingship must be highlighted: the cross.

The kingdom of God is a cross shaped kingdom.

Significantly, Jesus’ Jewish disciples fully expected a coming King. The announcement that the kingdom of God is at hand would have excited them. And it did – enough that they left everything to follow and learn more about it.

What they did not expect was a crucified King and a cross shaped kingdom. We can see the extent of Peter’s resistance to it in Mark 8:31-33 and Jesus’ commitment to the cross, where he would die for our sins, a ‘ransom for many’ (Matthew 20:28, 1 Corinthians 15:3).

The cross both brings us the forgiveness we need and is the way of discipleship in the kingdom. Whoever wants to inhabit the kingdom must be shaped by the cross (Matthew 16:24, Galatians 2:20)

Paul was committed to the depth and ‘scandal’ of this gospel: That Jesus is the crucified King.

“For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.”

1 Corinthians 2:2

Note that whenever we see the term Christ, that this is the Greek word for Messiah (anointed one) which has overwhelming reference to the promised ruler – King. So Paul is not simply saying that Jesus died for us. He is saying that King Jesus died for us. Jesus is the crucified King.

We know that the cross is the way of the King and his kingdom because of the resurrection. Jesus died for us and rose again, dealing a mortal blow to death and the forces of evil that so often dominate this world.

…and being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross!

Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.

Philippians 2:8-11

Jesus is the crucified, risen, ascended and coming King – the Lord.

This is the ultimate gospel of the kingdom.

And – I believe – only this robust gospel makes sense of the story that the Bible is telling and the invitation

In the next post I will engage my evaluative tool and try to use some challenging passages of scripture to test my gospel proposal.

What about you? What would you add, subtract or change from my presentation? Will your own concept of the good news change somehow as a result of these posts?

What passages of scripture would you like me to use to test my model?

Is Your Gospel Too Small?

Most Christians can probably state in some way what they think the Bible is mostly about or what the good news (gospel) is.

What would you say it is?

I’d love it if you would take a minute and jot down a note for yourself as a starting point. Or pause and answer the question in your head.

Most Christians I know say that the good news is that even though we all have sinned and thus are separated in some substantial way from God but Jesus died for our sins so that we can be forgiven and go to heaven (and not hell) when we die.

Perhaps your version is a little different or maybe a lot different!

How do we know whether this – or any summary of the big picture is accurate or not?

Here is my proposal for one method to evaluate how solid our articulation is: Can various statements in Scripture – not just a select few – be explained in light of our articulation of the big idea?

Now let’s be honest, some parts of the Bible are harder to make sense of. Often diligent study helps us understand these challenging verses, but there are certain things that even serious scholars aren’t sure of. So this isn’t about finding one or two obscure things to prove a point. But if we start reading a Gospel or a New Testament Letter or the book of Acts and come up against things that don’t work with our definition consistently, I’d suggest that it is our understanding that’s too small.

Does that make sense? Our view of the big picture of the Bible should make sense of most of Scripture.

If you accept my proposal as at least one useful approach, let’s use the sample articulation (we are sinners in need of a sacrifice as the big picture story) and see how it works with some statements from the Bible.

“For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”

Romans 3:23

Does that one work? It certainly seems to.

“Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!”

John 1:29

Again, this seems like it fits well with our big picture.

Now, let’s go to the first line of the New Testament.

“This is the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah the son of David, the son of Abraham:”

Matthew 1:1

What is a Messiah? Why does it matter that Jesus is a son of David? Who is Abraham and why is he important? This doesn’t seem to fit as easily.

Here’s a longer passage from Matthew chapter 2, frequently read around Christmas time:

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”

When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born.“In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written:

“‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for out of you will come a ruler
who will shepherd my people Israel.’

Matthew 2:1-6

What does it mean for Jesus to be King of the Jews? And to be worshipped! The Old Testament prophetic quotation (from Micah 5) speaks of a ruler who will shepherd. How are Israel and Judah involved? Do we need the rest of the Old Testament to understand Jesus or just the first few chapters of Genesis? It it starting to seem like there’s more to the story.

It should start to be clear to us very early in the first book of the New Testament that the framework of sinners in need of a sacrifice works some of the time, but there are a lot of passages that it doesn’t work with.

Here’s one more. It’s how Jesus opens his public ministry in Matthew and it’s a statement oft repeated in the Gospels:

‘From that time on Jesus began to preach, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”’

Matthew 4:17

What is the kingdom of heaven and how has it come near?

I could go on and on with statements throughout every book of the New Testament that don’t fit with our sample big picture / gospel concept.

That’s because while the reality is that our sin and its remedy is indeed an essential part of the good news of the biblical story, it’s not the whole good news. What we need is an understanding of what God is dong that makes sense of all of these scriptures and many more that we haven’t yet brought into the discussion.

In the next post, I will propose an another statement of the good news and we’ll test it out in a similar way.

How did your gospel summary do in the test?

Understanding Human Death and the Hope of Resurrection

What did God tell Adam would happen if he ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil?

“…for when you eat from it you will certainly die.” Genesis 1:17

What does this mean?

The way that we most commonly refer to the result of the first sin is ‘separation from God.’ While God is still very much present in Adam and Eve’s lives after their expulsion from the garden, the dynamics of the relationship have indeed changed.

But, in our focus on only the relational dynamics, we often miss an enormous piece of the story.

God said that Adam would die when he ate from that particular tree.

But he didn’t.

Not right away.

Sometimes we reason from this that it must be primarily about a spiritual death – a rift in the relationship. But there is more going on here.

Remember the other named tree in the garden?

The tree of life. Assumedly eating from this tree is the source of ongoing human life. As long as you eat from the tree of life, you live on. No death.

When the first humans are barred from the garden, one of the primary reasons given is to prevent them access from the tree of life.

“He must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever.” Genesis 3:22

“After he drove the man out, he placed on the east side of the Garden of Eden cherubim and a flaming sword flashing back and forth to guard the way to the tree of life.” Genesis 3:24

There it is: You will surely die. Not on that day, but one day, this man and women and all of their sons and daughters would die.

This is not good news.

Remember, God’s statement about returning to the dust is not an inevitable thing! It was not the perfect plan all along. It’s the consequence of sin.

In the big picture of the biblical story, one big thing that we are looking for is the undoing of death. I mean physical death. Our bodies.

For most Christians today, hope is in some sort of disembodied afterlife. This was emphatically NOT the primary hope of those living in the Bible’s story. Their hope, especially as the story developed, was God’s kingdom reign come on earth and the resurrection from the dead.

This is why the resurrection of Jesus is such a big deal. For the reduced version of the story, the cross is basically enough. We can have our sins forgiven because of his perfect sacrifice. Maybe we think of Jesus’ resurrection as affirmation that he was the real deal and his death was effective.

But there’s more to it.

Like Adam and those after him, Jesus died. But unlike them, he didn’t stay dead!

Jesus defeated death and, according to the Biblical authors, so too will we who trust in him!

Not just spiritual death. Physical death.

In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul has a lot to say about this:

“But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep. For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. But each in turn: Christ, the first fruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him.” 1 Corinthians 15:20-23

Paul, a good big picture biblical theologian, understands this quite clearly.

Death came through a man (Adam) and thus to all of us.

Jesus rose from the dead, bodily. His bodily resurrection is the ‘first fruits’ the assurance that we will one day bodily rise from the dead as well.

This will happen for us when Christ returns, not before.

So, while we are told that when we die ‘in Christ’ we will be ‘with him,’ and ‘present to the Lord,’ and this is certainly a great comfort to us, it is not the big picture grand hope of the Bible.

“We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed— in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality. When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.” 1 Corinthians 15:51-54

Until that day, we still die. Death is the last enemy, Paul tells us. Jesus’ ultimate victory over death is assured. But death is still doing it’s work even while we are spiritually alive in a powerful way.

But because Jesus rose from the dead, our future resurrection is a living hope.

At the end of the Bible, Revelation 21 & 22 are chock full of images connecting the consummation of our story with its beginning in Genesis.

We see everything made new. The New Jerusalem comes down from heaven to earth. And God will once again dwell with his people on the earth, as he intended from the very beginning.

“There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” Revelation 21:4

Again, this is not just a ‘soul’ thing. It’s a tangible, embodied reality. The things that were true of the resurrected Jesus will be true of us.

And check this out:

“On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.” Revelation 22:2

Finally, we are back to the tree of life. We will live and reign with him forever and ever.

Understanding this hope and this promise should lead us to one longing.

‘He who testifies to these things says, “Yes, I am coming soon.”

Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.’ Revelation 22:20

A Kingdom of Deacons

[This is post 11 in an ongoing series exploring ministry in the New Testament world.]

What comes to mind for you when you think of a deacon?

Acts 6 is often one of the first places we look. Here is the situation:

“In those days when the number of disciples was increasing, the Hellenistic Jews among them complained against the Hebraic Jews because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food. So the Twelve gathered all the disciples together and said, “It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables. Brothers and sisters, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word.” This proposal pleased the whole group. They chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit; also Philip, Procorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolas from Antioch, a convert to Judaism. They presented these men to the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them.” Acts 6:1-6

The reason this text is sometimes used is perhaps because of the Greek verb that’s behind the translation here ‘wait’ as in ‘wait on tables.’ Deakoneo.

The situation is that the apostles wanted to prioritize ‘the ministry of the word.’ Remember, there are no written Gospels and no New Testament. These folks who had been with Jesus and discipled by him were THE source of knowledge of Jesus’ life and teaching. They were the only New Testament that existed, so we can see particularly why that word based ministry was vital.

We should be careful, I think, about equating elders/overseers (as described in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 etc) with the apostles. The apostles were in a unique situation that has not been the same since that day.

Also, note this: the ministry of the apostles here is also a deacon ministry. The ‘ministry’ in ‘ministry of the word’ is diakonia.

Our common understanding is typically that elders (at least one) teach and deacons serve. I will show clearly in this post that that understanding is too simplistic and doesn’t bear out in Scripture. And Scripture itself must be our guide, always looking back to it with fresh eyes to see what we might have overlooked or assumed.

In the following sections of the book of Acts, we will see some of the activity of two of these 7 ‘deacons’ chosen to ‘wait on tables.’

Stephen’s story continues right away:

“Now Stephen, a man full of God’s grace and power, performed great wonders and signs among the people. Opposition arose, however, from members of the Synagogue of the Freedmen (as it was called)—Jews of Cyrene and Alexandria as well as the provinces of Cilicia and Asia—who began to argue with Stephen. But they could not stand up against the wisdom the Spirit gave him as he spoke.” Acts 6:8-10

Stephen, one of those chosen to ‘wait on tables’ (the verb form of deacon) is right away a bold proclaimer / preacher. He has one of the longest sermons/speeches in the book of Acts (almost all of Chapter 7) and subsequently becomes the first Christian martyr! Not because he served tables but because of his public preaching.

Philip becomes known as Phillip the evangelist and understands how to connect the Old Testament to Christ when he proclaims the gospel to the Ethiopian Eunuch and baptizes him. The last time we hear about him is in Acts 21 when we learn that his daughters are prophets. Quite a robust proclamation ministry for this deacon and with his daughters as well!

The Greek word for deacon – diakonos – simply means servant. What’s interesting is that English bibles sometimes translate the same word servant and other times deacon. There is no distinction in the text itself.

So who is a deacon?

You might be surprised to know that Paul calls himself one on several occasions. Here are a couple:

“I became a servant of this gospel by the gift of God’s grace given me through the working of his power.” Ephesians 3:7

“I have become its servant by the commission God gave me to present to you the word of God in its fullness” Colossians 1:25

Again, the word used here for servant is the very same word used elsewhere for deacon. Perhaps surprisingly, Paul even more often uses the word for slave service (doulos) for himself.

This, friends, is because the Kingdom of God is a completely upside down kingdom from anything else that exists in this world. Until we grasp this, any understanding we have of ‘leadership’ is going to be way off track. Leadership may well be a thing, but it is not a priority. Jesus tells us what is:

“Jesus called them together and said, “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all.” (Mark 10:42-44)

Again, the word Jesus uses that’s translated servant is diakonos (our word for deacon). Jesus – the Lord of the Universe – says with crystal clarity that in his kingdom the servant / slave is the greatest of all.

Is there any society or church who says that the role of servant or slave is reserved for men only? Yet Jesus authoritatively declares that this posture is the greatest. Nobody is above the deacon / servant / slave and the invitation is open to all.

It’s essential that we understand that any over/under positioning is antithetical to the kingdom of God and we cannot allow it in our churches. Yet we often think of elders as over deacons and pastors as over congregations and sometimes men over women.

Frankly, sometimes it seems like we have allowed the hierarchical structures of the fallen world to dominate rather than the in-breaking the kingdom of God.

As we read through the New Testament, it seems as though some who exemplified this way of kingdom service were particularly noted as deacons.

Pheobe, who carried and likely read aloud the letter of Romans, is a deacon.

“I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church in Cenchreae.” Romans 16:1

1 Timothy 3 is a place that gives some guidance about those who exemplify this Jesus soaked way of living as deacons:

In the same way, deacons are to be worthy of respect, sincere, not indulging in much wine, and not pursuing dishonest gain. They must keep hold of the deep truths of the faith with a clear conscience. They must first be tested; and then if there is nothing against them, let them serve as deacons.

In the same way, the women are to be worthy of respect, not malicious talkers but temperate and trustworthy in everything.

A deacon must be faithful to his wife and must manage his children and his household well. Those who have served well gain an excellent standing and great assurance in their faith in Christ Jesus. 1 Timothy 3:8-13

This guidance regarding deacon servants, not found in Titus 1, is really interesting and has caused a lot of questions over time.

Notice here in the NIV translation, unlike with the previous section on elders, they translate the characteristics with ‘they’ rather than ‘he’. Remember, neither of these (he or they) are in the Greek New Testament. The NIV translators likely do this because it’s more common for churches to hold that women can be deacons, sometimes called deaconesses (an odd word in my view). Again, the only thing possibly specific to men in this section of the text itself is ‘faithful to his wife’ (literally ‘one woman man’)

Interpreters haven’t quite known what to make of ‘the women’ in this section that’s clearly on the same subject. The same Greek word is used for women and wife in the New Testament. Is he talking about a separate group of female ministers? He is talking about male and female deacons? Is he talking about deacon’s wives? Perhaps it was more normal than we think to have strong ministry couples like Priscilla and Aquila and Andronicus and Junia. Truthfully, we really don’t know for sure.

I think at the end of the day, as we’ve explored the New Testament ministry world, we should synthesize by asking, what really mattered to Jesus and his apostles when it comes to ministry?

My reading of the Bible and through my study that I’ve invited you into in these posts suggests the following priorities…

Humble Christlike service comes first – flowing directly from Jesus’ clear teaching. Christians live under Jesus’ authority alone and wholly. He is the only head of the church, our master and he shows us that his way is walking the extra mile, washing feet and carrying one’s cross. Whoever does this is the greatest in his kingdom regardless of particular gifting or role. There is no one above the kingdom deacon.

Shared ministry and Spirit gifting is one of the baselines of New Testament ministry. We have seen that the Holy Spirit gifts each believer for ministry and that there are no gifts reserved for only men or women. Discerning and using your gifts for the building and strengthening of the church and mission in the world is of fundamental importance.

Knowing for and standing in the truth of the Gospel – a good grasp of the big picture of what God unfolding throughout the Scriptures – is extremely important. This is the goal for every believer and those who are responsible and accountable to oversee the church absolutely must be solid here.

The citizens of the kingdom of God are deacons. There is no greater position to be had, according to Jesus. We are those who serve in practical ways and get our hands dirty. We, like Stephen and Phillip, can move from bussing tables to proclaiming the big biblical story that leads to Jesus. We can baptize new believers. We are a kingdom of deacons.

Should Women Be Elders / Overseers? (Post 10)

As you can see by the note ‘Post 10’ in the title, we are drawing toward a conclusion in a series of discussions about the nature of ministry based on the practice amongst congregations in the first century. Because the previous posts lay a foundation for re-thinking the nature of ministry, the meaning of authority and what is going on in passages like 1 Timothy 2, please consider reading those posts before this one if you haven’t already done so.

While it is fine to look at issues conceptually, at some point in the practical life of local congregations, the question will need to be asked: Are there certain ministry roles or functions that, assuming solid life and doctrine as core qualifications, are open only to men on an ongoing basis regardless of culture?

Culture is a tricky thing isn’t it? It is possible to label something in the Bible as cultural to avoid or dismiss things we don’t like. But the Bible cannot be a ‘pick and choose’ based on our preferences. We must learn to read and study it as consistently as possible.

And yet, almost all Christians will acknowledge that there are some things in regular New Testament practice that are indeed connected to a particular culture and that we don’t need to practice today. For example, I’ve never been greeted with a ‘holy kiss.’ Even among conservative churches, very few require women to cover their heads. Nobody that I’m aware of would claim that the instruction ‘slaves obey your masters’ represents God’s ideal for all time.

How do we discern a consistent way to read the Bible (fancy word: hermeneutic) that’s not simply picking and choosing what we like and don’t like?

I believe we must seek to develop a big picture biblical theology that tracks through the biblical storyline of creation, sin, redemption and full restoration and that makes the best sense of the whole of Scripture in context including the major themes of kingdom and new creation. I’ve tried to do some of that work throughout these posts in relation to power dynamics and men and women.

As I’ve shared along the way, I believe that it’s clear in the Genesis accounts of creation and fall and in the teaching of Jesus and the actions of the Holy Spirit that God intends men and women to stand side by side and not in and over/under relationship of authority.

Jesus subverts power dynamics such that anyone – male or female – seeking ‘power over’ is missing the point of the nature of his kingdom.

Furthermore, I don’t believe that there is an indication in texts describing different gifts that the Holy Spirit gifts along gender lines.

I’m curious if you tend to read Ephesians 4 in a gendered way. And if so, does the text, like other lists of gifts, give any indication of male/female distinction?

“So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming. Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.” Ephesians 4:11-16

In previous posts we have seen that there is adequate reason to suspect that Junia was an apostle. We know for a fact that there were women prophets (Huldah in O.T., Anna, Philip’s daughters, the Acts 2 fulfillment of sons and daughters prophesying). Priscilla taught Apollos. The Samaritan woman at the well proclaimed Jesus to a whole town and women first declared (to the original Apostles) that Jesus had risen from the dead – the work of an evangelist.

Does it make sense to track through this passage and get to the calling of shepherd and say ‘nope, women can’t do that?’ If so, why?

Everything in this text and the community building mission in the New Testament is about discipling and equipping. ‘To equip his people for works of service so that the whole body might be built up…’

Let’s return to 1 Timothy 3. As I mentioned in the last post, the only thing in this list of qualifications specific to men rather than women is the qualification of ‘one women man.’ The ‘he’ language is supplied in order to make a coherent English translation and not present in the Greek New Testament.

Churches with consistently all male elders have wrestled with how to apply the ‘one woman men’ to different situations. Can a man who’s not married be an overseer? To say no would be consistent with a literal interpretation of this passage. But that means unmarried Paul isn’t qualified to be a church elder. Jesus couldn’t be a candidate. Does that make sense? Paul says at one point elsewhere that he thinks it would be better if more people would remain unmarried in order to focus on serving Christ.

I suspect many churches with all male elder teams would say, it’s not about being married so much as being faithful to your wife if you are married. But now we are saying that the only thing in this list consistency specific to men doesn’t mean only exactly what it says – it’s more of a principle.

If Paul did have men in mind in Ephesus in 1 Timothy 3, as seems to be the case, we might ask why that is the case? Is it a deeper theological paradigm? Or was it what was needed in that time and place for reasons why could consider but not be confident of, such as societal norms or false teaching?

This passage does not tell us whether it is intended to specifically exclude women and if so whether that is the case in all times and places. It tells Timothy and Titus what they were to do then and there. What is normative in all times and places and what is specific to a time and place?

And, importantly, how does all of this track with our big picture understanding of Genesis 1 and 2 through to Revelation 21 and 22? Will men be exclusively in certain roles on the new earth when God restores everything? This is something worth thinking about.

All of this is the context given to us to discern in our communities who God is raising up to serve functionally in the community as overseers and other areas of ministry.

I have been around both contexts – congregations that have elder teams made up of men and women and those that have only male elders. I’ve seen both work in healthy ways, so long as there is mature loving service not power or control, women’s voices are valued and included in other leadership roles (like deacon) and the elders understand that their responsibility isn’t to be the only voices in ministry and teaching but rather steward an environment where men and women can explore and develop their gifts in community.

Many of my friends think it’s clear that women should not be elders, and I respect them, so long as they have otherwise healthy views about the equality of women in the imagine of God and understand that the Spirit gifts and empowers women to minister. I will say once more though, that the people I respect the most on either side of this are the ones who appeal not only to one of two passages of Scripture but those that can interpret them in light of the whole of the biblical narrative.

My goal in this series has not been to convince you that my reading of Scripture is the correct one. Rather, I want you to think more deeply about these things. I want you to wrestle with some things you might have overlooked, to ask questions that might not have occurred to you. Perhaps you hold a different view than I do, but have re-thought a certain aspect of it.

I do hope that if you came to this series with the strong belief that women are excluded from certain ministry roles and functions that you will see a consistent biblical case can be made for a different perspective.

As for me, I believe that God is at work in Christ and through the Spirit to bring about the restoration of all that was broken – including the intended side by side ruling / stewarding of the earth by men and women. I believe we are to complement one another in our differences without hierarchy or power over one another.

Jesus announced that the the kingdom of God is at hand. Peter announced the fulfillment of the prophecy of Joel that in the last days men and women, young and old will speak God’s word. The Holy Spirit gifts men and women to serve another another in the body of Christ – with him alone as our head – until we all reach unity and maturity.

I believe that we must insist that those who oversee our collective ministry and shepherd us are people who are deeply shaped in the way of Christ – both in the way that they live and in their understanding of the good news – the story of King Jesus bringing the reign of God.

I don’t see anything to lose and much to gain by including both these kinds of men and women in those who are watching over the flock.

My desire is not to force you toward this conclusion yourself, but rather open up space to think again. Not to move beyond the Scriptures but deeper in – to the big story that God is telling.

Let’s continue to study and discern together.

Characteristics of Elders (Post 9)

In the last post, we looked at the essence of what Elders do: oversee the ministry of congregations, setting an example for all and ensuring that they hold to the truth of the gospel.

Because of those aspects, the qualifications listed in 1 Timothy and Titus will address character and ability to instruct others.

“Here is a trustworthy saying: Whoever aspires to be an overseer desires a noble task. Now the overseer is to be above reproach, faithful to his wife, temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not given to drunkenness, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. He must manage his own family well and see that his children obey him, and he must do so in a manner worthy of full respect. (If anyone does not know how to manage his own family, how can he take care of God’s church?) He must not be a recent convert, or he may become conceited and fall under the same judgment as the devil. He must also have a good reputation with outsiders, so that he will not fall into disgrace and into the devil’s trap.” 1 Timothy 3:1-7

This section starts with a statement: Whoever aspires to be an overseer desires a noble task. Some translations of the Bible like the ESV will say ‘the office of overseer’, but a word for ‘office’ is not in the Greek New Testament. Rather it is the bias of the translators (right or wrong) that overseer is an ‘office’ or position primarily. I believe that this text in 1 Timothy shifts the emphasis away from office (a word added to these translations) and toward the function of oversight. Congregations would know who their elders were, but the essence is of a noble task not a noble position or title.

This section goes on to paint a picture of sorts of the kind of person the overseer is: worthy to be looked up to as a wise, faithful, mature follow of Christ who understands and walks in the truth.

‘Faithful to his wife’ – A more literal reading of this phrase is ‘one woman man.’ Scholars have explored several possibilities that Paul could have had in mind including only having one wife vs. two or more, not re-married after the death of a spouse or, most commonly, ‘faithful to his wife.’ While multiple marriage was not very common, sexual promiscuity for men particularly was prevalent in the Roman world.

Interestingly, this is the only aspect of this passage that actually specifies men. Throughout our English translations we see ‘he’ but this is not in the Greek, rather it’s implied (which makes decent sense), particularly in light of the ‘one woman man.’

Notice several of the other important but often overlooked qualifications given.

  • Temperate
  • Self controlled
  • respectable
  • hospitable
  • not quarrelsome
  • not violent by gentle
  • not a lover of money
  • good reputation outside

While each of these could lead to lengthy biblical discussions, there is an overall picture presented of the kind of person – shaped by the way of Christ and the fruit of the Spirit.

I’d like to reflect on two additional aspects listed in this passage.

An overseer must manage their own household and children well.

Why? Because if someone isn’t effective at overseeing the people in their own household, how will they be able to oversee a greater number of people in a congregation? For someone to be entrusted with more, they must prove themselves to be trustworthy with what they already have responsibility in.

What does it mean to be ‘able to teach’ (verse 2)?

We sometimes assume that this means that one is a gifted teacher who is able to craft an impressive 3 point, 30 minute sermon or compelling small group study.

Given that our current expressions of ministry didn’t exist in the same way in the first century house churches, I think it’s much more likely that the idea here is that elder/overseers need to be able to explain the way of Jesus to those in the life of the church and correct those who have inadequate or faulty understanding.

Remember that passage from Hebrews?

“In fact, though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God’s word all over again. You need milk, not solid food!” Hebrews 5:12

Those who are overseers must not be those needing milk. They shouldn’t be new converts. They ought to be those who are mature enough in character and in the foundations of the faith to be able to teach it to others.

Elders need to be able to do with people something like what Priscilla and Aquila did with Apollos:

“He had been instructed in the way of the Lord, and he spoke with great fervor and taught about Jesus accurately, though he knew only the baptism of John. He began to speak boldly in the synagogue. When Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they invited him to their home and explained to him the way of God more adequately.” Acts 18:25-26

The list of necessary elder/overseer qualities in Titus 1:6-9 is extremely similar to that in 1 Timothy 3. One aspect given more specific guidance comes at the end of that section and probably gives us a good idea of what Paul means by ‘able to teach’:

“He must hold firmly to the trustworthy message as it has been taught, so that he can encourage others by sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it.” Titus 1:9

Again, I believe we see a wonderful portrait of those who are responsible being on the team overseeing – shepherding – the church.

They exemplify Christlike character and the fruit of the Spirit (similar to those chosen in Acts 6:3). They are the kind of people new believers and young Christians can aspire to be like as they grow in their own understanding of the kingdom and discipleship to Jesus.

Overseers are people who can make sure that people are loving and serving one another in humble love in the life of the church. They can address the kinds of issues that Paul often did in his letters but right in the moment and from a context of regular relationship.

They can pull people aside as they are beginning to teach and share the gospel with others and help them understand more fully and faithfully the message.

Elders know the Lord and the Word and at times they will need to step in more boldly in response to false teaching, prideful arrogance or patterns of consistent sin in someone’s life.

As we start to wrap up this series, the next post will look at what questions we might ask as we discern whether only men should be included in this group of overseers/ elders or if it is appropriate to include mature, godly women as well. I will make the case that whichever of the two directions a church or denomination chooses, the functioning of the life of the church in practice should be similar, based on the picture we’ve seen of New Testament ministry.

What Do Elders Do? (Post 8)

“The reason I left you in Crete was that you might put in order what was left unfinished and appoint elders in every town, as I directed you.” Titus 1:5

This statement of purpose in the Letter to Titus fascinates me. It reminds us that a few local leaders (elders/overseers) are important and yet clearly not the foundation of New Testament ministry. This must be the case because the churches are functioning as worshipping communities across the island of Crete without elders at this time.

When congregations consisted of primarily new believers, like many did in the early church, it had to take time to see who held strong in the faith in the midst of challenges and showed genuine maturity of character.

Not having people marked as responsible for oversight of the ministry and mission of the congregations was what was left ‘unfinished.’ It wasn’t the beginning or the foundation of ministry, but rather something needed to ensure faithfulness and longevity, especially when Paul or one of his ‘co-workers’ couldn’t be everywhere all the time.

It’s interesting to note that only one of Paul’s general letters to churches specifically addresses those serving as overseers.

“To all God’s holy people in Christ Jesus at Philippi, together with the overseers and deacons.” Philippians 1:1

This kind of acknowledgement does not occur in Letters like Romans or 1 Corinthians or 1 Thessalonians or Ephesians, etc. Even in Philippians it’s more of a general acknowledgement than a specific word to them. Philippians, like these other Letters, is written equally to everyone.

Peter mentions elders in more depth toward the end of his First Letter:

“To the elders among you, I appeal as a fellow elder and a witness of Christ’s sufferings who also will share in the glory to be revealed: Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, watching over them—not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not pursuing dishonest gain, but eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock.” 1 Peter 5:1-3

We will take a look at this passage in a moment. But the point I am first making is that Peter and Paul write primarily to whole congregations rather than passing information down through the organizational structure. Their usual instruction is not like the corporate world or a military chain of command where things are passed down the line.

This is because the nature of congregational life is not based on one or a few leaders but on the whole of the Holy Spirit empowered community who are living in response to the call of the gospel.

As we saw in descriptions of the life of the church in 1 Corinthians and Colossians 3:16, gatherings were marked by mutual edification and the exercise of Spiritual gifts rather than everyone focused toward one person behind a pulpit.

As I have mentioned before, there is nothing implicit in the texts that speak about Spiritual gifts that would indicate that they are distributed along gender lines.

Rather, Paul writes to the Romans:

“We have different gifts, according to the grace given to each of us. If your gift is prophesying, then prophesy in accordance with your faith; if it is serving, then serve; if it is teaching, then teach; if it is to encourage, then give encouragement; if it is giving, then give generously; if it is to lead, do it diligently; if it is to show mercy, do it cheerfully.” Romans 12:6-8

So, what do elders/overseers do? One of the major things they do is oversee! They see to it that the congregation is gathering in good order (unlike some of the issues happening in Corinth) and growing toward Christlikeness together.

Let’s note a few things Peter mentions in the quote posted above. One is that the elders are among all the others. They are a regular part of the body with different gifts as listed in Romans and 1 Corinthians. Yet they knew that they had a responsibility. If Paul or Timothy or Titus came to town, they could ask these elders how things were going. If they caught wind of an issue, they knew who they could ask.

This responsibility also had a shepherding function. There was a pastoral task, though no indication of a title, to their responsibility. The congregation is under their (multiple, not one person) care.

Notice that: watchful care. Not power and control and authority over. Eager to serve. Peter now finally understood the way of Jesus: not ‘lording over’ like the gentiles but rather the posture of a servant to all.

Also note this from verse 3: ‘Being examples to the flock.’ The whole flock of men and women should be able to look to these elder / overseers as examples to be followed – maturing in Christ, holding to the truth and serving in Christlike humility. People who walked in wisdom.

Paul, likewise, frequently encouraged all believers to follow both his life and teaching.

“Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice.” Philippians 4:9

As Paul speaks to elders from Ephesus in Acts 20, he has a similar responsibility in mind that Peter does:

“Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood.” Acts 20:28

Overseers should join Peter and Paul in encouraging wholehearted commitment to the way of Jesus and in embrace of the gifts that the Spirit gives.

Whatever gift a man or woman has in the congregation, overseers should encourage them to use and develop maturity in their gift. They should help make sure that people are walking in Christlike humility (which is why they must exhibit it to be elders) and they must be able to stand in and communicate gospel truth in order to correct those who are off base.

Elder/Overseers are important to the life of the church! But they aren’t the heart of it.

The heart of the body of Christ is the whole people of God, growing together in the cross-shaped way of Jesus and serving one another with the gifts God gives in order to build the body to unity and maturity (Ephesians 4:13).

In the next two posts, we will look at the particular qualities that are listed for those who will serve as elders / overseers.

Note: There are two Greek words that are used in relevant passages: presbuteros (elders) and episkopos (overseers). While some take these two be two distinct roles or functions, they are used in the same passages of what seems to be the same people. See Acts 20:17, 28 and Titus 1:5, 7. Because of this, my view is that these are different terms used for the same people.

Who Gets Authority? (Post 7)

[This is post 7 in a series on men and women in ministry among the earliest churches that are recorded on the pages of the New Testament. This is the forth post on 1 Timothy. Click through the blog to see the other posts, which build on one another]

“I do not permit a women to to teach or assume authority over a man” 1 Timothy 2:12

What is the nature of authority in the Kingdom of God?

As we have seen in previous posts, false teaching is a defining issue in the purpose for writing 1 Timothy. One of the problems with certain women in the city of Ephesus at that time is that they are seeking to ‘assume authority.’ Other translations of this Greek word include ‘usurp authority’ (KJV), exercise authority’ (NASB, ESV) or simply ‘have authority (CSB).

One challenge in this case, which is almost impossible for the English Bible reader to be aware of without additional study tools, is that the word used here is found nowhere else in the New Testament. We do see the word ‘authority’ used elsewhere in the New Testament, but it is a different Greek word than the one used here.

This word, authenteo, so far as we can tell in its use outside the Bible (remember it’s only used once in the Bible) has the idea of being forceful, domineering, even violent.

Here is an important question: what is the problem with these women and authority (authenteo)?

For some, the issue is that women are seeking authority when men are supposed to be the ones in authority. This, I believe, both ignores Paul’s word choice here and is also a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of authority as taught by Jesus and in the creation intent between men and women.

We spent some time in the last post talking about men and women in creation and the first sin in the world and we saw there that there is no hierarchy between men and women in creation – no separate roles due to ‘created order’ as some will say. Genesis 1 and 2 plainly does not teach that men are in charge over women.

What we do see in Genesis 3 is that as a result of sin in the world after the disobedience of both woman and man, there would now be a power struggle.

“Your desire will be for your husband,
and he will rule over you.” Genesis 3:16

It is absolutely vital that we understand that this is a description of relationship in a fallen world and NOT prescriptive of God’s intent for flourishing relationship.

Again, no human was intended to ‘rule over’ another. Humans together were intended to rule over the rest of creation (see Genesis 1:26), but not to rule over one another.

Fortunately, in Christ and in his Kingdom, things will begin to be restored in relationship toward the way God intended in creation.

Unfortunately, some Christians have not understood this vital piece of biblical redemption and have instead called the consequence of the fall God’s ongoing intention for men and women in the church.

Jesus makes it clear that although the fallen world lives by ‘authority over’ and that his own disciples will be deeply tempted to live this way, he will have none of it.

“Jesus called them together and said, “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must 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.” Mark 10:42-45

Jesus here teaches that no disciple of his, no citizen of his kingdom – man or woman – is to exercise authority over others.

Instead authority belongs to Christ and he uses his divine authority to wash feet, to serve and to give his life for others. This is the fundamental nature of the kingdom – never power over; always service.

“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations…and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” Matthew 28:18-20

The authority of Jesus directs us to make disciples who take the posture of servants, which is what he both modeled and taught.

So, clearly, the problem in Ephesus is not that women were ‘exercising authority’ instead of men exercising authority. The problem, I suggest, was that these particular women had not only bad theology but the wrong attitude toward men and others.

They needed to be directed to stop teaching bad theology and instead become learners who could sometime later teach good theology and to stop trying to exercise authority over and instead learn to take on the posture of Jesus as a servant.

The good news is that Jesus has a totally different view of authority from almost everyone else in this world.

And Jesus is inviting men and women into a new creation that is restoring his original intent for men and women to serve side by side rather than in over under power dynamics. In fact, in Christ all of the brokenness between groups and individuals is being undone.

“So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.” Galatians 3:27-29

Obviously, Paul does not envision that there is no difference between men and women at all. Jews and Gentiles continued to know their backgrounds. But the over under, ‘us not you’ dynamics are done with. We are being called into new creation.

In the next post(s), we will begin looking at the responsibility of ‘overseers’ in the early church and how they might relate to the big picture of ministry.