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Published Date: October 27, 2014

Published Date: October 27, 2014

Featured Articles

Featured Articles

Leadership Is When Shepherds Smell Like Sheep

Lynn Anderson’s book, They Smell Like Sheep, is an excellent resource for pastors and elders. Anderson describes the “essence of spiritual leadership” as “sheep following a shepherd because they know and trust him. This kind of trust and allegiance can be gained only one way—by a shepherd touching his sheep, carrying them, handling them, tending them, feeding them—to the extent that he smells like them” (p. 17). The book as a whole is wonderful, but I want to look closely at his discussion on authority in regard to leaders. Below is an excerpted and adapted summarization of chapter 13 from his book:

The King James Bible translates 1Timothy 3:1, “If a man desires the office of a bishop, he desireth a good work.” Biblically speaking, bishop (elder, shepherd) is a function, not an office; a task, not a position. This phrase in 1Timothy 3:1 might more accurately be translated, “if anyone desires to bishop.”

Probably no word has played a greater part in shaping opinion about the function of elders as leaders than the term episkopos, or plural, episkopoi, translated “bishop(s)” in the King James Version. The word bishop, like the word office, carries an authoritarian aura from the seventeenth century into the modern church. However, this is not at all the New Testament meaning of the word episkopos. It could be more fully translated “guides,” “those who watch out for,” “those who are concerned on behalf of,” or “those who care for” the church—but not those who “rule over” it.

In ancient, secular Greek literature, the verb episkopeo is used in the sense of “to look upon,” “to consider,” “to have regard for something or someone.” Greek ship’s captains were described as the (episkopoi) “overseers” of the cargo.

But, while early on, episkopeo expressed acts of protection or watch-care, later it also meant “to visit,” as in visiting the sick. Beyer explains: “It (episkopoi) combines various senses of “to visit, to look upon, to investigate, to inspect, to test, to be concerned about, to care for.” And the Septuagint (Greek Old Testament) uses the word episkopeo or episkopos to describe what a shepherd is doing when he cares for his sheep!

In the New Testament, the word episkeptomai expresses a fundamental Christian teaching: that each of us exists for the other. Jesus taught us to care for one another, and James said we are to “look after” orphans and widows, describing this as “pure and faultless” religion. Therefore, we love one another and subject ourselves to one another. In that connection, the word episkeptomai meant more specifically “to seek out someone,” not merely “pay him a visit.” It implied a sense of responsibility and concern toward that person.

But, someone objects, “What of Paul’s words, ‘Elders who rule well’ are worthy of ‘double honor’ (1 Tim. 5:17)? At this point we are hit by another bone-breaking word, which is often mistranslated—and consequently misapplied. The word (proistotes, a form of proisteemi) is translated in the King James Version as “rule.” However, the word rule comes from seventeenth-century religious context, not from the New Testament. The New International Version renders proistotes as those “who direct the affairs of the church.”

In Romans 16:2, the lady Pheobe grabs our attention. Very significantly, proisteemi is used to tell us that Phoebe, a “deaconess” of the church, has been prostatis (the feminine noun form of proisteemi)—a “helper” (RSV), “a great help” (NIV) to Paul and others. Surely this does not mean that Phoebe ruled the church! Nor does Paul’s use of this word imply that elders rule the church.

With respect to elders in 1 Tim 3:4–5, proisteemi is used in a family setting. Paul says that an elder is to “manage his own family well” (NIV) or to “rule” his family (KJV). Deacons are to do the same. But, in this same context Paul uses a different word for the elder’s role in the church. The elder is to “manage” (proisteemi) his family, but he is to “take care of” (epimeleomai) (RSV, NIV) the church.

When the Good Samaritan pays the innkeeper to “look after” (epimeleomai) the robbery victim (Luke 10:35), he is obviously not asking the innkeeper to “rule over” the man. Nor is he asking the victim to “submit to and obey” the innkeeper. Rather, the Samaritan is asking the innkeeper to “take care of, give aid to” the robbery victim. Why then should this same word mean that an elder is to rule the church?

Anderson makes some great points about elders that demonstrate the nature of anyone leading in the church. Through his discussion of the Greek, his key point is “that godly leadership is to be understood in terms of service rather than authority” (p. 200). In God’s kingdom, authority is not inherit in a position, but is a credibility earned through rightly living. It is a power to persuade through one’s character because it has been established through continual acts of service to others.

The word proisteemi, when used in the Septuagint, refers both to rulers, such as Solomon’s chief officers (2 Chron. 8:10) and to those, such as Amnon, who served (2 Sam. 13:17) (p. 192). So this word had a history of meaning both to rule and serve, but Jesus comes along and unites them this way: to rule by serving. In Luke: 22:25–6 he says, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them, and those who exercise authority over them call themselves Benefactors. But you are not to be like that. Instead, the greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who rules like the one who serves.” In Jesus’ kingdom, the “ruler” is one who serves (p. 197). Further, the Greek word for ruler used in v. 26 is eegoumenos, and its plural is used in Heb. 13:7, which the KJV translates “Remember them which have rule over you.” Would the Hebrew writer really use eegoumenos as a plural in an authoritarian sense, which is the exact opposite of how Jesus instructed his disciples to lead when he specifically defined eegoumenos as one who serves? (p.198).

To account for such translations, we may consider the comment of Dr. Holladay of Emory University in reference to the word for bishop (episkopos), which is also true of other words related to function of leaders: “Further examination into the word and its background makes one wonder if such renderings do not say more about the translators than about the original meaning of the word” (p.189). Translators may be biased, but searching individuals can always come across material that demonstrates the unity of Scripture in the original language regarding the nature of Biblical leadership. We are to hold pastors and elders in high regard, not because they “rule” over us, but because of their work (1 Thes. 5:13).