Pauline Church Leadership as Suffering Servanthood
Paul’s letters speak of those who are set apart for leadership within the church: the bishops (ejpivskopoß;; literally “overseer”),1 the deacons (diakonevw transliterated, meaning to wait upon as a servant or host),2 and the elders (presbuvteroß, which has over time become the word “priest,” and literally means “old man”).3 There are passages within these epistles that lay out the characteristics of the people called to such church work. To Timothy, Paul’s “loyal child in the faith,”4 he instructs that bishops should be faithful in marriage, self-controlled, hospitable, able to teach, temperate, gentle, peaceable and not love money.5 Deacons should also be temperate, trustworthy, and to manage their own house faithfully. To Titus, charged with appointing elders in the church in Crete, Paul gives a similar list of qualifications: blameless, peaceable, temperate, not pursuing money, hospitable, self-controlled, holy, able to teach and encourage.6
What is remarkable about these lists is how unremarkable they are. The qualities that Paul wants in the leaders of the church are qualities that he has taught elsewhere to the churches in general. It appears that what is necessary to serve as a leader in the church is a difference of degree rather than kind: Paul wants them to be exemplary disciples of Jesus. Above all, this means that the defining characteristic of their life is one of service, putting others’ needs ahead of one’s own. Both in his teaching about Christ and from his own experience, Paul knows that putting others’ needs ahead of one’s own often leads to suffering.
The Purpose of Church Leadership
Leadership in the modern world has a very different nature from that in the ancient world in which Paul composed his letters. Today the required qualities of leadership–and the education aimed at producing leaders–purport to be based on universal principals of managerial effectiveness. But in the classical world, in the “heroic societies” of the Jews and Greeks, “morality and social structure [were] in fact one and the same,”7 and “the chief means of moral education [was] the telling of stories.”8
To the modern mind, bishops, elders and deacons are job titles. It is frustrating that when Paul speaks about church leadership he gives us lists of virtues rather than clear job descriptions—and that he seems to conflate the roles of bishops, elders and deacons. But Paul’s concern isn’t to install an organizational model that works; it is to make sure that leadership in the church makes sense in light of the Christian narrative. It is because purpose is found in living out the story of what God had done through Jesus that Paul exhorts the churches and their leaders, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.”9
The Evidence of Paul’s Apostleship
With pharisaic zeal Paul persecuted the earliest followers of the way of Jesus. And yet, “[w]ith astonishing suddenness the persecutor of the church became the apostle of Jesus Christ.”10 How is it that Paul became not only a leader but an apostle in the early church? Unlike the other apostles, he did not walk with Jesus before the death, burial, resurrection and ascension. “His own repeated explanation is that he saw the once-crucified Jesus now exalted as the risen Lord.”11 A fascinating story, but what evidence could Paul offer in order to support his claim that the risen Christ commissioned him as an apostle? The early Christians could be forgiven for doubting his claim to be a follower of Jesus12 let alone elected by God to lead the church and advance the gospel. Paradoxically, when Paul gives evidence of his apostleship, it is not in the form of official sanction, credentials or success. No, Paul’s evidence is how much he has suffered for the gospel.
“As for apostolic credentials, Corinth is one place where Paul has no need to present his: the existence of the Corinthian church is evidence enough of his commission–’the seal of my apostleship in the Lord”, he tells them (1 Corinthians 9:2).”13 And yet, in a subsequent letter, we find Paul having to defend his ministry. “Did I commit a sin by humbling myself so that you might be exalted, because I proclaimed God’s good news to you free of charge?”14 Paul is frustrated that the believers are accepting a different gospel–a different story–than the one he gave them, and they are latching on to the teachings of people that Paul refers to (ironically) as “super-apostles.” These teachers apparently had some sort of bona fides or credentials that made them impressive to the Corinthian church.
It is in response to this crisis of trust that Paul recites a litany of setbacks, pain, and persecution: hard labor, frequent imprisonment, beatings, torture, shipwrecks, being lost at sea, living on the run, being hated by his own people, sleeplessness, hunger, thirst and an overwhelming concern for all the churches.15 Paul is so sure that Christ’s power “is made perfect in weakness” that he boasts about his unanswered prayers!
Paul can boast about his weakness as evidence of God’s power because the gospel is a story of suffering servanthood. Paul quotes an early Christian hymn in his letter to the saints in Philippi:
Jesus Christ, though he was in the form of God, did not consider equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death–even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”16
In Christ, God came low. Jesus, in his flesh, is both the glory of God and the human exemplar. In a world of violence and exploitation, God makes himself vulnerable to violence and exploitation rather than making use of them. Salvation came to all because Jesus was a suffering servant. That is the Christian story, and therefore, according the classical way of thinking, Christian virtue is cruciform.
Paul knows that God has paradoxically overcome the powers and the authorities of this world by becoming a servant. That is why Paul “exercise[d] his apostolic freedom by tending his converts with paternal care and spending and being spent for them.”17 Christian leadership is therefore fundamentally different than leadership according to the powers of this world, which is known by its talent, privilege, authority, strength, wealth, success, fame and effectiveness. Instead, Christian leadership follows the pattern of God’s sacrificial self-giving in and through Christ, lived by the great saints and martyrs of Christian history. And, not least, Paul.
1New Strong’s concise dictionary of the words in the Greek Testament with their renderings in the King James Version. (1995). Nashville: Thomas Nelson, p. 35.
2New Strong’s, p. 22.
3New Strong’s, p. 74.
41 Timothy 1:2. Unless otherwise noted, all scripture references are from the New Revised Standard.
51 Timothy 3:1-3.
7MacIntyre, A. (2007). After virtue: a study in moral theory. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame, p. 123.
8MacIntyre, p. 121.
91 Corinthians 11:1.
10Bruce, F. F. (1977). Paul: Apostle of the heart set free. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, p. 74.
11Bruce, p. 74.
12Acts 9:26, “When he came to Jerusalem, he attempted to join the disciples; and they were all afraid of him, for they did not believe that he was a disciple.”
13Bruce, p. 259.
142 Corinthians 11:7.
152 Corinthians 11:22-12:10.
17Bruce, p. 278.