Opinions on faith and life

Defining Terms


There’s a good and concise treatment of the issue of apostle regarding Junia here, including a list of all the other links in the series. I’ve written before that the essential meaning of apostle seems, from the examples we see in scripture, to be primarily that of what we now call a missionary, but more importantly that the key difference is in the sender rather than the one sent. In other words, what makes NT apostles more than missionaries is that they were sent by Jesus Himself and not just other believers or congregations. Many missionaries have reported the same miraculous signs accompanying their work as mentioned by Paul for apostles (2 Cor. 12:12), and they certainly do plant churches. But we don’t consider them apostles in the NT sense because they were sent by us, not directly by Jesus. I believe it is the authority of the sender that makes an apostle something different from a missionary in today’s terms.

But what exactly is that difference, if there is a rank between Jesus-sent apostles and non-apostles? The issue particularly with Junia is authority, something many people today seem obsessed with. Yet certainly the most ardent male supremacist recognizes that not even “authoritative” men today have the “rank” to write holy scripture or issue Spirit-breathed edicts on an authoritative par with those scriptures. Yet their whole motivation for making Junia something less than other apostles is to strip her of her authority. So what authority did other NT apostles have who were not sent directly by Jesus (as far as we know, and we don’t know that Junia was not sent directly by Jesus while every unnamed male apostle was)? They couldn’t write scripture, so what exactly are the anti-Junia theologians afraid of? The only answer I can think of is that NT apostles must have had the authority that went with trusted teachers of scripture. But yet this authority was still not the “God made me the boss of you” kind being touted today. So the whole Junia saga has been essentially the burning of a (pardon the expression) straw man: they made up a “boss” meaning for apostle and then had to scramble to find a way to engage in the fallacy of “special pleading” for Junia without anyone noticing. (It didn’t work, of course, on everyone.)

This leads into the larger issue of how tradition has made up many terms, ranks, and chains of command not found in the scriptures at all. The word pastor has been morphed from the spiritual gift of a guide, teacher, and defender of the faith into an office (“the Pastorate”) held by a “clergyman” who stands at the sacred desk (“the Pulpit”) between ordinary humans (“the laity”) and their Savior. Even ordinary men love to elevate this lord because they so love and adore pecking orders even if they themselves are not the “alpha”— because there’s always a woman below them. Yes, the kingdom of the world is to be preferred over that of heaven (Mt. 20:25-28).

Some sheep are more equal than others.

The list of ranks includes that of the deacon, a title bestowed by Paul upon the woman Phoebe (Rom. 16:1) and translated “servant” for her while men with that same designation are called “ministers”. Again we must ask, what authority are some men so afraid Phoebe had, that they cannot endure the thought of a woman as a “deacon”? Curiously, we never find any list of authoritative tasks in the NT for these deacons, but only the high qualifications required to be considered one. As I’ve written before, there is never any connection made by Paul with the deacons of Acts 6 nor any mention of the perpetuation of those deacons’ “office” (Always seven? Always to distribute food? Always to make sure Greek women get their share? Why not?). Why didn’t Paul tell us exactly what deacons do and how they rank between “clergy” and “laity”?

Doesn’t it seem obvious that there was nothing of that sort to tell? As with any alleged law, anything of importance or that is mandated must not be left to the imagination; where there is a law, an ordinance, or an authoritative office, there must be explicit instructions, such that the absence of instructions indicates that no such mandate exists. We simply don’t know from the NT what exactly a pastor or deacon was to do, much less what authority they allegedly had over anyone. We can’t cite the so-called “pastoral epistles” as proof-texts for this because, for example, Timothy was more of a missionary and not a pastor; he traveled extensively and set churches up rather than staying in one place to run a business club army church. Not once did Paul address anyone as “pastor”.

But the objection comes, “Pastor means the same as elder and bishop and overseer; these are just different terms describing what a pastor does”. Yet the scriptures themselves never explicitly state this, so again we must conclude that there is no mandate or authority structure involved. We could just as easily wrap them all up in the word “leader”, which again does not mandate authority, because we have no explicit instructions for the sphere of authority and exactly how the duties of a pastor differ from those of a deacon. Again, where are the explicit instructions for these alleged offices? Where is the chain of command explained? How does the sphere or function of each link differ from the others?

It seems from the deafening silence of the NT on all this that authority is simply not in view. Instead, what we actually see in the NT is a mandate for everyone to grow spiritually, and that those who have reached a high level of such maturity are to nurture, train, guide, and be examples to those who have not. There will always be circumstances where leaders must find ways to accomplish that goal through temporary measures, such as when Paul advised Titus on how to deal with some unique problems facing the young congregation in Crete. That is the backdrop of all the Letters: a question or problem has arisen and Paul (or Peter etc.) is giving instructions on how to handle it. By studying the problem and the solution we can then have some idea of how Christian leaders should respond to issues in our own time. If any NT writer meant to lay down a law or order it was clear and precise; therefore, if we have no clear or precise instruction on a matter, we are not to make the mistake of picking anything we choose out of the NT as applicable to any and all situations for all time.

So when we see terms or descriptions such as these, we need to be careful not to blow them out of proportion and invent elaborate levels of hierarchy or domains of lordship. The NT writers were responding to people who knew the terms, which likely varied from one region to another. We see this today in various denominations: one church’s deacon is another’s elder; one church’s elder is another’s pastor (and where, pray tell, is NT mention of associate/head pastors?). The point is that if indeed Paul used different terms for the same gift or function depending on the recipients of his letters, then we cannot deny that he also tailored his solutions to their unique problems.

The writers of the NT never drew up a Rober’s Rules of Order for any church hierarchy, any method or style of worship, or even how/when to conduct the so-called ordinances of the Lord’s Supper or water baptism. They only urged people to walk consistently with the basic principles of the faith and gave examples on how Christians should conduct themselves in various situations. Instead of trying to overthrow social inequities such as slavery or women’s subordination, they simply advised believers on how best to deal with those inequities, without endorsing any of them, for the sake of advancing the gospel. So whatever terms can be found in the NT, be sure you aren’t defining them by tradition and culture rather than their usage in the original contexts. It’s fine to put a “handle” on a concept for convenience, but don’t turn it into a divine commandment with which to beat other believers over the head.