Friday, July 27, 2012

Social Reality of Early Christianity

Meeks describes the social reality of early Christianity when he writes,

Christians had no shrines, temples, cult statues or sacrifices; they staged no public festivals, musical performances or pilgrimages.  As far as we know, they set up no identifiable inscriptions.  On the other hand, initiation into their cult had social consequences that were more far-reaching than initiation into the cults of familiar gods.  It entailed incorporation into a tightly knit community, a resocialisation that demanded (and in many cases actually received) an allegiance replacing bonds of natural kinship, and a submission to one God and one Lord excluding participation in any other cult.  Moreover, this artificial family undertook to resocialise its members by a continual process of moral instruction and admonition; hardly any aspect of life was excluded from the purview of mutual concern, if we are to believe the writings of the movement’s leaders.  The church thus combined features of household, cult, club, and philosophical school, without being altogether like any of them.[1]

[1] Wayne Meeks, “Social and ecclesial life of the earliest Christians” in Cambridge History of Christianity eds. Margaret M. Mitchell and Francis M. Young (Cambridge, 2008), 152.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Hebrews 13:24 - Leadership in Early Christianity 3

13:24 Greet all your leaders and all the saints. Those from Italy send you greetings.

This final verse notes that the author greets “all” the leaders in the community. This may suggest either a geographical location in which there are many congregations or it may suggest that there are multiple leaders within the one congregation. Either way, deSilva is probably right to note that this will elevate their visibility as exemplars of faithfulness in word and deed. It is important for the congregation to be aware of who these leaders are, so that they may heed their instruction in teaching and exemplary living. This perhaps supplies the reason for their specific mention here. Generally speaking, leaders are not often addressed in the opening and closing of Scriptural letters, unless there is an issue being addressed (cf. Phil. 1:1-2; 4:2-3). For the community of God’s people to experience the benefit and blessing of these leaders, they must be identified and exhorted in the manner that has preceded this greeting.

Synthesis - Leadership in Hebrews 13 
Looking back on past leaders, the author of Hebrews encourages the congregation not to forget leaders who skilfully spoke the word of God, and faithfully lived the Christian life. Appealing to these two factors, the author encourages us to think carefully about how they lived, with a view to imitating their way of life. Addressing current leaders, the author exhorts the congregation to faithfully heed and submit to godly leadership. Following good and faithful leaders will give them an advantage, and benefit them in their current situations. There is a subtle hint at the great responsibility of leaders, and the fact that they will give an account to God, which causes them to take serious their task, and causes them to realise that they are accountable for the way they lead.

If Hebrews is written to exhort and encourage those who were tempted to either fall away, or return to Judaism, then this final chapter serves to alert leaders to their job as those who are to help others by faithful teaching and faithful living, and thus help those who are struggling.  The community is instructed to heed these leaders and take careful note of their teaching and praxis.  In this way, there will be a mutually beneficial relationship between those who lead and those who follow, and God's purposes will be served faithfully. 

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Hebrews 13:17 - Leadership in Early Christianity

The next verse that discusses leadership in Hebrews 13 is found in verse 17. 

13:17 Heed your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls and will give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with sighing—for that would be harmful to you.

We are struck with a translational problem in the opening word of this verse. The Greek word carries with it the connotation of “persuasion” and not merely “obedience”, hence our translation of “heed”. To “heed” someone is to pay careful attention to what they’re saying and doing.  Lane helpfully notes that,

The distinctive vocabulary selected by the writer is instructive. Normally in the NT the verb ὑποτασσεσθαι “to subject oneself,” to “obey,” is used to call Christians to the acknowledgement of constituted ordinances of authority (e.g., Rom 13:1-7; 1 Cor 14:33-36; Col 3:18-4:1; Eph 5:21-6:9; 1 Pet 2:13-17, 18-3:7). The writer, however, defines the obligatory conduct of his audience with the verb πείθεσθαι, “to be persuaded,” “to obey.” This verb certainly demands obedience. But the specific quality of obedience for which πείθεσθαι asks is not primarily derived from a respect for constituted structures of authority. It is rather the obedience that is won through persuasive conversation and that follows from it.
This persuasion probably comes from preaching and teaching the gospel and the Scriptures. It should also be noted that this kind of leadership is not domineering or imposing. It is within the context of faithful communication and exemplary living (13:7) in the community, that followers are exhorted to “heed” and “submit” to their leaders. Submission carries with it the idea of finding one’s appropriate place in relationship to one’s leaders. This is therefore a voluntary submitting to appropriate people who are themselves guided and constrained by the Spirit, gospel and the Scriptures. Thus Koester says,

By requesting that listeners heed and yield to their leaders (13:17a), the author assumes that leaders cannot simply impose their will, but depend upon the respect of the community.
The Christian community addressed is served by a team of leaders, not an individual, as is demonstrated from the use of the plural “your leaders.” This is significant because it provides accountability and thus safety for the community of followers, since they are to “heed” and “submit” not to a single person, but rather the team of those appointed to lead them.

The writer has already noted two important features of Christian leadership, namely that of declaring the word of God and exemplary living (13:7). Now he further elucidates their roles by noting that “they are keeping watch over your lives.” The notion of “keeping watch” often suggests a volatile, even hostile, context (Mk. 13:33; Lk. 21:36; Eph. 6:18). Since vs. 9 alerts us to “strange teachings”, the function of keeping watch over the community of disciples would include watching out for destructive or harmful teaching, ideas or practices that may infect the people of God with lies that obscure both their understanding and their praxis. This suggests that leaders should be aware of the influences and affects of the world upon the people of God, and they should respond appropriately as those who are concerned about and care for the people of God (cf. 1 Pet. 5:1-10).

These leaders are, in effect, stewards in the household of God (3:6; 10:19), who exercise authority on the basis of their responsibility before God, a responsibility discharged now in the role of servant leaders who “lose sleep” in order to exercise oversight of the community of believers. (deSilva) 
These leaders, as with all leaders, “will give an account”, which recalls earlier teachings that insinuate a context of judgement before the throne of God (see Luke 16:2; Acts 19:40). A time will come when leaders report back, not only on their own lives and teaching, but they must also account for how they guided and directed the people with whom they were entrusted.

Their diligence is spurred by their awareness of God’s judgement. They are themselves under authority, and must “given an account” of themselves to the Judge of all (12:23), who is a consuming fire (12:29). The realisation that leaders must render an account not only for their own lives but for the care they have shown for the lives of those under their authority should be a powerful check against the natural tendency toward arrogance among those placed in such positions. (Johnson)
Therefore, the writer of Hebrews exhorts the congregation to heed and submit so that this is done “with joy and not with groaning”. Hebrews notes that it was for the “joy” set before Jesus, that he endured the cross (12:2), and thus the work of leadership should be practised with joy, since it is for the well-being and benefit of the church, even though this may require effort, sacrifice and struggle. As Johnson states,

The onerous work of leadership is made joyful when carried out in an atmosphere of trust and cooperation. In contrast, when such dispositions are lacking, leaders “groan” as though under a heavy burden (Job 9:27; 23:2; Isa 19:8; Ezek 21:6; Rom 8:23; 2 Cor 5:2-4; Jas 5:9).
Uncooperative followers who cause distress and anguish for leadership cause themselves harm, and the writer of Hebrews again wants to encourage his audience because he cares for them. He does not want to see them “harmed,” a word which suggests “losing out on an advantage.” Another way to translate it would be, “of no benefit to you” (NLT) or “that would be unprofitable for you.” (NKJV). Leadership is there for the well-being and benefit of followers and if the community does not respond well to biblical leadership, then they lose a significant advantage and will miss the benefit and help of having them involved and instructing their lives.

If the leaders receive the support and cooperation of their fellow believers, however, they can serve as a first line of defence against false teachings from without as well as weakening from within. The fact that the author mentions the inexpediency of making the leaders “groan” in close proximity to their impending account to God for their charge suggests more threatening admonition: not only will the community itself benefit less in the present time if their leader’s ministry is hindered by opposition within the group, but the hearers will fare worse when the leader bear witness to the pride and disobedience of the insubordinate. (deSilva)
In this verse the author of Hebrews encourages his congregation to take serious those who are over them in the Lord. They are accountable to God, and thus the congregation should trust them and obey them as faithful ministers of the word, and as exemplars of the gospel.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Hebrews 13:7 - Leadership in Early Christianity

Hebrews 13 contains 3 verses which speak directly to the issue of leadership. These verses are particularly significant because they alert us to perspectives on leadership not usually mentioned or noticed, especially with regards to the Pauline writings. Beginning with vs. 7, the author looks back at past leaders and notes two features of their lives that are exemplary for the contemporary congregation.
13:7 Continually remember your leaders, those who spoke the word of God to you; contemplate the outcome of their conduct, and imitate their faithfulness.

The congregation is urged to regularly call to mind their leaders. These were people entrusted with the task of guiding and directing them in the journey of following Jesus. The word used for “leaders” is one of several used to describe Christian leaders in the church (cf. Luke 22:26; Acts 14:12; 15:22; 1 Clem. 1:3; 21:6). It is used of leadership in a variety of circumstances, including political, military and religious contexts. The exhortation to remember them suggests that they were good leaders who embodied something worth remembering and learning from.

Firstly, these leaders are described as “those who spoke the word of God to you”, since this is one of the most important functions of biblical leaders (Acts 6:2; 8:14; 13:5; Gal. 6:6; Col. 1:25, 28; 2 Thess. 2:15; 1 Tim 4:11; Tit. 2:1). This is important for several reasons. Firstly, not many people could read and Bible’s were not freely available. There was no local bookshops with devotionals and study bibles to help people grow in their faith and obedience to God. So leaders had to be relied upon to deliver the teachings of Scripture.

“Those,” again plural not singular suggesting many teachers, who instructed them are to be remembered for a) what they taught, and b) how they lived in response to what they taught. These leaders taught not only with their words but also with their lives.  Attridge suggests that,

Like the following summons to “imitate” the faith of the leaders, the call to observe them is part of common early Christian advice to follow those who follow Christ.

This is further seen in the injunction to “contemplate the outcome of their conduct.” They not only spoke the word of God, verbally guiding and instructing them via the teachings of Scripture, but also embodied and practiced God’s ways and will. They were exemplary in their conduct, and thus provided a concrete model of what the word of God looks like when performed in real life. Their teaching was thus not mere theory, but it affected the way they lived and acted as they embraced the values and vision of life in God’s kingdom under God’s reign.

This passage then assumes, though we cannot comment on the extent, that leaders are active in several contexts where their lives can be put on display for followers to observe and consider. This further implies a relationship between the leaders and followers. If it is the role of followers to consider their leaders teaching and exemplary living, this indicates a proactive element on the part of followers to carefully observe/consider their leaders actions in various contexts. It is as if followers are to “take notes” about how their leaders handle various situations, and embody the life of faithfulness to Scriptural teachings. This would then add the responsibility of leaders who are called to such a weighty and important task of moulding and shaping those seeking to follow Jesus.

This is further demonstrated in what Moffatt calls, “their consistent and heroic life,” where the congregation is called to imitate (2 Thess 3:7, 9; 3 Jn. 11) their faithfulness, not just their faith. They have lived in such a way that their lives become heroic, much like the heroes of Hebrews 11.  Lane notes that,
The accent falls specifically on the firmness of faith, which characterised the exemplary conduct of the leaders throughout their lives. The quality of their faith aligns them with the exemplars of faith under the old covenant, whose faithfulness is celebrated in 11:4-38.
This is the goal of leadership as the writer of Hebrews sees it. To faithfully attend to the word of God, leading God’s people in his will and ways, and embodying this reality so that the followers can learn in word and deed what it means to be a disciple of King Jesus. This is why these leaders should be remembered. Leaders are to be the heroes of the community, embodying Godly values, vision and service in the word of God with every facet of their lives on display for the community and the world to witness.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Following Jesus in the Ancient World

The situation faced by the Christians of Anatolia, modern day Turkey, would have been something like this: 

Christians in the first-century Mediterranean world would have attracted widespread but localised ill will for their failure to participate in the religious celebrations that permeated Roman culture – some in honour of the goddess of Rome herself, Roma, others in honour of the emperor and his divine attributes, and so on.  Failing to associate themselves with these religiocultural activities, Christians would have invited social ostracism and other forms of harassment.  Indeed, their behaviours would have been perceived by the general populace as antisocial, perhaps even bordering on the unlawful; failing to participate in these activities, they would have been charged with bringing on the city or town the disfavour of the gods.  Official Roman policy need not have dictated action against Christians for followers of Jesus as Lord to be subjected to mob action on account of their association with the name of Christ.[1]

[1] Achtemeier, Green, Thompson, Introducing the New Testament, 519-20.