A Community Life – ANE Model
First Century churches were in essence spiritual Hebrew households. It was not exactly a carbon copy of the nomadic roots, yet incorporating many of the features to reflect the essence of the thing.
It is hardly necessary to prove we don’t know all those features. All we can do is estimate from archaeological research and a Hebraic reading of the Scripture. When we adjust our own thinking away from our modern Western assumptions and embrace the intellectual climate of the Ancient Near East (ANE), we are able to see the particulars don’t matter nearly so much as the approach. It’s not what you know, but how you come to know it, which is what distinguishes biblical mysticism from Hellenism.
Symbolic logical structures are not natural to our Western minds. We struggle with parabolic language and prescriptions which are indicative, not descriptive. We want to know the very nature of a thing, to analyze it from every angle. God’s ways do not yield to such an approach. We aren’t seeking objective information, but ways to obey the imperatives from God. The only proper approach is indirect and entirely personal.
Over the next few days I hope to explore here the implications of this approach, specifically in describing what a genuine biblical ANE church body, a household in New Israel, would look like. All I can offer is my own personal understanding; there is no pretense of establishing prescriptions which bind others. I actively invite comments, and hopefully they’ll be on topic as described above.
The first item to cover is leadership. In the first church in Jerusalem, half the leadership was built in from the start. Among the things not yet stolen by Hellenism was the basic social organization of the Hebrew people. They lived in the extended family setting. Each household had a head, an elder. A grouping of several households might be a clan, which had another elder at that level. It was basically hereditary feudal rights, in that sense. The New Testament term translated “elder” is pretty much restricted to this meaning.
These elders were the traditional leaders, blood kin or married into the family. The choice was not entirely hereditary, because truly capable leaders might be promoted over the titular heir. A critical element in gaining such trust was not simply talent in taking charge, but an absolute necessity of having earned that trust by demonstrating a devotion to the common welfare. This was leadership by sacrificial love.
The first organizational controversy in that first church was over the lack of eldership for a big slice of the membership. Most members came into the church, not individually, but by entire households. It was by commitment under the elders who repented and embraced Christ. Surely we know some folks in a given household separated because they were simply too much opposed. But there were quite a few who went along without an individual spiritual rebirth; they went because that was their support structure. Indeed, it was their whole life, everything they knew. We scarcely comprehend the depth of such necessity these days. For the large group of widows and others who lacked a support structure because they joined as foreign Jews (“Hellenists”), folks who didn’t originally live in Judea. They didn’t have elders because they didn’t belong to anybody.
So the apostles instructed the Hellenists to form their own households and appoint de facto elders. Lacking any valid blood ties, they substituted spiritual ties and probably various natural affinities. Thus, all the Hellenist Jews from Crete, for example, would gather in a spiritual household. The result was a clan structure which included everyone not already in a traditional clan, and seven men from this mixed Hellenist group were appointed to be their elders. So whether you call it deacon, elder, ruler, or whatever, these terms typically refer to the same basic function in the body.
We discover outside the traditional Judean households there were females serving in these roles in some fashion. Aside from teaching, we see the apostles didn’t balk at matriarchal leadership. We have the Greek feminine of deacon in several places, and several mentions of women in key roles of leadership. However, we note this leadership was restricted to the organizational roles, not spiritual roles. The organization of the church is a matter of spiritually discerned Laws. The Law Covenants, as taught by Jesus, are the living necessity of how humans implement spiritual imperatives.
The spiritual leadership was uniformly male, and Scripture explains it adequately — women aren’t equipped for that stewardship. Slice and analyze it any way you like, but Eve was deceived, and Adam was not. The spiritual leadership is far, far harder to describe simply because the calling is above logic. Granted, we find passages listing important character traits, but the actual description of the job is rather fuzzy. They are servants of the Word, keepers of the fire of truth, walking Scripture. While everyone in the Kingdom should be sensitive to the Spirit of God’s leading, these men were burdened with the teaching and preaching to the mind to make it ready to pull in the harness of the spirit.