the weblog of Alan Knox

Ruling or Leading?

Posted by on Jul 10, 2009 in elders, office, service | 9 comments

Two years ago on this blog, I was stepping through several passages and phrases that are used in Scripture to describe elders and other Christian leaders. I wrote one post called “Ruling or Leading?” as part of that series. I think the distinction between ruling and leading is a very important distinction. I hope you enjoy this post:


Ruling or Leading?

Back in March, I began studying “Leadership, Obedience, and Authority” in the context of the church. I’ve posted a few blogs as I’ve continued this study. This is another post in this extended series.

In the last post of this series, called “Exercising Authority…“, I examined several Greek terms that mean “exercise authority”, or “rule over”, or “be the master of” – in other words, terms that mean “to tell someone else what to do”. These terms are not used in a positive sense in the New Testament. This was my conclusion in that post:

So far, in these passages, there is no indication that one person should exercise authority over another person in a spiritual sense. In fact, it seems like just the opposite is indicated. But, if the apostles were not to exercise authority, and Paul did not exercise authority, and Peter told elders not to exercise authority, then I’m not sure where the command for leaders to exercise authority over other people is coming from. However, I’m still searching Scripture. It is possible that I’ve missed something, or that there are other passages of Scripture where leaders are instructed to exercise authority.

In this post, I want to examine two more Greek verbs that are occasionally translated “rule” in various translations. The verbs are:

προίστημι (proistÄ“mi) – (translated “rule/lead” in 1 Tim 5:17; Rom 12:8) According to the standard Greek lexicon (BDAG) this verb can mean 1) to exercise a position of leadership, rule, direct, be at the head of, or 2) to have an interest in, show concern for, care for, give aid.

ηγέομαι (hÄ“geomai) – (translated “ruler/leader” in Luke 22:26; Heb 13:7, 17, 24) Again, according to BDAG, this verb can mean 1) to be in a supervisory capacity, lead, guide, or 2) to engage in an intellectual process, think, consider, regard.

Most importantly, in some cases, ηγέομαι (hÄ“geomai) is used in a sense to mean the opposite of a servant: “But not so with you. Rather, let the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves” (Luke 22:26 ESV). From the context of Luke 22:26, it is clear that Jesus is telling his followers to be “leaders” who act as “servants”. Thus, the extreme range of ηγέομαι (hÄ“geomai) that means the opposite of “servant” cannot be in view here. Would Paul or the author of Hebrews or another believer promote a type of leadership that was condemned by Jesus?

Thus, in English, the word “rule” carries the connotation of making a decision for someone else, exercising authority over someone else, displaying dominance through the exercise of power. Meanwhile, the word “lead” can have similar connotations, but it can also carry a different meaning: “travel in front of”, “go in advance of others”, “guide”.

So, while both “rule” and “lead” are possible glosses for the two Greek verbs, and since the idea of “ruling” or “exercising authority” is always cast in a negative in the context of the relationship between one believer and another believer, it would seem that “lead” in the since of “walking ahead of” or “guiding” would be a better English translation. This would also explain Peter’s insistence that elders “shepherd” by being “examples to the flock” (1 Peter 5:2-3).

There are a few other passages that can help us understand how the New Testament authors used this verbs in the context of the church. For example, in 1 Timothy 3:5, the Greek verb προίστημι (proistēmi) is paralleled with another verb, επιμελέομαι (epimeleomai):

“For if someone does not know how to manage (προίστημι) his own household, how will he care for (επιμελέομαι) God’s church?” (ESV)

In this verse, Paul uses the verb προίστημι (proistÄ“mi) to describe someone’s relationship to their family, while he uses the verb επιμελέομαι (epimeleomai) to describe that person’s relationship to the church. While προίστημι (proistÄ“mi) can carry a range of meanings from “rule” to “lead” (as has already been described), the verb επιμελέομαι (epimeleomai) does not have the same range of meanings. In this case, it seems that προίστημι (proistÄ“mi) is used with the secondary meaning of “care for” not “rule”.

Thus, when the New Testament is looked at as a whole, and when relationships between believers are examined, it seems that believers are never instructed to “rule” one another, but that one believer may be called on to “lead” another believer or a group of believers. The concept of a Christian “ruler” who makes decisions for other believers, or who directs the lives of other believers, or who tells other believers what to do is not found in the pages of the New Testament. Instead, the New Testament authors call mature believers to lead by being examples to and serving other believers. Followers of Jesus Christ have only one ruler. He is the living, breathing, ready, able, wise, knowing, powerful, present, and authoritative chief shepherd. And, no one can serve two masters.


Comments are closed. If you would like to discuss this post, send an email to alan [at] alanknox [dot] net.

  1. 7-10-2009


    I think there is where I struggle the most. The fact is that many say we are “led” by “leaders”; however, they are “ruled” by leaders. The leaders decide where the money should go, they decide who to evangelize, they decide who to discipline, they decide what should be shared, they decide all the decisions and the expectations for those who are ruled is to sit by and listen or they are “unsubmissive” and should be dealt with. This is called lording, it is just cloaked in something else.

    Now let me add, many grew up that way, have been taught that way and fight for this way because of that. So I don’t want to come with a hammer, but I do pray that those who have been set aside by the Spirit to lead would heed your words and begin to see the great harm that is caused by perpetuating such a system. I know as a parent it is hard to let go of maturing children. I remember seeing a commercial and the daughter was asking the dad to borrow the car to go to the movies but all he saw was a 7 year old girl with pigtails and the narrator of the commercial says “you have to let them grow up some time” and then the girl becomes a young adult and he tosses her the key. Eventually we have to entrust people to the Spirit in order to free them and spur them on to maturity and so that we can pursue new disciples and encourage them toward the same maturity. I remember my grandmother telling me as a child “at 18 you gotta go, ain’t gon be no grown folks staying with me”, however today, we see the sad case of the “Stepbrothers” (a Will Ferrell movie) where perpetual adolescence dominates. I think the same thing happens in the church and again both parents and leaders have good intentions of protecting those in their charge, they just forget that they are but stewards and not owners.

  2. 7-10-2009


    Yes, you’ve brought up a huge difficulty. Changing from “ruling” to “leading” is a paradigm shift that brings about alot of discomfort. Plus, it requires people (both leaders and others) to either take on or refuse personal responsibilities from themselves. Given the general professionalization of leadership, it is also difficult for people to understand that they are responsible for studying, teaching, serving, etc. even though they are not professionals and not being paid.


  3. 7-11-2009


    I am a pastor of a small church in Belleville MI. We are a new church, started in March of ’08. I am one of three elders who have equal weight in all matters. The matters that we attend to are finding ways to encourage the flock to follow Jesus. We believe and prayerfully strive to act as those who get on the most basic level with people and help them; spiritually, emotionally and physically. We like the model presented by Leonard Doohan with the percolator. bottom up leadership, not top down leadership. We like to say that we are not Mr. Coffee we are an old percolator coffee pot.

    Every decision of policy and major expenditure comes from the leadership council. The leadership council, which is 8 men, two of which are also elders, decides whether we want to bring issues to the congregation for discussion and approval before we consider the matter closed. If the congregation lets us know that we are off base, then we don’t move forward on that issue. If the congregation likes the proposal we move forward. No one person, even me as the pastor, or the elders or even the leadership council has independent decision making power.

    A decentralized power structure is not is not popular amongst most pastors. I find it quite liberating not to have my hands in either the money nor how it is spent, not to have to decide for everyone else how the music should go, the Sunday School classes should go or anything else but my sermon, Bible study, my own Sunday School class, and outreach projects that I find and invite people to should go. Our congregation knows that anyone can bring any issue to the elders or the leadership and they don’t need my approval.

    I lead by doing ministry in my own small way and asking the congregation if they would like to come along and watch the Spirit work for the glory of God. This has been hard for a group that was an Independent Baptist Church where we all needed approval from the pastor to do ministry. I have to tell my congregation all the time that I am not special, just Biblically educated and willing to be the shepherd, not their king. A shepherd would be silly to think that they rule sheep. Shepherds show the sheep were the good grazing is and is the caretaker of the needs of the sheep.

    Needless to say, I fully agree with you and wish more pastors would stop being kings and start being shepherds.

  4. 7-11-2009


    Thank you for your example to us and to the church.


  5. 7-12-2009


    I just moved from Belleville and my friend James just moved to Belleville. I will have him check you guys out!

  6. 7-13-2009

    Hi Alan
    You said ‘The concept of a Christian “ruler” who makes decisions for other believers, or who directs the lives of other believers, or who tells other believers what to do is not found in the pages of the New Testament’
    How would you answer the challenge to this that a lot of teaching involves telling other believers what to do, eg Titus 2:15 ‘encourage and rebuke with all authority’ (NIV), 1Tim 4:11’Command and teach these things’: 1 Tim 6:17 ‘Command those who are rich…’; 1 Tim 6:18 ‘ Command them to do good…’
    Those who would oppose our understanding of the difference between ruling and leading would cite these verses as indicating that leading DOES involve telling other believers what to do in the form of an authoritative command.
    Any thoughts in response?

  7. 7-13-2009


    Yes, I understand how those Scripture passages are usually used. I also understand that those passages that instruct all believers to instruct or admonish or rebuke are not considered in the same examination. I would also point out that these instructions from Paul are given to Titus and Timothy, who were not elders. Thus, I would say, we all have the responsibility to instruct, admonish, and rebuke as we see others living a life that is not consistent with the gospel, and that we must do so with gentleness.


  8. 8-24-2009

    I know that I’m waaaay behind here, but I thank you for posting this article. Since I posted here last (months ago) our weekly gathering has seen some good growth and we’re asking the LORD to show us His plan for it all. I’ve found this article and, most importantly, the exposition of the Scriptures within it, to be extremely helpful. Thanks Alan.

  9. 12-3-2009


    I know I’m 6 months behind in this conversation, but I’d like to share something which I think might be relevant (unless I’ve misunderstood the gist of your comment). In relation to the Bible giving plenty of examples where leaders are exhorted to ‘command’ the church to do good and ‘to rebuke with all authority’, I think it’s important for us to remember that the leaders are only ‘commanding’ us to submit to God’s Word. Leaders have no authority to tell the rest of the church to submit to leaders’ ideas, comments or opinions; but only to submit to God’s Word – to put His Word into practise. This is vastly different from having authority to tell us when to turn up for church meetings, how much money to give and where to give it and so forth. There are so many areas of life where God gives us freedom to choose, to make up our own mind – the only area we don’t have freedom (if we claim to follow Jesus) is in the areas of what’s right and wrong. Thus, leaders’ ‘authority’ over the church only extends to exhorting us to follow the Lord and do good … and as it’s been pointed out elsewhere on this blog, it’s really everyone’s duty to look out for each other this way.