105: “Describing ‘Leadership’ in the New Testament (proistēmi 1 Thessalonians 5:12)”

In Paul’s writings the verb proistēmi occurs eight times.1 His use of this verb spans the entire frame of his writings from 1 Thessalonians to 1Timothy. In his earliest and latest letters the verb occurs in contexts that describe church leadership functions. In fact it is one of the few terms we have in the New Testament that gives us some indication of leadership functions in these early Pauline house churches.

Yet it is a puzzling term, being open to several translation options. The Revised Standard Version, for example, rendered it in Romans 12:8 as “he who gives aid” but the New International Version translates that context as “if it is leadership….” Weymouth’s version suggests “one who presides.” Today’s New International Version has “if it is to lead” but then in footnote offers the alternative “if it is ‘to provide for others’.” Similarly the New American Standard Version has “he who leads” but in the margin has the alternative “Or, gives aid.” The English Standard Version follows the same strategy as the New American Standard Version. And then there are the two occurrences in Titus 3:8,14 where the term is often translated in the sense of “devoted to,” emphasizing the importance of good works in Christian living.

This is the question then, does the word refer to leadership, defining “those in charge”, or is it defining a leadership function, namely “to give aid, to care for, guard/protect.” Or does this term combine both elements, providing us with a vivid description of the function of leading servants in the church community? This is an important question because many translations of 1 Timothy 5:17 e.g. English Standard Version (“Let the elders who rule well”) with this term define an elder’s role as a ruling role. Such a rendering has significant implications for our understanding of church polity and church leadership roles, if this was in fact Paul’s intended meaning. “Elder rule” is a widely accepted understanding of the role of ‘eldership’, but something that has often been misapplied to the detriment of God’s people.

In 1Timothy 3:4-5 Paul plainly links this term with the role of a husband and father in the first century Hellenistic household. Twice (with reference to an episkopos) we find the same expression: v.4 “managing (proistamenon) his own household (what is managed is defined in the genitive case) well (kalōs)”; v.5 “if someone does not know how to manage (prostẽnai) his own household (genitive case).” This construction is repeated in v.12 (with reference to deacons): “managing (proistamenoi) well (kalōs) their children (genitive case) and their households (genitive case).” In these contexts the verbal action affects people.2

The same construction occurs in Titus 3:8,12 (verb followed by a noun affected in the genitive case, but in these instances it is not a person), but the form of proist ēmi is the present middle infinitive. In both cases the infinitive form (proistasthai) communicates what the subject should “give careful attention to” or “learn how to.” Paul in these cases urges Titus to teach Christians to consider and learn how to “manage, act as patrons of”, i.e. champion, good works. This construction is the same as that used in 1 Tim. 3:5 (verb “to know”, followed by an infinitive form prostēnai, which in turn affects people identified by a noun in the genitive case). Given the similarity of construction, i.e. the same syntax in 1 Tim. 3:5 and Titus 3:8,14, presumably the same meaning is intended for proistēmi in all three contexts. If one is “devoted to or championing good works” in Titus 3:8,14, then it would seem reasonable to translate the construction the same way in 1 Tim. 3:5, i.e. “devoted to or championing his own household.” There does not seem to be any reason to propose a different lexical meaning for the aorist active and present middle infinitive forms in these different contexts.

The use of proistēmi to describe household relations occurs several times in the Greek translation of the Old Testament, the Septuagint. After Amnon raped Tamar (2 Reigns (Samuel) 13:17), he told his young male servant (paidarion) “who managed (ton proestēkota) his household (genitive oikou)” to force her to leave and bar the door after her. In an oracle of Amos (6:10) a message is sent “to those who manage (tois proestēkosi) the household (genitive oikias)” in which lie the remains of ten dead men. In the apocryphal story “Bel and the Dragon,” part of the Daniel materials in the Septuagint, the priests of the temple where the image of Bel is set are described (in one Greek version of the story, v.8) as “those who manage the temple (tous proestēkotas tou hierou).”

We find a different meaning in 1 Maccabees 5:19. After he has restored proper worship in the Jerusalem temple, Judas Maccabeus receives word of attacks upon Jewish people in outlying regions. He decides to send two forces to deal with these situations and to leave Iosephus, son of Zacharias, and Azarias with the remainder of the army to protect Judea. He orders them, “Protect this people (prostēte tou laou toutou).” Here the sense is clearly metaphorically to stand in the front and act as guardian, i.e. manage with a sense of protecting, giving appropriate aid to someone. In Proverbs 26:17 we find the saying “like one grabbing a dog’s tail so is he who champions (ho proestōs…kriseōs) a cause (or, judicial case) not his own.”3 Here again the metaphorical sense is of one who stands in front to protect, guard, and thus champion a cause. A similar sense occurs in 4 Maccabees (roughly contemporaneous with Paul’s writings). The sixth of seven Jewish brothers, being tortured to force them to recant their Jewish religious views, dies claiming that “the bodyguards assist us (proestēkasin hẽmōn) not as those representing a tyrant, but as those representing the divine law” (11:27).4

Within the Greek Old Testament we discover two primary meanings. One is to manage a household or temple and the other is to stand in protection of someone or something. Perhaps this is also the sense we should read in Isaiah 43:24. Yahweh says that Israel’s sacrifices do not really protect them from their sinful activities. Rather it is Yahweh himself who “protects you (proestēn sou) in your sins and iniquities.”5 He is the one “who blots out your acts of lawlessness” (43:25).

In a mid-second century A.D. inscription from Ephesus that announced the restoration of religious activities for the goddess Artemis, the term proistẽmi occurs several times in relationship to various roles.6 In the first instance the goddess is described as “leader (or protector?) of our city (p]roestōsa tẽs poleōs)” (line B8). She is the tutelary deity of the city and thus brings benefaction and glory to it through her actions. In this sense she functions as the city’s divine patron, protecting and aiding its cause, even as the city’s inhabitants give her homage.

A second usage applies to the person named Titus Priscus who is being honoured in this inscription for the financial and other support he has given to the religious celebrations in behalf of Artemis. He is the “leader of the festival (proestōtos tẽs panẽgureōs)” (A16-17). In line C4 Titus is again mentioned and the restored text suggests the title panẽguriarchẽn, translated as “leader of the festival,” is applied to him. He is then honoured because he was “the first to conduct the festival in its entirety…obtained festal holidays for the entire month…established the Artemisaic contest and increased the prizes for the contestants and erected statues of the ones who won” (C6-15). In these contexts the term proestōs “connotes leader, patron, supervisor and director.”7 Perhaps in our contemporary jargon we would also call him one of the sponsors of this event. Horsley comments that this inscription demonstrates the close connection in antiquity between public leadership and benefaction. While there is a “directive and ruling function,” this is intimately bound up with required “care and patronage” in support of the event.8

Josephus in his writings gives additional evidence that this verb has diverse connotations. In his autobiography he tells of his run-ins with the leaders of the city of Tiberias in Galilee. He eventually overcomes their rebellion and requires “ten leaders (proestōtas) of the people” to be held as hostages to guarantee the city’s compliance.9 He also used it to describe the activities of Baasha, one of the kings of the Northern Israelite Kingdom (1 Kings 15:33). Instead of “governing the people (prostēnai tou plẽthous) ” justly and piously, he became the “champion of wickedness.”10 Using this verb in connection with royal oversight indicates that this verb can convey the idea of governance.

Josephus can as well use this verb to mean “protect.” For example, he describes those who take over command of Israel from Joshua (Joshua 23:1) as “careless guardians (prostantōn) of the common weal.”11 When Rome establishes its power over Palestine, Julius Caesar appoints John Hyrcanus who as the “ethnarch of the Jewish nation” and the high priest will be “the protector (proistētai) of those Jews who are unjustly treated.”12 In theTestament of the Twelve Patriarchs the material assigned to Joseph (2:6) describes God as one who “offers assistance” or “grants protection.”

Within Paul’s letters the initial occurrence of the term in 1 Thessalonians 5:12 links it with the language of pastoral care. The participle proistamenous is one of a cluster of three (tous kopiōntas en humin kai proistamenous humōn en kuriōi kai nouthetountas humas) all linked by the single initial article. The first and last participles refer to spiritual leaders who “labour…and instruct by correcting error and enforcing good behaviour.” The application of these activities specifically to the Thessalonian believers is emphasized by the repeated use of the second person plural pronoun with each participle. I would suggest the thrust of the term proistamenous here is more in the sense of protective care-giving, i.e. standing between perceived threats and the Christian believers such that they are kept safe from evil. Perhaps vs.14-22 define how this pastoral care was being applied. The leader of a household would normally fulfill such a role with respect to his household. Extending this to the people who formed the church of Christ meeting in his house would constitute a natural extension of this patronage and hospitality.

The context of Romans 12:8 similarly locates this verb primarily within a context of care-giving. Paul is describing the various ways Christians contribute to the health of the body of believers. V.8 lists “the one exhorting with exhortation, the one giving with sincere motive, ho proistamenos en spoudēi, the one displaying mercy with cheerfulness.” Each one describes a ministry which is a work of love.13 Perhaps the translation in Kittel is most adequate, “he who cares with zeal.”14

The three occurrences in 1 Timothy 3:4,5,12 all concern the qualifications that a local church should consider when entrusting a person with spiritual leadership. The terms episkopos (3:1-2) and diakonos (3:8) describe two roles of ministry. Whether these nouns define formal offices or refer to functions within a house church remains debated. We just do not know enough about the development of house churches and their inter-relationship within cities and regions at that time to be certain. What we do know is that the initial churches were based in households, guided generally by the “father” of that household. The general term describing such people by virtue of their household role was “elder.” This was not an office per se, but a recognized role in the household and community based upon status. The general oversight of a household could be described as episkopē (cf. Philippians 1:1; 1Timothy 3:1) and so it would be a simple step to use this same term to describe the patronage role that a household leader, i.e. an elder, would assume as a church became associated with his household. When Paul requires those who give such oversight to have demonstrated “good management of their household” (cf. 5:8) prior to being entrusted with this spiritual status, he is probably working with this leadership structure. The emphasis in 3:4,5,12 seems to be on good care (note the use of the verb epimelēsetai in v.5, which means to provide care for; compare usage in the story of the Good Samaritan, Luke 10:34,35).

This leads us then to the occurrence in 1Timothy 5:17. There is no warrant in the material we have reviewed regarding Paul’s use of this term to translate it as “to rule,” with its potential negative and authoritarian connotations. Supervisory leadership is perhaps the idea, but what seems to be at the heart of such leadership is benefaction that assists and cares for those who need protection. To accomplish this protective care requires good oversight and management. Within the religious life of a house church teaching is a primary means to provide this care, whether it is exhortation, admonition, thanksgiving, or refutation of false ideas. So a more precise translation, in my view, would be “those who exercise protective care well are worthy of double honour, particularly those who labour in word and teaching.”15

I would conclude by suggesting that Paul’s use of proistēmi concerns the function of spiritual care that incorporates protection, good management, and benefaction. Yes, leadership would be required to accomplish this, but there is no necessary notion of “rule” in Paul’s use of the term. Moulton and Milligan many years ago concluded that “the word cannot be a technical term of office.”16 I suspect that the metaphor of ‘shepherding’ used several times in the New Testament as an analogy to describe the nature and function of spiritual leadership in the church well expresses the integration of protecting, supervisory management and good caring that a shepherd has to provide for the nurture of the sheep with which he has been entrusted.


  1. finding the biblical balance in church leadership between caring and oversight requires constant calibration. Church leaders should not assume that achieving this balance in one season of ministry continues unchanged into a new season. Many things influence, both internal and the external to the person. Perhaps it is time for you to assess the balance in your ministry leadership;
  2. the protecting role as a component of spiritual leadership is either neglected or used as an excuse for abusive behaviour. Even the choices we make about which teaching we consider errant can be a function of neglect or abuse, displaying personal preference rather than focused upon the significant interests of the faith community;
  3. stimulating our motivation to care can be a significant spiritual battle. Let us not underestimate Satan’s strategies that lead us to lose our love for the saints.

  • 1Rom.12:8; 1 Th.5:12; 1 Tim.3:4,5,12; 5:17; Tit. 3:8,14. All forms are intransitive.
  • 2We do not have space in this brief article to consider how the references to hupotagē, usually translated “in subjection” help us understand the role of the household elder, i.e. the father.
  • 3A New English Translation of the Septuagint (NETS).
  • 4The NETS translation suggests “govern us” as a rendering, but I think, given the context of successful martyrdom, the focus is more on protective assistance given to persevere and the use of the term “bodyguard” would support this understanding, in my opinion. Bodyguards protect, they normally do not govern. Consider the usage in Herodotus IX, 107 where the noun doruphoroi is subject of proestēsan and plainly the verb means “stand before someone in protection,” in this manner rendering assistance.
  • 5Again I differ from the translation of NETS which has “I have stood before you.”
  • 6The entire inscription with translation and commentary is found in New Documents Illustrating Early Christianity Volume 4 by G.H.R.Horsley (Macquarie University, 1987), 74-82.
  • 7Ibid., 77.
  • 8Ibid., 82.
  • 9Josephus, Vita 163.
  • 10Josephus, Antiquities VIII 300.
  • 11Antiquities V 90.
  • 12Antiquities XIV 196.
  • 13G.Kittel, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament Volume VI, 701.
  • 14Ibid.
  • 15Note that in 1 Timothy 5:17 we have two of the three terms that occur in 1 Thessalonians 5:12.
  • 16James Moulton and George Milligan, The Vocabulary of the Greek Testament (Hodder and Stoughton Limited, 1930), 541.

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