122. The Gift of “Governance” (kubernēsis) (1 Corinthians 12:28)

Within Paul’s discussion of the grace-gifts provided by the Holy Spirit to disciples of Christ we find the term kubernēsis, translated in the NIV as “administration” (1 Corinthians 12:28). It is not clear exactly what ability Paul is defining through this term. Many English versions link this term with “administration.” However,  the New Living Translation identifies it as “the gift of leadership.” The NRSV renders it as “forms of leadership.” A cognate noun kubernētēs occurs in Acts 27:11 and Revelation 18:17. NIV renders this noun as “pilot” in Acts and as “sea captain” in Revelation. Both contexts refer to a person in charge of a ship.

The term kubernētēs occurs four times in the Greek Old Testament. In Proverbs 23:34 a drunken person is said to “lie as in the heart of the sea and like a navigator (kubernētēs)  in a large wave.” The metaphor suggests a loss of control. Ezekiel prophecies against the mighty merchant empire of Tyre (Ezekiel 27), forecasting its demise. In 27:8 the prophet refers to the pilots (kubernētēs) of its many ships and these leaders watch (27,28) in horror as Tyre “falls in the heart of the sea.” In the Jewish Greek writing IV Maccabees we read (7:1-3) of the Jewish man, Eleazaros, killed by Antiochus  for his Jewish faith. The author provides an extended metaphor describing this man’s faith:

For like a most skillful pilot (aristos kubernētēs), the reason of our father Eleazaros steered the ship of piety on the sea of passions and though buffeted by the stormings of the tyrant and overwhelmed by the mighty waves of the tortures, in no way did it turn the rudders of piety until it sailed into the haven of immortal victory.

In each case this noun represents the person officially in charge of piloting a ship, i.e. ensuring that it arrives at its destination safely. In IV Maccabees 7 pious reason is given this role as the spiritual navigator of the soul.

The cognate verb, which does not occur in the New Testament, also was used four times in the Greek Old Testament. In one case (Proverbs 12:5) we read that “the thoughts of the just are judgments, but the impious guides (kubernōsi) treachery.” In the story of Susanna the Theodotion version describes the corrupt Jewish elders as “elders who were judges, who were supposed to govern (kubernan) the people.” And then twice in Wisdom of Solomon the verb was used in reference to the experience of Noah in the ark. In Wisdom 10:4 God’s wisdom saved the earth, “piloting (kubernēsasa) the righteous man by a worthless piece of wood.” And then again in 14:6 “the hope of the world fled for refuge on a raft and, piloted (kubernētheisa) by your hand, left to the world the seed of a new generation.” The sense of direction and oversight is clearly present in these metaphorical applications of the verb. The usage in Susanna 5 with the sense “govern” is particularly interesting.

And then there are three occurrences of kubernēsis, all in Proverbs (the use of this terminology primarily in the Wisdom tradition should not be overlooked). According to Proverbs 1:5 when “the discerning” acquire “wisdom and discipline,” they will also “acquire direction (kubernēsin).” The writer of Proverbs warns that “they who have no direction (kubernēsis) fall like leaves” (11:14).  And then in 24:6 we learn that “with strategic planning (meta kubernēseōs) war is conducted.”

The use of this cluster of cognate terms in the Greek translations of the Old Testament and associated literature primarily refer to “giving direction” with the sense of directing towards a specific goal, one that often is spiritual and/or moral. The use of these terms to describe piloting a ship provided a natural application of this language to a statesman responsible for direction affairs of state. Plato for example (Euthydemus 291c) describes the practice of kingly rule as panta kubernōsa — all about directing/steering, with the sense of ruling. Frequently deity is assigned this function. For example in 3 Maccabees 6:2 Eleazaros the priest addresses God in prayer, saying “O king, dread sovereign most high, almighty God, who govern (diakubernai) all creation with compassion.” As well in Wisdom of Solomon 14:3, with reference to Noah’s ark, the author affirms that “it is your providence, Father, that pilots (diakubernai) it, because you have made a way in the sea and a safe path in the waves.” Josephus (Antiquities 10.278) criticizes the Epicureans “who exclude Providence from human life and refuse to believe that God governs its affairs or that the universe is directed (kubernasthai) by a blessed and immortal Being to the end that the whole of it may endure,…” Philo  (De Ebrietate 199) describes those who “postulate a marvellous providence, caring for the whole and each part, exerted by a deity who guides and steers (hēnichountos kai kubernōntos) it and makes safe its steps,…”

Given that deity often has the responsibility to “govern, direct, steer” the universe, it should come as no surprise that one of the “gifts” that the Holy Spirit supplies to Christ’s church would be kubernēsis, i.e. the act of serving as helmsman and piloting the church safely and carefully. Further, its association with state governance, i.e. the rule of kings, indicates that it means more than merely “administration,” i.e. management. There lies within this word a more fundamental responsibility, an equipping for governance. It should come as no surprise that this Greek term etymologically forms the basis for our English words “govern, governance.” I would suggest then that Paul in 1 Corinthians 12:28, using a plural form kubernēseis refers to acts of direction, governance, that provide careful guidance for the church, as an extension of God’s providential oversight. M. Mitchell (Paul and the Rhetoric of Reconciliation, 163) adds the contextual nuance that such “steerage” is with a view to preserving harmony, unity and concord. In other words such governance is not exercised in pursuit of some personal vision, but rather with a view to a form of governance “which resounds with implications for the unity of the church community” (164). This is the opposite of anarchy. Although Paul recognizes different functions and giftings within the body, there is nevertheless a constant emphasis on unity and contribution to the good of the whole that this gift of governance is designed to support, sustain and encourage.

Whether this gifting should be expressed by every lead pastor can be debated, but certainly within then total leadership team of the congregation, this charism should and must find expression.


      i. does your exercise of pastoral leadership within your congregation include a form of “steerage” that works to unity and concord?

    ii. if this is not your specific gifting, who within your congregation’s leadership team does exercise this gifting and how are you encouraging them in its expression?

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