Posted by: chuckbumgardner | June 30, 2012

Social Status and Leadership in NT Churches


I’m reading through Osiek and Balch’s Families in the New Testament World: Households and House Churches (Westminster John Knox 1997), and in the section on the social status of Christians in the early church, they pretty much equate high social status with leadership in the church:

It can probably be assumed that those about whom we have some social information were prominent figures in the Corinthian churches.  Given the way the social system functioned, it can also be assumed that if they were prominent in the churches, it was probably because they were already socially prominent at some level: the most distinguished persons of the city, the Jewish community, the neighborhood, the apartment house, and such, who became Christian.  In each social system, each a microcosm of the whole, the most prominent figures would be expected to exercise leadership. (99)

I’ve read this sort of thing before, and it is often connected (as in this volume, 97-98) with the notion that those who were more well-to-do would have acted as patrons of the church, which would meet in their houses; further, it is usually argued or assumed that these patrons (given their societal position and their benefaction toward the church) would have occupied positions of leadership in the church.  Verner (The Household of God: The Social World of the Pastoral Epistles [Scholars Press, 1983]) argues that since the qualifications in 1 Timothy 3 appear to include households with not just “children” but slaves as well (from 3:12, “ruling their children and their own households”) that “the author betrays his assumption that prospective church officers will be householders with sufficient means to own household slaves.  This fact in itself locates these householders in the higher social strata of the Asian cities.” (133)

I deem it quite likely that churches met in the houses of the more well-to-do members of the church, given the lack of dedicated buildings for Christian worship and the natural inclination to meet where there was sufficient room.  And it is well to note that patronage of the church would not disqualify a person from leadership.  However, there seems to be an assumption, as evident in the quote from Oseik/Balch, that prominence in Greco-Roman society automatically equals leadership in the church.  I suggest that this assumption is questionable.

For one thing, the pattern Jesus set down in choosing his disciples, who became leaders in the church at varying levels, does not seem to focus on those who were upper crust, so far as the Gospels seem to indicate (although Matthew as a tax collector would likely have been well-to-do).  Peter, as a case in point, labored in fishing (Matt 4:18) and yet was the most prominent disciple.

For another thing, Jesus seemed to have a penchant for turning conventional wisdom on its head, noting (for instance) how difficult it would be for those who were rich to enter the kingdom, an observation which stunned the disciples.

Still thinking about this one, but it seems that “socially prominent = church leadership” is an unwarranted assumption.  Perhaps my mental grid is still too American!



  1. The archisynagogoi were benefactors and also had positions of leadership in the synagogue, I think. Crispus presumably had been a benefactor of the synagogue. After he converted, many Corinthians (presumably God-fearers), hearing (of his conversion) became believers. This seems to be an example of a socially prominent person exercising influence in the church. I have argued elsewhere that he was named “Sosthenes” and that Paul later included him as co-sender of 1 Corinthians, presumably because of the authority that his name carried in the church of Corinth.

    There is also the tendency of whole households to become Christian after the head of the household converted. This is surely a case of social prominence leading to leadership.

    On the other hand, Paul himself refused patronage. Also, when urging the Corinthians to submit to the household of Stephanas, he appeals to their spirit of service, not to their high social status. And the patrons in the early church did not flaunt their high social status. Instead they were on first-name terms with other Christians. A good example is Gaius of Corinth, who was generally known by his praenomen. The preference for praenomina that we see in the NT was rare in the wider society and reflects a distinctly Christian social ethos, I think.

  2. Yes, I don’t doubt that socially prominent people could and often did act in a leadership capacity in the early churches. I’m hesitant, however, to equate the one with the other.

    As to refusing patronage, I’ve understood Paul to accept support from churches at which he was no longer ministering, just not from those at which he currently found himself. And how would you view the role of Phoebe in Romans 16:1-2, who “has been a *prostasis* of many and of myself as well”?

    And very interesting point about the praenomina! Could you suggest some resources that discuss that point?

    • I think you are right about Paul receiving benefaction from places after leaving them. Interesting question about Phoebe. I wonder if she funded Paul’s trip to Jerusalem.

      I discuss the preference for praenomina in the NT here.

      In March I argued on my blog that the term “the church in their house” referred to Christian households, not to house-churches. We cannot conclude that Prisca and Aquila had leadership roles in the churches of Corinth, Ephesus, and Rome.

      Anyway, you ask a good question about whether social prominence equated with leadership. Did it depend on the type of leadership? I don’t suppose that prophets had to be wealthy. Those who brought the gospel to Europe (Paul, Silas, Titus-Timothy, and Lucius-Luke) were probably all Roman citizens, but I suggest this is because their citizenship gave them legal protection for this dangerous work.

  3. I enjoyed your work on praenomina. Thank you!

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