Academic journal article Anglican Theological Review

Governance Egalitarianism in Jesus' Teaching

Academic journal article Anglican Theological Review

Governance Egalitarianism in Jesus' Teaching

Article excerpt


It has been claimed that Jesus sought to construct a community or church of equals. By this is meant a "democratic decision-making assembly of equals," as counterposed to "the structures of domination and exclusion that are institutionalized in Greco-Roman patriarchy."1 If this contention is valid, the church can be regarded as the precursor and model for the new creation at Jesus' Second Coming. Proponents of this view hold the model to be the archetype of community intended to characterize social organization in general, seeking to function according to the guidelines Jesus establishes. Governance egalitarianism does not preclude the existence of leaders within the group. These might be appointed by Jesus, or, after Easter, by election, consensual agreement, or lot within the community itself. An analogy with modern governance egalitarianism might be made. In worker cooperatives, where governance egalitarianism prevails, managers may be appointed by the workforce, exercising given authority within the workplace, but subject to recall by the workforce. Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza puts it that "leadership functions" are compatible with "decentralized horizontal social structures."2

Defining Terms

Jesus never said that he aimed to form a community of equals, nor did he explicitly advocate egalitarianism. Few equality-related terms occur in scripture, and no operational models of egalitarianism existed in first-century Palestine.

An understanding of what egalitarianism means has to be approached by using modern categories. To what extent these relate to biblical construals is the issue. This is a methodology compatible with the social scientific approach to biblical interpretation. Here, "a suitable model accepted in the social-scientific community" is selected, then the model is used "to form adequate scenarios from reading the document in question."3 The models used here are contemporary understandings of equality, egalitarian, governance egalitarianism, hierarchy, and status.

Deductions of governance egalitarianism in the Jesus movement are sometimes derived from the idea of status reversal that features fso prominently in Jesus' teaching, and that has been described as one of the core themes of biblical faith.4 The claim is that Jesus advocated status reversal in his community, that renunciation of status is a model Jesus presents to the world, thereby creating a community in which people were treated equally, without discrimination between them. At the least, this assertion requires a definition of status. Today, status measures a person's standing or position in relation to others in an organization or group. In this way, status is closely related to honor or prestige. Rank is akin to status, indicating a place on a scale, or in a graded body. According to Alex Law, "Status groups depend on highly restricted and internally regulated forms of social intercourse."5

Gerd Theissen suggests that "this [status] motif was called humility" in earlier times, the "willingness on the part of those of high rank to serve others." If "every human encounter between great and small requires the great to come down to the level of the small," as in Jesus' group, how far is this possible in hierarchical groups? One view is that it is not possible, requiring change in the way power and authority are exercised in organizations. The issue, therefore, is how far Jesus' teaching that each member of the Christian community "must be ready to be everyone's servant"6 implies the desirability of suppression of hierarchy, and thereby governance egalitarianism, within the community. Does Jesus' instruction stop short at personal behavior, or does it suggest how groups should be organized? In one view, structural change is required, with members of the community having equal say in management and executive policymaking. The question of this paper is whether it can be established that Jesus intended his followers to function in this egalitarian manner of decision-making. …

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