The Teachings, Part Two
What did John and the writer of Hebrews teach about relationships among believers?
Before we focus on the teachings of Paul we need to address some of those by John and then the writer of Hebrews.
In John's second letter, he addresses it to someone typically translated as "the chosen lady". Some commentators believe the word for "lady" is a proper name and transliterate it as Kuria, but to my knowledge there is no historical basis for this. The Greek word is from the same base as that translated "lord" whenever it is in the male form, per Strong's:
- 2959 Kuria koo-ree'-ah feminine of kurioV – kurios 2962; Cyria, a Christian woman; lady
- 2960 kuriakos koo-ree-ak-os' from kurioV – kurios 2962; belonging to the Lord (Jehovah or Jesus); Master's
- 2961 kurieuo ko-ree-yoo'-o from kurioV – kurios 2962; to rule; have dominion over, lord, be lord of, exercise lordship over
- 2962 kurios koo'-ree-os from kuros (supremacy) – supreme in authority, i.e. (as noun) controller; by implication, Master (as a respectful); God, Lord, master, Sir
- 2963 kuriotes koo-ree-ot'-ace from kurioV – kurios 2962; mastery, i.e. (concretely and collectively) rulers; dominion, government
- 2964 kuroo koo-ro'-o from the same as kurioV – kurios 2962; to make authoritative, i.e. ratify; confirm
Note that the word is not used exclusively of Jesus: it is a verb in Mt. 20:25 (to lord over), used in ref. to Abraham in 1 Peter 3:6, and translated as "master" in many places such as Mt. 10:24 and Rev. 19:16. I point this out as a rebuttal to the argument that kurios is never to be used for ordinary people. But this letter is the only place where the grammatical feminine is used (vs. 1 and 5). So there is no other context to check, in the Bible or in secular literature, that would allow us to translate this instance in a radically different way than when the masculine form is used. So as we examine the Strong's references above, we see what is obviously an arbitrary assignment of a foreign meaning to the Greek word. This is an example of inconsistency at the very least, and likely prejudice. That Christendom has permitted such sophistry for many generations is an indictment upon our willingness to alter scripture for our own ends. It therefore casts a shadow of distrust over those who produce dictionaries for translation, since if they are capable of such things here, what else has been deliberately altered?
With the accurate and faithful rendering of this word as "lord" or "master", we see that it fits the context of a letter written to the leader of a congregation of believers. Had John been writing to a personal friend and family he would certainly have addressed it to the man. The content of the letter is gentle encouragement and praise for someone who is leading and protecting, since in verse 8 he warns against false teachers, something an elder or guardian would be charged with. He further warns against inviting into her home anyone who brought a false teaching. It is known that the early believers met in homes, and it is possible that at least some of these were the homes of elders. So it makes perfect sense to understand that John is writing to such an elder in this case. And as we've already seen, this woman was not the first to have the ekklesia meeting in her home.1
Interestingly, John's third letter which is addressed to a man is more about acts of individual kindness, something usually downplayed for females as not signifying any sort of authority or office. Yet this man was charged with seeing to it that missionaries were not sent out empty-handed (vs. 6). Still, the most influential and powerful person in that congregation was one Diotrephes, since he had the power to throw people out of their fellowship (vs. 9 and 10). Note that this Diotrephes is proud and defiant, acting in ways contrary to the examples of the apostles and out of character with the law of love, even engaging in gossip. This sounds exactly like many Christian leaders today. But more importantly, no such group was to have one person in charge. Jesus said to take matters to the entire congregation if going to them personally didn't work, and Paul only mentioned the whole group when dealing with the man sinning with his stepmother.2 So no individual should ever have such control.
Now to Hebrews. The author is unknown but there are clues that give us some confidence in ruling out various possible candidates. It is the only letter that mentions Timothy in prison (13:23), and Paul never spoke of this. In 2:3 the writer(s)3 say they had not heard Jesus personally, which also would not be true of Paul. And Paul was in the habit of signing his letters, especially to guard against forgery.4 As for other candidates such as Apollos (educated), Barnabas (a Levite), Luke (educated), and Clement of Rome, there would be no reason for them to hide their identity. And that this writer's identity seems to have been deliberately concealed is an important clue as well.5
This time in history saw the rise of persecution against believers, and women were especially vulnerable. But this was also a patriarchal society which would have balked at written teachings from a woman. Even assuming a male author this letter was only reluctantly recognized as part of the canon of scripture, yet God saw to it that it was preserved for us. And as we will learn more about when we come to the letters of Paul, there were women he worked with as equals, one even being entrusted with delivering his letter to the Romans. So all things considered, a female author is certainly plausible.
So who was the likely author? Again referencing the previous footnote, the conclusion Prof. Von Harnack reached was that the author was likely Priscilla:
- The end of ch. 13 shows that the letter was written by someone at least on a par with Timothy (see Rom. 16:3 where she is called a co-worker)
- The ekklesia met in her house (1 Cor. 16:19)
- She and her husband taught the educated and intelligent Apollos (Acts 18)
Some cite the masculine pronoun "he" that goes with the verb "to relate" in 11:32 as proof of male authorship, but who would make the same argument for female authorship based upon a single pronoun, especially in such a long letter? So although no scholar today claims to know for certain who wrote Hebrews, there is no reason to reject Priscilla or any other woman as one of the candidates.
The bulk of the letter concerns the superiority of the priesthood of Jesus over that of Levi and Aaron. Many references are made to the contrasts between the two, but the most critical component of all is found in 7:12, which says, "For when the priesthood is changed, the law must be changed also." Even while the apostles lived there was relentless effort to keep Christians under Jewish law, whether they had formerly been Jews or not. Yet as the writer of Hebrews points out, Jesus is our new High Priest of a new contract or covenant, and it is not possible to keep a law without its prieshood. This is what Jesus was referring to in His illustration of the wineskins;6 the old and the new cannot be mixed. So any teaching or movement which seeks to put Christians under the laws of the old Jewish priesthood is in violation of this teaching. And we will examine the charge of this granting "a license to sin" when we study Paul's writings.
Hebrews 10:25 is held up as an order to attend "church services", but look at the context. It begins in vs. 19 with an appeal to this new priesthood as the basis for confidence in approaching God, because our sins have been cleansed. It is followed by a call to a strong grip on hope, because the One making the promises is faithful. Then people are charged with finding ways to encourage each other to love and act upon that love, and verse 25 follows as part of that same sentence. Lastly, the motivation for these gatherings is the lateness of the hour, an appeal to urgency because our time here is short.
There is no reference here to formal services or even the worship of God, but simply that we should get together to share our spiritual and physical gifts with other believers, building them up. And truth to tell, little gift sharing and building up happens in the typical "church service" or even Sunday School. Most believers sit passively and contribute little more than money, and rarely have even the opportunity to share person-to-person; most of that sort of thing happens outside of formal services. We should also note that throughout this letter, all aspects of the temple of Jesus' new priesthood are in heaven, not on earth. The NT is devoid of any hint at the construction of houses of worship for Christians, as mentioned earlier concerning Jesus' statements to the Samaritan woman at the well. All discussion here in Hebrews is about ways in which the old earthly temple and its practices were shadows or symbols of the heavenly one.
In fact, I would be so bold as to say that having our own unauthorized temples is probably insulting to the prieshood of Jesus, especially the presence of altars within them. Jesus is our Sacrifice; if the symbol of the cross is to remain empty to signify His resurrection, then altars should be left empty as well, if we have them at all. Yet we are told that "the church" is the temple or "storehouse", though no NT writer or Jesus ever says so, and we place offerings on our altars, as though Jesus is an insufficient one. We burn candles like the pagan religions do, we have raised platforms like the ancient Greek and Roman temples had, and we make religious garb for our public orators as if we are under Jewish law.
While I know that most people value all these things and can't imagine being able to properly worship God without them, it is time for us all to re-read Hebrews, and of course all the Letters, and ask ourselves what we really mean by the ways in which we practice Christianity. How does it glorify God to set up symbols that present the sacrifice and prieshood of Jesus as inadequate? How does a business model with layers of management represent the Body of Christ? How does theater seating, facing all one direction, facilitate the sharing of each of our gifts with others? And what kind of school rarely produces a graduate, or has the young teaching the old?
Now to chapter 13, which contains two references to leaders that are often translated so as to convey the idea of obedience to authorities. The literal rendering of verse 7 is this:
remember the ones-leading you who speak to-you the word of-the-God of-whom contemplating the result of-the behavior imitate the faith
(words connected by dashes indicate a single Greek word)
It tells us to focus on those who teach us and imitate their example and faith. There are no words meaning authority over or ruling, or anything close to that. And verse 17 is similar:
be-persuaded to-the ones-leading you and be-deferring they for are-being-vigilant over the souls of-you as account having-to-render that with joy this they-may-do and no ones-groaning disadvantageous for to-you this-is.
Watching over someone is not at all the same as being their boss. We are told here to defer to those that guard us from error, because guardians will be held responsible for protecting those in their care. And again, the guards on the walls are not the magistrates! Their responsibilities have no connection with authority over those they guard. But it is wise to take their advice and listen to their teachings. This is a plea for cooperation, not a command to obey the decrees of a ruler, regardless of how benevolently one might rule.
Up to this point we have examined the teachings of everyone but Paul as they relate to the matter of power and control in Christianity, and we have not seen anything resembling that which has been practiced throughout the history of the ekklesia. The NT teaches mutual submission, deference to the wise, an internal spirituality that requires no props, a community of people who build each other up and unify around the teachings of the apostles, and a consideration of culture without compromising essential tenets of our faith. There is no talk of buildings or sacred objects, no layers of management, no rituals or liturgies or holy days. All we see is unity in the Spirit, love from the heart, diligence in doctrine, and leadership by example. And as I hope we have learned by now, the absence of something in scripture is not to be taken as tacit approval, such that all these external things would be sanctioned by God. But ponder this question: how are all these things different from the other religions and their ways?
- 1 Lydia (Acts 16), Chloe (1 Cor. 1), Nympha (Col. 4)
- 2 Mt. 18:17, 1 Cor. 5:4
- 3 Heb. 5:11, 6:9, 8:1 etc. use "we", but 11:32 uses "I"
- 4 2 Thes. 2:2
- 5 Prof. Adolph Von Harnack in 1900 stated his research suggested that the identity of the writer of Hebrews was deliberately hidden (Probabilia uber die Addresse und den Verfasser des Habraerbriefes, E. Preuschen, Berlin: Forschungen und Fortschritte, 1900), 1:16–41
- 6 Luke 5:37