A Word on Which the World Turned

Kubernesis. It is a word that falls clumsily on our ears. This is because it is the English way of writing a Greek word. Yet it is a word that defined a dramatic shift in the course of the world, and it grants a meaning we ought to reclaim in our time.

It comes from 1 Corinthians 12:28.  Here, the Apostle Paul is describing the gifts of God for his people, the various empowerings that believers are given in order to serve. This is how we come to the word kubernesis. In the King James Version of the Bible, it is translated as “governments.” In some weak modern versions, it is rendered merely “guidance.” Yet it means much more.

At the time of the birth of Christianity, the word was used to describe a helmsman, one who piloted a ship. Plato translated it as “captain.” For us today, it would mean a leader, the one setting the direction, the one at the head of a team working to reach a destination.

God was saying through Paul that he was giving a gift of leadership, one that could flow through believers of any gender, ethnicity or background. It was a gift intended for serving others, within the church, yes, but also in the broader society.

This was new. The ancient world had long wrestled with the idea of power and how it was used. Early in human history, most controls of society came from either military or religious domination. One nation conquered another and the ruler of the victorious nation ruled all. Or, an emperor was deemed a god and so held sway. This was the way of things until fledgling democracies began to arise just before the Christian era. The matter of political authority was much debated. Were only a few graced by the gods with the gifts to lead? Was only an elite so empowered? Always the ancient world wrestled with virtue. How was it created? How was it taught? Why was it in such short supply?

Then came Jesus. And the Day of Pentecost. And the birth of a church supernaturally empowered to change the world.

Among the gifts God granted was this kubernesis, this gift of leading, of piloting, of captaining a ship to its destined port. Armed with this and all the gifts God gave in that age, the early church began to recognize and send out gifted leaders. This is when the world began to change.

Armed with this and all the gifts God gave in that age, the early church began to recognize and send out gifted leaders. This is when the world began to change.

As the apostles and their disciples preached the transforming gospel of Jesus, believers also began to lead in answering the suffering of the Roman world. Under the law of pater familias, for example, Roman fathers could choose not to accept their newborn children. With a simple downward gesture of the father’s thumb, servants would remove a child from the family home to expose it on the city walls or to throw it from a bridge into the raging waters below. Seeing this evil, the Christians organized to answer it. They sent out teams to collect abandoned babies and even stationed deacons below bridges to rescue children meant for death. Then, they raised these children as their own.

It was the same with the aged. In the Roman world, the elderly were expected to commit suicide so as not to be a burden. Christians opened their homes to these souls and even started early versions of senior homes to care for the aged as God intended: with love, devotion, and respect.

There was more. In 1 Corinthians 6, Paul told believers not to go to Roman courts to have disputes settled. It brought disrepute to the church. Instead, he instructed, disputes ought to be decided by wise ones within the body of believers. The first church courts arose, then, and they quickly gained a reputation for the justice and compassion that the secular courts lacked. In time, non-Christians began appealing to Christian courts, confident that wisdom and fairness would prevail.

A symbol of this historic change survives to our day. Think of the vestments worn by Catholic or Anglican clergy. Picture the vestments of the Pope on a high holy day. These are not styled after the Jewish priesthood of the Old Testament period as we might expect. They are instead remnants of the garments worn by Roman judges. This is because the day arrived in which the Christian courts were held in such high regard in the Roman Empire that the Christian leaders were asked to wear the garb of the Roman judiciary.

If we lead well while we proclaim our gospel well, we can again transform and win an age as vile and desperate as Rome ever was.

In other words, the early Christians led, both within the church and without. They earned a hearing for their gospel by “piloting” well, by meeting the needs of society, and by being more effective in it all than the surrounding society had ever been. It was commonly said in the Roman world, “These Christians love our people more than we do.” And so it was.

We know that the gospel of Jesus is powerful and that it transformed the Roman world. We often forget, though, that it was also the leadership genius and compassion of the early Christians that won a hearing for that gospel and offered the world entirely new ways of creating a just society. It was because the early Christians led, led well, and led with the heart of their heavenly Father. We should reclaim this heritage, for we are living in an age that looks much like the Roman Empire at the dawn of our faith. It should be an encouragement to us, for if we lead well while we proclaim our gospel well, we can again transform and win an age as vile and desperate as Rome ever was. May it be so.


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