he who exhorts, in his exhortation; he who gives, with liberality; he who leads, with diligence; he who shows mercy, with cheerfulness. Romans 12:8 NASB
Leads – Paul’s letter uses the expression ho proistamenos en spoudei, usually translated “he who leads, with diligence.” Before we accept a spiritualized version of Paul’s statement (such as the claim that this is about leadership position in the Church), we must examine both the Greek text and its underlying Hebrew ideas.
Paul chooses the Greek word proistemi as the primary characteristic of this individual. The Greek is a combination of the preposition pro (before, over) and the verb histemi (to stand, to place). In the usual English translations, this combination is captured by the idea of someone who is placed over others or someone who stands before others, that is, a leader in charge, one who presides over or cares for something or someone. Other New Testament texts add the element of diligence and stewardship (cf. Titus 3:8, 14) but in general the English Bible’s view of this person is one who is responsible. Unfortunately, such a translation merely scratches the surface of this word and its associated Hebrew foundation.
While proistemi is rare in the earliest Greek authors, it is commonly used after Hesiod to mean “to put before, to present,” but this meaning is not found in the New Testament. The New Testament use of proistemi follows the metaphorical use of the Greek term with meanings such as “to lead, conduct, govern, preside,” meanings which are closely related to the use of the term in the LXX. In the LXX the term describes God’s inviolable word and His eternal covenant. To establish or cause to stand is to validate and endorse. It is like our expression “standing for one’s convictions.” The nuances include “to protect, to care for, to help and to increase.” There are only eight occurrences of proistemi in the New Testament, all within Paul’s writings. Reicke notes that the meaning of the term in Romans 12:8 is something like “he who cares with zeal,” emphasizing the essential element of compassionate stewardship in leadership. “The emphasis is not on their rank or authority but on their efforts for the eternal salvation of believers.” This Hebraic background is essential for Paul’s choice of histemi.
The LXX uses histemi for more than thirty different Hebrew verbs, but two are particularly common. They are amad and qum. Amad is the verb used to describe Joseph’s service (standing before Pharaoh) in Genesis 45:9. The prophets use the word to describe something that endures. But the sense that Paul has in mind for proistemi is probably connected to the use of amad in Numbers 7:2 where it describes authority of the tribal chiefs of Israel. amad is used in Exodus 9:16 to describe erecting a structure and in Ezra 2:68 for building a temple. Finally, the verb also describes appointing someone (guards in Nehemiah 7:3 and a prophet in Jeremiah 23:18).
Qum also has the basic meaning of physically standing. However, there are a significant number of derived meanings including “to show honor and respect (Gen. 27:19; Ex. 33:10; Num. 23:18); to move (Ex. 10:23); to recover (Ex. 21:19); to belong (Lev. 25:30); to cost (Lev. 27:14, 17); to be valid (Num. 30:5); to appear (Deut. 13:1); to follow (Deut. 29:22); to be hostile (Judg. 9:18); to endure (1 Sam. 13:14); to replace (1 Kgs. 8:20). . . to ratify (Ruth 4:7); to obligate (Esth. 9:21, 27, 31); to establish or strengthen (Ps. 119:28); to fulfill (Ezek.13:6).” When Paul chose the Greek word histemi, he focused the readers’ attention on the Hebrew umbrellas of meaning found in these two implied verbs. Any reader of the LXX (and that would certainly include the believers in the Roman Messianic community) would recognize the connections.
But Paul doesn’t leave the connection to the Hebrew meanings disguised. He adds the Greek pronoun pro to the Greek verb, pushing the meaning in the direction of one appointed to fulfill a task. Paul makes it clear that he has the nuances of authority in mind. Honor, respect, ratification, establishing and strengthening fit this image. All is to be done before (in the face of) the community and the Lord. This is not an appointment earned. It is an appointment given. It comes from God’s design and is intended to serve God’s purposes. Of course, that means it will be demonstrated in the community, either the Kingdom or the world, but it is not authority derived from the person himself. That person is simply living out the design that God put in him or her in the first place.
Most importantly, the Hebraic connection with histemi connects the reader to God’s covenant. What “stands” is ultimately what God does, whether He does that Himself and through human beings. Proistemi reminds the reader that it is God who endows leaders with their unique charisma and their leadership depends not so much on their own abilities as it does on aligning their design with the purposes of God.
Perhaps we need to reassess those whom we consider leaders. Perhaps we need to rethink that idea that anyone can be a leader. Perhaps we need to recognize that the inherent design only finds its intended fulfillment when it is aligned with God’s purposes. Perhaps it’s time to ask, “Who am I following?”
Topical Index: leader, proistemi, qum, amad, Romans 12:8, Zone 6