A few years ago, I wrote: Why we don’t have a senior pastor. In this post I explained why many Christians are committed to a leadership model of plural eldership. I showed how there is a consistent pattern throughout the New Testament of churches being pastored by a council of elders, with no elder distinguished from the rest as a “senior” or “lead” pastor/elder. I followed up this article with a series of posts addressing various challenges to this leadership model. A few days ago, a reader emailed me asking about the angels in Revelation 2-3. This question warrants being included in this series, so let’s take a look.
In Revelation chapters 2-3, John is instructed to write seven letters to seven specific churches. Each letter is entrusted to the “angel” of the intended church. Some see these angels as indicating the senior pastor of each church. Does this work?
We should make a couple of observations right at the outset. The commentaries are all over the place on who these angels are. Some don’t address the question at all; most others describe various possible interpretations, while maybe leaning toward one. The only consensus seems to be that there is insufficient basis here for being dogmatic about the identity of these angels.
I would also note this claim (that these angels = senior pastors) is very rarely used by scholars and pastors arguing for a normative senior pastor type role. In fact, many of those who support a senior pastor role have specifically rejected this interpretation of Revelation. Let’s see why.
First, let’s remember the first three rules of biblical interpretation: context, context, context. Where are these references? In the book of Revelation. What do we know about Revelation? Revelation is a kind of writing know as apocalyptic. Apocalyptic literature was always highly figurative, utilizing elaborate symbolism. Readers were to assume that elements were symbolic unless there was a clear reason to take them literally.
Do we see this in Revelation? Absolutely. Right from the first chapter, we have lampstands that aren’t literal lampstands, stars that aren’t literal stars, and a two-edged sword that isn’t a literal sword. Often the text doesn’t tell us what the various symbols symbolize, and so we discuss and debate what they mean. (What exactly do the two witnesses, the mark of the beast, the great prostitute, etc., represent?) Fortunately, we’re sometimes given the meaning of the symbols. So, for instance, we’re told that the seven lampstands represent seven churches, and the seven stars represent the angels (or messengers) of these seven churches.
While Revelation is filled with symbols that represent something real, what we don’t see are symbols of symbols. If the great dragon represents Satan, then that’s it. We don’t have to debate what Satan then represents. The Lamb who was slain is a symbol for Jesus, but Jesus is not a symbol for anything else. So the seven lampstands symbolize seven churches, which do not then symbolize anything else. And the seven stars represent the aggelos of each of these churches. We don’t have to figure out what these aggeloi (the plural form of aggelos) symbolize; we just need to make sure we understand what the word means.
Each letter to one of the seven churches begins the same way: “Write this letter to the aggelos of the church in ____________ .” This Greek word is found over 170 times in the New Testament. It’s almost always translated “angel.” A few times it indicates a human “messenger.” So this now shows us the key interpretive question for these references: Are these aggeloi angels or human messengers? And this is where the scholars disagree.
Notice that—either way—the letters are not written to a single leader or messenger, but to the entire church of Ephesus, Smyrna, etc. (“Anyone with ears to hear must listen to the Spirit and understand what he is saying to the churches.”) Each church is either commended or confronted, not a sole leader. The “you” being addressed in the letters is plural. But to whom are these letters entrusted: angels or human messengers?
Could these be literal angels? This isn’t as odd as it sounds, and many scholars think this natural reading is the best one. Remember our context is within the book of Revelation. And Revelation states at the very beginning:
“He [Jesus Christ] sent an angel to present this revelation to his servant John”
If an angel was part of Christ conveying this revelation to John, why would it be odd for angels to be part of conveying the letters to the seven churches (which are included in the revelation)? The word aggelos is used over 60 times in the book of Revelation; every time (besides these chapters) it means “angel.” We also have the intriguing references in Daniel 10 that seem to indicate there are angels assigned to certain nations. Some also point to passages such as Matthew 18:10 and Acts 12:15 that hint at the idea of a guardian angel for each person. Is it such a stretch to think that each church would enjoy the protection and service of a specific angel?
But how would angels be involved with the delivery of these letters? Well, remember that Revelation is written in a highly stylized, dramatic form. It also depicts a heavenly, spiritual perspective of these events, not a primarily human one. Unless we want to assume that angels have no real part in human events, we shouldn’t too quickly reject the idea of angelic involvement in the revelation of these letters to these seven, specific churches.
Ok, but could these be human messengers? That’s certainly a plausible interpretation of these passages. Let’s assume these passages are, in fact, speaking of human messengers. What could these chapters tell us about these human messengers? Well, they would tell us there was one messenger designated for each church, and that each letter was written to the whole church but entrusted to a messenger. That’s it. There is nothing in these chapters indicating a leadership or pastoral role for these angels or messengers. Because there is one angel/messenger designated for each church, some have read back into this passage our traditional practice of having one main pastor for each church. But nothing in the text indicates such a role.
Are there any reasons we should not see these messengers as senior pastors? Well, first we observe that the word aggelos is never used anywhere else in the New Testament to indicate a church leadership role. Next, as we saw above, there is nothing in the context that would clearly and directly indicate a senior pastor role. (Actually, in the context of the New Testament church, if these were human messengers, they would more likely be exercising a prophetic role than a pastoral one. They may have simply been the people responsible for physically carrying the letters to the churches.) And this interpretation would be introducing a senior pastor role that isn’t even mentioned anywhere else in the New Testament, and one that would conflict with the consistent pattern we see throughout the New Testament of churches being pastored by groups of elders with no designated senior leader. (Notice that none of the New Testament epistles [letters to the churches] are addressed to the “pastor” of the church of Corinth or Philippi, etc.)
There’s a principle of biblical interpretation that says: ‘Clear passages in Scripture help us understand the passages that aren’t so clear.’ It makes sense to take the clear and consistent pattern we see throughout the New Testament as the model we’re to follow. But it makes poor sense to take an ambiguous passage in a highly symbolic book, form a conclusion—not from the reading of the text, but based on pure speculation—then use this questionable assertion to challenge the clear, consistent pattern found elsewhere in Scripture. This would be circular reasoning—assuming the senior pastor role when interpreting the passage, and then using the passage to establish the senior pastor role!
Regardless of whether we understand the aggeloi in Revelation 1-3 as angels or human messengers, there is nothing in these passages that point to a senior pastor role in the churches.
14 thoughts on “Challenge 5: What about the angels of the seven churches in Revelation?”
Just looking for clarification on this statement that you made:
“The “you” being addressed in the letters is plural.”
It looks like to me that the “you” being addressed is almost always singular in these letters to the seven churches and only rarely plural. If you have time, could you look at that and explain where I am going astray?
Hi, Lee. That’s a great question, and something I probably should have clarified in the original post. You’re absolutely right that the form of the Greek pronouns in most places in Revelation 2-3 is singular. But, as Greek teachers such as Bill Mounce will tell us, it’s not so much the form of the pronoun but the context that determines function. Who is Christ addressing in these letters? Seven separate churches. He addresses these churches individually using singular Greek pronouns, but the context is unmistakably clear that he is addressing whole churches (or sometimes groups of people within the churches). This would be similar to God addressing different nations, including Israel and Judah, using singular pronouns. The pronouns would be singular—indicating which specific nation he is addressing—but the context makes it clear he’s addressing whole (plural) groups of people.
This is why we don’t have to somehow figure out which individual in Ephesus had left his/her first love, which individual believer in Philadelphia Christ was going to protect from the great time of testing coming on the whole world, or which individual in Laodicea was neither hot nor cold but lukewarm (even though all of these passages have singular pronouns in the Greek text). The text tells us over and over again that these letters are what the Spirit is saying “to the churches.” The presence of singular or plural pronouns in Greek are very helpful [I wish we had them in English!], and we don’t want to ignore them; but we also don’t want to focus exclusively on the form of the pronoun and miss the context and possible stylistic reasons for using singular or plural pronouns. The Greek literary form utilizes singular Greek pronouns to show Jesus is addressing individual churches, but the context of Revelation 2-3 consistently demands a plural understanding of who is being addressed in these letters.
Thank you, Curt. I understand your reasoning.
In Revelation 2:10, it seems that there are plural pronouns used, along with the singular. Does this have any meaning? Or does John just interchange them without purpose? Should we just ignore singular/plural in Chapters 2 & 3 of Revelation?
Lee, I would never suggest ignoring the singular or plural pronouns, but we also need to pay close attention to the context. This passage is in Revelation, which is apocalyptic literature and highly stylized. Christ is addressing seven separate churches, but also groups within the churches. So the text uses both singular and plural pronouns in intentional ways. He addresses the churches mostly using singular pronouns as I discussed in my comment above, but he also speaks to groups within the churches, and this can explain the use of plural pronouns in these places. For instance, in 2:10, many translations read “some of you” (reflecting plurality) will be thrown into prison and tested. So the use of both forms of pronouns in the same passages are complementary and understandable in context.
“If an angel was part of Christ conveying this revelation to John, why would it be odd for angels to be part of conveying the letters to the seven churches (which are included in the revelation)?” Probably because the angel goes from the facilitator of God’s message to apparently needing to receive a message from the Throne through a human third party. Why would the Apostle be writing to an angel in each place? Outside of theologies in which the entire Church is apostate the Tuesday after John died, there were indeed lead elders who were the messengers for the Church in each city, but they were known as bishops, not “senior” anything. The earliest generations of common Christian writings are universal on that point.
Miles, thanks for your comment. Regarding the involvement of angels, I think you’re being far too simplistically literal concerning how these letters were conveyed, while not taking into adequate consideration the apocalyptic genre of Revelation. We don’t have any indication that there were actually seven (incredibly brief) individual letters that were separately carried to these churches. These churches received “their” letters in the context of Revelation, which was written to the whole church and was widely disseminated to many churches, not just these seven. So what the text is showing is angelic involvement in both the Revelation being given to John and in it being conveyed to the churches. Your challenge of this doesn’t make sense to me, and it ignores much of what I wrote in the OP regarding the literary nature of this book.
More problematic is your assertion that the “earliest generations of common Christian writings are universal” in recognizing a lead elder in each church known as a bishop. This is simply factually incorrect. There is only one Christian writer from the earliest church who speaks of such a monarchical bishop, and that is Ignatius; many (if not most) historians of early Christianity consider his views to have been novel at that time. The polity you describe became predominant in the late 2nd century, but this is not true of churches in the early 2nd century. It certainly doesn’t describe the situation in the churches of the late 1st century, when Revelation was likely written. Even most scholars from traditions with episcopal polities acknowledge that in the earliest churches the words “elder” and “bishop” described the same church office and were used interchangeably.
The choice to even translate the singular “messenger” of each church as “angel” is still just that–a choice–and one made much later. Was that for literary effect, then? The context does not necessitate it, though it probably does if one’s leadership polity demands it given what otherwise is readily inferred. It arguably describes the situation of the churches in the mid-1st century, let alone the 2nd, given the peculiarities of both the presentations and the source of the judgment rendered at the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15 which then goes out in a letter to all of the Gentile churches. I did not suggest, nor am I familiar with, early writings that suggest that “bishop” is a different office than “elder” or “presbyter” anymore than “pastor” or “shepherd” is. That the numerous terms suggest a diversity within the office, however, seems obvious as the Apostle himself confirms regarding those who are particularly laboring in the Word and in doctrine. They are worthy of double honor, he says, which many interpret as merely pay, except that ante-Nicene Christians seem to regard paying leaders money to serve as ____ … well, that is a modern organizational offense and another topic altogether (Acts 20:17ff, esp. 33-35). They certainly believed in supporting them well as an ox is supported when treading grain (supplied as he goes along; a tradition which Jesus began in sending others out). In any case, there is no doubt that Ignatius is uncomfortable regarding those worthy of double honor, then. It is also worth noting that the writers in the late 2nd century expressed very strong convictions about any departures from the traditions of practice that the Apostles had established. It seems rather unlikely that they would suddenly adopt new polity at the height of local responsibility within the churches in the context of such expressions and with those leaders’ lives on the line. It seems to usually be the known messenger of the Church in each city (not each meeting place) who tended to be tracked down and martyred first when a wave of persecution swept through.
Miles, you’re throwing out a lot of speculation, much of which doesn’t directly apply to the original post. I’ll briefly respond to what seems most relevant, but if you continue to comment here, please limit yourself to addressing issues I directly wrote about in the OP.
In the original post, I spent some time explaining why it actually would have been odd to not translate aggelos as “angel” in these verses as it is consistently throughout the rest of the book (including earlier in chapter 1) and in most references in the NT. Please refer back to the OP.
1 Timothy 5:17 is in the context of a single church (of Ephesus) and refers to elders (plural) who labor in the Word and in doctrine. This would neither refer to a senior bishop/elder nor a single church “messenger.” Rather it’s another example of plural pastoral leadership of the churches, including the teaching of the Word and doctrine.
Not all elders/bishops in each church served in precisely the same way, this is true. But there isn’t a single thing in the NT that indicates a distinction of ministry function between that of elders, on the one hand, and bishops, on the other. If all you mean is that there is diversity in the way elders/bishops ministered, I don’t know of anyone who would disagree, but that would be irrelevant to the OP and our discussion. If you mean this shows any distinction between elders and bishops in the NT, that would be incorrect.
It seems rather ironic that you’re contending for the apparent absolute faithfulness in every detail of the 2nd century church when we’re discussing 1st century letters to Christian churches in one small geographic area, many of which were strongly rebuked for unfaithfulness! (If you don’t think churches could drift from apostolic polity, have you read 3 John?) There is much that has been written about unhealthy developments in church history (including the 2nd century churches), but that is beyond the scope of the original post and this comment thread.
Again, Miles, please limit your comments to what specifically relates to the original post.
Hi Curl, (sorry for my english)
I have been in several Senior pastor churches since I began to be a christian. Reading and studying the bible I realized that the plurality of pastors is the biblical model, but I didn’t pay much attention to the details of that model.
Trying to learn more about the plurality model, personally I found three ideas that may be the reason why the majority of modern congregations use the lead or senior pastor model. 1) How the leadership worked in the Old Testament. 2) The example of the Son being obedient to the father. 3) The angels of the seven churches in revelation.
I found your article “What about the angels of the seven churches in Revelation?”. The thing that captivated me was that you weren’t trying to explain the plurality model using those verses, but you were only trying to understand the verses. Using the three rules of biblical interpretation you analized what it says and what it could mean. I read the comments a d your answers and gave me more light about the subject.
I truly am trying to find the truth about leadership and how to guide a local church to obey God’s word. Thank you for your post.
Just don’t forget that one rule of biblical interpretation is looking at how the churches in that era understood and exemplified the Scripture. 1 Tim. 3:15 Sola scriptura—the Bible alone, left to private interpretation, especially by theologians—hadn’t been invented yet, and wouldn’t be until 1518. I suggest reading carefully the verses that mention even the way that the Apostles relate to James, the Lord’s brother, bishop of Jerusalem—including his conclusive judgment in Acts 15—as well as the early letter of Clement, bishop of Rome, to the church in Corinth and the relationship suggested with his fellow elders. (Clement uses the plural “we” regarding the source of his counsel, suggesting like other early writers that there is no conflict between a plurality of elders and the role of a bishop or “president” as Justin Martyr terms it, simply one among them who presides.) Good points—I think you’re on the right track. Jude 3-4
Thank you for your comment! You’re right about the three ideas you noted; they are often used to attempt to support the concept of a sole, senior leader for each church. A great many us find the arguments unconvincing, though. I’m glad the post was helpful to you, and I wish you the best as you continue studying the pastoral leadership of the church.
Thank you, also, for your comment. I would encourage you to read a little more broadly regarding church history. There were different methods of interpreting Scripture in the first century, both in the Jewish community and among Christians. These even developed into different “schools” of hermeneutical approaches (Antioch and Alexandria, for example). The Latin term Sola Scriptura came out of the Reformation, this is true, but this doesn’t mean the concept itself was unknown to first century believers.
Just as we need to be careful not to read back into the text our current forms of church leadership, so we need to avoid reading into the text late 2nd or 3rd century forms of church leadership. In the New Testament, bishop (episkopos) and elder (presbyteros) were two words for the same pastoral role or office. The elders were the bishops of the church, and vice versa, and they were tasked with shepherding or pastoring the church. You can read more about this here: https://exploringthefaith.com/2011/02/20/why-no-senior-pastor/ . Early church historians tried to anachronistically describe the leadership of the earliest churches through the lens of their later tradition of church bishops. If you try to chart out the history of these supposedly sole bishops—apparently serving successively—you can see the problem, resulting in an average of only 2-3 years service for each “bishop.” It’s much more natural to see these lists as teams of bishops/elders serving simultaneously.
I would disagree with your understanding of James in Acts 15. You can see what I’ve written about this here: https://exploringthefaith.com/2011/03/03/peter-and-james/ . I would also suggest you more carefully examine Clement’s epistle. He refers to the elders of the church of Corinth (and doesn’t mention a sole Bishop of Corinth); refers to himself as part of a plurality of pastoral leaders of the church of Rome (and doesn’t mention a sole Bishop of Rome); never identifies himself as a sole or senior leader of the church of Rome; uses both the words elders and bishops—frequently describing both elders and bishops of a church in the plural, never distinguishing between the two, but instead using the words interchangeably. This letter fits perfectly with the church polity I’ve described in this blog series, and it’s actually quite ironic to use it to support a church leadership structure that Clement never even mentions! Ignatius, also, strangely never makes reference to a Bishop of the church of Rome, which is strikingly conspicuous by its absence in his epistle. I’m not going to make this comment even longer by going through the other historical references showing us the plural nature of pastoral church leadership in the 1st and early 2nd centuries, and the virtually universal adoption of a monoepiscopal model by the late 2nd century, but that is a worthy study, and I commend it to you.
Blessings to you both,
Hello mate nice ppost
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