In his letter to the Roman church, the Apostle Paul wrote, “According to the grace given to us, we have different gifts: If prophecy, use it according to the standard of one’s faith; if service, in serving; if teaching, in teaching; if exhorting, in exhortation; giving, with generosity; leading, with diligence; showing mercy, with cheerfulness” (Rom 12:6–8, HCSB). This particular passage teaches that leadership is not only something that is practiced, but it is something bestowed to members of the church.

The first issue is to understand the word “gift” being used in the passage. The Greek word is charisma, and is used in numerous places throughout the epistle to the Romans (1:11; 5:15, 16; 6:23; 11:29), as well as in other letters by Paul. Most specifically, in 1 Corinthians 12–14, Paul teaches on the issues of what is commonly referred to as spiritual gifts. In the Corinthian passage, Cranfield states that charisma is “used of the gifts or endowments which God bestows on believers to be used in His service and in the service of men.”[1] In dealing with the same word and its usage in 1 Corinthians 12:6, Gordon Fee notes that it is a “distinctly Pauline word.” He maintains that in the Corinthian usage, “it probably refers to the more concretely visible manifestations of the Spirit’s activity, such as those listed in vv. 8–10.”[2]

Returning to the use of the word “charisma,” in Romans 12, Murray, writing for the New International Commentary of the New Testament, does not make mention of the Greek etymology of the word. Instead, he places emphasis on the passage as it relates to the previous statements in the chapter as to how these gifts work to bring unity to the body of Christ.[3] Mounce, writing for the New American Commentary, and John Stott, in his commentary, give the same treatment.[4] Though assumption is always a difficult territory in which to tread, several commentators seemingly espouse that charisma does not hold a secretive meaning, but is rather plain. Rather than dwell on the idea that God is giving something to the members of the church for its work, several of these writers simply move directly into parsing the description of the gifts rather than the word “gifts” when it appears in the text. Thus, the research turns directly to the phrase of Romans 12:8 dealing with the gift itself.

The phrase is translated in the Holman Christian Standard Bible as “leading, with diligence,” in the English Standard Version as “the one who leads, with zeal,” and in the New American Standard as “he who leads, with diligence.” The Greek word for leading is proistemi, which is used in both noun and verb form in several New Testament passages regarding leadership (i.e., 1 Thess 5:12; 1 Tim 3:4–5, 12; 5:17). In this instance, the word choice by Paul is not to establish a class of leaders. He will address the offices of leadership in other letters, namely the Pastoral Epistles.

C. K. Barrett wrote of the Romans passage that proistemi here “does not describe any office with precision; it rather refers to a function which may have been exercised by several persons, perhaps jointly or in turn.”[5] Murray maintains the same impact for the word and, therefore, translates the phrase as “He that ruleth, with diligence.”[6] In this passage, the endowment of leadership by the Spirit to a believer can be understood by the plain breakdown of the Greek work. The word stems from two root words, pro and histemi—the first meaning “in front of,” and the latter meaning “to stand.” The word tells the one given the gift “to stand before others, so the idea of governing derives readily from it.”[7]

Interestingly, several commentators make an observation about the placement of the phrase within the larger context dealing with spiritual gifts. In dealing with the words in context, John Stott wrote, “The verb proistemi can mean to ‘care for’ or ‘give aid,’ and some commentators opt for this sense because this gift comes between ‘contributing to the needs of others’ and ‘showing mercy’.”[8]

Mounce echoes this sentiment in observing the location of the phrase “between ‘contributing to the needs of others’ and ‘showing mercy’ has led some to understand it in reference to the person whose responsibility was to oversee the charitable work of the congregation.” Additionally, he stated, “biblical leadership is essentially carried out for the benefit of others.”[9] In the end, leadership is not about the leader, but about the Spirit who assigns the work and the people who are to be led.

The impact of this simple phrase from Paul to the Roman church was to demonstrate that leadership should be rightly understood as a gift given by the Spirit. Additionally, it should be rightly understood at its base level of one person standing before others. Furthermore, I would add that care must be taken in how one leads, due to how leadership is positioned within the context of the passage. Thus, the gift of leadership given to the church is to be taken seriously, as originating from God and worked out in the context of relationships with those who are in need.

(The above is taken from my doctoral project paper on the subject of missional leadership.)

[1] Charles E. B. Cranfield, Commentary on Romans IX-XVI and Essays: A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans vol. 2 of International Critical Commentary, 6th ed. (Edinburgh, Scotland: T. & T. Clark International, 2000), 619.

[2] Gordon D. Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1987), 587.

[3] John Murray, The Epistle to the Romans, New International Commentary on the New Testament, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1995), 120–21.

[4] Robert Mounce, Romans, vol. 27 of New American Commentary (Nashville, Tenn.: Holman Reference, 1995), 234-36; and John R. W. Stott, Romans: God’s Good News for the World (The Bible Speaks Today) (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1995), 325-26.

[5] C. K. Barrett, The Epistle to Romans, rev. ed. (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson Publishers, 1991), 220.

[6] Murray, Romans, 126.

[7] Harrison, “Romans,” 131.

[8] Stott, Romans, 328.

[9] Mounce, Romans, 235.