Bottom-up Society

Hierarchies of power pervade all the institutions of the modern world. Societies are structured from the top down. Authority flows down from the central government at the top. Political leaders decide how much power will be delegated to the regional and local authorities that control the structure of cities and towns.

Unfortunately, the perfect system of Government that God gave to Moses will not work in a top-down, hierarchical society.

God was able to give a new model of government to the children of Israel because they had left hierarchical controls behind when they escaped from Egypt. Their new society in the Promised Land was structured the other way round, with authority flowing from the bottom to the top. The greatest authority resided at the bottom among families and households, with only limited authority being delegated up.

This unique social structure was perfect for the government of God. In the next few sections, I will describe how it was intended to work and how it was later destroyed when the Israelites rejected God’s government to be like other nations.

Before the Government of God can come to fullness in our time, modern society will need to be changed, so that authority flows from the bottom to the top. In the last part of this article, I will explain how the Holy Spirit can transform the followers of Jesus into local communities where God’s perfect system of government can be established.

The Government of God is based on Free Authority, so it cannot be imposed from the top. The big challenge that I take on is explaining how a human society can function effectively without hierarchy and control.

New Social Pattern

God’s pattern for society was demonstrated when Moses led the children of Israel into the Promised Land. Up until then, God had worked through the families of people like Noah, Abraham and Jacob. He was now beginning a new stage of history with a nation of families, so he needed a suitable government.

While living in Egypt, the Israelites were controlled by slave masters exercising authority delegated down from Pharaoh. They did not need a political system because they had no authority. Their taskmasters controlled everything (Ex 1:11-13) and the leaders of families were powerless.

God could start with a clean slate in a new land because Israel had no government hierarchy to be removed. Once they escaped from slavery, all that remained was their family connections. Families naturally linked up with other families from the same clan and tribe because they knew and trusted them.

During the Exodus, the Israelites had no central authority, like the Pharaoh in Egypt. Moses was not a ruler, but a temporary military leader with very limited authority. He was an expert on life in the desert, because he had been a shepherd for forty years, but he could not force the people to do his will. If the leaders of families and tribes refused to follow his lead, he was powerless.

Joshua took over from Moses as a temporary military leader, but when he died, God did not appoint a replacement. The main battle was over, so a national leader was not needed anymore. This seems strange to modern eyes, but God’s system of government does not need a national leader.

Moses did not understand what God was doing because he had been raised in the house of Pharaoh, close to the centre of power. He had been trained by Pharaoh’s courtiers, so he assumed that he would have to control the people from the top in the same way as Pharaoh controlled the Egyptians. Moses only realised that God was creating a new society with a different structure when he visited his father-in-law in the wilderness.

Jethro saw the strain that Moses was under because he was trying to be a national leader controlling everything. Jethro was a prophet, so he told Moses to give authority back to the leadership that already existed in the community and focus on representing the people before God (Ex 18:19).

The timing of Jethro’s challenge was critical because it came just before the Israelites would receive the law at Mount Sinai (Exodus 19). While they were journeying to a new land, they needed a military leader to keep them safe, but God did not want this structure to continue into the Promised Land.

The Government of God cannot be established by Imposed Authority. The new system of law he was giving does not work in a top-down society, so God had to take authority away from Moses and give it back to the people.

Tens Fifties Hundreds Thousands

Jethro explained that authority should be restored to the people of the community who were already respected within their families.

You shall look among the community for people who fear God, love the truth and hate corruption, and put them as heads of thousands, hundreds, fifties and tens (Exodus 18:21).

Moses did not appoint these people because appointing a leader for every family in Israel would have stressed him even more. He did not know everyone personally, so he could not identify capable leaders who feared God. Instead, he placed authority back with families and household where God wanted it to be.

This society established in the new land would be based on families and households. Authority was pushed down to the lowest level of society. Relationships between families would determine its strength and shape.

Families could delegate authority up to leaders of Fifties, Hundreds and Thousands. They could decide who to trust and limit the authority they would give to them. The leaders of Fifties, Hundreds and Thousands were servants of those who gave them authority. They could not impose their will on them (Ex 18:23).

Moses could have chosen fancy names for the various groupings of society. Instead, he used the number of adults belonging to each group. For simplicity, I will continue this practice and refer to tens, fifties, hundreds and thousands. They are described more fully in the following sections.


The Ten was a broader concept than the modern nuclear family. It was a household consisting of two or three generations of the same family. The Hebrew expression for household is “bet ab”, which literally means “fathers house”. It usually included a father and mother, their adult sons and their wives, and their children. Jacob and his twelve adult sons, together with their wives and children were a Ten when they went down to Egypt.

Elderly grandparents, unmarried aunts and uncles, widows and orphans could also belong to a Ten. Abraham included his nephew Lot in his household. Many households would include servants as well.

Ten is not the number of people in the household, but the number of men in the group capable of contributing to their protection. A Ten was a family or household that could release ten adult men to serve their community.

While wandering in the wilderness, a Ten was a household marching and camping together in close proximity. They would usually be linked by family ties, but they would also be united by a commitment to support and protect each other.

In the Promised Land, a Ten was a household working the plot of land that had been allocated to their family by ballot (Jos 14:1-5; Num 26:52-56). The leaders of tribes did not control the land. God’s law ensured that each household kept their inheritance in the land (Lev 25:8-54; Num 27:8-11).

The household would live in several houses clustered together on their land or in a nearby village. These adjoining houses often shared one or more walls and a common courtyard for household tasks and cooking.

Each household was a cohesive economic unit, working their land together to provide food, clothing and shelter for each other. As a household grew in size, other activities might be developed to support the Ten.

Leader of the Ten

The leader of a Ten was usually the most senior person in the family, but another person might be recognised as leader, if they showed greater wisdom. Leaders of Tens exercised Free Authority because participation in a Ten was voluntary. If the members of the Ten did not like what the leader is doing, they could switch their allegiance to a different person.

The leader of a Ten was responsible for negotiating with other Tens to form a Fifty or Hundred for a specific purpose. The members would only trust their leader’s commitments if they had been reliable in the past.

The Role of the Ten

The Household or Ten was the basic social unit in the Promised Land. It had several important functions.

  • Protection – the men of a Ten joined together to protect their families.

  • Food – the members of the Ten shared the food they gathered.

  • Welfare – the members of the Ten shared their financial resources.

  • Resolving Disputes – Most issues would be resolved within the family.

  • Employment – The Ten provided employment for all its members.

  • Education – the Ten would assist with educating each other’s children.

The Bible never refers to "Ten Commandments", but uses the expression “Ten Words” in three different places to describe the words of the covenant written on the tablets of stone.

Moses wrote on the tablets the words of the covenant—the Ten Words (Ex 34:28).

The reference is not to the number of commands, but to the people who would use them most. Perhaps the statement should be translated as follows.

Moses wrote on the tablets the words of the covenant—the Words for Tens.

God’s covenant was a covenant with the entire community, but the commandments written on stone were his covenant with the Tens. They would be implemented by the Tens, so the Ten Commandments are really Words for Tens.

Fifties and Hundreds

The resources and capabilities of a household would be too limited to deal with some challenges. Several Tens might need to come together to deal with serious threats to their community. If all of the adults from four or five Tens came together for a specific purpose, they would be a Fifty. If a dozen Tens got together, they might be a Hundred. Fifties and Hundreds had four main purposes.

  • Welfare – Financial support would flow from one Ten to another via family links.

  • Justice – Links between the Tens were important for resolving disputes between people.

  • Defence –several Tens could come together to deal with an external threat.

Fifties and Hundred derived authority from the Tens within them. They could only act if the leaders of the Tens gave permission.


Several Hundreds could join together for a task needing more resources. The main purpose of a Thousand was defence. If the leaders of several Fifties and Hundreds agreed, they could raise a Thousand men to defend their community. The leaders of the hundreds would choose one person to be their leader.

The leaders of Thousands exercised Free Authority, so they could only operate with the support of the participating groups. If they abused their authority, submission could be withdrawn and their authority would evaporate.

Thousands were voluntary and temporary. One would come together to deal with a threatening army and when they were defeated, they would return to their homes (Jos 22:6).

Kings destroy Tens Fifties and Hundreds

The social structure that Moses had given Israel did not last long. It was replaced by a system of kings copied from the surrounding nations (1 Sam 8). This was a shocking change because kingship relies on Imposed Authority. Samuel warned of the danger.

This is what the king who will reign over you will do: He will take your sons and make them serve with his chariots and horses, and they will run in front of his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers (1 Sam 8 11,13).

The king would take young people to serve in his army and palace. At a critical time during their growth to maturity, when they would normally be developing a role in their community, the young person would be taken out for service to the king.

Loyalty to the king would replace their loyalty to their Ten, Fifty and Hundred. The leader of their Ten would lose their respect. Their relationships with other young people in the king’s service would become stronger than their relationship with their Ten and Hundred. This undermined the structure of society.

Samuel warned that kings would bring back Imposed Authority.

Some he will assign to be commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties (1 Sam 8:12).

The king would appoint loyal followers to be commanders over thousands and fifties. This was a radical change.

Under the system established by Moses, the leader of a Fifty or Hundred was chosen by the members of the Tens who joined it. The leader of a Thousand was selected by the leaders of the Hundreds, who agreed to participate for a purpose. Leadership emerged from the bottom, and submission was voluntary.

Kingship turned this model on its head. Instead of leaders emerging from within, they would be appointed from outside by the king. The members of a Fifty or Thousand had to submit to the king’s man, even if he made foolish decisions. Refusal to obey the king’s lapdog would bring down the wrath of the king.

Under the kingship, the Thousand stopped being a temporary and voluntary force and became a permanent tool for imposing the king’s control over society. Free Authority rising from the bottom was replaced by Imposed Authority from the top. The people lost their freedom and came under the control of the king.

Justice disappeared when kings took control of legal disputes. King’s justice protected those with wealth and connection (2 Sam 15:2-4).

Modern Society

Industrialisation, globalisation, migration and urbanisation have fragmented the structure of modern society, leaving individuals and families isolated from each other. This breakdown is greatest in modern cities, where social mobility has destroyed family and community relationships. Modern life is characterised by separation and personal insecurity.

Modern suburban culture creates barriers to communication and encourages individualism. People drive in and out of the suburb for work, shopping and recreation, but rarely meet with each other. As communities weaken and fear increases, high fences go up between houses isolating people from each other.

Social isolation means that most people do not belong to the community where they live. Unfortunately, Christians are almost as socially fragmented as the rest of society.

The fragmentation of society makes Imposed Authority seem like the only solution. The isolation and dislocation of urban society have been paralleled by the accumulation of political power in the modern state.

To restore the cohesion of our communities and societies, Tens, Fifties and Hundreds need to be restored. Jesus showed how it could happen by restoring Tens and Hundreds in his time.

Tens Fifties and Hundreds Restored

Jesus began his ministry by forming a Ten.

Jesus went up on a mountainside and called to him those he wanted, and they came to him. He appointed twelve—designating them apostles—that they might be with him. These are the twelve he appointed (Mark 3:13-16).

When Jesus fed the five thousand, he put them people in Fifties and Hundreds. This was a prophetic act.

They sat down in groups of hundreds and fifties (Mark 6:40).

By the time of Pentecost, the new church had become a Hundred.

They all joined together constantly in prayer, along with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brothers. In those days, Peter stood up among the believers (a group numbering about a hundred and twenty) (Acts 1:14-15).

As the church expanded, they continued to share in Tens, Fifties and Hundreds.

Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts (Acts 2:46).

The early church undertook most of the roles that had been undertaken by Tens, Fifties and Hundreds in Moses’ time.

  • Welfare – the church supported people who fell into poverty. The Christians who met together in homes also shared their financial resources (see Caring for the Poor).

    Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need (Acts 2:45).
  • Protection – the church provided protection for their community. The religious and political leaders in Jerusalem were hostile to the new movement that emerged, but the Christians protected themselves by sticking together.

    All the believers were together (Acts 2:44).

    While they were together, the authorities could not touch them.

    When Paul travelled up to Jerusalem for the last time with an offering from the Gentile churches to support the church in Jerusalem, he took eight men with him (Acts 20:4-6). They were there for the glory. Paul was carrying a significant amount of money, most likely in gold coins, so this was a dangerous journey.

    At the time, there was no police protection. If someone beat Paul up and took his coins, there was no police force to track them down and restore what was stolen. The money so carefully collected would be gone forever.

    Paul took eight men with him for protection; not so he could beat up the potential thief, but to provide weight of numbers for safety. If a Ten stands together in unity, praying for protection, it would be a bold person that would take them on.

  • Justice – the new movement implemented biblical justice. The Book of Acts says there were “no needy persons among them” (Acts 4:34). The Greek word translated as “needy” is “endees”. It is not the usual word for “poverty” and is only used once in the New Testament. It is a compound of the word “bind”. Luke is saying that no one among them was “bound by injustice”.

    These early Christians were not in a position to achieve legal solutions to the individual injustices that had left some people destitute and others wealthy. They resolved them with overwhelming generosity instead.

    Many of the new Christians sold property and gave it away (Acts 4:34). Luke did not use the normal word for “inheritance”. This suggests that the early Christians were not giving away their inheritances; they were giving away property that they had acquired unjustly as a way of making restitution.

Tens Fifties and Hundreds Again

A church that extracts new Christians from their network of worldly relationships and gathers them in a meeting hidden in a building far from home and work is not going to change the world. If we want to change the world, we will need to get back into our neighbourhoods and establish real community.

The gospel should restore Tens, Fifties and Hundreds. In my book Being Church Where We Live, I described how a group of people following Jesus can become a community within their neighbourhood. They would be led by four or five elders, each with a different gifting, but submitted to each other for unity. Each elder would provide oversight for about five or six families.

If all the families overseen by an elder lived in close proximity, they would be able to fulfil all the functions of a Ten. If the neighbourhood church had about five elders, each providing oversight of a Ten, the entire group would be a Fifty. A couple of neighbourhood churches working together would be a Hundred.

By living in the same location, they could parallel the experience of the Israelite families and households who settled in the Promised Land. Instead of being linked by kinship, they would be linked by love for one another. A community based on commitment to Jesus would be stronger than one based on family connections because it would have more diverse giftings.

If the members of neighbourhood churches operated as Tens, Fifties or Hundreds in the place where they have chosen to live, cohesiveness would be restored to their community. However, this can only happen if we get out of our cars and auditoriums and choose to live closer to each other.

Tens and Fifties will be shaped by the “one another stuff”. Their leaders will not control the people they are watching over, but will serve them. Elders will exercise Free Authority, so no one will be forced to do what they do not want to do.


The resources and capabilities of a Fifty or Hundred might be insufficient to deal with a serious problem. When faced with an external threat, a number of neighbourhood churches might work together on a common defence. This is the main role of the Thousand. I explain how this could work in Defence and War.

A Thousand derives its functions and authority from below. Its leaders only have authority if the elders of the neighbourhood churches freely agree to submit to them. They can withdraw that submission at any time.

Authority Shift

Tens and Fifties will serve everyone in the neighbourhood, including those who have rejected the gospel. Their love will draw people who are not committed to Jesus into their activities, especially those that provide justice, welfare and protection.

To benefit from the activities of a Ten or Fifty, they will have to compromise their behaviour to fit in with the lifestyle of the followers of Jesus. However, no one will be forced to change. They will be free to opt out of community activities whenever they choose.

Authority in the neighbourhood will shift toward Jesus.

  • Tens and Fifties will be the most influential groups in their neighbourhood.

  • The Tens will be serving Jesus.

  • They will have freely submitted to the Free Authority of their elders.

  • The elders will be submitted to Jesus and to each other.

  • People living in the neighbourhood but not following Jesus will submit to elders when they participate in the activities of a Ten or Fifty.

  • The spiritual powers of evil will be squeezed out of the neighbourhood because there is no Imposed Authority amplifying their power.

Taken together, this means that most people in the neighbourhood will be submitted to God at least some of the time, so the Kingdom of God has come. Each Fifty will be a Kingdom Community.

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