From Head to Toe: Men and Their Roles in the First Two Generations of Christianity

Ross Saunders

Download your free copy of the first chapter of this book here.

Please note that the printed version of this book is no longer available to purchase through this website. It is, however, still in print. If you would like to find out how to obtain a copy of this book, please contact Lula Sanders  (; 02 88501562; 0407 081 774).

Download your free sample chapter of From Head to Toe here.

From Head to Toe invites us to into the world of men in the first two generations of Christianity as they come to terms with what it means to follow Jesus. We share in their struggles and triumphs as they make the journey ‘from head to toe’ – from status-seeking to serving.

Ross Saunders shows us how to read the New Testament with new eyes and hearts, exploring our own understanding of authority, leadership and service within the household of God.


For a church that has been steeped in patriarchy, it is quite a shock to see Jesus as a feminist. But that is exactly what Ross Saunders documents. Scholarly but readable, From Head to Toe examines the lives of dozens of men in the Bible as they are called to relinquish status and accept Jesus’ radical view: that true leadership means becoming a servant to all. Along the way, Saunders unfolds in extraordinary detail the lives of these men and their struggles and triumphs with Jesus’ message. The message for us now is no less radical. To follow Jesus, we men must abandon all claims to privilege or power. Only then can we be free.

Steve Biddulph, author of The New Manhood

From Head to Toe makes a significant contribution to understanding the culture of the first two generations of Christianity and provides an important opportunity to stimulate fresh discussion about servant leadership in the church.

 Jackie Stoneman, Director of Studies, Mary Andrews College


To read a review written by Paul McKechnie, follow this link (pdf file).

Paul is an Associate Professor in Ancient Cultures at Macquarie University.

Review by Dale Harcombe, Australasian Christian Writer’s Blog


It’s hard to know where to start in reviewing this book, as there is so much to read and consider. It really helps put a lot of things into context. This is an insightful look into a leadership model for Christian society. It clearly shows what a great change this meant for those early male followers of Jesus. For them to follow Jesus meant a move downward in importance. It identifies how men in the Mediterranean world at the end of the first century were called by Jesus to a different model of leadership, taking them from a model as lead-as- dictator to one of leader- as- servant.  Reading this book could well change your thinking or at least cause you to look at lives and incidents in the New Testament with fresh eyes.

This book follows through the lives of many New Testament men starting with Zechariah, father of John the Baptist. It raises some interesting thoughts about John and his ministry that I had not considered before. It also covers not just the well know men such as Paul, Peter , John and James but some of those who only make brief biblical appearances like Simeon, Gaius, Crispus and others.

Christianity brought about huge changes and cost.  For the disciples, especially any who were the eldest son in a family, walking away from family responsibilities was a huge step and brought great dishonour. These followers of Jesus were ‘exiled from their household and thus suffered a loss of identity and status.’ Because of this the Romans at Antioch first labelled them Christians – that is ‘belonging to the household or tribe of Christ.’

‘Travel was regarded as somewhat deviant behaviour in those days.’ For people of today’s society who are often used to being able to travel at will without needing a reason, other than pleasure, it seems strange to think a person had to have a legitimate reason  to travel, like going to the temple in Jerusalem or to visit family. I guess I’d never thought before that while they were travelling with Jesus, the disciples had not been earning any money and so had no finances of their own to buy anything. No wonder they looked at Jesus blankly when he told them to give the crowds something to eat!

The chapter devoted to male leadership in the early church brings up the point of headship and how that meaning is often  wrongly interpreted as having authority, when in reality Christians, both men and women,  are ‘to  emulate the coordinating, representative and self sacrificing role of Jesus as head of the church. This carries no sense of authority or privilege.’ Obviously these couple of sentences need to be read in context not only of the whole chapter about headship but in the context of the ideas set forth in the book.

Yet somehow over the years we have got away from that model and have a different idea of headship. I particularly liked the thoughts expressed in the last two paragraphs of this book. At the end of the book there is an appendix of all the men mentioned in this book and the biblical or other literary references to each one plus , for those who would like to delve deeper, a  select bibliography of texts.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book.  It made me think. This is a book to read, share with others and re-read. Recommended.

This is an interesting book: its twin, published earlier, is Outrageous Women, Outrageous God: Women in the First Two Generations of Christianity. In both books Ross Saunders unpacks the idea that Jesus upended ancient Mediterranean notions of honour, authority, leadership, and servanthood. He offers readable, well-researched word-pictures of Jesus’ first-century disciples as they work out in their personal and communal/ecclesial lives what it means to be truly radical, eschewing privilege and power. The struggles they faced in the first two generations of Christianity are also still ours. 

Ross Saunders (1926-2005) was a Sydney Anglican clergyman best known as a religious broadcaster. But he was also an ‘auto-didact’ – a scholar in the fields of Theology, Ancient History and Communications.

Anthropologists tell us that Mediterranean cultures were built around honour maintenance; women were recognised only in relationship to some man: a father, an uncle, a grandfather, a brother, a husband, a son. It was almost impossible to better the social position into which you were born. And it’s important to note that only men experienced dishonour, not women. Women without  the benefit of male sponsorship found it almost impossible to survive. Social security as we know it did not exist. The ‘poor’ helped by temple-funds were usually asset-rich males who’d fallen on hard times. The beggars in the streets were poor or disabled males. Women couldn’t easily survive by begging, because passers-by would favour males. Younger women often had no option but to go into prostitution.

Eldest sons invariably followed their father’s craft (so Jesus was a plough-maker, as Joseph was). Peter came from the household of an entrepreneur: he had no status until his father died. Until then he was known as Simon-son-of-Jonas. Jesus had brought shame upon his father’s reputation by leaving the household after his father’s death. (Note that at the cross Jesus hands over his mother to the care of the disciple John. Note also that with Jesus’ death, his brother James became next in line in the household. ‘But Jesus had changed that by entrusting his mother to John, not to James’).

And following Jesus came at a cost. If a junior member of a household became a disciple there would be division in the household, often resulting in that member being disowned. Should Jesus prove to be a fraud, they could not return to their families as though nothing had happened. It was an irrevocable decision.

Socio-cultural result? In contrast to a situation where everybody has a place virtually fixed at birth, in today’s world we regard ourselves primarily as individuals. Christianity changed the way its members found their identity and, in the process, helped to break down the Mediterranean household as the basic unit of society. ‘When households are mentioned [in the NT] in connection with conversions to Christianity, this was the exception and not the norm. This was one of the things that set Christianity off from all other religions at the time.’

Ross Saunders’ main emphasis is on the theme of leadership: Jesus in his life and teachings changed the model of leader-as-director to leader-as-servant. ‘Ultimately, this is what Christian leadership is about: eliminating the chasm between the leader and the led’. Jesus called upon his followers ‘to relinquish their status… [so] women went up a step or two on the social scale, [while] men went down a step or two’. Adult males were to divest ‘themselves of all their pretensions to status, and became like a child – in that society completely without status –[otherwise] they had no hope of membership [in the kingdom]’. When he sent out his disciples [in Mark 6:7-13] they were to wear sandals, the footwear of the peasant. But ‘the concept that honour must be attached to leadership… was [still] strong, and it was something that was to dog missionaries like Paul…’

Saunders’  book does not go beyond the end of the first century: then ‘male bishops took over Christianity, [reverting] to the normal household model for centralising church structures, and lay ministry, both male and female, disappeared almost totally.’

This book is as interesting in terms of scholarly style as it is thematically. I don’t think he cites one scholar, and there are no footnotes. However an excellent Select Bibliography gives us a clue about his wider reading: here there are listed authors like the Evangelicals F. F. Bruce, I. H. Marshall and E.A. Judge, to scholars with a wider theological stance, like J. Jeremias and G. Theissen. He has, for example, a fairly conservative view of who-wrote-what in the NT, but he is not afraid to cite differences in the four Gospels’ narrative-details – without doing too much explaining about how they can be reconciled. They are simply left, side-by-side, expressing differences in perspective between Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

Australian colloquialisms are sprinkled throughout:  ‘a dandy dressed up to the nines’; ‘cop all the shame’; ‘they tear out in great consternation to find their leader’; ‘whatever I have in mind for John, even if it is to hang around until I return to earth’; Peter was ‘clapped in irons in prison’…

And twenty-to-thirty more…

I marked the following, to ponder:

  • For Israelites, prayer was always audible, never silent in the mind the way we today tend to pray. The Ethiopian eunuch was reading his scroll aloud: ‘Silent reading was certainly not the process of reading in those days’.
  • The ‘laying on of hands’ was never on heads. Human hair was not to be touched by other people for fear of touching dust or sweat. The main greeting method: ‘the two shoulders grasp’.
  • ‘Giving to the poor was not counted as maintaining one’s honour in the community. The poor could not repay by having a benefactor’s name written up in the synagogue or temple.’
  • Paul was ‘not a consultative or democratic kind of team leader… We must be careful… not to romanticise Paul and smooth over the sharp edges and directive attitudes’.
  • ‘Whenever Paul uses “head” with respect to Christ it is always associated with his self-sacrificial love for the church. In other words “headship” here derives from commitment and self-sacrifice and does not entail privilege and the right to be obeyed.’
  • ‘I believe it is abundantly clear that there were no orders, of deacons, priests or bishops, during the first two generations of Christianity. In fact, there were no clergy, in our sense, until the turn of the century.’

If there had been a list of discussion starters, this would have been a good one:

‘Prayer and the drawing of straws’ (Acts1:15-26). Does your church elect leaders this way?

Conclusion: ‘For men, neither ascribed nor acquired honour had any place in the congregations. The usual games of challenge and response that occurred when men greeted each other on the street had to stop’. ‘We must have a great deal of sympathy for those first two generations of men in the churches. They had to lose just about everything they had been born with: honour, prestige, position, authority and entitlement to dominion over women and children.’

Rowland Croucher
May 6, 2014


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