Heb. 13:17 Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.
Affirmed by the Scripture: While Jesus is shepherd and head of the church, and every believer a priest, there remains a place for visible and active leaders in the church.
Now you might think, who would challenge that? Doesn’t it seem obvious that institutions require some sort of leadership? Well, apparently not to everyone. I once met a man from some interesting church background in which they affirmed no church leadership at all, because Christ was there only pastor, and every believer was a priest. When I showed him some of the passages referring to leaders in the New Testament, he bristled and when I challenged him further, he finally admitted that the New Testament speaks of leaders in the church, but that they were “invisible leaders”. I wish I would have read Hebrews 13 with him at the time - how do you remembers, and submit to and obey and greet “invisible leaders”?
And so the first thing this passage does is affirms church leadership. Now the word in verse 17 is not the regular word used in the New Testament to describe those in oversight positions in the church. It is a generic term, used in the Greek Old Testament to speak of anything from heads of families, to kings and rulers. Most likely this term is used because Hebrews seems to be a sermon that was to be circulated among many different churches, and perhaps different churches had different titles for how they referred to their leaders (elders, deacons, pastors, born members, bishops, overseers). However, it is significant that the word is used in Deut 1, when Moses selects wise, understanding and experienced men to serve as heads of tribes and alleviate the burden of organizing and leading the people. And so it would seem that this sort of organizational leadership transfers into the New Covenant. In any case, these leaders are affirmed by the scriptures.
Advantageous to You: Skipping over to the end of the verse, we get a glimpse of the function of these leaders and there usefulness to the church. The final few words of the verse speak of these leaders as being advantageous to you, the body. But why? Found in the middle of the verse: They are keeping watch over your souls” This is the primary function of church leadership in the New Testament, the word is an interesting one because it has to do with a watchfulness that causes one to lose sleep, like a watchman in the night. They stay up late to ensure your safety. Now this could be a Sunday School teacher preparing her lesson into the wee hours of the night, or a youth leader who responds to a text in the middle of the night, or a pastor sitting with a family in intensive care, going on day three. Aren’t you glad for leaders in the church who display the love of Christ in those ways?
Most likely however, the passage is referring to a select group of leaders in the church who are entrusted with care of the body, called in various places in the New Testament “elders” or “overseers”. The words elder and oversight are used together in Acts 20, when the apostle Paul calls the elders of the churches near Ephesus out to the beach in Miletus and charges them, and in 1 Peter 5:1-5:
Acts 20:26 Therefore I testify to you this day that I am innocent of the blood of all, 27 for I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God. 28 Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood. 29 I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; 30 and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them. 31 Therefore be alert, remembering that for three years I did not cease night or day to admonish every one with tears.
1Pet. 5:1 So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed: 2 shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; 3 not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock. 4 And when the chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory. 5 Likewise, you who are younger, be subject to the elders. Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.”
- They are well trained in the Word to protect the church against twisted teachings
One thing that is obvious is that the present leaders in the church, would continue in the ministry of the leaders that the author of Hebrews mentioned in verse 7 - the leaders who laid the foundation in the church by speaking the Word of God in the past. Thus, leaders in the church today would be of similar character and function to those evangelists, prophets and apostles who originally spoke the word.
- They care for the souls using tools of exhortation, encouragement and prayer
The best example was when we went out to Capital Hill Baptist Church in Washington DC. We joined their prayer meeting and saw their elders care for the souls.
- They set an example to the flock as they follow Christ
Titus 1:5 This is why I left you in Crete, so that you might put what remained into order, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you— 6 if anyone is above reproach, the husband of one wife, and his children are believers and not open to the charge of debauchery or insubordination. 7 For an overseer, as God’s steward, must be above reproach. He must not be arrogant or quick-tempered or a drunkard or violent or greedy for gain, 8 but hospitable, a lover of good, self-controlled, upright, holy, and disciplined. 9 He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it. These leaders are Advantageous to You:
Accountable to God and to the Church: “As those who will have to give an account.” Now some have read into this passage a meaning that goes to far as to the role of these leaders; that these leaders will have to give an account of every soul. that is not the likely meaning. The meaning is that they will have to give an account regarding their faithfulness in carrying out their ministry in the church. This harmonizes with what Paul teaches elsewhere in 1 Corinthians 3-4.
1Cor. 3:5 What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each. 6 I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. 7 So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. 8 He who plants and he who waters are one, and each will receive his wages according to his labor. 9 For we are God’s fellow workers. You are God’s field, God’s building.
1Cor. 3:10 According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building upon it. Let each one take care how he builds upon it. 11 For no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. 12 Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw— 13 each one’s work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. 14 If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. 15 If anyone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire.
1Cor. 4:1 This is how one should regard us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God. 2 Moreover, it is required of stewards that they be found faithful. 3 But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you or by any human court. In fact, I do not even judge myself. 4 For I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not thereby acquitted. It is the Lord who judges me. 5 Therefore do not pronounce judgment before the time, before the Lord comes, who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart. Then each one will receive his commendation from God.
James 3:1 Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.
Obey: Πείθεσθε: It certainly means “obey” - but it is not the word normally used in the New Testament when one is called to obey another in an authority position. In fact, this word is more regularly translated “to be persuaded” - it is not an obedience out of respect for a position of authority, but the obedience that is won through persuasive conversation and that follows from it”. Thus, the authority of leaders in the church is not absolute authority. We see this in the New Testament itself, the authority of church leadership is not absolute, but is subjected itself to the gospel of Christ and the Word of God. We see this when Peter comes to Antioch in Galatians.
Gal. 2:11 But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. 12 For before certain men came from James, he was eating with the Gentiles; but when they came he drew back and separated himself, fearing the circumcision party. 13 And the rest of the Jews acted hypocritically along with him, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy. 14 But when I saw that their conduct was not in step with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas before them all, “If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you force the Gentiles to live like Jews?”
In fact, Paul gives Timothy instructions for how to discipline a church elder according to the Word of God. Their authority in the church is not absolute. There, sadly, is a lot of abuse.
1 Timothy 6:19-20 Do not admit a charge against an elder except on the evidence of two or three witnesses. 20 As for those who persist in sin, rebuke them in the presence of all, so that the rest may stand in fear.
I believe this is one of the reasons that it is important to have multiple elders in a church, so that they are accountable to one another, so that they share the load, so that you don’t have one loose cannon calling the shots and setting up his own kingdom. Every time in the new testament church leaders are described, they are always plural, even if it is talking about only one church.
Leaders are Accountable to God and to the Church
Affected by Our Attitudes: Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, The congregation can help to prevent the burn-out of their leaders by being teachable, trusting, and yielding to them. In other words, the leadership of the church is affected by our attitudes.
What does this mean for Our Church Body At OCBC:
- Pray For and Encourage Our Leaders: It is a tireless task.
- Identify and Pray For New Leaders and New Board: One way you can help them is to begin using your gifts. A lot of our leaders wear multiple hats. Some are burning out.
- Train and Mature Our Leadership: We need more leaders who handle the word well and oversee the souls in our congregation.
Ultimately, the goal would be to have a plurality of elders trained in the word and overseeing the entire church. Right now, as you know we operate under a pastor/deacon model in which most (not all) of the spiritual oversight falls upon the pastors, and most of the administrative management falls upon the board of deacons. And I must say, our deacon board does very well with the deacon-type of work they are called to do. They are less equipped to do elder-type of work (such as resolving theological issues in the church or extending personal oversight), even though they are called upon to do so from time to time. We’ve been making this work for 40 years, but I believe that if we were to align our church more with what God prescribes in his word, we would have more joy in our service and it would be advantageous to the congregation. So ultimately, the goal would be to have OCBC align with the Bible’s description of church leadership.
However, structural change is difficult and does not happen overnight. So how do we get closer to there from here? Well, for our part in the English ministry, we need to begin training and maturing our own leadership, to be well-trained in the word and experienced in overseeing the congregation. I am writing a proposal to the EMT and to the Board that we identify a group of potential leaders to begin theological and practical training to serve as leaders within the English congregation. We would bring them before you, the congregation, so that you would know them and understand the process and observe their progress as leaders within the congregation. Some will be serving on the Ministry Team, some on the church board, but at the end of the process they would be affirmed as leaders by the congregation. We still need to work out details through our English Ministry Team and our Church board, but I want you to start thinking and praying about this leadership development, who you see serving the church through this sort of ministry and whether you yourself might be willing to serve in this way.