Spiritual Leadership in the Church (Hebrews 13:7,17)

I think we all recognize that good leadership is important in almost every facet of human endeavor. Whether it’s a family, or a sports team, or a business, or a military unit, or a political party, you need good leadership in order for each group to obtain the maximum benefit. It should not surprise us, therefore, if this is true of God’s people. And it is. It was one of the lamentable and tragic effects of poor and wicked leadership in the nation of Israel that led the prophet Ezekiel to write, “Thus saith the Lord God unto the shepherds; Woe be to the shepherds of Israel that do feed themselves! should not the shepherds feed the flocks? Ye eat the fat, and ye clothe you with the wool, ye kill them that are fed: but ye feed not the flock. The diseased have ye not strengthened, neither have ye healed that which was sick, neither have ye bound up that which was broken, neither have ye brought again that which was driven away, neither have ye sought that which was lost; but with force and with cruelty have ye ruled them. And they were scattered, because there is no shepherd: and they became meat to all the beasts of the field, when they were scattered. My sheep wandered through all the mountains, and upon every high hill: yea, my flock was scattered upon all the face of the earth, and none did search or seek after them” (Ezek. 34:2-6).

Now some might think that the best solution to bad leadership is no leadership, and that the best thing is to go off by yourself and do your own thing. But that is not good for God’s people, either. In fact, one of the things that Ezekiel mourns is that this is the result of bad leadership, that the sheep end up fending for themselves. Our Lord made a similar observation in his day: “But when he saw the multitudes, he was moved with compassion on them, because they fainted, and were scattered abroad, as sheep having no shepherd” (Mt. 9:36).

It is therefore to be expected that one of the very first things the apostles did when they constituted churches was to ordain elders, spiritual leaders, in every church. It was with respect to the apostle Paul’s first missionary journey that it is written, “And when they had ordained them elders in every church, and had prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord, on whom they believed” (Acts 14:23). Paul didn’t wait until the second or third journey to do this; he ordained good leaders from the start. And Paul writes to Titus with a bit of urgency, “For this cause left I thee in Crete, that thou shouldest set in order the things that are wanting, and ordain elders in every city, as I had appointed thee” (Tit. 1:5). What this tells me is that a church without elders is a church out of order.

So it also should not surprise us that believers who are weak and wavering are believers who are not relating correctly to the spiritual leadership of the church. If, as it seems, elders are important for the health of the church, then to be without them, or to relate poorly to them, will only leave the church in a weak and unhealthy position.

This seems to be at least one of the reasons we have the verses before us. The Hebrew Christians in Rome were in danger of veering off the path of faithfulness to the Lord in part because they weren’t listening to and following the example of the spiritual leaders in the church. They were like sheep who didn’t believe there were any wolves around and so they went off to do their own thing, and lo and behold, they ended up getting chased around and wounded and killed by the wolves after all.

It is therefore important for us to ponder the meaning of verses like 7 and 17, for they tell us that a healthy church is a church with good leaders. But these verses are also important for at least a couple of other reasons. First of all, they are important because in pointing out their spiritual leaders, the author tells us who they are and what they do, and in doing so gives us a Biblical portrait of what a godly leader looks

like. In other words, these verses give us Biblical parameters for the expectations we are to have of our spiritual leaders. But this is important for a second reason: not only do these verses address themselves to the responsibilities of the shepherds for the flock; they also address themselves to the responsibilities of the flock towards the shepherds. The leaders are to lead, and the church is to follow, and these verses tell us both how the leaders are to lead and how the church is to follow. So it is to that end that we want to address ourselves to this text.

How the leaders lead

First of all, I think we need to address ourselves to the question of who these guys are. They are described as “them which have the rule over you” (7, 17). Who is this describing? Well, from what I have already said, you have probably guessed my take, that these are the elders of the church. I want to start by defending that interpretation.

Let’s begin with the word itself, for the phrase “them that have the rule” actually translates one Greek word, and it’s the root behind the English word hegemony, which, as you know, refers to the leadership of one group over another. This word is used in Acts 15:22 to describe Barsabas and Silas, who were chosen by the church to bring the decision of the church of Jerusalem to the Gentile churches abroad and are called “chief men” (KJV) or “leading men” (ESV). They were leaders in the church, and it is in this sense that the word is used in Heb. 13:7, 17, 24.

This word is also used in Mt. 2:6, where we have a quotation from the prophesy of Micah describing the birthplace of our Lord. It reads, “And thou Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, art not the least among the princes of Judah: for out of thee shall come a Governor, that shall rule my people Israel.” Now in that text, the word Governor is the word which is translated in Hebrews 13 as “them that have the rule over you.” This fits well with the fact that a governor, according to Mt. 2:6, is indeed someone who rules: “that shall rule my people Israel.” But what I want to notice here is this other word which helps us to understand the function of a governor, and it’s the word poimaino, translated “rule” and which literally means to shepherd. This is what I’m interested here in this verse because that word (“to shepherd”) is used of elders in Acts 20:28 and 1 Pet. 5:2. Let’s look at those texts.

In Acts 20:28, Paul is speaking to the elders in the church of Ephesus, and this is what he says to them: “Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over the which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers, to feed [that’s the word, to shepherd, trans. in Mt. 2:6 as to rule] the church of God, which he hath purchased with his own blood.” Spiritual leaders are like shepherds, and the way they lead or rule is by feeding the flock and guarding them from the wolves. As Calvin put it, “The pastor ought to have two voices: one, for gathering the sheep; and another, for warding off and driving away wolves and thieves. The Scripture supplies him with the means of doing both.”

Then in 1 Pet. 5:2, the apostle Peter exhorts his fellow elders to “feed the flock of God which is among you.” Once again, we see that the word “feed” here means to shepherd. This is how spiritual leaders lead and govern: they do so by feeding the flock of God which is among them.

Incidentally, the verb to shepherd is poimaino; the noun shepherd is poimen, which is translated in Eph. 4:11 as “pastor.” A pastor is a shepherd; a shepherd is a leader. These are just all different ways of describing the elders of the church: elder, overseer (bishop, 1 Tim. 3:1; Acts 20:28), pastor-shepherd, leader.

But when we look at the way these leaders are described in the text, we see further that these guys (and they are guys, not gals) are the elders of the church. For one thing, they are men who preach the word. They are to remember their leaders, and they are described as those “who have spoken unto you the word of God.” They are told to follow and to imitate their faith. In verses 17, they are described as men who “watch for your souls.” In other words, the author is not describing a boss or a political leader here. He is describing their spiritual leaders, their pastors, their elders. These are shepherds who feed the flock of God which is among them.

So I don’t think there’s any question here that these are the elders or pastors of the church there in Rome. By the way, I find it interesting that it was only the spiritual leaders in the church of Rome who went by the title “them which have the rule” in later years. According to all the available evidence we have in later Christian ecclesiastical literature, no other church used this title for their leaders except the church in Rome, which gives credence to the argument that the epistle to the Hebrews was in fact written to a house church there.

Now, that having been established, let’s ask ourselves the question: what do these two verses have to say about how the leaders lead? To answer that question, I want to notice three things about them from these two verses: (1) their task, (2) their character, and (3) their authority.

The task of the leaders

There are two main tasks of the pastors. They are to preach the Word of God and to watch over the souls of God’s people. The pastor pastors in the pulpit and he pastors one-on-one. He pastors in the proclamation of the word of God to all the congregation and the pastors in personal discipleship. That is the task of the pastor.

First of all, he is a man who preaches, not his own word, but the word of God. Do you remember what Paul told Timothy? They are inspiring and convicting words: “I charge thee therefore before God, and the Lord Jesus Christ, who shall judge the quick and the dead at his appearing and his kingdom; preach the word; be instant in season, out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort with all longsuffering and doctrine. For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but after their own lusts shall they heap to themselves teachers, having itching ears; and they shall turn away their ears from the truth, and shall be turned unto fables” (2 Tim. 4:1-4).

According to Paul, a good minister of Jesus Christ (1 Tim. 4:6) is one who preaches God’s word, and he does so in a personal, convicting, experiential way. He speaks words of reprove, of rebuke, of exhortation, and he does this clearly and distinctly and lovingly, grounding his exhortations in the teaching of Scripture. He patiently explains the path the saints are to take by painstakingly showing them from God’s word that this is the way to go. A good minister is someone who doesn’t convince people to go down a certain path on the force of his own personality; he does so on the force of the authority of God’s word. He doesn’t rouse them into action on the basis of an emotional appeal but by the force of the power of the gospel. It’s what Paul is getting at when he told the Corinthians, “And my speech and my preaching was not with enticing words of man’s wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power: that your faith should not stand in the wisdom of men, but in the power of God” (1 Cor. 2:4-5). I don’t want your faith to stand in my wisdom, for I have none to give you; I want your faith to stand by the power of God, as he witnesses by the Holy Spirit to the wisdom of his word.

Or think about the words of the prophet Jeremiah. They too are riveting, as they contrast the empty words of false prophets who only give people their own minds and the words of God: “I have not sent these prophets, yet they ran: I have not spoken to them, yet they prophesied. But if they had stood in my counsel, and had caused my people to hear my words, then they should have turned them from their evil way, and from the evil of their doings. Am I a God at hand, saith the Lord, and not a God afar off? Can any hide himself in secret places that I shall not see him? saith the Lord. Do not I fill heaven and earth? saith the Lord. I have heard what the prophets said, that prophesy lies in my name, saying, I have dreamed, I have dreamed. How long shall this be in the heart of the prophets that prophesy lies? yea, they are prophets of the deceit of their own heart; Which think to cause my people to forget my name by their dreams which they tell every man to his neighbour, as their fathers have forgotten my name for Baal. The prophet that hath a dream, let him tell a dream; and he that hath my word, let him speak my word faithfully. What is the chaff to the wheat? saith the Lord. Is not my word like as a fire? saith the Lord; and like a hammer that breaketh the rock in pieces?” (Jer. 23:21-29). Faithful, good pastors, preach God’s word which is like wheat to fill the hungry soul and like fire to burn away lies and sin and like a hammer to break the hard hearts of hard people. Why would you preach anything else? Don’t go for preachers who preach themselves or about themselves. Don’t go for preachers who entertain you with funny anecdotes or seek to move you through tear-jerking stories. Rather, listen to men who preach Christ and give you his word.

These are men who don’t preach themselves but Jesus Christ (2 Cor. 4:5). They don’t present themselves as the solution to the problems of others; they give them Christ, because they know both by experience and by the Scriptures that we are all sinners before God and that it is only by the free and sovereign grace of God given through the person and work of Jesus Christ, received by faith, that we can be saved and have our sins forgiven and be made members of the family of God.

Of course, behind every message should be a man of prayer. The apostles told the early church, “But we will give ourselves continually to prayer, and to the ministry of the word” (Acts 6:4). In other words, you don’t want a company man, you don’t want a man whose primary interest is to promote denominational differences. You want a man of God, who knows God, who walks with God, and who preaches God’s word.

The other part of his task is that of personal discipleship, the one-on-one aspect of the pastoral role. This is described in the words, “for they watch for your souls” (17). They don’t just throw the feed out and then go back to doing their own thing, but they observe each sheep to know its state. So you don’t just want someone who is good in the pulpit, but someone who knows how to pray at the bedside of the dying. You want someone who can counsel God’s word to particular people in particular predicaments. You want someone who loves people and who is available. You want someone, in other words, you is like Timothy, whom the apostle recommends to the Philippian church in this way: “But I trust in the Lord Jesus to send Timotheus shortly unto you, that I also may be of good comfort, when I know your state. For I have no man likeminded, who will naturally care for your state. For all seek their own, not the things which are Jesus Christ's. But ye know the proof of him, that, as a son with the father, he hath served with me in the gospel” (Phil. 2:19-22). You want someone who doesn’t do this because he has to, but because, like Timothy, he wants to – it’s natural to him.

The character of the leaders

But you don’t just want men who fill a certain role well; you need men of character. You see this in the descriptions of these men in our text as well. Their lives are worthy of imitation: “whose faith follow” (7). It is noteworthy, I think, that in both lists of qualifications for elders in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1, only one of the qualifications is related to a task, and it’s the fact that an elder needs to be able to teach. All the other qualifications are character qualifications. Thus, the apostle writes to Titus, “For this cause left I thee in Crete, that thou shouldest set in order the things that are wanting, and ordain elders in every city, as I had appointed thee: If any be blameless, the husband of one wife, having faithful children not accused of riot or unruly. For a bishop must be blameless, as the steward of God; not selfwilled, not soon angry, not given to wine, no striker, not given to filthy lucre; But a lover of hospitality, a lover of good men, sober, just, holy, temperate; Holding fast the faithful word as he hath been taught, that he may be able by sound doctrine both to exhort and to convince the gainsayers” (Tit. 1:5-9).

In other words, they need to be men who are not only good in public but above all good in private. They are not something in the pulpit and another thing at home or when they are alone. What you see is what you get. These are the kinds of men that you want as pastors and elders. These are how the Bible describes spiritual leaders.

It is a common consensus among commentators on this text that verse 7 really is directed towards their past spiritual leaders, whereas verse 17 to their present. The reason for this is that in verse 7, their ministry of the word is spoken of in the past tense, “who have spoken unto you the word of God.” It also makes more sense to say of the past, “Remember them.” These were men, in other words, whose memory was worth preserving. Their lives were good to the very end. Like Paul, they had finished their course, fought a good fight, and kept the faith. So the author says that of such the church should consider, “to look back carefully upon,”“the end of their conversation” – that is to say, the outcome of their lives here upon the earth. They were men who were faithful to the end.

And certainly the present pastors were meant to be like that as well. We need men of such character that they are not like a shooting star that burns out and burns up. No, we need men of faith to the end. That is the kind of pastor you want as a shepherd.

The authority of the leaders

Now there is no doubt that these pastors are leaders because that is the very word that is used to describe them. Pastors are shepherds and shepherds lead. But there are right ways to lead and there are bad ways to lead. How then do godly leaders lead the church?

It seems to me that there is a problem in many churches in our day on just this issue. It stems partly from a reaction to the past. In the past, many churches had pastors that didn’t really lead and didn’t really provide spiritual oversight in any significant sense. So people, desiring to recover a Biblical vision of the church, looked at the text of Scripture and noticed that in the NT the churches has multiple elders who really did lead the church. So in response to this, some churches have gone to what is sometimes called an “elder-rule” policy. Now I believe in elder rule to a point, but I believe it has been abused in many churches. What has happened is that some churches have opted for a system of church government where the elders make all the decisions, and the congregation has no say. They’ve flipped the system, do you see?

But I don’t think this is wise. It’s like these churches have adopted the Presbyterian system on a local scale without any of the checks and balances of the global system of Session, Synod, and General Assembly. These churches have a cabal of elders who make all the decisions. All the authority is concentrated in the hands of a few men.

Now I don’t think that is wise or Biblical. The Presbyterians do have checks and balances for their system, but they do this by pushing the authority and the accountability up, ultimately to the General Assembly. In other words, the local elders are held accountable by other elders outside their own group. That is one way to do it. But I think the congregational model is best. Baptist churches are congregational churches. In our setting, we push the accountability down rather than up, down to the congregation. In the NT, the deacons were chosen by the church, not just by the apostles. Silas and Barsabas were also chosen by the Jerusalem church for their mission representing them, even though they were leading men. In other words, the elders, even though they lead, are ultimately accountable to the congregations which they lead. This seems to me to be the most Biblical and wisest policy.

So how do the leaders lead? How do they exercise their authority? Well, look at the text of Scripture. They don’t do it by beating the members of the church over the heads with the stick of authority. They do it by the examples of their lives and by persuading them from the Word of God. You see this here in Hebrews 13. In verse 17, the word for “obey” is a word which can often refer to the effort to persuade. Thus, the chief priests persuaded the crowds (same word in Mt. 27:20) to choose to release Barabbas instead of the Lord. In Heb. 13:18, in fact, the word is translated “trust;” here it has the meaning “to be persuaded.”

Now that doesn’t mean that the church is not to really submit to the teaching of the pastors. The text clearly says that. But it is not so much a submission to the authority of the pastor as it is a submission to the authority of the Word of God which they speak. They lead by persuading the people they lead that the path they are leading them down is not a path they have chosen but the path God has marked out for them in his word. Thus Peter exhorts elders in his day to take the oversight of the church (1 Pet. 5:2) – they really are to lead – but they are to do without abusing this authority. So he goes on to write, “Neither as being lords over God’s heritage, but being ensamples to the flock” (3).

A wonderful illustration of this is given in a book I’ve recently gone through.A group of tourists in Israel were told by their guide on a tour bus that in Israel shepherds always lead their flocks from the front; they never drive them from behind. But as he was saying this the people in the bus noticed some sheep being driven from behind. They asked about this, so the guide got out of the bus and went to investigate. He came back with a smile on his face and explained that the man wasn’t a shepherd; he worked for the slaughterhouse and was sending them there! Pastors don’t drive, they lead the way.

Another way to illustrate this is in the relationship between husband and wife. In Ephesians 5:22-24, wives are exhorted to submit to their husbands. Husbands are told, on the other hand, to love their wives as Christ loved the church (25-33). In other words, the submission envisioned here is a willing submission on the part of the wife to loving leadership on the part of the husband. In such a context, it seems to me to be quite incongruous for a husband to be always having to remind his wife of his authority. If he is having to do that, I would bet the problem is not with the wife as much as it is with the husband. Now I’m not saying that there aren’t women who might need to be reminded of this, but I would bet that nine times out of ten a wife that has a hard time submitting to her husband is because the husband has abused his authority in some way. In the similar way, a pastor who is always holding forth the stick of his authority and waving it in the faces of his people is probably a bad shepherd. Good pastors lead by example and persuasion so that the congregation willingly leads.

Now the opposite problem can occur too; congregations can take on an attitude that resists any effort on the part of the pastors to get them to change. This is probably in fact what had happened in this church in Rome, and which is why our author is having to remind them to obey and submit to the leadership of their pastors. There are people and even congregations that take on an attitude that no one is going to tell them what to do. Every pastor knows people like this, and it is incredibly sad. It is sad because they know what is going to happen to this person, and it is not good. A healthy congregation is one in which there is mutual trust and respect between the pastor and the congregation so that where the pastor leads the congregations follows willingly and joyfully.

It is really a bad thing when this atmosphere of trust and respect does not exist. It’s why we go on to read, “for they watch for your souls, as they that must give account, that they may do it with joy, and not with grief: for that is unprofitable for you” (17). Churches that refuse to follow their spiritual leadership make life miserable for their pastors. Now some in the church may just want to do that! But what this verse says is that you are not helping yourself when you do this; you are hurting yourself. It is not profitable for you to have a pastor or pastors whom you have made miserable in your task.

Now we are told that the pastors “must give account.” It is important to remember that here the account is not given to the church but to God (cf. 2 Tim. 4:1). But that does not mean that the church gets off scot- free, does it? We will all give an account to God. Beware how you treat God’s servants, for you will give an account of this before God.

This of course leads naturally to our next and final point.

How the faithful follow

First of all, respect them. This is the clear implication in the exhortation to remember them (7). Now this is a respect and a trust that is earned. It is not something that they can expect just because of their position. Verse 7 is really dealing with past leaders whose lives can be seen in terms of their total outcome. In other words, they had demonstrated by their very lives that they were faithful. It is such men that the church is to respect. But of course, even for present leaders, there must be some measure of trust in order for him to lead effectively. A church needs to constantly cultivate this spirit of mutual cooperation and trust and respect in order for the mission of the church in this world to be effective.

Second, follow their faith. Look at their lives, and in so far as they follow Christ, you follow them. As Paul put it to the Corinthians, “Be ye followers of me, even as I also am of Christ” (1 Cor. 11:1). Their faith in Christ will also make them faithful to the words of Christ and will make for healthy preaching. You need to listen to Bible-centered, Christ-exalting, God-centered preaching. If I ever stop preaching the word of God, then you need to stop listening to me; in fact, you should remove me from this pulpit. But as long as I – or anyone else in this pulpit – is preaching the Bible, then you need to listen, regardless of how much you like it or not! Both Elder Bradley and I make it a point to always ground everything we say in the Scriptures. At the end of the day, we refuse to be wedded to a particular theological or denominational system, for our allegiance is to Christ and his word. Listen to God’s men who preach God’s word.

Remember that one of the main problems of this church in Rome is that they had stopped listening to God’s words, and one of the main ways they had stopped listening is that they had stopped hearing it communicated through their pastors.

So, brothers and sisters, “Let a man so account of us, as of the ministers of Christ, and stewards of the mysteries of God” (1 Cor. 4:1). The ministry does not exist for its own sake, but for the good of the church. Let us therefore work together. Hold us responsible to preach the Bible. And as the pastors of this church, we will faithfully seek to preach God’s word and live it out in faithful obedience to the Lord who gave his life for the church, who loves his church and has given her pastors and teachers so that it is built up in love and faith.

P. E. Hughes, A Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews, (Eerdmans: 1977), p. 569.

Timothy Witmer, The Shepherd Leader: Achieving Effective Shepherding in Your Church (P&R, 2010).



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