Leadership in the Church

Hebrews 13:17

(The following text is taken from a sermon preached by Gil Rugh in 1978.)


In the verse 17, the writer turned his attention to the leadership of the body. He says 'Obey your leaders and submit to them; for they keep watch over your souls, as those who will give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with grief, for this would be unprofitable for you.' While Catholic and Protestant hierarchies such as priests, bishops, archbishop's ...etc., are unbiblical, there is an order of authority in the church established by God. This is true of all of God's creation. For example, God has established that rulers of the government are to exercise authority over the realm of mankind (Romans 13:1-7). God has established those who rule over mankind, and as believers, we have the responsibility of obeying those leaders. Of course, if their authority becomes anti-biblical, we have the responsibility to obey the word of God. But generally, we must submit ourselves to those who rule over us. This is true whether we are talking about taxes, speeding tickets, or curfews. No matter what the area, we are to obey the laws established by our reigning Government.

Within the confines of the local church, we also have an established order. Christ is the head of all things involving the church, and the church is His body (Ephesians 1:22,23). Under Him, He has appointed men to rule in the local church (1 Timothy 3, Titus 1). They are called elders, or bishops. Under them are deacons, and gifted men, and the rest of the body. So, although there is equality between every believer, there is an established order of authority that must be obeyed within the local church.

As sinful human beings, our flesh resists this authority. We live in a day where believers stress independence and individuality. We become so absorbed in the fact that we are believers and priests who have the ability to study, know, and worship God, that we fail to recognize the leadership that God has established. But the writer to the Hebrews is clear: we must 'obey' and 'submit' to our leaders. The word 'obey' means 'to listen to.' The second word 'submit' means to 'yield or give way to an idea.' What if our leaders are unbiblical? That question has already been answered. Take a stand on the word of God, pack up your Bible and go to a church that is functioning properly. However, if our leaders are biblical and submissive to the word of God, we must listen to them and submit to their leadership.

The reason we are to submit to our leaders is '... for they keep watch over your souls, as those who will give an account.' The leaders are to be continually on the alert as they oversee the body. The term 'keep watch' means 'without sleep.' It is a process that never ends. The key area of alertness involves doctrine. They are to be on guard for doctrinal purity within the local body. Why must our leaders be alert? Because say 'will give an account.' We may say, 'I can look out for myself,' but it is the established order of God that those who are leaders of the local body must be alert in looking out for our spiritual well-being because they will give an account one day before the lord.

The writer ends verse 17 with an exhortation. He says 'Let them do this with joy and not with grief, for this would be unprofitable for you.' The 'joy' ties to keeping watch over the souls of those in the local body. It is in the present tense, indicating that it is something they are to be doing. When the local body is functioning biblically because of the leadership provided, it ought to be a joy for the leaders of that body.

What happens when the local body is functioning unbiblically? It is a cause for 'grief' for the leaders. This word means to 'moan' or 'groan.' it is a cause of what happiness or sorrow for a leader when the body he serves is not serving the Lord in an acceptable way. The leader's responsibility does not change, but it is a much more enjoyable responsibility when the body is functioning the way it should.

The writer identifies the reason that we are to function properly, at the end of verse 17. He says 'for this would be unprofitable for you.' This refers to the giving of rewards seen in First Corinthians Chapter 3 and Second Corinthians Chapter 5. The writer is referring to the present leadership of the Hebrews (indicated by the present tense). The same thing is true for us. If we do not function biblically, we lose rewards, and those who resist God's appointed leadership are not functioning properly. As we have seen, the flesh is very resistant to the established leadership that God has put in place. We try to pretend that it is not a serious subject. We say things like, 'I just have a problem with authority, but I would never rebel against God.' We must recognize that rebelling against the leadership that God has established in the local church is rebelling against God.

See also Acts 20:28-32.

How do we know who is to be an elder? First Timothy 3:1-7 gives us the qualifications of an elder. Verse 1 says, 'It is a trustworthy statement; if any man aspires to the office of overseer, it is a fine work he desires to do.' If a man meets the qualifications of the office of the elder (vss 2-7), and he is willing to serve in that capacity, that is an indication that God has appointed him to be a leader. The point is, only those are qualified and willing to serve should be appointed to the office of the elder. If one is serving so he can gain recognition, or be rewarded monetarily, he should not be an elder.

Not only are there strict guidelines that determine the qualifications of a man to become an elder, there are also a strict guidelines in how we are to treat our elders after they have been appointed to leadership. First Timothy 5:17-21 says, 'Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, and especially those who work hard at preaching and teaching. For the scripture says, 'you shall not muzzle the ox while he is thrashing,' and 'The laborer is worthy of his wages.' Do not receive an accusation against an elder except on the basis of two or three witnesses. Those who continue in sin, rebuke in the presence of all, so the rest also may be fearful of sinning. I solemnly charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus and of His chosen angels, to maintain these principles without bias, do nothing in a spirit of partiality.' Elders who are faithful, particularly in preaching and teaching, are to be rewarded materially. Elders who remain in continual sin are to be openly rebuked in the presence of the entire body. This is done after an elder is approached by two or three witnesses to confront him with his sin. This approach is used to avoid any one person, who is simply disgruntled with an elder, from starting rumors in order to damage his reputation.

The order of authority is clear: the body is ruled by the head, Jesus Christ. Under him, God has established various leadership positions to be filled by qualified, willing men and under them, the church body is responsible for obeying and submitting to the human leadership that God has provided.

Scripture quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Lockman Foundation 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977. All quotations used by permission.

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Indian Hills Community Church

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