RECEIVING ELDERS Trinity
Hebrews 13:7,17 24.10.21
Over three Sundays we have looked at God’s plan to care for his church through elders or overseers, as they teach his Word, and are a wall of protection around the flock. Today, we are asking where we all fit in with that, by looking at 2 verses in Hebrews 13:
Verse 7 “Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith.”
Verse 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.”
Obey? Submit? We live in the 21st century, in a free democracy. We are not used to even respecting leaders. If we agree with them, we’ll have them, but if not, we’ll change them.
If we do join a church, we will stay in it only so long as it agrees with what we think, or simply doesn’t become inconvenient. If not, we’ll go and do our own thing.
Friends, we need to look freshly at these verses today. Partly because we know that God’s ways are always good for us, and partly because we know that God’s ways are so often counter-cultural.
Let’s start by asking WHO these verses are speaking about, before we see WHAT these people are being asked to do.
WHO are these leaders? Churches have all kinds of leaders – youth group leaders, roster organisers, carers of our finances, small group leaders and so on. How we thank God for them all.
The leaders in these verses, are more specific than that. Some of them (verse 7) were in the past, men like Paul and Peter and Timothy, who “spoke the Word of God” to them back there. They were the men who led them to Jesus and under God formed their church.
Some of these leaders (verse 17) are leaders now, in the present. They “keep watch over” as overseers (not overlookers, as Warwick told us), as those called to feed the flock with the Word of God, and to be a wall of protection around it. We all speak God’s words to one another, but something more formal than that is meant here.
They would read this and say, “He means Jake and Hermes and Nereus.” The writer does not say “obey and submit to leaders”, as though it were a general principle, but “obey and submit to your leaders”. They had leaders now in their church, and they know exactly who they are.
When I read these words, I say “He means Peter and Neil, Warwick and Ross, and soon, we trust, Pete and David. They are my leaders, and our leaders. Jesus means them to help me and our whole church, to follow Jesus more closely.”
These words don’t make any sense to some Christians because they are not so organically part of a church that they even have leaders. They have no one who is entrusted with the care of their soul. What blessings they are missing.
The leaders now (v17) are to be like the leaders back there (v7) … they must be models of godliness and faith. Why?
>> Who will believe what they teach if they don’t take it seriously?
>> What we see with our eyes fleshes out what we hear with our ears.
>> The way they live will silence those who oppose their teaching.
John Owen nailed it: “If the Word of God does not dwell with power in us (leaders) it will not pass with power from us.”
Leaders are not advisors, though no doubt they advise. They are not representatives of the church, led by majority vote. They are not passengers on the church bus, waiting for someone to take the lead. They lead – they are driving the bus and taking us with them.
As I have said already, this does not sit easily with us. Maybe because we’ve been used to having a casual relationship with churches where no one is actually entrusted with care of our soul. OR because we can only think of stories of or experiences of leaders leading badly. OR because it doesn’t fit with our culture which tells us to set our own course and do our own thing, and where “no one is going to tell me what to do”.
Maybe our objection is more respectable than those: Isn’t Jesus the King of the church? Doesn’t he alone have authority in his church?
No. That is not true. Jesus has ultimate authority in his church, for it belongs to him, but he works out that authority through his Word, and those he appoints to teach and apply it – through men who have a delegated authority, not any of their own.
In the same way he rules nations though kings and governments to whom he gives a delegated authority, or families through parents who have a delegated authority.
It is because he is the ultimate King that we submit to the authority of governments and honour parents and respect our boss at work.
In the church of Jesus, don’t we all have equal status in Christ, equal access to the Father through Jesus, and the same inheritance in him?
Yes, we do. No book of the Bible makes that clearer than this letter to the Hebrews. Equality doesn’t mean we are all the same. Men and women are equally loved and forgiven as children of God.That doesn’t mean they have the same roles in their marriage and in a family. They don’t.
Talk about leaders isn’t talk about different status, or different intrinsic worth of importance. It is about the structures that Jesus gives, to increase his blessings to us. His structure is clear.
Norman Porter, a friend in Adelaide, pastored Mitcham Baptist Church. One Sunday morning the church secretary stood to make the announcements just before Norm preached. His first announcement was “From next Sunday, this pulpit will be vacant.” That was the first Norm heard that he had been fired by the board of deacons, who thought they were the leaders in that church. As a friend of mine would say “Another Baptist pastor bites the dust.”
Jesus works out his authority in a church by his Word, and through those who teach it. That’s not the church secretary, or the board of deacons, or the loudest group in the church or the biggest givers. Those who lead God’s church lead fundamentally out of a godly life, by teaching the Word of God. We separate the task of teaching the Bible from leadership to our great peril.
Now if they are not teaching God’s Word to the best of their ability, or reflecting it in their lives as best as sinners can do, then they should go. If they will not go, the members should.
John Chapman told of one of his visits to London. He was inviting a man to come to a meeting where he would be speaking about Jesus. The man said he didn’t need to because he belonged to the local Church of England where there was a fine vicar. “What made him fine?”, Chappo asked. “He drinks with the rest of us at the local pub”, was the answer. “Does he tell you and show you how you can know Jesus” John asked. “He’d never do that”, the man said. “Then he’s not worth a bumper” was Chapo’s subtle come back.
He certainly wasn’t. Church leaders are meant to be known for their personal godliness, and as spokesmen for the Word of God.
That’s the WHO. Leaders and those who follow them. How about the WHAT. What are we all to do with respect to our leaders? God says we are to OBEY them and SUBMIT TO THEM. What’s the difference between those two words?
John Owen put it this way 400 years ago. Sometimes your leaders will tell you exactly what God’s Word says – do not gossip, teach your children, stay away from an adulterous woman, pay all your taxes. By obeying what they say, you are obeying what God says.
They might say things for which they have no chapter and verse. Things that impact the whole church:
“We are starting a new program for making contact with people in 2022.”
“There is a prayer meeting next Sunday (which there is), do come, if at all possible.”
“There is an urgent need for money to help a church in need because of Covid deaths, so let’s make that possible as we are able.”
We submit and get on board.
I can think of some things that have been more personal:
“You must stop speaking about your spouse like that.”
“You need less time at work and more time with your kids.”
“How about less time with your friends at church, and more time invested in caring for newer people.”
There is no chapter and verse for these personal things either, though there is a biblical principle behind each of them. They therefore call for submission rather than obedience.
THAT RAISES AN OBJECTION:
MIGHTN’T THEY OVERSTEP, AND BECOME TYRANTS?
Of course they might. It has happened in churches so many times, that we really need our eyes open on this one.
God has here laid out here some ways to reduce the danger of that happening.
Firstly, God means there to be a team of leaders in each church. In Acts 20 we saw Paul speak to the elderSSS from the church in Ephesus. Here again, there are leaderSSS. Yes, a whole team of leaders might become tyrants, but is far less likely than where there is a sole leader, especially if he is very gifted, a great visionary or just a man with a very strong personality.
Over 40 years I have been part of a team of elders who are some of the finest men you will find anywhere. They have been wise where I am not and believing where I have been doubtful. They have curbed my idiosyncrasies and half-baked ideas in a way that has been a blessing to us all. What a safeguard it has been never to have taken a vote – if we are not agreed, it doesn’t happen.
Apart from that I would not have been half the model I am. They are entrusted with the care of my soul and I am subject to them. That hasn’t always been painless, but it sure has been important.
Having plural leaders helps guard against tyranny.
Secondly, elders are accountable. God says that they are men “who will have to give an account” (v17). To whom? The Lord of the church, who redeemed it with his own blood, and owns it.
They’d be crazy not to consult with others, and to take on board good suggestions and listen to different views. The bottom line is that they labour before an audience of one.
The elders here are your servants, but you are not their masters. As overseers, they have one over-overseer, the “Arch-overseer, and he is the one to whom they are ultimately accountable.
When the elders spoke with David and Pete about the possibility of their becoming elders, one of them said “I am nervous. You are talking about my taking a lead in God’s church”. That sealed the deal for me. He is exactly the kind of man who will lead us well. May that be the head and heart conviction of all your elders.
The danger of overseers becoming tyrants is reduced by having God’s structure, and hearts set on pleasing him above all.
The THIRD safeguard is you. All of us together. What we do will shape what they do in a very important way. God says in verse 17 “Let them do this (watching over you) with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.”
What makes overseers groan? When the rest of us will not obey what God makes plain, and when we will not submit to the lead God has given us in them. Reject their appeal, criticise their plans or just vote with your feet by doing your own thing, and they will groan.
Does that ever happen here? Sometimes. The big picture however, is so much better than that. There is such a widespread willingness here to obey and submit in the right way that the work of your elders here is a joy, and not a burden. There have been tears and sleepless nights, but there are many more rejoicing days.
We all have an impact on one another. How we live and love and work together shapes us all. In ways that you may never have thought about, it shapes the elders who lead here.
When it is like this, it’s a win-win situation, to put it crudely. When we receive elders as leaders to whom we submit, under God, their work is a joy, not a groaning grind. They rise above themselves by the grace of God. When they are like that, do you think we won’t all be blessed with a committed, affectionate and generous lead?
When God wrote these words, he knew that no leaders anywhere are perfect. Yet he still says: remember, consider, imitate, obey and submit. These words need to land with special force on some of us who have been living loose to them until now. Might that be you?
What blessings and riches overflow to us all when God’s words change attitudes and shape actions! No one loses this way, and what honour there will be to the Lord Jesus, in and through his church.
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