“I define a leader as anyone who takes responsibility for finding the potential in people and processes, and who has the courage to develop that potential.” – Brene Brown
Institutional religion has successfully redefined and recreated leadership in its own image. 2,000 years of institutional religion has given us the CEO version of leaders and leadership where a leader is someone in charge who is to be submitted to and obeyed and failure to submit and obey is met with punishments in various forms such as public shaming, shunning, and excommunication, etc. In this type of institutional top-down authority structure, power flows down while money flows up and conformity to the pre-set rules is met with rewards while non-conformity is met with punishments. The institution must survive regardless of who gets hurt along the way. We’ve come to call this good and acceptable leadership. We’re wrong.
There are a couple of passages in Hebrews 13 that those within institutional settings often quote to us as proof texts for submitting to leaders and obeying leaders because (it is reasoned) the leader is in a power position and the one(s) in charge who must be submitted to. The passages in question are Hebrews 13:7.
“Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith.”
And the other verse is found in Hebrews 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.”
It’s incorrectly reasoned that the leaders in these passages must be the pastors, bishops, elders, etc. of the institution because the institution exists in our day with top-down authority having been given to pastors, bishops, elders, etc. by the institution itself. In other words, it’s circular reasoning based on an institutional model that didn’t exist when those words were penned.
Who Are The Leaders?
Who are these leaders mentioned in passing by the writer of the letter to the Hebrews? Are they pastors/elders as our religious institutions would have us believe? Pastors and elders aren’t mentioned anywhere in Hebrews. Are they suddenly popping up here? There’s nothing in the context that would suggest that. Then who are these leaders and what did the writer of this awesome letter mean by submit and obey?
In Romans 12, Paul talks about spiritual gifts given to believers for the building up of the assembly. He says,
“Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, in proportion to our faith; if service, in our serving; the one who teaches, in his teaching; the one who exhorts, in his exhortation; the one who contributes, in generosity; the one who leads, with zeal; the one who does acts of mercy, with cheerfulness.” (Romans 12:6–8)
Did you notice there is a spiritual gift of leadership within the assembly? Did you also notice that it’s not tied to any elite group within the assembly, such as pastors, elders, etc.? This gift of leadership can be given to anyone within the assembly, male or female, as the Holy Spirit determines (1 Corinthians 12:11). The leaders mentioned in Hebrews 13 could have been anyone in the assembly.
The Context of Hebrews and Hebrews 13
In the same way love covers a multitude of sins, understanding context can cover a multitude of mistakes in how we understand a passage. The letter to the Hebrews was written to a group of Jews who had been exposed to the message of the gospel and had “tasted” it on some level (Hebrews 6:5) but weren’t totally convinced it was true. At least some of them were on the verge of rejecting it in favor of staying within Judaism. It is in this context that the author says,
“Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith.” (Hebrews 13:7)
“Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, …” Hebrews 13:17
These passages are a plea to come to Christ – to abandon the Old Covenant and embrace the New. To abandon Moses and come to Jesus. The phrase “the word of God” in verse 7 isn’t a reference to the Bible or to pastors who have preached or taught them the Bible. There was no Bible and there was no top-down authority structure in place within the assembly at that time. Institutional religion existed outside the assembly, not within it. The “word of God” is a reference to the gospel they had “tasted” (cf. Hebrews 6:5), the message of Jesus, a better priest with a better sacrifice built on better promises with a better covenant. The writer is pleading with his readers, “consider their way of life and imitate their faith.” In other words, look at the tangible power of the gospel in their lives as further evidence of its validity. Organized religion tells us this verse is a reference to pastors who occupy pulpits and preach the Bible every Sunday, but it’s not. It has nothing to do with that.
It’s the same organized religion that insists the pastors assumed to exist in verse 7 must be submitted to and obeyed in verse 17 because they are in charge. Again, wrong. Verse 17 is another plea to come to Jesus. “Obey your leaders” is a personal exhortation to act on the gospel message by believing (Hebrews 5:9). It’s not a command to line up under some type of top-down authority structure and do everything they say, because that structure didn’t exist.
The leaders of Hebrews 13 could have been anyone gifted with the gift of leadership in the assembly who had befriended these Jewish people, brought them the gospel of grace, and wanted to see them come to Christ. “Obey them” the writer says. “Believe the word of God, the gospel, and act on it.”
That’s good leadership.