Remember your Leaders Hebrews 13:7,17

I am a Baptist. Amongst other things that means that I believe that the usual way in which a person will show that they have become a Christian is that they will be baptised as a believer. But more important than that, being a Baptist means that I believe that the church of Jesus Christ is the community of believers, whether they have been baptised as believers or not. If they are saved, Christians are part of the church. If a person is not saved, they are not part of the Body of Christ, the church.

As a Baptist Christian I also believe in congregational government, government by Church Meeting. I believe that each church is capable of governing itself independently. I don’t believe that any individual or organisation should have authority from outside over the local church. Rather each local church, each local community of believers working through its Church Meeting, has within itself ultimate authority over all of its beliefs and practice.

I am not a Baptist by upbringing or habit. I was not brought up to go to church. The first church I was a member of was a United Reformed Church. I have worshipped regularly equally happily at Anglican and Independent churches. I first became a member of a Baptist Church eight years after I became a Christian and was baptised as a believer two years after that. So I am Baptist by convictions. I am convinced that the way of being church which the Baptist Churches practice is the best. Baptists express better than any other denomination the priesthood of all believers – the Bible truth that we are all equal in God’s sight and all have our own part to play in the Body of Christ. There are no “special” kinds of Christian called priest or vicar or minister who are different from ordinary “lay” Christians. And Baptists also express better than any other denomination what some have called “the prophet-hood of all believers” – the Bible truth that we have all received the same Holy Spirit who inspired the prophets and who can inspire EVERY Christian with messages from God. Which is why we believe that God can speak through ANY member of the church to guide the church and we are all equal before God when we are seeking His guidance at the Church Meeting.

I am a Baptist by convictions. I have no desire at all to stop being a Baptist and join any other denomination because I believe we “do church” better than any others do. I am very happy being a Baptist! Except for rare occasions when I read certain verses of Scripture, like these verses which I have been ducking from our study of Hebrews 13 over the last weeks. Verses which say this:-

Hebrews 13:7 Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith.

Actually that’s not so bad. “Remember your leaders”. Imitate them. “Be nice to them” – I quite like that. But here comes the problem.

Hebrews 13:17 Obey your leaders and submit to their authority. They keep watch over you as men who must give an account. Obey them so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no advantage to you.

Here is the verse which makes me very uncomfortable to be a Baptist. Here is a verse which is very difficult to square with the priesthood of all believers and the prophethood of all believers. Here is a verse which fits very uncomfortably with the idea of government by church meeting.

“Obey your leaders.” “Submit to their authority” “Obey them” and obey them in a helpful cooperative way so that being a leader is a joyful experience, not in a grudging or arguing way so that being a leader becomes a burden and a trial.

And unfortunately for me and for us Baptists this is not the only verse where the Bible talks about the authority of church leaders!

1 Thess 5:12 Now we ask you, brothers, to respect those who work hard among you, who are over you in the Lord and who admonish you. 13 Hold them in the highest regard in love because of their work.

OK this only talks about RESPECTING leaders, but it DOES talk about church leaders being “over you in the Lord”. It talks about leaders “admonishing” other Christians. Not just guiding or encouraging but challenging and rebuking as well! How does the idea of some Christians being put in a position “over” other Christians fit with our ideas of government by church meeting where all are equal in God’s eyes? As Baptists do we agree with the idea of minister and elders and deacons being in some senses in authority over the rest of the church, and that the church should “submit to their authority”?

Here is what seems to be to be an inherent problem in leadership in Baptist Churches. Our beliefs in government by church meeting are, shall we say, “in tension” with these verses of scripture about the authority of church leaders.

Indeed the general assumption in the New Testament was that leaders were appointed in the churches and the rest of the church would follow their lead. The apostle Paul certainly assumed that everybody would follow His lead
2Th 3:14 If anyone does not obey our instruction in this letter, take special note of him. Do not associate with him, in order that he may feel ashamed.
Church discipline there for disobeying Paul’s commands.

And remember that our Baptist way of appointing leaders is different from the way they did it in New Testament times. Our Elders and Deacons are appointed by the Church Meeting. Even Baptist Ministers are called to be ministers by the Church Meeting. Among other factors, our leaders are appointed on the basis of their teaching gifts, wisdom, spirituality, maturity and Christian character, approachability and sensitivity and their acceptability to the church as a whole. But the bottom line is that the church chooses its own leaders. Or rather, we pray and hope that God chooses the Leaders and guides the church to His appointed people through the Church meeting!

In New Testament times it was very different.
Throughtout their missionary journeys Acts 14:23 Paul and Barnabas appointed elders for them in each church and, with prayer and fasting, committed them to the Lord, in whom they had put their trust.

Not only in the first century, but indeed for the first fifteen centuries of the church, ALL local church leaders were appointed by “the church”, by the regional bishops who were appointed in turn by the successors to the apostles and in turn by the Popes. It was only at the Protestant Reformation that breakaway groups of “non-conformists” began to choose their own church leaders. And that only happened in “congregationally governed” churches like the Baptists.

Even today, churches in most other denominations have their leaders appointed from outside. Catholics and Anglicans are allocated their priests by the bishops. Methodists and URCs and most Pentecostals are given their leaders by the denomination. Most of the new churches like New Frontiers and Pioneer all have their leaders appointed by regional apostles. Even churches like Vineyard Fellowships and Soul Survivor (which has its roots in the Church of England) do not choose their local leaders – they are appointed from above.

I am a Baptist. I firmly believe in congregational principles and government by church meeting. But we must not forget that we Baptists are unusual, and distinctive, in our way of appointing our church leaders.

And it is also true that most other denominations have no trouble at all in asserting the authority of church leaders. They should be obeyed. In principle a Roman Catholic or an Anglican Christian is joined to the universal church only insofar as they have a relationship with their regional bishop, mediated by the bishop’s representative the priest or “vicar”. So Catholic and Anglican priests logically receive a great deal of respect from their flocks and carry great authority. The same would also be true of leaders in Pentecostal Churches and the New Churches, although here the reasons are more to do with issues of “the anointing of the Holy Spirit” on those leaders and on the regional apostles who appointed them. Indeed it would be fair to say that it is only congregationally governed churches like Baptists, and Congregationalists, and a few independent evangelical churches, only we see any tensions with obeying our church leaders and submitting to their authority.

I do firmly believe that our Baptist way of doing things is the best. It is the best because it avoids at least two traps which all the other denominations can fall in to. The first is the trap of ordinary Christians leaving everything to the leaders. When leaders take authority, especially if they are seen to be somehow different or special Christians, it is easy for “the people in the pews” to opt out. We know well what the apostle Paul says about ministry in Ephesians 4.
11 It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, 12 to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up.
As Baptists we know that the task of ministers and church leaders is NOT to do all the works of Christian service. We know that the minister’s task is to teach and train and inspire and EQUIP all of God’s people for works of service. Then we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ 16 From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.

Our Baptist way of being church reminds EVERY believer that they have a part to play – no opting out! And it also avoids the other great trap which has diminished and even destroyed the work and mission of churches through the ages. The risk of self-seeking leaders taking TOO MUCH authority and exploiting or manipulating their congregations for their own ends. We have seen too much of that kind of authoritarianism in church history. And we can see too much of it in too many churches today, from some of the American tele-evangelists to “health wealth and prosperity” churches in Africa and throughout the third world, and even in some of the excesses of “heavy shepherding” in the House Church movement in 1970s to the present day.

Government by church meeting protects Baptist churches from unbiblical distinctions between “clergy” and “lay” Christians. And it also should protect us from church leaders exploiting their position for personal gain. But it does leave us with this great tension. What does it mean in a Baptist Church for us to obey our leaders? To submit to their authority. For leaders to be “over” the church?

1Timothy 5:17 The elders who direct the affairs of the church well are worthy of double honour, especially those whose work is preaching and teaching.
In just what ways are the church leaders, minister, elders and deacons, meant to “direct” the church, in a setting where every decision is ultimately subject to the agreement of the church meeting. Talking about Spiritual Gifts Paul writes in Romans 12:8,
Romans 12:8 if it is leadership, let him govern diligently;
For us Baptists, what does it mean for church leaders to GOVERN the church

1 Peter 5:1-5 1 ¶ To the elders among you, I appeal as a fellow-elder … 2 Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, serving as overseers- not because you must, but
because you are willing, as God want you to be; not greedy for money, but eager to serve; 3 not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock. …
5 ¶ Young men, in the same way be submissive to those who are older.

What does it mean for church leaders to be “overseers”? In what sense is the flock, the congregation, UNDER THE CARE of church leaders? What does it mean when it says that the flock in “entrusted” to these leaders. And how should young men, young Christians, be SUBMISSIVE to older Christians?

Let’s just sum up the tasks of church leaders as defined in the New Testament and see what that tells us about what it means to obey and submit to leadership.

TEACHING – Leaders must be sound teachers Titus 2:1-8; 2 Tim 2:24-25.
Titus 2:1 ¶ You must teach what is in accord with sound doctrine. 2 Teach …. 7 In everything set them an example by doing what is good. In your teaching show integrity, seriousness 8 and soundness of speech that cannot be condemned, so that those who oppose you may be ashamed because they have nothing bad to say about us.
2 Tim 2:24 And the Lord’s servant must not quarrel; instead, he must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful. 25 Those who oppose him he must gently instruct, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth,

In previous generations, and in many places in the third world today, teaching the flock was much easier than it is for ministers and church leaders today. Then and there the Minister was the one who knew the truth, He brought the words of eternal life which the people received with gladness! Today is different. We can ALL read! We have books, and Christian Radio, and Spring Harvest and Soul Survivor. Every one is an expert!
I preached in another church this time last year – one of my best sermons ever, well at least you all seemed to like it when I preached it here. And as she shook my hand as she left one lady said, “I didn’t agree with that. You got that wrong”. But I am sure that “submitting to authority” has something to say to us about the way that Christians listen to sermons – something about starting from the assumption that God has something he wants us to learn, rather than listening to check up and see if the preacher has got it right or not.

Keeping watch over the flock Acts 20:25-35; Hebrews 13:17
Acts 20: 27 For I have not hesitated to proclaim to you the whole will of God. 28 Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood. 29 I know that after I leave, savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock. 30 Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them. 31 So be on your guard! Remember that for three years I never stopped warning each of you night and day with tears.
Heb 13:17 Obey your leaders and submit to their authority. They keep watch over you as men who must give an account. Obey them so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no advantage to you.

We do not really know what “keeping watch over the flock” is all about. It is more than the minister and elders watching to see when somebody is sick and needs a visit or discouraged and needs our prayers. It is also about keeping watch to see when a Christian is wandering from the path, falling into temptation, or neglecting the things of God. It is about challenging and admonishing as well as supporting. But very few Christians are open to that kind of discipling nowadays. Even fewer welcome it! It often amazes me how much more willing non-Christians and new Christians are to ask the advice of a minister than established Christians are!!

Helmsmen steering the ship Rom 12:8; 1 Cor 12:28; 1 Tim 5:17; 1 Th 5:12
Romans 12:8 if it is leadership, let him govern diligently;
1 Corinthians 12: 28 And in the church God has appointed … those with gifts of administration.
1 Timothy 5:17 ¶ The elders who direct the affairs of the church well are worthy of double honour, especially those whose work is preaching and teaching.
The word for the spiritual gift of administration carries the idea of piloting or steering the ship. Governing. Directing. Steering. This is part of the responsibility of Christian leadership which is most in tension with our Baptist government by Church Meeting.
Who steers the ship? The church meeting? Or the Minister and Elders and Deacons? Whose responsibility is it to receive a vision from God which the church will then follow? The leaders or the whole church? Where does the balance lie? In the Scriptures it is the leaders who direct, who govern, who steer the ship.

In boat race – most important person is the one who doesnt have oar! the cox – steering the boat, keeping everybody else in step.
Steering an ocean liner into harbour to escape from a storm the crew dont take votes on which way to turn to get past the rocks and the shallows – they trust the pilot who’s come on board to steer them safely in.

This sermon has more questions than answers. How do we stay faithful to our Baptist convictions on government by church meeting, and also submit to our leaders, and even obey them? How should I, as minister, serve the church? How should I exercise a ministry of leadership? What form should my leading take?

“Pastors are called to feed the flock, to care for the flock, to seek the lost … but they must never lose sight of the fact that they are called to lead. A pastor may delegate the teaching, he may delegate the caring, he may delegate the seeking of the lost, but he cannot delegate the leading. Or if he does, then he is failing in his calling and the church will just go round in circles”.
(Rev.Dr.Paul Beasley-Murray, Principal Spurgeon’s College.)

1 Thess 5:12 Now we ask you, brothers, to respect those who work hard among you, who are over you in the Lord and who admonish you. 13 Hold them in the highest regard in love because of their work.

Hebrews 13:17 Obey your leaders and submit to their authority. They keep watch over you as men who must give an account. Obey them so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no advantage to you.

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