With the sermon this morning, I am bringing to a conclusion our study of the book of Hebrews. And the subject is an extremely important one in the life of a congregation. It has the power to change the climate of a church from unity to conflict in a heartbeat. And it all comes down to the attitude of the heart.
Intro: The lion was proud of his place as lord of the jungle, and one day he decided that all of the other animals should recognize it as well. He was so confident that he bypassed the smaller animals and went straight to the bear. “Who is the king of the jungle?” asked the lion. The bear replied, “Why you are, of course!” and the lion roared in approval. Next he went to the tiger, “Who is the king of the jungle?” The tiger quickly responded, “Everyone knows that you are, O mighty lion.” Next, the lion went to the elephant and roared, “Who is the king of the jungle?” The elephant responded by grabbing the lion with his trunk, whirled him around in the air, then slammed him into a tree, the pounded him into the ground several times, the dunked him under the water in the pond, and finally threw him on the shore. The lion, battered and bruised, struggled to his feet. He looked at the elephant and said, “Just because you don’t know the answer is no reason for you to get mad about it.”
There is a tremendous need in the church today for great leaders – men of vision and courage and integrity, of determination and action. But as great as that need is, there is a need of equal importance – the need for willing and committed followers.
We’ve become a pretty self-sufficient lot. We like to do our own thing, run our own lives – “nobody is going to tell me what to do!” “Submission” is a dirty word – up there with “root canal.”
When it comes to letting leaders lead, gone is the day of following “because the elders have said so.” And when a decision is made that we take exception with, we will leave and go elsewhere in a New York minute. We’re armchair quarterbacks, and we pick apart our leaders and criticize their actions and undermine their effectiveness, and then say “I could do better.”
Let me suggest that as we go to these words from the book of Hebrews this morning, we hear him speaking to us. And as we examine our hearts and our attitudes and our actions, we ask whether perhaps he might be speaking directly to us and challenging us to think and act differently than we have been: Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith… 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. (Hebrews 13:7,17)
It’s my conviction that these two verses really say very little to leaders. Now there are lots of NT and OT scriptures with both barrels aimed at leaders – challenging them in the way they ought to lead. But these verses speak to those of us who are followers (and I include myself as a follower, because I have placed myself under their care and guidance – they are not just my bosses, they are my shepherds). There are a couple of things we learn about the leaders by listening in on the conversation.
These leaders lead by directing people to the Word of God. Great leaders know where the source of power is. And they aren’t concerned about getting the glory or having people think they are the best thing around. Their concern is with bringing people to the Lord and teaching them to follow him. The Word is a central part of their own lives, and when they teach, it is a natural overflow of what is going on in their lives.
These leaders lead by example – “Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith.”
Like that old lion, leaders who think they can bully their way around, armed with scriptures about submission and obedience, and demanding respect because of their position are going to learn quickly that respect is earned, and that followers follow when leaders lead.
This word, “obey” isn’t in the sense of authoritarian rule, but out of trusting confidence. Leadership is not autocratic and authoritarian – when the disciples of Jesus got to talking about greatness and leadership, Jesus laid out a principle of leadership that sets our normal way of thinking on its head – Jesus called them together and said, “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:42-45)
Effective leaders are ones who are first concerned with living holy and godly lives themselves. Ones who lead by serving and laying down their lives for their flock. Only then can they call others to live the same way.
These leaders are deeply concerned with the Christians who are under their care – “They keep watch over you as men who must give an account.”
Men don’t seek positions of spiritual leadership in the church because of the good pay, or prestige or any kind of earthly benefit.
Leadership in the Lord’s church brings long hours of work which is often unappreciated, a constant burden for members of the flock who are lost and in spiritual danger, endless needs that require you to be sensitive and caring and patient and tireless.
All of this in addition to knowing that God holds these leaders accountable for the souls that are in their care. I was talking with one of our shepherds about the work of an elder, and he said it scares him to death – not the work, but the responsibility.
Now, rather than criticize and second-guess our leaders in the church, we should lift them up and encourage them and thank them for their lives of service on our behalf.
And that really is where the writer leads us. Not to a discussion about leadership, but about following. Few of us will actually take on the role of leadership in the church, but all of us will be called to follow. And the writer shares with us some tremendous principles of following.
Verse 7 – Remember, consider, imitate
“Remember your leaders” – more than just a passing thought – spend time thinking about your leaders – encourage them, thank them – more than either of those – pray for them – lift them up before God.
“Consider their way of life” – these men who are your leaders are so because there is an excellence about their lives, a maturity in Christ. As Christians, they are examples (not perfect, but striving). “Consider” means to find out what it is that makes them tick, watch how they act in certain situations, spend time with them so you can have a personal relationship with them.
“Imitate their faith” – “Consider” – not with a mind criticize or find fault or catch them in wrong – but to imitate. Paul wrote “Imitate me as I imitate Christ.” He knew he was far from perfect, but also knew that people need examples in flesh and blood. I can read, but I need to see – I need to rub elbows with people who have been through what I am going through.
We need heroes today – spiritual heroes.
Verse 17 – “Obey your leaders and submit to their authority.”
Here comes the rub – people don’t mind allowing leaders to lead by example, but “don’t you go telling me what to do or how to live – you’ve gone too far – now you’re meddling.”
And when it comes to directing the church and guiding it’s future – we want a democracy. “Let me tell you how it should be done – do things how I want them done – and if you don’t, I knew you were a poor leader anyway.”
How far would Moses have gone if he’d taken a poll in Egypt? What would Jesus have preached if he had surveyed people to find out what they wanted to hear? If Peter and the other apostles had consulted with the Sanhedrin, what would the church look like today? But they didn’t – in fact, I would hope Peter’s words would guide our elders today – “We must obey God rather than man.”
I know of no elder who considers himself inspired by God and above the danger of making mistakes. Every elder in this church is sensitive to the needs of the members – they want to lead in a way that will please people – but you and I know that isn’t always going to happen. (We can’t even get consensus on the thermostat setting!).
Sometimes they are going to lead in an unpopular direction. So what do we do? Push against their authority until we get our way? Threaten to leave if we don’t get our way? Withhold our contribution until they yield to my way of thinking? Every elder has been invested with an authority in leading God’s people that is not his own assumption, but from God himself. Our submission doesn’t mean they are always right, but an admission that God is ultimately in control.
That doesn’t mean we have perfect leaders – but our concern is that we strive to be perfect followers.
I want to close this by looking at attitudes:
Verse 17b – “Obey them so that their work will be a joy, not a burden...”
To be honest, not many Christians think this applies to them. They think nothing of berating, condemning and second-guessing their leaders, and justifying themselves because the leaders of their church are of such inferior spirituality that they shouldn’t be leaders in the first place. Every church I’ve ever served in has had someone(s) who felt it was their duty to make their leaders regret ever agreeing to accept the job.
If that’s you, would you please have a change of heart and start encouraging rather than discouraging the men God has made leaders over this congregation? By selecting these men to lead you, you have implicitly said, “we will follow you and trust you.”
He challenges us to make their work a joy, not a burden. Their work already brings with it enough heartache and sleepless nights under the best circumstances. Think what a difference it would make, if, instead of criticism and opposition, their leadership was greeted with appreciation and enthusiasm.
Obedience can be a begrudging thing – “I’ll do what they say, but I won’t like it.” But the Hebrews writer says your attitude affects, not only the morale of the men who lead you, but you as well. And it’s not just the ones who openly oppose their leadership, but those who passively oppose them – “I’m just not going to get involved – I don’t want anybody getting too close, or knowing too much. I don’t want to have to answer to anybody.” That’s why it’s so important to place your membership at a congregation, and put yourself under the care and watchfulness of the elders who are responsible for your soul.
He writes: when you make their work a burden, “that is no advantage to you.” What have you really accomplished? What have you really won? It is an empty victory when you tear down one of your leaders, and one that in the long run will be a scar on the work of the Lord.
When we submit to our leaders, we honor God, because it is God who has designed the church; it is God who has invested those leaders with authority and accountability. When we rebel, or criticize, or challenge our leaders, we reject, not just these leaders’ but God’s authority. Let’s make the work of our leaders a joy and a blessing to God and his church.
This subject of leadership and followers comes at an especially important time in the life of this congregation as we enter into a time of transition. Decisions will be made and directions will be chosen that will have an impact on this church for years to come. You have chosen these men to be your shepherds, trust them to lead you. They welcome your input, but ultimately the responsibility for the decisions will fall upon them. Pray for them, encourage them, support them.