In order to fully understand what the author of Hebrews is trying to communicate in Hebrews 13:17 we must consider the fuller context of the entire letter and the strength of emphasis placed on certain points. Leadership and authority aren’t the main themes of the book. We see these themes through the lens of other bigger issues. Primarily the author addresses supremacy of Christ, the new covenant, faith in God and endurance through difficulty.
We do see the topic of rebellion discussed through the lens of the supremacy of Christ. In Chapter 3 the author quotes Psalm 95 referring to the rebellion against God and Moses.
Therefore, as the Holy Spirit says, "Oh, that today you would listen as he speaks! "Do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion, in the day of testing in the wilderness. "There your fathers tested me and tried me, and they saw my works for forty years. "Therefore, I became provoked at that generation and said, ‘Their hearts are always wandering and they have not known my ways.’ "As I swore in my anger, ‘They will never enter my rest!’ "
(Heb 3:7-11 NET.)
In Psalm 95 we see the same sentiments described a little differently: “where your ancestors challenged my authority, and tried my patience, even though they had seen my work.” We know from the rest of the story that God selected Moses to lead his people. When the people rebelled they defied Moses’ direction and it became a rebellion against God. There is more than one way to look at this.
1. God appointed Moses as an authority and rebellion against Moses was rebellion against God
2. God appointed Moses. Moses aligned with God’s direction and the people were not. The issue was always that people were rebelling against God.
In perspective one we assume that those in authority represent God and submission to God’s appointed leader is submission to God. In perspective two the issue is always rebellion against God and one must follow the leader as long as you are confident that they are following God. I believe the 2nd perspective here is obvious because of the way the author describes the nature our partnership with Christ.
See to it, brothers and sisters, that none of you has an evil, unbelieving heart that forsakes the living God. But exhort one another each day, as long as it is called "Today," that none of you may become hardened by sin’s deception. For we have become partners with Christ, if in fact we hold our initial confidence firm until the end.
(Heb 3:12-14 NET.)
We see an admonition to exhort one another. This instruction doesn’t distinguish between those who lead and those who don’t. All of us are called to exhort one another. It is implied that everyone is vulnerable to the deception of sin and cultivation of an unbelieving heart. This includes leadership. Leaders need just as much exhorting as everyone else, perhaps more because if they go sideways the consequences are far-reaching.
We also see that all Christians have become partners with Christ. The word translated partners here is metachoi and it has at its heart the idea of sharing or participation. We share in Christ’s ministry, we participate in it, but we don’t independently represent it. None of us act on behalf of God, we just share in His work if we hold our initial confidence firm. As long as we are correctly aligned in Christ we maintain our place as participants in Christ’s ministry. It would also be important to consider that sources outside the book of Hebrews like Paul’s letter to the Romans inform us that nothing can separate us from the love of Christ. I would see a distinction between our partnership and God’s care, concern and work in our lives.
The author of Hebrews describes the ministry of Christ as superior to the ministry of Moses. In 3:6 we find “Moses was faithful in all God’s house as a servant…but Christ is faithful as a son over God’s house. The exercise of God appointed leadership or authority in this instance couldn’t have been regarded as successful. The entire generation was so hardened in their heart that God denied them entry in to the promised land. The key issue here is summed in verse 19 “So we see that they could not enter because of unbelief.”
How then do we discern the nature of faith and condition of our heart?
For the one who enters God’s rest has also rested from his works, just as God did from his own works. Thus we must make every effort to enter that rest, so that no one may fall by following the same pattern of disobedience. For the word of God is living and active and sharper than any double-edged sword, piercing even to the point of dividing soul from spirit, and joints from marrow; it is able to judge the desires and thoughts of the heart.
(Heb 4:10-12 NET.)
How then would we discern whether we or someone else is acting in participation with Christ? In Chapter 4 the author points us towards the word of God as “it is able to judge the desires and thoughts of the heart.” I believe the “word of God” means more than just scripture, but scripture certainly qualifies as the word of God. Our discernment must be anchored in scripture. While there is merit and place for revelation through God given spiritual gifts the influence of these ministries cannot be disconnected from scripture. Any words, directions or revelations sourced in revelatory gifts must be consistent with the heart and pattern of scripture, particularly the New Testament. The common method of using isolated bits of scripture as spring boards to amplify one’s creative imagination doesn’t count.
It is interesting how the author of Hebrews believed that entering the rest of God was the way to avoid “following the same pattern of disobedience.” In 4:2 the author states “For we also have had the good news proclaimed to you, just as they did, but the message was of no value to them, because they did not share the faith of those obeyed.” In Moses time the good news was the direction Moses gave them through the Exodus, but it didn’t do any good, because without faith they couldn’t enter the rest of God and their hearts were hardened with it. So knowing the direction of the Lord, even from an appointed and divinely authorized leader was not much use without faith in God.
We don’t have to look much further in to chapter 4 to see what the object of our faith is.
Therefore since we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold fast to our confession. For we do not have a high priest incapable of sympathizing with our weaknesses, but one who has been tempted in every way just as we are, yet without sin. Therefore let us confidently approach the throne of grace to receive mercy and find grace whenever we need help.
(Heb 4:14-16 NET.)
There is an obvious implication here. If we have a “great high priest” whom we can “confidently approach” then there are no other priests acting as intermediaries. In Kittel’s dictionary definition of archierus (High Priest) the high priest is God’s plenipotentiary. That is a big fancy word that means “invested with full power or authority” much like a diplomatic agent. We might call the high priest God’s delegated authority. In a simple sense the high priest represents God to the people and the people to God. Now there is only ever one high priest and one true delegated authority and that is Christ. Christ holds the priesthood forever because he lives forever (Heb 7:24) none of us can presume that role for ourselves. We don’t need to because we all have access to our high priest, we don’t need to appoint any others.
In 8:1 we see the author state his main point “We have such a high priest, one who sat down at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in heaven, a minister in the sanctuary and the true tabernacle that the Lord, not man, set up.” The phrase “at the right hand of the throne” implies that Jesus occupies the place of authority and power (Utley 80).
What is our role then? Our role is to encourage and exhort and as well as teach one another with an aim to growing in to maturity (Heb 5:14). We do this with the recognition that the ministry of Christ takes on very different dimensions than that of the old covenant. Instead of using the approach of the Mosaic covenant, God will cut out the need for human priests and laws and inscribe his laws on the hearts of people.
"For this is the covenant that I will establish with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord. I will put my laws in their minds and I will inscribe them on their hearts. And I will be their God and they will be my people. "And there will be no need at all for each one to teach his countryman or each one to teach his brother saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ since they will all know me, from the least to the greatest. "For I will be merciful toward their evil deeds, and their sins I will remember no longer."
(Heb 8:10-12 NET.)
We must recognize that has participants in the ministry of Christ we never, ever presume the role reserved for Christ alone. We are not anyone’s high priest, and we don’t invent new laws, or try to coerce what we feel is appropriate behavior by applying laws. We encourage people to place confidence in Christ to enter his rest. We cannot gain assurance or maturity through self effort, even sincere effort driven by the direction of a Christian leader. It comes only from Christ alone.
Therefore, brothers and sisters, since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, by the fresh and living way that he inaugurated for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a sincere heart in the assurance that faith brings, because we have had our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed in pure water.
(Heb 10:19-22 NET.)
We live by faith and without it God takes no pleasure in us (Heb 10:38). Through it we preserve our souls (Heb 10:39). Faith is being convinced of what do not see (Heb 11:1).
We also see where are focus should be, looking intently at Jesus casting aside everything that might distract us from him. The author of Hebrews calls us to literally “look way from all else at” Jesus (NASB Dictionary). Jesus is the founding leader of our faith who will carry it to completion.
Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, we must get rid of every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and run with endurance the race set out for us, keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith. For the joy set out for him he endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.
(Heb 12:1-2 NET.)
One of the few passages about leadership aside from Heb 13:17 is found a little bit before it in the chapter. Here we are encouraged to imitate the faith of past leaders and a warning to stay true to Jesus and not be carried away by “strange teachings.” He reminds us that grace strengthens our hearts.
So we can say with confidence, "The Lord is my helper, and I will not be afraid. What can man do to me?" Remember your leaders, who spoke God’s message to you; reflect on the outcome of their lives and imitate their faith. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever! Do not be carried away by all sorts of strange teachings. For it is good for the heart to be strengthened by grace, not ritual meals, which have never benefited those who participated in them.
(Heb 13:6-9 NET.)
When we finally arrive at Heb 13:17 the author of Hebrews has already laid out several important points to remember when we consider the scope and nature of leadership in the church.
· Ministry in the new covenant is a partnership with Christ. A partnership we all share in.
· Our partnership with Christ is conditional. We must hold our confidence in Christ firm.
· The word of God is an effective tool for discerning our hearts
· Hearing a message of truth does no one any good without faith
· Jesus alone is our high priest and he alone occupies the place of ultimate authority and power
· In new covenant ministry God’s desire is to transcend all intermediaries and inscribe his laws on our hearts and minds
· We must fix our eyes of Jesus, intently looking away from other things that might weigh us down or distract us.
· We must remember and imitate the faith of those who have come before us staying true to the heart of the gospel and away from strange teachings.
Keeping all these things in mind we can look at Heb 13:17.
13:17 Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they keep watch over your souls and will give an account for their work. Let them do this with joy and not with complaints, for this would be no advantage for you.
What would leadership look like if we interpreted this passage in the light of the rest of the book of Hebrews? It would mean that these leaders work as participants, as those who share in Christ’s ministry, not as anyone’s high priest. Their role would be to encourage, exhort and teach people to “keep their eyes fixed on Jesus” not human leaders. These leaders would not micromanage the lives of others because they would recognize that direction, even good direction does not help anyone without faith, without a connection to Jesus. The goal is always to encourage people towards “entering the rest” of God so they are able to “not fall in to the same pattern of disobedience.” Obedience to Christ comes through a direct connection to Christ and his transforming work on their heart. Obedience cannot come about by obeying the moralistic directions of another person. The issue is never obedience to rules or law or authority but whether one is connected to Christ.
In one sense Jesus is like a solitary doctor in a hospital we call the kingdom of God. Human leaders share in the work of this doctor with the goal helping people become well. We make places where people are comfortable, and we educate patients about the treatment they are receiving, we take care of their physical needs. We comfort and encourage people to receive the treatment of the doctor. We can do many things but we are not the doctor and we do not ever, ever pretend we are. In a hospital patients should listen to the advice and counsel of nurses and attendants. If a nurse says, “you should take the medicine the doctor prescribed you” then obey them. The nurses are there to care for you and watch over you and try not to complain because their job can be heartbreaking and difficult. They have a job to do and are evaluated based on their performance.
However if the nurse starts trying to treat you, starts pretending they are the doctor and tells you to submit to every treatment they prescribe without question then I’d refuse treatment. If you are in a hospital and you see patients around you suffering needlessly and dying because the nurse keeps making serious mistakes make a big deal of it. If a nurse is mistreating or exploiting people object to it. If the nurse tells you to follow a treatment you know contradicts the wishes of the doctor follow the doctor. Always keep in mind what the doctor said and if you are unsure of things check with other nurses. If your efforts fail to correct the situation get out of the ward.
We should also remember the context of the church at the time of writing. The church met almost exclusively in homes. They did not have many financial decisions to make with church money as they had no buildings and their leaders were not salaried employees of the church. There were no large public worship services to manage. Church gatherings were likely broadly participatory with lots of interaction around a shared meal. Leaders operated almost exclusively in the realm of pastoral care and teaching. Many of the reasons we feel we need strong leaders with lots of authority are driven by the size and nature of the church today. When a church becomes large, programmatic and more institutional there is an obvious need for people to be in charge of things. I understand the frustration leaders have when church members get obstinate and stubborn over the direction of certain programs or certain financial decisions. It is important to remember that many Christian leaders are honest and faithful and are just trying to live out the role they feel called to. We should let leaders lead without giving them unnecessary grief.
We must remember who Christ is as the object of our faith and our attention. No church leader should ever to try to do what Christ alone can do. If we keep that straight and understand our role then we can be fruitful ministers of the new covenant. If not we then lead people away from Christ to ourselves and to the futility of trying to obey religious rules and convictions outside of faith.