There are also many different leadership styles. Authoritative, dictatorial, democratic, serving. And there are so many types of leadership in life. We grow up in families, with parents. In some cases, it may be other guardians. We go to school and have teachers. We get jobs and have bosses. We join sports teams and have captains and coaches. We live in society with governments. We participate in groups and have team leaders. We do charity work and have chairmen. We go to church and have pastors, reverends, church councils, elders, deacons, or whatever structure your church may have.
When it comes to churches, I have noticed Christians tend to go to extremes. Some blindly follow their leaders, while others will question everything.
Which leads to an important question: what is Biblical leadership? I have been spending time studying the New Testament to see what a church is. And one of the interesting things I have stumbled upon is the leadership structure of the first churches in Acts.
The churches usually start with a group of evangelists in a city, they preach God’s word, and as people are saved, they are baptized. The group of new believers are then discipled by the evangelists. Usually the evangelists spend a few years with the new believers unless their lives are at risk. When the evangelists leave, they leave a group of elders in charge. In the scenarios where they left prematurely, they would visit later to set up elders. We can read that Jerusalem, Antioch, Ephesus, and others had elders.
So, what is an elder? And what do they do?
We see that the elders are made up of those who function in the gifts of the spirit: prophets, ministers (deacons), teachers, encouragers, givers, evangelists (apostles), etc. The best description of what they do is in Acts 20:17-38 where Paul addresses the elders from Ephesus on his way to Jerusalem. (Please read this for yourselves)
The 2 main points Paul addresses are:
- V28-31: Elders are to guard themselves (individually and as a group) and the church against wolves (false teachers). Therefore, elders are not there to get power for themselves. They are not kings, but watchers. Think of a group in a watchtower, watching for the enemy.
- V33-35: Not to live of the flock. Work for yourself. On the issue of being a pastor. Pastor means shepherd. And in the Bible Jesus is the Shepherd. Elders are sheep with the task after looking after the other sheep and watching out for wolves. In my experience a sheep who claims to be a shepherd is probably a wolf. And only wolves eat the flock, not fellow sheep.
I believe that this is the type of leadership structure we should adopt in our churches, Bible study groups, or whatever your group is called.
This however brings us to the topic of obeying your leaders, as mentioned in Hebrews 13:17.
The reason I felt called to write about this is that there are leaders that use this text to gain power over the flock. I attended such a church for many years. It was a Christian Fellowship Ministries church. There you will find many sermons on total obedience and devotion to your pastor, even in instances when he is wrong. Every word from his mouth was to be seen as if God said it. And this is justified by preaching and misusing on Heb 13:17.
By the way, I find it strange that someone will preach on obeying leadership, while they are the leadership. It is kind of petty, and self-serving. And OBEY was the keyword. I left CFM because of many issues, but this approach to leadership was a big one.
I have no problem with obeying authority, whether it be in a church setting or elsewhere. I do, however, have a problem with reading the Bible out of context. And using Hebrews 13:17 on its own is a gross misuse of scripture.
To get an idea of how we should treat Christian elders, we have to study Hebrews 13 in its full context, especially verses 7-19. It gives us a more rounded approach as how to treat our elders. In it I see a 4-step plan.
Step 1: Heb 13:7
This letter was written at a time when most of the apostles had been martyred. So, this text is a call to remember what the believers had been taught by the apostles who had gone before them. For me personally I have 2 men who fit this remembrance. First is my granddad (we called him Oupa). He was a big example to me of Christian living and of Christian love. I will always remember the things he taught me. The second man is still alive. He was a pastor of mine during my teen years. Pastor Ken Paynter. It was under his preaching the I was taught Christian doctrine. The teachings of these 2 men are Biblical, and I will always keep these teachings in my mind and my heart, whether I am studying the scripture or listening to preaching or teaching. So, when a CFM minister says obey every word from your pastor, or do not waste time looking into it, because the preacher has already done this, I remember Oupa studying the Word himself, and Pastor Ken urging us all to study what he taught for ourselves, to see that he was speaking the truth.
Step 2: Heb 13:9
Once you have a good basis on which to build your faith, do not be deceived by future ‘leaders’ you come across. If you have not had anyone to be a step 1 because you are new to the faith, you still need to guard against false teaching. Study the Word for yourself. Be a Berean (Acts 17). If you find a diverse or strange teaching in your group or leadership, it disqualifies them from receiving your obedience and submission. You need to start questioning them on this. Critical thinking is an important part of the Christian faith. 2 Timothy 1:7 For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind.
Step 3: Heb 13:17
Once you have found elders who are sound in doctrine and lifestyle, and you join a church, bible study group, or whatever the group calls themselves, it is only right and biblical to obey the leadership. This does not mean you do everything the leader says, because you are responsible for your walk with God. Study and check everything they say, get advice from many sources, including the elders, but also other areas. And you make the choice. And you carry the responsibility. But do not work against the elders in a way that makes their task difficult. Remember, if they and you are sound in doctrine, you will have no issues in their advice. And they will not be dictators or tyrants.
Step 4: Heb 13:18
Pray for your elders. They are in a position which makes corruption a real threat. They need your prayers.
And remember, we are not called to blindly follow one man, or a group. We are called to follow Jesus. If he places someone on our way to help you grow further, great, but we are still first and foremost called to follow Jesus and have to be responsible for our own relationship with Him.
So, in short, always check on what you hear from leadership as the Bereans did with Paul in Acts 17. Remember what you were taught before, do not follow false teaching, and then you can obey your leaders, and pray for them.