Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Hebrews 13:17 - Leadership in Early Christianity

The next verse that discusses leadership in Hebrews 13 is found in verse 17. 

13:17 Heed your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls and will give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with sighing—for that would be harmful to you.

We are struck with a translational problem in the opening word of this verse. The Greek word carries with it the connotation of “persuasion” and not merely “obedience”, hence our translation of “heed”. To “heed” someone is to pay careful attention to what they’re saying and doing.  Lane helpfully notes that,

The distinctive vocabulary selected by the writer is instructive. Normally in the NT the verb ὑποτασσεσθαι “to subject oneself,” to “obey,” is used to call Christians to the acknowledgement of constituted ordinances of authority (e.g., Rom 13:1-7; 1 Cor 14:33-36; Col 3:18-4:1; Eph 5:21-6:9; 1 Pet 2:13-17, 18-3:7). The writer, however, defines the obligatory conduct of his audience with the verb πείθεσθαι, “to be persuaded,” “to obey.” This verb certainly demands obedience. But the specific quality of obedience for which πείθεσθαι asks is not primarily derived from a respect for constituted structures of authority. It is rather the obedience that is won through persuasive conversation and that follows from it.
This persuasion probably comes from preaching and teaching the gospel and the Scriptures. It should also be noted that this kind of leadership is not domineering or imposing. It is within the context of faithful communication and exemplary living (13:7) in the community, that followers are exhorted to “heed” and “submit” to their leaders. Submission carries with it the idea of finding one’s appropriate place in relationship to one’s leaders. This is therefore a voluntary submitting to appropriate people who are themselves guided and constrained by the Spirit, gospel and the Scriptures. Thus Koester says,

By requesting that listeners heed and yield to their leaders (13:17a), the author assumes that leaders cannot simply impose their will, but depend upon the respect of the community.
The Christian community addressed is served by a team of leaders, not an individual, as is demonstrated from the use of the plural “your leaders.” This is significant because it provides accountability and thus safety for the community of followers, since they are to “heed” and “submit” not to a single person, but rather the team of those appointed to lead them.

The writer has already noted two important features of Christian leadership, namely that of declaring the word of God and exemplary living (13:7). Now he further elucidates their roles by noting that “they are keeping watch over your lives.” The notion of “keeping watch” often suggests a volatile, even hostile, context (Mk. 13:33; Lk. 21:36; Eph. 6:18). Since vs. 9 alerts us to “strange teachings”, the function of keeping watch over the community of disciples would include watching out for destructive or harmful teaching, ideas or practices that may infect the people of God with lies that obscure both their understanding and their praxis. This suggests that leaders should be aware of the influences and affects of the world upon the people of God, and they should respond appropriately as those who are concerned about and care for the people of God (cf. 1 Pet. 5:1-10).

These leaders are, in effect, stewards in the household of God (3:6; 10:19), who exercise authority on the basis of their responsibility before God, a responsibility discharged now in the role of servant leaders who “lose sleep” in order to exercise oversight of the community of believers. (deSilva) 
These leaders, as with all leaders, “will give an account”, which recalls earlier teachings that insinuate a context of judgement before the throne of God (see Luke 16:2; Acts 19:40). A time will come when leaders report back, not only on their own lives and teaching, but they must also account for how they guided and directed the people with whom they were entrusted.

Their diligence is spurred by their awareness of God’s judgement. They are themselves under authority, and must “given an account” of themselves to the Judge of all (12:23), who is a consuming fire (12:29). The realisation that leaders must render an account not only for their own lives but for the care they have shown for the lives of those under their authority should be a powerful check against the natural tendency toward arrogance among those placed in such positions. (Johnson)
Therefore, the writer of Hebrews exhorts the congregation to heed and submit so that this is done “with joy and not with groaning”. Hebrews notes that it was for the “joy” set before Jesus, that he endured the cross (12:2), and thus the work of leadership should be practised with joy, since it is for the well-being and benefit of the church, even though this may require effort, sacrifice and struggle. As Johnson states,

The onerous work of leadership is made joyful when carried out in an atmosphere of trust and cooperation. In contrast, when such dispositions are lacking, leaders “groan” as though under a heavy burden (Job 9:27; 23:2; Isa 19:8; Ezek 21:6; Rom 8:23; 2 Cor 5:2-4; Jas 5:9).
Uncooperative followers who cause distress and anguish for leadership cause themselves harm, and the writer of Hebrews again wants to encourage his audience because he cares for them. He does not want to see them “harmed,” a word which suggests “losing out on an advantage.” Another way to translate it would be, “of no benefit to you” (NLT) or “that would be unprofitable for you.” (NKJV). Leadership is there for the well-being and benefit of followers and if the community does not respond well to biblical leadership, then they lose a significant advantage and will miss the benefit and help of having them involved and instructing their lives.

If the leaders receive the support and cooperation of their fellow believers, however, they can serve as a first line of defence against false teachings from without as well as weakening from within. The fact that the author mentions the inexpediency of making the leaders “groan” in close proximity to their impending account to God for their charge suggests more threatening admonition: not only will the community itself benefit less in the present time if their leader’s ministry is hindered by opposition within the group, but the hearers will fare worse when the leader bear witness to the pride and disobedience of the insubordinate. (deSilva)
In this verse the author of Hebrews encourages his congregation to take serious those who are over them in the Lord. They are accountable to God, and thus the congregation should trust them and obey them as faithful ministers of the word, and as exemplars of the gospel.

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