Hebrews 13:17: Obey those who rule over you, and be submissive, for they watch out for your souls, as those who must give an account. Let them do so with joy and not grief, for that would be unprofitable for you.
Controllers and builders who have managed to secure positions of influence in evangelical churches love Hebrews 13:17. “Those who rule over you” are, obviously, elders. Hebrews 13:17 and similar verses seemingly give the elder authority over the non-elder.
But do they?
Hopefully this chapter will deflate their fantasy.
Acts 5:29: Peter and the other apostles answered and said: We ought to obey God rather than men.
This was in response to “the chief priest” who had said to the apostles, “Did we not strictly command you not to preach in this name?” The chief priest was speaking on behalf of “all the elders of the children of Israel”. So here we have an example of apostles defying elders.
Certainly there is a major difference between Old Covenant elders and evangelical elders. But they also have much in common….
Neither have impressive records. While the ‘Old’ guys were quite involved in the murder of our Lord Jesus and afterwards harassed Christ’s disciples, the ‘New’ guys are responsible for the evolution of various debilitating religions. As the Old elders fiercely defended their unreasonable religions, the New guys likewise defend theirs.
Throughout the church of Christ there are good leaders (some very good) and bad leaders (some very bad). Hopefully more and more evangelicals will imitate “Peter and the other apostles” by defying salaried officers of the way it is by likewise declaring: We ought to obey God rather than men.
Does the church elder have authority over non-elders?
Let’s look at the “churches of Galatia”….
The Galatians fell from so high (“You ran well”) to so low (“You have become estranged from Christ”). Paul asked the Galatians, “Who hindered you from obeying the truth?” And, “Who has bewitched you?”
Were those responsible for this spiritual decay non-elders or elders? It couldn’t have been non-elders because they lacked necessary influence. It must have been influential elders.
And yet Paul didn’t single out the elders for blame, didn’t even mention them throughout his letter. How could this be? Obviously Paul did not consider the elders as having authority over the “churches of Galatia”. How can we conclude otherwise?
Now let’s look at “the church of God which is at Corinth”….
1 Corinthians 1:11,12: There are contentions among you. Now I say this, that each of you says, “I am of Paul,” or “I am of Apollos,” or “I am of Cephas,” or “I am of Christ.”
1 Corinthians 5:1: It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and such immorality as is not even named among the Gentiles.
Again, Paul did not specifically blame the elders of the church for the poor spiritual condition of the church. Didn’t once use the words “elder” or “overseer” or “leader” or “whatever”.
Paul’s letters were addressed to “those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus” and to “the church of God” – to everyone, non-elders and elders. Everyone was responsible for the outcome of the church. How can we conclude otherwise?
Also, Paul never mentioned elders in his letters to the Romans, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians or Thessalonians. Instead he mentions “the brethren” several dozens of times. Within the ranks of “the brethren” were many elders. These elders were not given special attention or recognition. Paul treated all equally. On a scale of significance of one to ten (regarding the question of authority of elders) this has to rate nine or ten. If a group within the group had a special authority over the others it would most definitely have been suggested in Paul’s writings to various churches.
And what do the gospels say regarding church elders?
Most significantly, the words in red (the words of our Savior) give no hint regarding human spiritual authority in Christ’s church. Instead, Lord Jesus seems to suggest otherwise….
Matthew 20:25,26: The rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and those who are great exercise authority over them. Yet it shall not be so among you; but whoever desires to be great among you, let him be your servant.
Lord Jesus said what He meant and meant what He said: “Those who are great” in the church are not to “exercise authority over” the not-so-great.
Matthew 23:8 (NLT): All of you are equal as brothers and sisters.
Again, Lord Jesus said what He meant and meant what He said: We are “equal as brothers and sisters.” Not one above or below the other.
When there is an argument (with others and with oneself), when Scripture seems to argue with Scripture, it is a wise practice to let the words of the Lord Jesus Christ be the umpire. Always give special attention to the words in red.
Red letters can be found in Revelation, chapters 1 to 3. Long after His church had been established, the Lord sent messages to “the seven churches”. As Paul’s letters to various churches, Christ’s messages to the seven churches do not mention elders or any other type of church leadership. This also has to rate high on the scale of significance. If a group within the group had an authority over others – a mediator of sorts between believer and Christ – such a thought would have been disclosed in Christ’s words of rebuke and commendation to the seven.
Yes, Lord Jesus said what He meant and meant what He said: All in the seven churches were equally guilty and equally commendable – “equal as brothers and sisters”.
And yet Hebrews 13:17 (“Obey those who rule over you”) must mean something.
Let’s look at a more digestible translation from the NLT….
Hebrews 13:17: Obey your spiritual leaders, and do what they say. Their work is to watch over your souls, and they are accountable to God. Give them reason to do this with joy and not with sorrow. That would certainly not be to your benefit.
There’s a big difference between a ruler (as translated in the NKJV: “those who rule over you”) and a leader (as translated in the NLT: “your spiritual leaders”). A ruler is a leader, but a leader is not necessarily a ruler.
A school principal is a ruler; a tourist guide is a leader.
And the fact elders “are accountable to God” doesn’t rank them higher; we are all accountable.
Hebrews 13:7 (NLT): Remember your leaders who taught you the word of God. Think of all the good that has come from their lives, and follow the example of their faith.
Paul’s words, “follow the example of their faith” are congenial to Peter’s admonition to elders, “not as being lords over those entrusted to you, but being examples.”
“Being examples.” That’s how christians gives leadership to christians. “Not as being lords” but by “being examples”.
So who are my leaders?
Christ is your leader.
Matthew 23:10 (NASB): Do not be called leaders; for One is your Leader, that is, Christ.
In a very limited sense you have christian leaders, but in a much loftier and truer sense you have One Leader. Emphasis should be placed on the leadership of Christ, not the leadership of christians.
Your leaders are elders “who taught you [and teach you] the word of God.” We have been influenced to think of a spiritual leader as the fellow behind the pulpit sunday mornings – and certainly that could be so – but not the elder brother across the table at Starbucks.
You are a leader (not a ruler) when you teach/preach the (rightly divided) word of God to whosoever. And your leaders are the whosoevers who teach/preach the (rightly divided) word of God to you.
So why were there New Testament elders?
First of all, the term elder can refer both to an elderly man or it can refer to a man of superior knowledge and understanding.
1 Peter 5:1: The elders who are among you I exhort, I who am a fellow elder.
1 Peter 5:2: Shepherd the flock of God which is among you, serving as overseers.
It seems Peter was saying: Being an older fella, I entreat you older fellows – who, because of your age and maturity, have the respect of the church [much less now than back then] – to give oversight to the others, especially the younger people. Make sure you transmit the truths of Christ, as relayed through the apostles, to your group.
Probably the gentile converts, who did not possess our New Testament and perhaps not even the Old, were unaware of many spiritual truths of which we are quite familiar. Maybe they never heard of Abraham or Moses or Isaiah, never read the psalms or proverbs, couldn’t tell you the names of most of the apostles. In time, the New Testament would be compiled, but until then elders (etcetera) were needed to relay spiritual truths.
We cannot assume all apostles appointed elders in the churches. We know Paul did (through Timothy and Titus), but there is no suggestion Peter or John or the others did. Perhaps Paul’s appointed elders were simply those older. We do know wives (nearly half the church?) were to submit, primarily, to their husbands, not to elders. And the chief responsibility of children was to “honor [their] father and mother”.
We are to “obey [our] spiritual leaders” only when they transmit the will and dictates of God. Doing so is obeying Christ, not His messengers. When John was instructed by our Lord to “write in a book and send it to the churches” the recipients would not be obedient (or disobedient) to that apostle, but rather Jesus Himself.
To those who know and practice the will of God, there is no need for elders. They themselves are elders.
Elders do not conduct the gathering of the saints, dictating who can speak when. Elders were never meant to replace the leadership of the Holy Spirit in the christian’s life, but rather just the opposite – to point the believer to the governance of the Holy Spirit. In our church age, elders – we are talking those acknowledged to be elders (including pastors, board members, teachers, superintendents, etcetera) – often work in unison to usurp the lordship of Christ as expressed through His most Holy Spirit.
1 Peter 5:5: All of you be submissive to one another, and be clothed with humility.
Elders must defer to non-elders as non-elders are to defer to them, and everybody is to defer to everybody. The only competition within Christ’s church should be christians competing to ‘out-servant’ each other.