Take thou authority?

In an age without authority and a church in which leaders have great anxiety about claiming authority, how do we read Hebrews 13:17?

Have confidence in your leaders and submit to their authority, because they keep watch over you as those who must give an account. Do this so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no benefit to you.

The text is an exhortation to the people to follow the leaders of their church community because those leaders will be held to account by God for how they led the people.

This sense of accountability was part of what drove John Wesley to do what he did. He read passages like this and Ezekiel 33 as removing from him the choice of whether to lead and confront the people when their ways strayed from Scripture’s description of a holy and God-pleasing life.

You could say, in a sense, that Wesley was acting out of self-interest. He was taking up his cross mindful that if he failed to do so, he would fall under the grave condemnation reserved for leaders who shirk their duty to God’s people.

Now, some will read this and find it displeasing. What? Should we not do everything we do out of love only and never fear or a sense of duty and obligation? In the perfected heart that would be the case. But we are not perfect. Our flesh still rebels and tempts us to turn aside. It is the very example of love to endure that which is not pleasing to us for the sake of others.

But we live in an age in which “authority” is a dirty word. Our democratic impulses argue against authority. The very spirit of modernity and post-modernity is an assault on the idea of authority. Our exegesis and theology remove the threat from the passages of Scripture that speak of authority and accountability to God.

Does a verse such as Hebrews 13:17 have anything to do with the church today?


6 thoughts on “Take thou authority?

  1. Notice though that this particular verse is an exhortation not to the leaders themselves but to their flocks. This isn’t a call for the leaders to talk tough or be confrontational. It’s about giving leaders your confidence and trust so that they are able to conduct themselves with grace and wisdom. The word for me in this is that I should trust our lay leadership and take them seriously. When leaders are heckled and embattled, they are less effective and their followers suffer as a result.

    In an ideal situation where a leader is respected and trusted, s/he can be both gentle and truthful. When I look at the example of Jesus, I see him always being confrontational out of solidarity with somebody. As a leader, I need to stand up for the meek in my church if there’s a bully or somebody whose immoral behavior is poisoning our community. But it doesn’t seem appropriate to badger individuals about their personal lives if they’re not creating a problem for somebody else in the congregation unless they have accepted an invitation to covenantal accountability.

    We definitely need to create more opportunities for accountability and discipling instead of having our small groups take the form of academic book studies. But as it is now, very few people in my church are on a deeper than banter level of relationship with me. I wish I knew how to create trust because as it is, this is all a hypothetical conversation for me.

  2. Authority and responsbility need to go together. Probably the main dysfunction in The UMC is that they do not. General agencies want authority to spend apportionment dollars as they see fit but don’t want accountability. Clergy want guaranteed appointment without any measurement of whether they have fruits. If our leaders are simply doing the same things they have been doing but either doing it louder or calling it something different, we cannot expect different results.

  3. Another thought: modernity doesn’t have a problem with authority; in modernity, reason is the authority. What modernity hates are tradition and mystery. It replaces tradition and mystery with the all-encompassing, utterly inerrant logical explanatory system which becomes the god of modernity whether it’s science or the Four Spiritual Laws. In modernity, God’s nature can be diagrammed with perfect clarity. The one who makes the diagram has the authority. When this perfect clarity is questioned, it might be out of a rebellion against authority as such but it also might be out of zeal for the God who speaks in a still small voice and isn’t the hand-puppet of the self-assured authorities who try to own Him.

  4. Is it safe to assume the leaders spoken of, as far as the Christian Church is concerned, are the “good shepherds”?
    Wesley talks of unholy men too.

    Scripture gives example of persons not to be followed and some who should not lead.

    “For such people are false apostles, deceitful workers, masquerading as apostles of Christ.”
    2 Corinthians

    But there were also false prophets among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you. They will secretly introduce destructive heresies, even denying the sovereign Lord who bought them—bringing swift destruction on themselves.2 Peter

    Are we to follow them?

    1. If your pastor disagrees with you about homosexuality or atonement theory, then you’re exempted from obeying Hebrews 13:17. It’s kind of like how it’s un-American to criticize the president unless the president is un-American.

      1. So we get to choose by our own thinking? Or do we have guidence as explained and written of by prophets and apostles?

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