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?