On Sunday I preached from Hebrews 13:7-17 which is a section on leadership and it gave me a different perspective on the nature of leadership.
One friend pointed out to me that when he reads the book of Hebrews and gets to that point, he is nearing the end and tends to move fast through these verses. I do the same - in the past I have seen pretty much the whole of Hebrews 13 as disjointed practical exhortations.
But, as I studied I found that verses 7-17 hang together real well, and rather than being disjointed they provide a picture of the kind of leaders we should be following.
Verse 9 speaks of leaders from the past, those who spoke (past tense) the Word of God to the Hebrew Christians and whose lives are worth imitating. In the exhortation to consider the outcome of their faith we get a hint that they are probably dead and thus, the Hebrew Christians have the ability to look back and see the outcome of their faith.
Unfortunately for us, the writer doesn't spell out explicitly what this outcome was, though we can be sure the original recipients of the letter knew. In my opinion we can do a little bit of historical research and look at the whole of the book of Hebrews to put together a pretty reasonable reconstruction of what was the outcome of their faith. If you can bear with me through a bit of exegesis there is a practical point I want to make that is important.
I suggest that the outcome of the faith of these leaders who are mentioned in verse 7 is that they were either martyred or endured significant suffering for their faith, prior to their deaths. There are several reasons for this.
If Hebrews was written around 64 or 65AD as is suggested by many scholars then it is written to an audience that is living during the time of Nero's persecution which began in 64AD. There is debate as to where the recipients lived - some think near Rome, and others think it was somewhere else in the Roman empire. But either way, it's not a stretch to think that the members of the church would know of Nero's persecution and could see the handwriting on the wall. In such a historical setting it is likely that the writer would have been encouraging them to follow models who were exemplary in their suffering and/or martyrdom.
Also, Hebews 11 is another passage which focuses on exemplary models. The heroes of the faith are to be imitated and the thing that is noteworthy about these heroes is their patience in enduring suffering in the absence of the fulfillment of the promises. Hebrews 11:37-40 says:
37They were stoned; they were sawed in two; they were put to death by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated— 38the world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground.
39These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised. 40God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect.(NIV)
This doesn't prove that the leaders of 13:7 suffered similarly, but if they did it would be consistent with the theme of the book, especially when it comes to exemplary models of the faith.
Another point to consider is Hebrews 10:32-34 where we are told of "earlier days" in the life of the church when they endured persecution, the confiscation of property and imprisonment among other things. It's not unreasonable to speculate that the leaders mentioned in 13:7 were the leaders back in those earlier days and that they took the lead in joyfully enduring their sufferings, and in fact some may have paid with their lives.
Verses 9-16 contrast these leaders with some false leaders who had infiltrated the church. You can see this as verse 9 begins with "do not be carried away by all kinds of strange teachings." Then, the rest of that section up to verse 16 compares and contrasts the false leaders with their strange teachings with the good leaders who were faithful to Christ. And, if you read the section you can see that the good leaders are those who remained faithful to Christ and the false leaders wanted to lead the church back into Judaism.
Verse 14 is particularly interesting in this regard.
For here we do not have an enduring city, but we are looking for the city that is to come.
It's verses like this that make some of us think this section is just filled with a bunch of disjointed exhortations because of the way it suddenly jumps from talking about Jewish forms of worship to a discussion of cities.
But I want to suggest that it fits in with the flow of the passage as a whole. Those who were trying to lead the people back to Judaism were trying to find an enduring city, i.e. comfort and prosperity, in the here and now, while the good leaders who held fast to Christ shunned earthly comforts in favor of their hope for the city that is to come.
It may also help us to understand verse 14 if we go back to the dating of the book. I hate too lean too heavily on the dating of a book to establish exegesis, but in this case I'm going to at least throw something out there. If this was written in 64 or 65AD then it is written at a time when it is hazardous to be a Christian. Also, the Jewish rebellion and Jewish war will start in 66AD and it will then become hazardous to be a Jew.
But, if all this dating is correct, then the 64-65AD period is a narrow window of time when it is hazardous to be a Christian but it may still be relatively safe to be a Jew. I'm not saying that the Romans liked the Jews, I'm only saying that their guns weren't trained on the Jews at that time like they were on the Christians.
This adds another element to the appeal of the false leaders - "come with us and you'll be safe." The flipside of this is that if the Hebrew Christians didn't come with the Judaizers they would not endure in the earthly city and they would face the ridicule of their fellow countrymen as seen in verses 11-12.
And all of this rounds out the picture of verse 17 which speaks of the Hebrews duty to obey and submit to their current leaders. Verse 17 is not an exhortation to a bunch of anti-authoritarian individualists to learn how to submit to authority. Rather, it was an exhortation to choose wisely which authorities they would submit to. In contrast to the false leaders, the Judaizers, the leaders the Hebrews should follow would be those who:
1. Imitated the good leaders from the past.
2. Shunned the Judaizers.
3. Bore shame, disgrace and suffering joyfully.
4. Resisted the temptation to build a comfortable home on the earth.
Here comes the practical point. In this text it appears that leadership is far more about suffering than success. In our day, it seems to be a given that a leader exists for the purpose of enabling his followers or his organization to succeed. Yet, in this passage we see that the leaders would be those who would help their followers suffer rightly.
I don't see from this passage or the book of Hebews as a whole that the Judaizers were asking the Christians to deny Christ. They were merely inviting them to share in a syncretistic form of religion that combined worship of Christ with the Old Covenant practices. This seemed a very reasonable thing to do - they could keep a form of their religion and remain safe in a hostile Roman empire. In that sense they would have a successful religion.
Yet this would compromise the uniqueness of Christ and in so doing would compromise the whole of the faith. Josh Harris has a quote from David Wells at this past weekend's Desiring God Conference that speaks to this issue:
One statement Wells made in reference to the seeker-sensitive movement was particularly striking. He said, "We are shrinking back from the uniqueness of Christ and his centrality. They [the recipients of Hebrews] did it out of fear for their safety—we are doing out of fear that we won’t be successful."
That just nails it. So many of our leaders are fixated on telling us how to succeed for Christ (with John Piper and Justin Taylor being an exception) when they should be fixated on telling us how to suffer for Christ. Further, we are most prone to imitate those who are most successful in ministry these days rather than imitating those who have suffered well.
And I guess this ultimately leads back to our understanding of the gospel. Nowhere does God attach a promise to the gospel that it will make anyone successful, but He does attach many promises of suffering to the gospel. It follows that gospel driven leaders will be those who suffer well.