A gracEmail subscriber in the Southwest has a church leader who forbids single Christians of opposite sex ever to ride together unaccompanied in a car, claiming Hebrews 13:17 as his authority to issue such commands. And an Indiana subscriber, who decided to leave a church he considers legalistic for one which more clearly preaches the gospel, received a letter from his former church elders claiming life-long spiritual jurisdiction over his soul and threatening him with excommunication if he violates their authority. Both readers ask my opinion.
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The author of the Epistle to the Hebrews exhorts his readers to “obey your leaders, and submit to their authority. They keep watch over you as men who must give an account” (Heb. 13:17). These leaders are described more fully ten verses earlier — “leaders who spoke the word of God to you” (Heb. 13:7). The authority of Christian leaders is moral rather than vested (“imitate their faith”). They guide by modeling rather than by fiat or decree (“consider the outcome of their way of life”). These principles apply to all spiritual leaders, whether preachers, elders, priests or any other category your church might recognize.
Serious believers properly welcome and follow godly teaching and example (1 Cor. 4:16; 11:1; Phil. 3:17; 4:9). Church leaders who try to control in ways other than those betray Christ’s charge to his under-shepherds and prove themselves unfit for this spiritual task (Lk. 22:24-26). They are not leading, but lording, and that is expressly forbidden (1 Pet. 5:3). Some of Scripture’s harshest condemnation is addressed to people who were entrusted with spiritual oversight but who exploited those they were supposed to serve (Ezek. 34:1-10; Matt. 23:13-15, 23).
“Power tends to corrupt,” wrote John Emerich Edward Dalberg, better known as Lord Acton — in a letter addressed to an Anglican Bishop. And far too many spiritual leaders, from King Saul to Diotrophes, have fallen into that very trap (1 Sam. 15:16-23; 3 John 9-11). Some of the harshest condemnation anywhere in Scripture is addressed directly to people who were entrusted with spiritual oversight but who exploited those they were supposed to serve (Ezek. 34:1-10; Matt. 23:13-15, 23).
Both our friends quoted at the head of this article seem to have encountered such abusive leaders. I encourage them and all others like them to walk away from dictatorial shepherds who violate the example, spirit and teaching of the Good Shepherd himself. Seek out godly under-shepherds who follow Jesus and receive their healthy guidance for your soul. To all who shepherd God’s people, hear the words of the Apostle Peter: “Be eager to serve, not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock. And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that will never fade away” (1 Pet. 5:2-4).