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Teaching series from Hebrews

The New Worship & Spiritual Leaders

Hebrews 13:7

Teaching t10590


Briefly review the contrasts between the Old Testament worship service and the New Testament worship lifestyle.  Briefly review the vertical element of the new worship lifestyle (gratitude) and the three horizontal elements (loving all kinds of people; sexuality & love; generosity).  We come now to a fourth horizontal element of this worship lifestyle—how we relate to human spiritual leaders. 

The author emphasizes this aspect of worship by bringing it up twice—once at the end of his snapshot of key elements of this worship lifestyle (read 13:7), and then again immediately after his summary of these elements (read 13:17).  He seems to be going out of his way to say: “The way you relate to your human spiritual leaders is a super-important part of your worship of God.”  (By the way, he isn’t referring to “worship leaders”—but to elders and deacons).

Before we look more closely at this important aspect of the new worship, we need to consider the assumptions that underlie this mandate and how radically different these assumptions are from our current cultural ethos (as with sexuality and money).

First of all, these verses assume that Christian worship and spirituality is to be worked out in close community with other followers of Jesus.  By definition, leaders lead a group of people who are committed to one another and to a common set of beliefs and goals.  The modern American idea of spirituality being something that you develop totally on your own, without real connection with and direction from others, is utterly foreign to this.  The God of the Bible is a community of love relationships, and therefore worshipping this God involves being in community.

Secondly, the author assumes that a certain kind of human spiritual leadership is not only necessary, but a good provision from God.  How different this is from our culture’s deep-seated suspicion of and cynicism toward human leadership—that it is at best a necessary evil, that the ideal is radical individual autonomy, etc.  Throughout the Bible, God advances his kingdom through sinful-but-redeemed human followers—and he works through human leaders in a special way.

I want to send a clear message that we are deeply committed to both of these assumptions in our worship of God.  That’s why we view our 200+ home groups (rather than this large meeting) as the real context in which we worship God.  That’s why we view our 800+ home group leaders (100 in this sphere – RAISE HANDS) as the most important human spiritual resource we have (not just the few highly visible leaders like myself).

With this perspective in place, then, let’s take a look at the three ways we are to relate to spiritual leaders as part of our worship lifestyle—thinking mainly of home group leaders.

Choose them carefully

13:7 contains an important phrase—“consider the outcome of their way of life.”  The author may be mentioning this as an incentive to imitating them—“since their way of life is so good .”  Or he may be reminding them of a condition for imitating them—“evaluating the quality of their lives.”  Either way, the clear implication that only quality leaders should be followed.  In other words, you should choose your spiritual leaders carefully

This is a huge theme in the Bible.  God works powerfully through spiritual leaders, but he recognizes that bad leaders are very destructive—so he warns us to discern authentic leaders before we follow them, and to turn away from leaders if they go bad.  Read Matt.7:15-20—“Let the buyer beware!”  Be a good fruit-inspector!

What is this good fruit?  What are the marks of an authentic home group leader?  One passage that answers this question is 1Tim.3:8-12 (read).  While we should avoid a perfectionistic reading of these requirements, Paul is insisting on people who:

Are informed in and committed to biblical teachings (3:9).  Christian leaders help people follow Jesus—the Jesus of the Bible—not their opinions, cultural values, etc.  They must know what the Bible teaches, believe it from the heart, and place it front and center in their leadership.  What does it mean if a leader gets angry if you ask him to back up what he says from the Bible?

Are examples of moral integrity (3:8).  Negatively, this means that they don’t have character flaws so severe that they discredit themselves (porn addict; heavy drinker; materialism; etc.).  Positively, this means that they model a lifestyle of serving love (in their family; evidence of others who have come to Christ &/or grown under their influence).  Without this, they are hypocrites and lack real moral authority.

Are accountable to other leaders (3:10).  All who call on others to follow them must demonstrate that they are also willing to follow.  Any leader who refuses to submit to other legitimate leaders is dangerous and should be put out of leadership.

Our church takes this principle very seriously.  We are regularly told by Christian leaders around the country/world that our home group leaders are more qualified than any volunteer leadership they know.  If anything, our standards may be too high—but if we have to err, we’d rather err some on this side.  Our home group leaders must complete extensive coursework on biblical knowledge, their character and serving lifestyle must be vouched for by other leaders who know them well, they must be mentoring people who are prospering under their spiritual influence, and they must be committed to financial generosity.  They must work with fellow home group leaders and under the oversight of our pastoral staff.  And we do remove home group leaders who disqualify themselves by serious moral failure or chronic omission.  This is why we entrust them with teaching, counseling, marrying and burying, training new leaders, etc.

Imitate their faith

The greatest benefit of being around good leaders is that you can imitate their faith.  There are at least three beneficial ways that you should imitate spiritual leaders’ faith:

You can benefit by imitating their decision to personally receive Jesus as Savior and Lord (GOSPEL).

Once you imitate them in this way, you can continue to benefit from them by imitating the way they follow Jesus.  Every Christian should want to become an expert follower of Jesus—one who knows him intimately and trusts him deeply and radiates his love and truth to others.  This kind of expertise (as with any area of expertise) is learned, not primarily by listening to lectures or attending conferences/workshops (these are helpful supplements), but by apprenticeship—observing and imitating other spiritual experts over a period of time.  For example, who would go to a doctor who has completed his coursework, but never been an intern or completed residency?  In the same way, there is no substitute for observing how mature Christians pray, use the Bible, share their faith, serve other Christians, handle money and possessions, respond to suffering and disappointment, relate to their spouses and children, show compassion and yet also firmly discipline when needed, make important decisions, respond to authority, etc.

This is why Jesus called his disciples to “be with him” for three years before he sent them out (Mk.3:14).  This is why Paul urged the Philippians to imitate him (Phil.4:9) and others who were experts in his way of life (3:17).

As I reflect on my own spiritual life, I am so indebted to the leaders who “did life” with me so that I could imitate them.  Some of these people were formal mentors/disciplers; others were informal mentor experts whom I observed and who made themselves accessible to me for advice and guidance.  This is why I feel a strong responsibility to mentor younger Christians (formally and informally) as the most important part of my ministry.

The third way you can benefit is by imitating their commitment to lead younger Christians.  A healthy home group is like a healthy extended family.  The family is growing as new children are being born, the older family members assume responsibility to love the younger members and help them develop so they can in turn love and help the younger members, and so on.  Conversely, an unhealthy home group is like a perpetual day-care center—a few worn-out care-givers and lots of demanding children who are in state of arrested development.

What would you think of a doctor who, when he completed his internship/residency, thanked everyone for helping him learn how to stay healthy—but announced that he had no intention of using this knowledge to help other people medically?  Please don’t be like so many Christians in our culture—consumers committed to convenience!  They want the benefit of being around good leaders, but are unwilling to imitate their faith so they can lead others. 

We added 10 new home groups to this “family” (home group sphere) this year—and God has added over 100 people to this “family” this year!  Praise God, but where do we go from here?  Read Matt. 9:37,38—we need more laborers!  The best way you can thank God for quality spiritual leaders is to tell him you want to imitate their faith and become a laborer in his harvest.

Obey & submit to them

We come now to the final aspect of worshiping God by relating properly to human spiritual leaders—and it’s the one that we’re most likely to choke on.  Read 13:17.  Yes, you heard/read properly—it involves obeying and submitting to them!

Spiritual leaders have a responsibility to “keep watch over your souls”—which means to create an environment in which you grow spiritually and fulfill God’s will for your life.  In order to fulfill this responsibility, they must have actual authority to lead the group in ways that will accomplish this goal—and the people in the group must be willing to acknowledge and respond to their leadership authority.  Otherwise, the group is just a rabble, their leadership is a sham, and your growth and development will be minimal.

Your submission and obedience to spiritual leaders is conditional in two important ways.  One of the key features of religious cults is their failure to observe these two conditions.

First, no spiritual leader has authority to call you to disobey what the Bible commands, or to tell you to obey what the Bible forbids.  Leaders who urge you to be sexually unfaithful to your spouse, or who tell you it is wrong to pay taxes, etc. have exceeded their legitimate authority!

Second, no spiritual leader has authority beyond the scope of their leadership.  Just as governing authorities have no rightful authority over your spiritual beliefs, and just as employers have no rightful authority over what you do during off-hours, spiritual leaders do not have authority to direct your life in areas outside the ministry of the church.  For example, spiritual leaders have no authority over what job you choose, or which car you buy, how you manage your money, etc.

But within these important qualifications, spiritual leaders have real authority to set direction for the church.  Home group leaders have authority to decide what kinds of meetings the home group has, who will teach, what biblical material to teach, what other ministries the home group will promote, plant timing, etc.  Although the Bible provides us with principles and priorities in these matters, most of these decisions are judgment calls.  Who should make these decisions?  The leaders should—and the others should be willing to follow these decisions.

To obey and submit means to respect the role God has given them, and to actively help them succeed in the direction they have set. 

NOT: “Unless you can prove to me beyond reasonable doubt that your leadership decisions are correct, I reserve the right to rebel, sabotage, etc.”  This attitude, no matter how American it may be, is immoral rebellion—and I implore you to reject it.  BUT: “Unless I can demonstrate from scripture that you are wrong, I will defer my own preference and help you to succeed.”  This is the attitude that enables a leader to lead with joy, and which results in great profit for those who follow.

If you disagree, you can try to persuade your leaders to take a different direction.  You can even try to persuade the staff person who oversees your leaders.  Or you can decide to go to another church where you can really get behind its leadership.  But don’t start a revolution by trying to persuade other members to disobey the leaders and/or follow your different direction.

Healthy home groups have both good leaders and good followers!  Are you helping your leaders lead with joy?  How is your worship in this area?