The author of Hebrews has a high view of the importance of church leadership; but he doesn’t argue it in the ways we’re used to seeing. He doesn’t say, obey your leaders because they’re well-trained, or because they’re good motivators, or because they’re successful. Instead, he says, remember the leaders who have gone before, the ones who first taught you the truth about Jesus—the ones who you know ran the race faithfully all the way across the finish line without stopping or turning away; since they proved faithful to the end, they are the example you should imitate. As for your current leaders, he says, obey them because they’re going to have to give an account of the way they’ve served you as your shepherds, and if you give them flak and trouble, you make that hard for them. It’s almost more a matter of taking pity on them than anything.
And in between these two statements, Hebrews comes back once more, inevitably, to Jesus. Remember your leaders, obey your leaders, why? Because they point you to Jesus. Be led by those who are following Jesus well, because he’s ultimately the one whom we’re supposed to be following; good leaders are those who help us do that better. Even the best of leaders are temporary, but Jesus Christ is the same yesterday—when he made sacrifice for all our sin—today—when he sits at the right hand of the Father as our great high priest, bringing our prayers to the throne of grace—and forever—whatever may come, to the ultimate end when he will bring us home to sit at his side. Jesus does not change and he does not fail us, and so we should hold fast to his unchanging truth; he will do new things among us, but he is the same God who does them, and what he does and says tomorrow will never contradict what he has done and said all the way along.
Of course, given the enduring human belief in the new and improved, there are always people coming along trying to convince us they have a better idea, as there were back then as well; and those better ideas always seem to take our attention away from Jesus and point us instead to earthly things and earthly behaviors. Sometimes they’re about behavior control, forbidding certain things and demanding we do others in just the right way; other times they purport to be all about freedom, inviting us to seek satisfaction and fulfillment in the things of this world. Either way, they lead us to put too much value and importance on things that are fleeting, instead of the things of God, who is eternal.
This can only be to our detriment, and so the author says, “Don’t fall for that. You can’t nourish your spiritual life with rules about food, but only with the grace of Jesus.” As the British NT scholar F. F. Bruce put it, “rules about food, imposed by external authority, have never helped people to maintain a closer walk with God.” (And if this talk about food seems unrelated to life nowadays, just consider how many diet books and programs there are out there, and what we call the people who create them: gurus. Modern folks may spiritualize food differently than the ancients did, but people very much still do it.) We need Christ at the center, nothing else.
To emphasize this, Hebrews goes back to the language and imagery of the sacrifices one more time. With the regular sin offerings through the year, after the animal was sacrificed and the best part given to God, the priests ate the rest. On the Day of Atonement, however, when the great sacrifices were offered for the sins of the high priest and of the people, those animals were not eaten—they were burned outside the camp, or the city. Such sacrifices had nothing to do with food—and neither does the sacrifice of Christ, the once-for-all sacrifice that was the reality of which those sacrifices were but a shadow. No outward conformity to rules about food—or anything else—can ever save us, can ever make us pure enough to please God; only Jesus can do that, by his grace.
Now, living by grace doesn’t come naturally to us; even more, societies and governments find it problematic because once you stop believing you can find salvation in obedience to law, you become a lot harder to manipulate and control. It’s telling, Hebrews argues, that Jesus was sacrificed outside the city, outside the walls that enclosed civilization with its rules and structures and orders; he was killed out there with the criminals and the rejects and the wild animals, with those whom law and custom declared unfit and unwelcome. If we’re going to follow Jesus, that’s where we have to go—to the place of rejection and reproach, laying down the approval of others to walk with him.
And here we get this marvelous allusion to Abraham. If you remember chapter 11, Hebrews tells us that Abraham followed God without even knowing where he was going, turning his back on his city and everything that went with it for life spent in tents, because “he was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God.” So too, Hebrews says, we need to recognize that here we have no lasting city; we too are called to live in tents, looking forward to the city that God is laying down on foundations that will endure forever. We need to give up our kingdom-building, to give up pursuing the things of this world and measuring our life by how we do; we need to set aside the approval of others and stop letting it guide our decisions; we need to understand that our call is to follow Jesus, and while Jesus may well give us a really nice tent to live in for a while, it’s still just a tent, and it’s not his goal for us. We need to hold all good things lightly except the love of God and the approval of Christ, because everything else passes away, and everything else will fade in time.
Living this way takes grace, and it takes the Holy Spirit; it takes help, which is why the Spirit gives us leaders. Unfortunately, leaders like this aren’t all that common, which is one reason why the church is so prone to go off the rails. Whatever you may think of her politics, the most startling and profound moment I’ve seen in our country in recent years was when Gov. Sarah Palin declared, “Politically speaking, if I die, I die.” That’s not the kind of language we’re used to from our leaders—for most of them, their own political survival and their own continued importance is the center of their existence. To be sure, Gov. Palin was quoting one of her favorite books of the Bible, the words of Queen Esther to Mordecai in chapter 4 of her book, as she prepares to go to the king to plead for the salvation of the Jews; but then, Esther was a pretty uncommon person herself. Leaders who are willing to lead at their own risk, at their own expense, rather than playing it safe by telling people what they want to hear just aren’t all that easy to find.
Of course, whose fault is that? If we only follow people who lead us where we already know we want to go—if we vote out the truth-tellers, fire the prophets for making us uncomfortable, and generally make it clear that we are going to set the parameters within which we will consent to be led, then what kind of leaders are we going to get? We’re going to get the careerists, the trimmers, the spinners—the ones who tell us whatever we want to hear while they feather their own nests behind our backs. That’s why we get the government we deserve; it’s also what keeps so many of our churches earthbound. We won’t get truth that way, which means we won’t be led in the way of Christ.
Our criterion for leaders should be that they are people committed to following Christ wherever he may lead, speaking his truth even when it’s unwanted, showing his love even when it’s uncomfortable. Everything else is gravy; that’s the main thing. It’s not even that they need to look holy—sometimes the people who look holiest are just the best liars; sometimes people who clearly struggle with sin can help us the most as we struggle with ours. We’ll never completely overcome sin in this life, after all—the key is that we keep fighting it and keep seeking to put it to death, even when we don’t want to, even when we aren’t wildly successful. We need to find people who do that and are committed to keep doing it because their deepest passion is to know Christ, to love Christ, to serve Christ, to follow Christ, to be like Christ—and follow them, even when it’s not our way. Indeed, especially when it’s not our way, because it’s not about our way. It’s about Jesus’ way.
A closing word to those whom God has called to lead, and those whom he is calling: be ready for the nails. If the essence of Christian leadership is “Follow me as I follow Christ”—and it is—and if the way of Christ leads to the cross, then we should expect to get nailed to the wall sometimes. Unlike Jesus, none of us are perfect, so sometimes we have it coming; like him, we’re a target, so sometimes we don’t. Either way, if we’re serious about this following Jesus thing, what else should we expect? The key is that when we feel the nails, we need to respond with humility and grace—with repentance and honesty, when we have sinned—and above all, with love. It’s only as we model that that we can ever lead the church to do the same. Leadership in the church is not a privilege or a right, it’s a form of serving the church, which means suffering for the church—and it will hurt at times, mark me well. Hebrews is right, the church making you groan does them no good, but they’ll do it anyway. But as Hebrews says of Jesus, for the joy set before him Jesus endured the cross—and there is deep joy in this; if God has called you to a place of leadership, whatever else may come, the joy is more than worth it.