How do I think about Authority and Accountability?

January 29, 2023

Book: Hebrews

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Scripture: Hebrews 13:17

A biblical look at authority and accountability to help us understand God’s design for the church.


Good morning again, Calvary. In the weeks leading up to this series, Pastor Kyle and I met a few times and discussed what it is that we wanted to do, discussed the topics we wanted to talk about, and then discussed who was going to do each of the topics. So then we got to this one and Kyle said, Yeah, I’m not touching that. You do it. In an effort to obey and submit to my leader, here I am.

Words are powerful things. I find it amazing how much emotion an idea a single word can carry. Just as amazing to me is that the same word can essentially carry the same meaning, but a very different feeling or idea for different people depending on how they approach that word. Here’s an example: I know of a word with a perfectly legitimate meaning and use in today’s society. Nothing wrong with the word itself or with the definition. Yet for some, this is a bad word. The word I’m talking about is moist. I much prefer it to dry cake or dry turkey, but some people I know will do almost language gymnastics in order to try to avoid using this word. Nothing wrong with the word itself, but the people carry emotion or an idea with this word that changes how they think about it. Other times, I think words have feelings or emotions attached to them, either based on personal experiences or else on what I would call societal drift. To me, that means that all of society pushes on a word in a certain direction and we all just kind of agree that this is the new meaning of that word. And here is where we get into some of the words that come with today’s message and passage. The message today is how do I think about authority and accountability? And our Western culture has pushed very hard in a negative direction against the ideas of authority and accountability. We’re a nation of freedom. No one else can tell us what to wear, what to do, what to say. Yet are these words inherently bad ideas, or instead are authority and accountability both necessary and good for us? We’ve been talking over the last couple of weeks about two concepts that intertwine the human organization of the church and God’s design for His church. Using the analogy of the trellis and vine that Pastor Kyle so eloquently gave to us, we’re talking about how the right design of Trellis actually provides a better hope, a better future for the vine itself. In other words, every healthy organization. Every healthy organization must have a healthy leadership structure, or that organization will not be able to accomplish the purpose for which it was created. So today we’re going to be exploring the concepts of authority and accountability from the standpoint of how God integrates them into his church structure.

So first, let’s read together the verse of Scripture that this message will be built upon, and we’re in Hebrews chapter 13 and verse 17, the author says, “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.” So we didn’t already have enough interesting words in this message, so let’s add two more. You know, this is a wrap up here that we’re in. In the end of Hebrews. The author is kind of summarizing some of the big concepts, some of the big ideas that have been contained in the rest of the book. And he’s kind of given us some points that he really wants us to take away from this letter that he’s written. And here at the end, we find really some instruction about who we can know our God to be and also some instruction for personal behavior within the body of Christ. And we find hospitality, our thoughts on the marriage bed, on money, Jesus sacrifice versus the temple sacrifice, our hope for God and a future city, and how to treat leaders. The focus for today. That’s a pretty diverse wrap up of thoughts. Yet clearly the author of Hebrews thinks these are some pretty important things for us to keep in mind as we think about who we are as the church and as the body.

So we find ourselves here in verse 17 with two more words obey and submit that are certainly not any more popular than authority and accountability. You know, when I think about all four of these words from the context of the extravagant misuses of them that occur, I can understand why they carry such a negative connotation for some people. In fact, whether it’s due to abuse or misuse, when somebody deliberately stretches or obliterates the meaning of these words in order to gain control or to gain power for themselves, or if it’s just simply a misunderstanding of what God intends by them, they don’t actually know what’s being taught by Scripture. And when these things happen, these words can come across as pretty negative in some situations. Unfortunately, though, as human beings, we tend to dive to either side instead of finding the actual intended meaning when we come across something negative. And on one side, there are people who who read these words obey and submit, and they’re like, Yes, finally, it’s my turn to get what I want to do, what I want to make other people obey me. And then on the other side, there are those who have had a negative experience with these things. And I get it. There are people who abuse them and there are negative experiences out there. And so the result, the response is, is to just ignore them altogether and pretend that they don’t exist. But yet they’re still found here in Scripture. We still have them. And it’s weird to me that despite the fact that they have such a negative connotation for some, God still chooses to use them for his church. So I don’t know about you. I don’t know where you’re at, but for me, I strongly believe that God doesn’t give us bad commands or instructions. I think God always has our best interests at heart. And if this is true, putting these two things together, God doesn’t give us bad commands and he uses these words for us in Scripture, in the institution, in the building of his church, then I think it’s our responsibility as the church and as leaders to try to understand what is it that God actually is trying to get us to do with these ideas. Specifically, what is his purpose in using them in the way he intends for his purpose, for his people and their best.

To even get to this point, though, I think we need to first ask the question, is God really on our side? Is he giving us instruction for our benefit or for some other purpose? In fact, we find the words of God’s better purposes for us right here in this same chapter, in the second part of verse five and verse six, and he says, “For he has said, ‘I will never leave you nor forsake you’. So we can confidently say, ‘The Lord is my helper. I will not fear; what can man do to me’?” We can trust in God’s promises, in God’s Word and in God’s provision. We can trust in the kind of God we serve because we have a God who promises to never leave us, to never forsake us. Always there, always caring about our life, about where we’re going, where we’re headed. And he is our helper. So we do not need to fear anything that this world or that man can do to us. Our God is bigger and stronger than anything you and I will ever face. So if we put our confidence in him, if we trust in him, then we’re going to listen to what God says. If we trust what he says, we’re going to put it into practice. We’re going to do it in our lives.

We will obey his commands for our lives, even when we don’t immediately understand his purpose for them, because we trust in his motives and in who he is. In fact, this is actually the very meaning of the word obey that we find in verse 17, not the idea that we just do exactly as we’re told every time we’re told to do something. The biblical idea of this word obey carries the idea of trusting, of having confidence in someone. So when we’re speaking in context about leaders, this word means that leaders should be working to demonstrate trustworthiness and the body should be working to build trust and confidence in their leaders, in the leaders that God has placed into their lives for this moment in time. And if we do trust our leaders, if we do have confidence in them in the role God has given them for this moment in time, then we will seek to do as they do and as they say; not simply because of the role, but because they have demonstrated themselves to be worthy of the role that God has given them and the church has given them in this moment in their lives. This is why we here at Calvary have placed such an emphasis on how we select leaders here. And we have really tried to stick to this idea of the first Timothy 3 description of an elder. Even though up to this point we’ve only been called a leadership board. And we’ve done this, we have firmly stuck to this description of a leader because we believe that in order to lead effectively, if we are asking the body at Calvary to follow these leaders, they must be worthy of following. So we hold ourselves accountable to the other members, to the rest of the board, to our pastors, to our spouses, so that we both begin and continue in this pattern in this way.

Second, the word submit here is similarly a little different than the idea that comes to mind. This is not about being second. It’s not about being less than someone else. It’s not about creating classes of people within the church. It is about letting things be as God established them to be. This word carries the idea of yielding, of not resisting any longer. And in context here, this word means we are to let those who have been placed into this position by God and by the body do the job they have been called to do. Don’t stand in their way. Don’t make this harder on them. But while they’re doing the job, they are called to do as they are called to do it, get behind them. Let them do it. Support them in this role for their benefit and for yours.

So who then deserves this? Should we let anyone be a leader? What kind of leaders should we follow in this way? Kyle did a great job in the message on who we pick as our leaders in beginning this. But I think Hebrews here fleshes it out just a little bit. I believe first Timothy 3 is a snapshot of where we begin. But we as leaders need to continue in this. We need to continue to be showing that we are worth following, that we are trustworthy, that we are doing things the way God intends. And so Hebrews continues in verse 7, “Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the Word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith.” And here we see a leader who is moving in God’s direction will demonstrate three visible traits that can be observed by those around them. First, they’re going to speak God’s truth from the Word of God to you. What they teach, what they say can be checked with Scripture, and it should line up with the truth from God’s Word. Of course, leaders are human. They make mistakes. But in general, those who seek to be good leaders are those who deliberately are following God’s plan for their lives and for the church. And they will speak the truth to the best of their ability. Not only that, these leaders will be open to correction about the truth if they are presented and convinced of a more accurate understanding of something. In other words, these types of leaders, they hold firmly to what God teaches, to what they understand is God’s intention, and they hold firmly to His definition, not to their own personal idea. Instead, they genuinely seek to know what God really means in His Word when He speaks to us. Second, these leaders will demonstrate action in their lives that can be seen and measured. There’s going to be an outcome to their way of life, to all of us who are under leaders, we’re not to just blindly follow every person who claims authority. No, Hebrews here says we are to consider them, think about them, think for ourselves, about their way of life and the outcome that this way of life produces. And if a leader is asking you to follow them but is constantly being accused of wrong behavior or is clearly living in a way that’s not biblical, then they need to be held accountable, not followed off the edge of a cliff. A good leader leading God’s way will have positive results in their lives in general, and people around them will think positively about them in general. This does not mean that everything is perfect in a leader’s life, does not mean that every person they meet immediately falls in love with them. What it does mean is that when considered it is discernible that good, godly leaders are trying to live their lives to the best of their ability in God’s pattern. And it’s the role of all of us around our leaders to consider them, to think about their way of life, and to hold them accountable to this.

This falls right into the third category, which is that the kind of leaders we are to have confidence in and yield to are to be those who demonstrate lives of faith for us to imitate. Sadly, in my research for this, I discovered a website that’s called The Clergy Project. It is dedicated to both former and current clergy and church leaders who no longer believe in God or in anything spiritual. The website claims that up to a quarter of their members continue on in their roles as religious leaders despite their unbelief. Because they want the money or the power, or they like the people that they work for, they just don’t care about the God part anymore. The latest number of members I could find was about three years ago when this website crested 1,000 individuals. For those of you doing the math in your head, that means approximately 250 leaders in God’s church just from this one website are out there leading God’s church with no faith whatsoever. No wonder we are supposed to hold our leaders accountable with making sure that they have faith worth imitating. Church leaders then, are to be under the authority of the word, living out their word and their faith in God. In other words, each leader is only to be in authority if they are also willingly under the authority of Christ. Accountable to the body and to God. Now if through our due diligence as the body to live out this accountability, we discover that we have a leader among us who does fit these things, who is teaching the true word of God, who is living it out and actively living our faith, believing what they say and do, then we come to the commands from Hebrews for us. How are we to treat these leaders? Remember these leaders, imitate them, obey and submit to them, have confidence in these sorts of leaders and yield to them as they do the job that God has given them to do. God’s command is that we are to willingly place ourselves as members of the body under leadership that is over this particular body at this particular time. And why? Why are we to do this? What is what is God’s purpose in this? “For they are keeping watch over your souls.” This authority is about the spiritual matters of our lives so that the body can be helped on the difficult journey of this spiritual walk. This is not about giving someone else complete control over our lives. It is about the spiritual context, the context of our souls, the church and the things that pertain to that. And in those things, surrendering our lives and walk to God’s pattern of being cared for by leaders who are under his authority. And this is actually very similar to how many areas of our society function. If you take a job in this world, you will likely have an immediate leader over you, someone who can tell you what that job expects from you. They might give you a timesheet of when you should be there. They give you basic expectations of the job and either praise when necessary or reprimand when necessary to make sure that you can be as effective and efficient as possible as you serve out the position that you have willingly taken at this job. They have authority over you and you are accountable to them. Yet their immediate goal, their immediate purpose is not to have authority. It is to give you the freedom within the bounds of your job to be able to do the best at your job that you can be. And your immediate leader then is also in the same situation. They have a boss over them who is doing the same thing for them, holding them accountable, helping them to be as efficient and effective as possible, so that together, all of them, the leaders and the workers, can accomplish what it is – the purpose of that job. And these roles of authority are only within the context of the job that you do. If you saw your boss outside of work, they have no authority over you for the things that do not pertain to that job. If you’re on a date with a lovely lady and you’re about to order and your boss walks up to you and tells you what you have to order, you’re going to laugh at him. And if you don’t, you probably should. Context and purpose for leadership is extremely important, and the purpose of church leadership is for these leaders to watch over your souls. If we think about this from the context of what Peter gave to the Elders on shepherding from our first message in this series, then what we believe here at Calvary from our study of Scripture, is that the best way to watch over the souls of those who willingly want to participate in the body at Calvary is to make certain that we are all being known, led, fed and protected. It does not mean we are interested in what flavor of ice cream you buy or what toppings you want to put on it. There’s nothing wrong with vanilla. I eat that all the time, but I understand there are other good flavors out there. No judgment.

This means we are concerned as the leadership at Calvary, with the things that have to do with your souls, with your salvation and participation in the body of Christ. This is the purpose for the role of church leaders and the purpose for the very structure of the church itself, the trellis. And without this structure in place, it is much more difficult for the body to actually have the freedom and ability to live out their best and their gifts within the body of Christ. And just as the earthly leader being accountable to the boss over them, church leaders too, face the scrutiny of an over-shepherd.

As a leader in the church, this terrifies me just a little bit. Hebrews 10 says that it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God. And Hebrews 13 says, Your leaders watch over your souls as those who will have to give an account. All who accept a leadership role in the church will one day stand before the throne of God and face the reality of how they did or did not live out this role to his expectations. Listen to that again. Any of us who become leaders are willingly adding to the account that we have to give before God. Not just our own lives, but the lives of those to whom we are responsible. And this account. It may not be as happy as we want it to be. You know, we went through Ezekiel 34:7-10 several times in the first couple of messages. But in it, we find the shepherds of Israel facing the account of what they have done as shepherds, and God is not pleased. Let’s go through this one more time. “Therefore, you shepherds hear the word of the Lord. As I live, declares the Lord God, surely as my sheep have become a prey, and my sheep have become food for all the wild beasts, since there was no shepherd, and because my shepherds have not searched for my sheep, but the shepherds have fed themselves and have not fed my sheep, therefore you shepherds hear the word of the Lord. Thus says the Lord God, behold, I am against the shepherds, and I will require my sheep at their hand and put a stop to their feeding of the sheep. No longer shall the shepherds feed themselves. I will rescue my sheep from their mouths that they may not be food for them.”

Wow. These shepherds, they had a job given to them by God, and he is calling them to account for utter failure to do the job that they were given. God is not pleased. There is nothing in the life to come that is more frightening to me than the thought of standing before God, and for Him to tell me that He is against me because I purposefully went the wrong way in the jobs that He gave me. How terrifying. I feel a little bit the same way when I read the passage from James 3:1. We’re not going to turn there, but the idea is the same, James says “not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.” Both of these things are true. We will face strict judgment for both our speaking and our behavior as leaders. Now, thankfully, some are still called and some still answer. Not because we’re better or wiser or more capable on our own, but because we trust with the help of God and are willing surrender to His authority and His accountability in our lives that it is possible to do the task set before us with confidence that God is our helper.

Paul speaks about this confidence to the Ephesians elders, who, as Pastor Kyle mentioned last week, he does not expect to see again. And we’re in Acts 20:26-28 says, “Therefore I testify to you this day that I am innocent of the blood of all, for I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole Council of God. Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the Church of God, which He obtained with his own blood.

This is Jesus’s church. Paul is simply a servant, but he is innocent of any who go astray. Why? Why is he innocent? Because he did what he could to the best of his ability as an elder, declaring the whole Council of God to those that God made him overseer of. And like Peter, Paul too, passes this directive on to the elders who will now be responsible in his absence. Take care of the flock. Which flock? Well, if you missed last week’s message, Pastor Kyle did a great job of helping us to identify where our flock is and why it’s important to be part of a body of Christ, why we believe that’s so important. This is the flock that the Holy Spirit has made you overseers of. In other words, those who are identified by the Spirit and by yourselves as the body under the care of these particular elders. Paul isn’t declaring he is or isn’t innocent of anyone that was not under his care. He’s declaring his account innocent for those to whom he was given responsibility by God. Should your elders be held to account for someone who comes to visit one time and never introduces themselves? No. Here at Calvary, we are responsible for those who identify themselves as the body of Calvary and who willingly submit to the leadership that God has lifted up in the structure of how Calvary will successfully care for its members. For what purpose? To move the mission of God through Calvary forward. Your leaders are to do this, watching over your souls as those who want to be able to say in an account that they are innocent of wrongdoing with how they have lived as your elders, because they have done to the best of their ability what they could to know, lead, feed and protect you. And the response to this kind of leadership should be to make that job as easy as possible, to make the load light and the account to be given an easy account, to let them do this with joy and not with groaning. You know, this can be a very rewarding role for your elders and a very rewarding and safe place to be as the body. But it requires both of us to live this out willingly. The body is to respond to the leadership in such a way as to make that difficult role, and future account, a position of joy and honor, not groaning and difficulty. The role of a leader is not easy, even when the majority are being supportive and Hebrews is urging the body, do not make this job even more difficult than it needs to be, for that would be of no advantage to you. In other words, people choose who they want to be leadership over them. We pick where to work. We choose which church we want to be members of, and here at Calvary, we even choose who in the church we want to be leaders over us. We vote for our pastors and hopefully soon our elders. We opt in here to God’s structure and participate willingly in the process of identifying the right leadership and then holding that leadership accountable as we continue to affirm them in the role that God has given them for this moment, to then turn around and make their jobs harder is of no advantage. You gain nothing from this, and your leaders only suffer. Instead, we must be accountable to one another, but seeking to live God’s way in joy and contentment with the roles that He has given us for this moment in our lives.

This is what Hebrews is calling us to. This idea of mutual accountability, this mutually beneficial relationship that’s going to result in the best trellis and the best future for the vine that grows on that trellis. What is not an option is to not be under any leadership. How then could we, as the body, live out the commands that we are given here, to remember our leaders, to imitate them, to build up trust and confidence in them, so that we come to the point where we are able to yield to the authority that God has given. We can’t do any of that without leaders, and we can’t do it without a proper structure in place. And we can’t do it well without a system that helps us to ensure that the right people that God is gifted end up where they are supposed to be. We can’t just operate all on our own separate journey and hope that the pieces come together. I believe this is how God established his church for the exact same reason why this is how businesses establish their organization. Because just like within the organization of a business, a team of leaders work to keep the whole organization moving in the right direction. And without it, all the employees would just be doing whatever random thing they thought best. And the end result would be that the product or service that the company is seeking to provide is not going to happen.

Here at Calvary the body is accountable to the elders who are accountable to one another, to the body and to God, in order to produce a positive result in the church. And what result is it that we are seeking? To live out the mission of the church together; to live out our mission statement to exist, to glorify God by making disciples who live out passion for Christ and compassion for people through our values. And it is the role of leadership in any organization, even the church, to keep us on track for that, to watch out for the souls of those who are already a part of Calvary, and to seek the souls of those who will be the Calvary of the future. This is our hope and our heart. For Calvary, we want to be a church where people are not lost on the side without someone knowing. We want to be a church where someone does not get divorced without a person who steps into their life and says, hey, what can we do? How can we help? We don’t want to have someone be in the midst of tragedy and not have someone else in the body, their family, know about it and care about it. We want to be a church that lives out the love of God in such a way that those outside look in and say, Wow, I want to be a part of a family like that.

This is our hope and our heart. This is what we want for Calvary because we believe this is how Calvary will thrive in our community, in our world. And we hope that the body here would be free then to use their gifts and to serve God together. That the body would be cared for and protected along the way. And none of this works; none of it works without all of us together as the body, living out mutual accountability with trust and respect and with all of us ultimately being in submission to God’s greater authority and accountability in our lives.

Please join me for just a moment of prayer. Father, it’s difficult sometimes with the things we’ve experienced, the life that’s hard, that sometimes attaches itself to words or ideas. And yet we know that you have given us wonderful instruction in your word for us to follow. Just ask that your Holy Spirit would be with us, that we would draw near to you, that we would listen to your word, and that we would be willing to follow it. That we would be your children living out our best for your mission and for the people around us. We ask this Father, in your name and in the name of your son, Jesus Christ. Amen.


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