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. (Hebrews 13:17)
Familiar text, is it not? I've seen pastors who managed to get around to that at least every month. I want to undertake an examination of this verse and the way it is used or mis-used.
I. The verse as seen by those who use it to "keep the sheep in line"
This one is pretty obvious. Probably all of us have seen this kind of "pastoral" abuse. Rather than recount the extremes, let me say we need to be aware of the more subtle forms which bring about the same results. There are those who call for blind obedience to the leadership. As they do so, they will deny that "blind obedience" is their call. The justification is phrased along the lines: We are God's anointed ("called" "appointed" "ordained") leaders and God expects you to obey us. Those who do not follow their lead will, perhaps after some counseling efforts, be culled from the flock.
One of the hallmarks or distinctives of Baptists has always been the concept called "Priesthood of the believer" This doctrine was (and is) promulgated in direct refutation of the Romish idea of the "clergy" being possessed of superior knowledge and advanced revelation which they will impart (when appropriate) to the "laity."
Luther made a strong case for such priesthood or what is sometimes called "soul competency" But the true basis for such a doctrine is the Word of God, not merely the writings of any man. God has equipped each of His children with all he needs to discern the will of God and the truth or falsity of teachings. The indwelling Holy Spirit guides believers in all truth. We are instructed to "test the spirits;" we are assured of His spirit witnessing with our Spirit. We are told the there is one Mediator between man and God, the man Christ Jesus. There is no need or provision in scripture for any man to act as intermediary or priest or dictator over the flock of God's sheep.
Yet, in a day when the slightest hint that liturgical worship might be introduced in a Baptist congregation results in loud protests, a far more insidious Romish practice has very nearly smothered this idea of individual soul competency. Pastors and Elders are established over so many congregations in a ruling hierarchy reminiscent of the Soviet Presidium. Edicts are handed down and they are to be swallowed by the congregation because the have been issued from "on high."
Generally, these are not matters of doctrine. Certainly a believer in a congregation where false doctrine is being promoted needs to do just one thing: flee! These anti-Baptist pseudo-popes are freely handing down practices regarding budgets, buildings, music practices, missions and other programs, etc, in the "I have spoken" format. Whether these dictatorial pronouncements emanate from the single-elder dictator or the multi-elder board (which is usually a rubber-stamp facilitator for the "chief elder"), the result is the same. The congregation is told: This is how it is. We have decided what's best for you.
In maybe 90% of cases, it doesn't matter. Where it gets rough is in the other 10% of cases where there is real cause for questioning the Edict from On High. But, questions are not allowed. The prevailing mindset is: Obey. We are responsible for your soul, therefore you just do what you're told. We know what is best.
It's a variation on the old: Trust me. I'm doing this for your own good. If one has the temerity to question the Edict, it can get ugly. "You're undermining the pastor's ministry" "You're bitter" "You have a critical spirit" Never is it even considered possible that the leadership could be off-track. Never is it considered that all God's children are priests, all are indwelt by the Holy Spirit of God, all have the Spirit of discernment, and in fact, each believer is just as competent to discern God's will as the best-educated, highest-paid Elder in the land.
I'm tellin' ya.....this is the Baptist Road to Rome. Baptist means nothing these days, of course. But I call your attention to these concepts which were once definitive of Baptists: the priesthood of believers; the idea of congregational polity. I'm all for church governance by a plurality of elders, but I think there is a whole lot more weight on the "authority" side than there is on the qualification to hold the name "Elder."
The church has been corrupted by assimilating business models and by emulating Rome. The age-old dichotomy of clergy-laity is becoming more and more a "given" in the Baptist world. Pastors and Teachers are among God's gifts to the local church. Elders are to be selected from among the membership from those few who meet the qualifications. Being chosen by God for any of these jobs does not impart spiritual superiority to anyone.
Too often we hear the "obey me because I have this authority"......without ever being convinced that the person is one who should be followed. That "obey" in the KJV has hints of "confidence" in it. In combat, soldiers are under orders, as always, to obey their superior officers. But when the bullets are flying and lives are at risk, the officers who are obeyed are those who inspire confidence in the followers.
(This is supposed to be part 1 of 3....but has taken me a long time just to get here....and this is off the top of my head and not very well-organized...but it's a start, subject to some editing I imagine)