Have confidence in your leaders and submit to their authority, because they keep watch over you as those who must give an account. Do this so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no benefit to you. Hebrews 13, verses 17-18.
Pastors, presidents, parents, bosses: they are our leaders. So are mentors, quarterbacks, famous actors, media figures, teachers, and drill sergeants. Every group has leaders and followers; it’s human nature. Some leaders have natural aptitude for it; some have elected authority; some have power they have simply assumed from those around them or the situation in which they find themselves. Some leaders inspire you to want to follow them in anything; some leaders are complete jerks. Some are virtuous; some are murderous Communists. Whether these verses are talking explicitly about ecclesiastical leaders alone misses the fact that these verses actually do apply to all situations.
God allows leaders to be vested with (and use) authority that originates with Him. Just before ascending after His resurrection, Jesus said that “all authority in heaven and on earth” had been given to Him. God the Father owned it and vested it into His Son. That means Jesus is where the buck really stops. And because of that word “all,” through delegation, if someone on earth has any kind of authority, they have it because Jesus directly or indirectly gave it to them. Even people who don’t believe in Jesus have this endowment.
Yesterday evening I was having an online discussion with a friend who doesn’t profess conventional belief in God. I don’t think of him as an atheist, or even an un-believer as I don’t think his heart is hardened against God. Indeed, I’m hopeful that God is working on him as we speak. He’s going through a terrible time right now, and I hope and pray that He learns to seek comfort from the Lord. He’s having a leadership crisis because he has lost faith in many of the leaders in his life (work, family, etc). If you told him that these verses required him to have confidence in these leaders he might rip your head off.
Yet think about the writer of Hebrews. He was saying these words and echoing his contemporary, the Apostle Paul. Paul exhorted his fellow believers to submit to authorities, and many of those believers were being actively persecuted by those authorities. Paul himself was imprisoned and tortured by both Roman and Jewish officials. Unless you have been tortured by ISIS, you and I may not be able to comprehend what kind of character it must take to put trust in leaders who are evil. But we’ve all worked for bosses who didn’t seem to know how to lead; sometimes those bosses have been us. And we can each tell stories about parents or people we looked up to who let us down or didn’t do things they should have.
The verses are another of God’s reminders to us that we are to remember that those in charge are in charge because He allows it. He allows their selection (or assumption of power) because it serves His purposes (even when we don’t understand what those purposes are). I don’t know what purpose was served by God allowing tens of millions of innocent people to be murdered by Communists in the last hundred years but I do know that God worked to turn that evil for good purposes after. I don’t know what good purpose was served at Auschwitz, but I do know about the stories of faith and love from people who survived there. I don’t know what good is accomplished by allowing pedophile priests to rape kids, or presidential candidates destroying classified information, or the exploitation of people for profit and power, but I do know that good people come out of those situations even stronger. It’s tough to admit but we, as people, have the power to stop many of these things, yet we don’t, and then we blame God when they happen. But a tangent of this is also true: when good prevails, you can count on the fact that it was because God was at work through it.
Besides, those in charge will have to give an accounting for how they used the power entrusted to them. Did they use it in ways to further God’s Kingdom? Was love increased because of things they did? To God be the glory or was it to the person waving the flag? It’s important to remember that we must not hold God to standards that we ourselves won’t abide by. Thus it’s a fool’s game to blame God for all evil because doing so simply means we’re putting ourselves in His place as God. I don’t know of anyone who’s worthy of that.
I’ve been fired from jobs, and it’s hard for me to do honor to my former employers but that’s what God calls me to do. There are leaders in our government whose words and actions I detest, but Jesus tells me to abide and follow them. Some of what elders and mentors tell me is tough to hear, and some of it is dead wrong, but the Lord still tells me to respect them. All of this is true because God entrusts them with the authority they have and we all serve His purposes in one way or another.
For further reading: Isaiah 62:6, Acts 20:28, 1 Thessalonians 5:25, Acts 23:1, Romans 15:33, Matthew 28:18.
Lord, abide with humanity’s leaders. Empower them, instruct them, guide them and forgive them. And teach me to do the same as I follow them. When I follow, I’m following You.