Following Godly Leaders
David Lipscomb once wrote: “The majority seem to be going away and leaving those who stand firm for the old ways. I love to be with the majority, and would certainly go with them, if I were not afraid of offending God in doing so.” Sadly, his sentiment concerning the departure from godly leadership still rings true today. God’s people are only led correctly when they follow those who follow the LORD. Godly leaders understand the danger in departing from the “ancient paths” (Jer. 6.16), and godly followers do well to recognize and take advantage of their wisdom and experience. The Hebrew writer (Heb. 13.7-9) points to these men and women as examples for us to follow. These leaders are defined as those who speak the word of God. The author also contrasts godly leaders with those who deviate from the “ancient paths” and asks us to consider the end result of each.
True Leaders are Word-Speakers
The Hebrew writer provides an excellent definition for godly leadership in 13.7: “Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God.” God’s people have always been drawn closer to Him when they have followed leaders who spoke God’s word. For example, Nehemiah and Ezra led the returned exiles back to a right relationship with God by reading the Law and addressing the people’s various deviations from it. During the reign of Josiah, the book of the Law is found in the Temple (2 Kings 22) and after reading it Josiah undertakes an immense set of reforms and cleansings throughout Israel. On the other hand, the infamous generation of Judges 2 were described as those “who did not know the LORD or the work that he had done for Israel.” (v.10), which on its own suggests that they chose leaders who did not speak God’s word. This is supported by 2.17, where the text describes how the people would not follow the judges God had sent!
This passage should inspire us in two ways. First, those who lead us in our spiritual walk should be particularly concerned with speaking the word of God. It is not a coincidence that one of the repeated qualifications of elders in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 is the ability and desire to teach the scriptures. The greatest benefit older Christians can bestow upon their brethren is to speak God’s word to us tempered by years of godly living (I John 2:13). Consequently, there is no point at which the more experienced among us should relent in their pursuit of knowledge and application of the scriptures. The flock of God must be watered, and if one stops drawing the water the sheep will suffer for it!
Secondly, the younger and less experienced Christians among us must make a more earnest effort to recognize and draw closer to leaders who are diligent to speak God’s word. Too often the young are attracted more by style and charisma than substance, and that can be to our detriment. The apostle Paul was a man of substance and not style wrote: “Even if I am unskilled in speaking, I am not so in knowledge” (2 Cor. 11.6), and we as younger Christians would be wise to follow men who likewise diligently seek to speak God’s word.
Consider the Outcome of Both Paths
Hebrews 13.7 goes on to focus our attention on the outcome of each leaders’ life: “Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith.” Further along in the same passage, v.9 gives the other side of the coin: “Do not be led astray by diverse and strange teachings…which have not benefited those devoted to them.” The Hebrew writer is asking us to consider the outcome of each type of leader and choose wisely.
The first path is to imitate our leaders’ faith in God. When we examine the outcome of their decisions with the lens of God’s word, we will be convinced of the wisdom of following that same path ourselves. Our ever-present temptations to forsake the “ancient paths” are intensified by the negative examples of those who have left them. One of the most practical ways God has given us to combat these temptations are the examples of older, more experienced soldiers of Christ. These men and women have fought and re-fought the same battles we fight today. Long ago they made the decision to cling to the LORD and His word, and they provide us live-action views of true Christianity. Of course, our faith in God must be our own, but it is most unwise (and more importantly, unscriptural) to ignore the examples of those who are “long in battle years”. In these older Christians we get to see the end result of their decisions to cling to the Lord through faith.
On the other hand, when we consider the path of those who have left the truth, the conclusion becomes clear: they have not benefited from their deviation. Those who have forsaken God’s word in favor of “diverse and strange teachings” always suffer for their decision, and worse lead others to a similar fate. As Jesus stated in Matthew 15.14: “And if the blind lead the blind, both will fall into a pit.” Whatever supposed benefit that will be derived from forsaking godly leadership is at best fleeting and invariably leads to condemnation. At Judgment we will be judged individually, but how sad it would be to have followed the wrong leader and pay the ultimate price!
Christ Hasn’t Changed, and Neither has Faithfulness
The writer of Hebrews reminds the reader that the core of our faith hasn’t changed: “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.” (Heb. 13.8). Consider what this means in the context of following godly leaders. Since they were uttered and later recorded, the teachings of Jesus and His calls for repentance and faithfulness haven’t changed! Those who lead us down the old paths heed the same gospel call as we do. They must answer to the same Lord and Christ. The standard Jesus set forth has not changed! As a result, the proper response of faithfulness has not changed. The faithfulness of yesterday is the faithfulness of today, and if the world stands it will be the faithfulness of tomorrow as well.
Those who choose to abandon godly leadership often do so based on the claim of changed circumstances. Too often this is the complaint: “They just don’t understand my struggle…things are different now…people aren’t like they used to be” and so forth. This begs several questions, first of which is “Has Jesus changed?” Has that which Jesus considered sinful now become permissible? What was required of Christians then that is not required now? What did God not accept as worship then, that He accepts now? The answer from scripture is that nothing has changed. This is but another example of Solomon’s famous refrain from Ecclesiastes: “So there is nothing new under the sun” (1.9). Christians in every century since the first have fought the same battles by different names, and our decision to deviate from the examples of godly, faithful men and women is done with the potential of great harm.
Paul stated in 1 Cor. 11.1: “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.” Ultimately, our decision regarding who to follow hinges upon who we want to please. If we wish to be pleasing to God, we will gladly imitate the examples of godly leaders who share our goal of imitating Christ. The Holy Spirit, through the pen of the Hebrew writer, instructs us to seek out leaders who speak God’s word and to seek the desirable outcome these men and women have attained by clinging to their faith in the LORD. If we truly fear offending the Father, we should align ourselves with leaders who fear the same.