Obey Your Leaders

Part 11 in the Series:

Questioning Church Authority

By Don Enevoldsen

“Obey your leaders and submit to their authority. They keep watch over you as men who must give an account. Obey them so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no benefit to you.” (Hebrews 13:17)

How often we have heard this passage. It is the classic defense of the sanctity of the office of pastor. “Obey” means obey, right?

Actually, no, it doesn’t. The Greek word, as it appears in the text, is peithesthe, which is the second person, plural, imperative, middle voice form of peitho. And peitho doesn’t mean obey. It means be persuaded, induced to believe, yield to, trust, have confidence in. Of the more than fifty times the word occurs in the New Testament, there are only two where it could be legitimately translated obey. In James 3:3 (“We put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us”) and Galatians 5:7 (“Who cut in on you and kept you from obeying the truth?”). Even in those places, the element of persuasion can be seen.

A better rendition of Hebrews 13:17 would be, “Have confidence in your leaders.” The truth is that I’ve never been able to have confidence in someone who preaches something that doesn’t work even in his own life. In fact, earlier in Hebrews 13, the means by which we gain confidence is described:

“Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith.” (Hebrews 13:7)

That sounds a lot like knowing them by their fruit. Are they false leaders or are they real? It also sounds like Hebrews specifically refers to those whose faith is worthy of imitation. Verse 17 implies that submission to such men should be a benefit. If your submission brings harm, perhaps you should be asking some questions.

Specifically, the full context of Hebrews 13 brings two questions to mind. First, what benefit does my obedience bring? If I can’t identify it after long consideration, maybe it isn’t really there. If the benefit is only to the leader or to the organization, that isn’t a “benefit to you.”

Second, what does it mean to consider the outcome of a pastor’s way of life? If his private life is contrary to what he preaches, then I should question my submission to him. And by that, I do not mean simply the kind of blatant immorality that probably comes to mind.

To illustrate how this question might be applied in a more common church context, consider the private life of a pastor I know, Tom Anderson of Living Word Bible Church. I was on his staff for many years, and got to see from the inside how he lived his life. He is smart and he works very hard. He is personable and likeable, with a clearly defined central message to his ministry. An engaging public speaker, he has attracted a large number of followers. The outcome of his way of life should result in a personal life that reflects the validity of his message.

For three decades, Anderson, whose congregation numbers in the thousands, has preached that when you tithe, God is obligated to protect your possessions. “The tithe protects your stuff. Offerings are seeds that can produce and multiply. Also study to know what you are investing in.” This quote from his book Becoming a Millionaire God’s Way (p. 149), sums up the essence of his preaching. Tithe so God will protect and preserve your possessions. Give offerings above the tithe to bring heavenly blessing. Invest so the blessing has something to multiply.

Many in the congregation, in obedience to his teaching, maintained unwise investments because they bought into the teaching that their tithes shielded them from failure and insured they would not lose. Many have told me the story of their investment woes. As the real estate market bubble seemed close to bursting, they asked each other, “Should we sell?” And they almost universally concluded, “Pastor Tom teaches that when we tithe, God will protect our investments.”

Then the real estate market collapsed and they lost everything.

The pattern of behavior and consequences that resulted during the next few years illustrates the danger of blind faith in a leader’s direction and the need for healthy questioning of authority through examination of the outcome of the lives of leaders.

First, Anderson and others in leadership refused to accept any responsibility for giving unsound financial advice from the pulpit. When asked why the principles that they had been assured were biblical had not worked, faithful tithers and givers were told that they did not tithe. Most, however, did tithe. Then they were told they did not tithe correctly—either they did not tithe enough or they tithed to the wrong place. When the facts proved those accusations were wrong, they were told they did not have enough faith, or they had not listened to God telling them to sell at the right time. If they had only done it right, God would have protected them.

Then in November 2011, Anderson filed for bankruptcy himself. I have heard him many times tell his congregation that as a leader, his life must be more transparent than others. “I cannot lead where I have not gone,” is one of his favorite sayings.

Yet he apparently felt his transparency did not need to extend to the failure of his message. Very few knew about his financial troubles. Not many were aware of the complaint filed the previous June by National Bank of Arizona and another in July by BMO Harris Bank to collect debts. Both actions were stopped temporarily by the bankruptcy.

Bankruptcy is a matter of public record, however, and the news gradually got out. A friend of mine, after hearing about it, sent an email to several of his acquaintances at the church, people in the position of pastors and elders, to ask if they knew of the filing. The response demonstrated a couple of aspects of hierarchical control in an unhealthy church.

First, it became obvious that the leaders at the church believed they must never, under any circumstances, question Tom Anderson. Responses ranged from polite declarations that it was no one else’s business to outbursts of rage that my friend would even bring it up. How dare he question the man of God.

Yet the congregation suffered great harm from following Anderson investment strategies and were made to feel their failure was because of their personal limitations, not the result of their submission to leadership and their acceptance of teaching. The disingenuous nature of the blame shifting is bad enough in its own right, even without the stress on so many families from their financial losses. Add unwarranted guilt to the mix and it starts to look like outright oppression of the congregation for selfish gain.

Several of those leaders made sure Anderson knew of the circulating email. My friend got a call within hours. Anderson left a message stating that he was very concerned about the information being disseminated and wanted to meet for lunch. Hardly the response of someone who really believes in transparency.

Now that the information seemed to be loose, Anderson sought to defend himself. At the lunch, he stated that many people filed for bankruptcy. In the current economic climate, such action is not at all uncommon. He pointed out to my friend that Donald Trump has been bankrupt in the past. It happens.

What should be obvious is that the issue here is not the rightness or wrongness of bankruptcy. The difference between Anderson and Trump is simply that Donald Trump hasn’t spent the last thirty years telling people that if they give him 10% of their income, God will protect them from bankruptcy. The issue is owning up to the failure of a message and the effects on others.

Human beings are imperfect and we all make mistakes along the way. Leaders who try to pretend that they don’t and who refuse to admit they are wrong, even when it brings great harm to their congregation, are not fit for leadership.

Church leaders are held to a higher standard. “My brothers,” wrote James, “you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly” (James 3:1). Those who blindly follow without examining the outcome of the leader’s way of life, which includes his private life, have no excuse for any harm they endure. Obedience of leaders, or more literally, having confidence in them, absolutely requires questioning. Examination of the pastor’s life is a prerequisite to the kind of obedience Hebrews commands.

“Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith.” (Hebrews 13:7)

If his life does not prove the validity of his preaching, you have no business obeying him any more than Paul obeyed Peter when Peter was wrong (Galatians 2:11-16). It is impossible to have confidence in a leader who has demonstrated in his personal life that what he preaches does not work. If you cannot place confidence in him, how can you submit to him?

Biblically, you shouldn’t.

Next, Part 12: Question Everything

Go to the beginning of the series, Questioning Church Authority: Part 1: False Prophets

Addendum to Part 11: The Anderson Legacy

Do you have an additional thought on this subject that will assist our search for truth? Please join the discussion and share your insights.

Related Links:

Call No One Master

Paul and the Twelve Apostles

Obey Your Leaders

8 thoughts on “Obey Your Leaders

  • May 30, 2012 at 6:47 pm

    Well done my friend. You were being extremely kind in your analysis of Mr. Anderson. You show much class, as a man of God should. You inspire me to open my own can of worms…

    • May 30, 2012 at 7:02 pm

      I would love to see the inside of your can of worms, even if through a private message. I have never really heard the details, since we have not spoken since you left for Rhema. By all means, share here what you think appropriate for others to see. The past couple of years, it seems that every time I open the Bible, I am assaulted by phrases like, “If anyone sins because they do not speak up when they hear a public charge to testify regarding something they have seen or learned about, they will be held responsible” (Lev. 5:1), or, “Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves” (Prov. 31:8). I can’t seem to get away from it. And I encourage others to speak up as well.

      • May 30, 2012 at 7:22 pm

        “Left for Rhema”??? Oh my God, please never repeat that. I left for ORU. (lol)

        • May 30, 2012 at 9:11 pm

          My mistake. A horrible one at that. Please forgive me. I was thinking of someone else.

  • June 9, 2013 at 11:51 am

    Speak up: to express an opinion freely <speak up for truth and justice
    Judgmental: 1. of, relating to, or involving judgment
    2. characterized by a tendency to judge harshly

    Do not judge people because they do not sin like we do.

    • June 9, 2013 at 5:57 pm

      Speak up: Speak up for truth and justice.

      1 Timothy 5:20—Those who sin are to be rebuked publicly, so that the others may take warning.

      Judgment: 1. The ability to make considered decisions or come to sensible conclusions. 2. A decision of a court or judge.

      1 Corinthians 5:12—What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside?

      Responsibility: A moral obligation to behave correctly.

      Ezekiel 33:6—But if the watchman sees the sword coming and does not blow the trumpet to warn the people and the sword comes and takes the life of them, that man will be taken away because of his sin, but I will hold the watchman accountable for his blood.

  • October 26, 2018 at 5:18 pm

    Just wanted to drop a quick note and let you know how much I appreciate the article “Question Everything”. Recently, my family and I have finally been able to make a break from an authoritarian church that we’ve been members of for 12 years. The Lord graciously showed me some understanding of false prophets and false teachers and some Scriptures that enabled us to get out. It was very hard. Your article validated many of the same things I’d discovered through hard knocks and personal bible study. Now that we are out, the clouds are still lifting, … but they are still lifting. One of the church leaders spoke with me afterwords and said I have problems with authority and that he was concerned for my future, that I would be miserable. That shed doubt on a difficult, yet well founded, decision to leave. Things become blurred so easily, when in the heat of battle. The worst case scenario in your article “question authority” was a rather exact picture of the Independent Fundamental Baptist Church we left. That church is very much like the rest, however; in some ways, worse. The pastor did fail miserably the criteria of bishop and deacon given in II Tim and Titus. I became his target since I appeared to be the weakest of the flock, having autism, yet daring to differ with some of his theologies. The abuse was subtle, yet real, varying, and weekly, like a snake (the subtlest beast of the field), which is how Jesus addressed the Pharisees. There was a great deal of brainwashing and abuse to the congregation; more than I care to remember and type. I stayed for several reasons: My family’s stability, UNITY, fear of being a rebel, lack of full biblical conviction to leave. My family was very much harmed because I didn’t insist on leaving years earlier. Eventually it became so unbearable, that I simply said I would never return again. I expected my family to follow within a reasonable amount of time, and they also left a few weeks later. They were upset, yet now, very happy, and free. Still recovering.
    Anyway, thanks again for the article.

    • October 27, 2018 at 4:49 pm

      Ray, it is gratifying to me to hear your testimony. Occasionally, even years later, I still question whether it was worth it to make the kind of waves I did when I first started writing these blogs, but then I hear from someone like you and it all becomes worth it. For the record, we were told we would be miserable, too. And broke. But the reality was the opposite. The only things we suffered were from the attacks of those we left. And those didn’t last. We triumphed at every turn. So it’s good to hear that you are on that same path. Blessings to you and thank you for sharing your journey.


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