“It all boils down to the issue of control,” lamented my friend as he shared with me the tensions in his church. “The pastor isn’t open to listening, and has threatened to take those who are on his side with him.”

Another church embroiled in a leadership crisis—and the prognosis isn’t good.

If TV soap operas ever needed more plots, they could visit churches across the land and find enough scripts, regrettably, to fill an entire season. Many Christians have sustained emotional wounds over explosive leadership issues. While ethnic reconciliation is the current focus in some evangelical circles, for many, reconciliation hasn’t yet taken place where it is often needed as well—between pastors and elders, or between church leaders and the people of God.

While abuse cripples many relationships, its ugliness often is seen in leaders who abuse or are abused. The currency of trust, integrity, and respect often has been exchanged for the counterfeit currency of power, control, and manipulation. Yet the church has the privilege of leading the way by modeling God’s brilliant revelation. Christian leaders should operate on principles found in God’s Word.

While the Bible doesn’t support a clergy/laity distinction, it does support a distinction between leaders and the people of God (Heb. 13:24). Over the centuries, an ocean of ink has been spilled dissecting the dynamics between leaders and followers, both in and outside the church. The writer to the Hebrews doesn’t give a treatise on leadership, but his concluding statements provide thoughtful and helpful insight on the subject. We can probably envision the tensions that existed in the first century, even as they exist now, but with a few words the writer moves the tension between leader and follower, internalizing it within both the leader and the follower. Such self-directed tension produces a better leader and a better follower.

The writer’s sound bite may not be the final word on leadership, but if the underlying perspective became personal conviction, it would diffuse the minefields that exist in many churches, providing hope for those who have hit the ropes and appear “down for the count.”

“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 advantage to you” (Heb. 13:17). That verse waves all kinds of red flags, depending on your background or experience. For those who have experienced dominating, oppressive, and controlling relationships, perhaps it feels like a death sentence. For those who have the desire to control or dominate, or who are passive, the verse give a sense of comfort or security. But for those who have shared in healthy relationships, where there has been a proper understanding of leadership, the verse can be taken for what it is—a proper blend of followers and leaders who understand their mutual responsibilities.

Leadership in the Bible is constructed upon two parts of one foundation, the first part being character. The list of qualities in Paul’s letters and in the Book of Acts, when speaking about leaders, all involve character. One is recognized as a leader for what he or she is. The writer exhorts his readers to “consider the outcome of their way of life” (Heb. 13:7). The second part of the foundation, the work of the Holy Spirit, is absolutely essential to the first. The early church leaders were “known to be full of the Spirit” (Acts 6:3). One of the Holy Spirit’s functions is to produce character (Gal. 5:22–23).

The combination of character and the Holy Spirit is blended in Hebrews 13:7, where leaders are described as those who are marked by a way of life that gives evidence of God’s Word at work, and whose faith is worth imitating. Leadership isn’t a place of position as much as it is the positioning of character. Character resulting from the work of the Holy Spirit becomes a compelling authority, and one that is not wielded to control people.

Obedience and submission in the context of Holy Spirit-shaped leadership become moot issues, and while followers may seek to understand the breadth of submission, the leader is challenged to live with the reality of others’ ultimate accountability to the Lord. There is inevitable tension in the leader who knows that he or she “must give an account” (v. 17). In fact, this almost makes me break out in a cold sweat! Just as followers may question the extent of their obedience or submission, leaders wrestle with the extent of the account-ability. Are they accountable to each person in the church or organization? For what are they accountable? Grappling with such questions can help a leader develop a healthy dependency on the Holy Spirit.

Accountability relates back to Hebrews 13:7. A leader who teaches God’s Word should be a working model of growing faith. The follower is exhorted to imitate the outcome of such faith in the leader’s life.

Dr. Ted Ward, whose distinguished life has encompassed education, mentoring, and leadership, notes in his book With an Eye on the Future, “Leadership in New Testament terms is reckoned in terms of accountability, not just in terms of authority. It gets its authority as it has accountability. Taken as a whole, biblical teaching on leadership deals more with criteria than with privilege; and beyond responsibility is accountability.”

If leaders were to give as much attention to the management of their own souls and their ultimate accountability to God as they give to shepherding people, their churches would be markedly different. When was the last time your church’s minutes read, “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us” (Acts 15:28)? When was the last time decisions were made in the context of worship, prayer, and fasting (Acts 13:1–3)? The early church was not a smoke-free zone; the fires of divisions did smolder. But in their humanity, as in ours, there was a distinct desire to be led by the Holy Spirit, exhibiting a type of leadership that was divinely dependent and therefore distinct from their secular counterparts.

Several years ago, our congregation had the potential to become polarized over the issue of whether divorced persons could serve in positions of leadership. The elders’ objective to arrive at a consensus seemed like a pipe dream. We determined that the process would be characterized by solid biblical scholarship coupled with a wholehearted dependence on the Holy Spirit to guide us. We listened to each other. We prayed together. We taught and were taught by one another. In the end, the process was more important than the outcome.

The biblical writer’s objective is that the community environment be one of joy, which is a by-product of the Holy Spirit’s work. With profound simplicity, the text states that not following these inspired directions “would be of no advantage to you” (Heb. 13:17).

Given such lofty perspectives, it is understandable that the writer requests, “pray for us” (v. 18). There are three distinct areas for prayer that every follower needs to take to God on behalf of his leaders, and that every leader needs to pray for himself or herself. First, the development and cultivation of a clear conscience. Second, a life that is honorable in every way. Third (v. 7), that the leader’s life would exhibit a faith worth imitating. Being geographically separated, the writer concludes by asking his readers to pray that he would “be restored to you soon,” indicating a strong relational bond.

The task of leading isn’t so much managing people as it is liberating them to use their God-given gifts under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. It is not merely practicing the latest techniques, but equipping and releasing individuals to reach their full potential in Christ.

To churches and organizations that are polarized over personality issues and divided over decisions, there needs to be the introduction of positive tension that results from accepting the responsibility God gives a leader or follower. Just as in marriage, it is the husband’s primary responsibility to evaluate himself, measuring his love for his wife against Christ’s love for her (Eph. 5:25). Aware of his incredible responsibility, her submission to him becomes a secondary concern. Church leaders need to focus on developing a life worthy of imitation and a perspective that is ultimately accountable to God, the Head of the church.

The closing prayer (Heb. 13:20–21) encourages us to cultivate lifelong commitments to one another. “May the God of peace, who through the blood of the eternal covenant brought back from the dead our Lord Jesus, that great Shepherd of the sheep, equip you with everything good for doing his will, and may he work in us what is pleasing to him, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen.”