At the end of his letter to the Hebrews, the author refers three times to the church’s ‘leaders’ (13:7, 17, 24). In the first instance, the reference appears to be to former leaders, who have perhaps passed away; the second and third times, he is speaking of their current leaders, urging obedience to them and sending them his greetings. ‘Leader’ is an unusual word to find in the New Testament in relation to a church. Normally, church leaders are referred to in the NT as pastors, elders or deacons. Indeed, these verses in Hebrews are the only ones in the New Testament in which the term ‘leader’ is used directly and expressly in this way. There are important lessons for us to learn here.
The word used for ‘leader’ here is ἡγούμενος (hēgoumenos), which is used in the NT in a variety of contexts to refer to someone who holds some kind of leading position: Joseph as ‘leader over Egypt’ (Acts 7:10), Paul as the ‘leading speaker’ when he and Barnabas visited Lystra (Acts 14:12), Judas Barsabbas and Silas chosen as ‘leading men among the brothers’ (Acts 15:22). The related word ἡγεμών (hēgemon) is often used in the NT of a political leader - Pilate as governor of Judea, for example (Matt. 27:2), or Felix (Acts 23:24), or more generally of ‘leaders and kings’ (Mk. 13:9). In the Greek OT, the word is used generally of leaders among the people of Israel (Deut. 1:13; Ezk. 43:7). In the Apocrypha, hēgoumenos is used of the appointment of Jonathan as leader of the people, 1 Macc. 9:30. Outside biblical literature altogether, the word is a general term for people in authority of some kind.
There are a couple of significant uses of hēgoumenos in the gospel accounts. Jesus taught his disciples that they were not to be like the Gentile kings who ‘lord it’ over their people. Rather, the greater must be like the younger and ‘the leader [hēgoumenos] like the servant’ (Lk. 22:25, 26). This tells us something important about the kind of Christian leadership required in the church. It is to be servant-leadership, not a dominating leadership. Then, even more significantly, the coming Messiah is himself described as hēgoumenos (Matt. 2:6) and as the one who ‘will shepherd my people Israel’, in words closely echoing those spoken to David when he became King (2 Sam. 5:2). The connection betweeh leadership and shepherding here reflects the well-established OT view of kings as shepherds of their people.
These connections and echoes are all present in Hebrews 13. The ‘leaders’ are those who ‘spoke the word of God to you’ (v. 7) and who ‘watch out for you as those who have an account to give’ (v. 17). Though the church is to ‘submit’ to the leaders and ‘obey’ them (v. 17), it is clear that the leaders themselves are to have their congregation’s interests at heart. They are not, as Peter says, to ‘lord it’ over the church (1 Pet. 5:3), but they are to be on the lookout on their behalf (v. 17, recalling Paul’s instructions to the elders of the Ephesian church, Acts 20:28). They are to guard the flock against spiritual danger; they are to help them and build them up in their faith. They do this by preaching and teaching the word of God (v. 7). These, then, are the pastor-teachers of the church (Eph. 4:11). They are the shepherds of the flock, as David was of his people and, supremely, as Jesus is of all the church. It is no coincidence, then, that the writer completes his exhortations in this final chapter of his letter by speaking of Jesus as ‘the great shepherd of the sheep’ (v. 20).
The unusual use of the term hēgoumenos in Hebrews 13, then, to refer to the pastors of the church achieves two goals for the writer. It reminds the church that they are indeed to submit to their pastors: they are to pay attention to their teaching from the Bible and they are to comply with it, in such a way as to bring the pastors joy not sorrow. Secondly, the term should call to mind the kind of leadership which the Bible requires of pastors: a leadership which first and foremost cares for the people, that watches out for them and has their interests at heart. It is a shepherd-leadership, which provides nourishing food and biblical protection for the people. It is, finally, a leadership which never forgets that the sheep over whom they are placed are not their sheep, but belong to the ‘great shepherd’, the Lord Jesus, ‘to whom be glory for ever’ (v. 20).
MA (University of Cambridge, Corpus Christi College)
ThM (Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia)
PhD (University of Stirling)
Having trained for the pastoral ministry at LTS, Robert pastored an evangelical church in Banbury for 8 years. Prior to training for the ministry, he was a solicitor in private practice, working in London and Brussels. He has been involved in training pastors in French-speaking West Africa. He teaches New Testament and Greek and also lectures on Contemporary Issues. His doctoral research was on Philip Doddridge and early 18th century Dissent. He is married to Sarah and they have three sons.