Remember your Leaders

Reformation Day is drawing near. It provides an annual opportunity for Protestant churches worldwide to fulfil the exhortation of the letter to the Hebrews: ‘Remember your leaders’ (He 13.7). It reminds us that, without in any way falling into the sin of venerating mere men, it is good for us to treasure the memory of those God has used to build the church throughout history. As we do so we ourselves will be edified by the example such men and women have left for the generations that follow them.

The focus of this exhortation is on leaders who were no longer alive. (The writer will go on to speak of living leaders several verses later and the need to obey them.) They are to ‘remember’ them in the sense of considering the outcome of their way of life and imitating their faith. That is, they were to weigh up the impact they made through their life of service and learn from their spiritual legacy.

Given one possible context for this letter – namely the aftermath of Nero’s persecution of the church in Rome, which effectively removed an entire echelon of leadership within the church – there would have been a very real poignancy to these words as they were received by the original readers.

Several things would have stood out for these traumatised believers as they reflected, not only on these persecutions, but on the leadership of those who continued to lead to the very end.

One in particular would have been these men’s perseverance under extreme threat and duress. They were men prepared to go the distance – even when it entailed martyrdom. The two chapters that precede the exhortation certainly focus on perseverance. From the catalogue of men and women of faith of Old Covenant times to the model of perseverance in the life and ministry of Christ, the call to preserve to the end rings out almost in every verse.

It is pastorally significant, therefore, that these exhortations are punctuated by this vivid reminder of what perseverance looks like in practice in the lives of a generation who were willing to press on, even in the face of death. Since, by nature, we relate better to people rather than propositions, ‘seeing’ the perseverance of the saints lived out in spiritual leaders who were known and loved pressed it home.

So too with the leaders we remember from Reformation times. It is easy for us to lose sight of the spiritual ‘blood, sweat and tears’ that were poured into the labour of calling a wayward church in Europe back to its spiritual moorings. We can so place the likes of Luther, Calvin, Zwingli and Melanchthon on imaginary pedestals that we forget they were ordinary people like us. They were every bit as human as we are, painfully aware of their own weakness and limitations; but they knew what it was for God to display his power through them. The fact they persevered through the muck and mire of the life of faith is something we can learn from.

The writer also points to ‘the outcome of their way of life’ as something to ponder. They left a legacy for succeeding generations of God’s people. The very fact that the letter that mentions them has its place in the canon of Holy Scripture bears this out.

The benefit of Reformation Day is not to offer a Protestant alternative to the Saint’s days of Catholicism, it allows us to see how these men were instruments in God’s hands for securing and expanding the work of his church for centuries to come. Yes, they were unusual in many ways, but they are reminders that God uses ‘the weak and foolish’ to achieve his purpose to underscore the fact the work is ultimately his and – by extension – so too is all the glory.

The most significant part of the spiritual bequest left by the leaders mentioned in Hebrews is the fact that they led people to Christ. This detail might be easily overlooked in the context; but it lies in the fact that everything the writer says in these verses flows into of what he says next about our Lord: ‘Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever’ (13.8). That is, under the Old Covenant epoch, in the New and on into the epoch of the age to come. So, the mark of truly great leaders in the church is the fact they will lead men, women, boys and girls to Christ – our only Lord and Saviour.

This, surely, is the greatest legacy of the Reformers. Yet, strangely, it is one we can easily overlook. We can be so busy remembering the men themselves, the battles they fought, the doctrines they championed, that we forget they were servants of Christ first and foremost. Their greatest gift to the church, under God, was to restore Christ to his rightful place of honour as the sole King and Head of the Church, the Name in whom alone there is redemption. Soli Deo Gloria!

Mark Johnston