A very common verse used by many churches in pursuing authority over its members is that in Hebrews 13:17 which states:
(Hebrews 13:17, NKJV in all verses used unless noted)
17 Obey those who rule over you, and be submissive, for they watch out for your souls, as those who must give account. Let them do so with joy and not with grief, for that would be unprofitable for you.
A very well-known church that has successfully used this verse in gaining complete authority over its members is the Iglesia ni Cristo (1914). In fact, they have gone overboard with this verse by requiring its members, as a matter of faith, to completely obey their church leader or their Executive Minister. And failing to completely obey or fully submit only means guaranteed excommunication and supposed damnation in hell.
For an obvious reason that their members are deprived (or ignorant) of The Savior’s evangelical truth, this church’s leadership is able to manipulate them in any direction that they so desire. Unbelievably, they are even able to require their members to waive their freedom to choose and elect their secular leaders in government as they are all indoctrinated that only their church leader will decide who they will have to vote as a bloc.
Could their thirst for absolute power be justified to be the spirit of The Christ by simply pointing to this passage (which is believed to be written by Paul)? No, it could not be ever justified as this practice of enslaving people is against a prime teaching of The Lord Jesus on equality, fairness and freedom. More so, the passage in Hebrews 13:17 that they have made as their primary basis is also not aligned with the teaching of The Savior. How so?
There are two main points within this passage that are notably in contrast with the teachings of The Lord. These are:
Those who rule over you
Obedience and being submissive unto them
How could these two points in the passage be in conflict with The Lord’s teachings?
THOSE WHO RULE OVER YOU
There was an instance when two of The Lord’s apostles sought special positions from Him. The Lord was able to read their hearts’ intent which was to gain authority over the other disciples, and He corrected their wrong perception:
41 And when the ten heard it, they began to be greatly displeased with James and John. 42 But Jesus called them to Himself and said to them, “You know that those who are considered rulers over the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. 43 Yet it shall not be so among you; but whoever desires to become great among you shall be your servant. 44 And whoever of you desires to be first shall be slave of all. 45 For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.”
The Lord spoke concerning the rulers among the Gentiles and how they act as lords while exercising authority over them. Did The Savior approve this system to be practiced by His disciples? No, He did not. In fact, with a strong and straightforward statement, “yet it shall not be so among you,” The Lord forbade all of them to become rulers within the community of believers. He further strengthened this prohibition by teaching that “whoever desires to become great among you shall be your servant,” and that, “whoever desires to be first shall be slave of all.” Does The Lord have the credential to prohibit this? He certainly does base on His own example shown, for even He did not come to be served but to serve.
This is an obvious disconnect of many church groups, and one in particular is the Iglesia ni Cristo (1914) especially in their claim that only through their church leader or Executive Minister can one receive the sacred union with God and His Son Jesus. How else did The Lord convince His believers that they don’t need to be under anyone else’s authority (but only His) in order to feel His spiritual presence?
“For where two or three are gathered together in My name, I am there in the midst of them.”
The Lord promised His presence to any gathering even with only two or three of His disciples. His promise all the more shows that only His rule can bring them unto the sacred union with Him (and God – Jn. 17:21-23).
OBEDIENCE AND BEING SUBMISSIVE TO CHURCH LEADERS
If no one exerts authority or rule over other followers as forbidden by The Savior, doesn't it simply follow that no one has to submit to anyone else? After all, all of Christ’s disciples are freemen as they have been freed by the same truth:
31 Then Jesus said to those Jews who believed Him, “If you abide in My word, you are My disciples indeed. 32 And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.”
The disciples of The Lord are all free men and of equal standing before Him. They only subject themselves unto The Christ for He is their King and Lord (Acts 2:36; 4:10; Rev. 19:16). Above all, they only obey God and His will as exemplified by the apostles:
29 But Peter and the other apostles answered and said: “We ought to obey God rather than men.
This was the sacred principle of the apostles that should also be the same stand by all of Christ’s disciples. Not one among The Lord’s disciples ought to subject himself before any man or fellow disciple.
NOT SUBMISSION BUT BELIEVING IN THE APOSTLES
All of The Lord's disciples are subordinate Kings and Lords of The King of Kings and Lord of Lords (Rev. 5:9-10; 22:3-5; 1 Pet. 2:9; Isa. 61:5-7), The Christ Jesus. They are all witnesses of God (Isa. 43:10) given the share of The Christ's reign with God's Government (Isa. 9:6) or Authority (Mat. 28:18). They are all in one rank before their Master, the overall King and Lord, Jesus The Christ.
How about the first disciples of Christ during the time of the apostles? What did The Savior expect of them regarding their relationship with His chosen apostles? Were the disciples not expected to submit themselves to the apostles? The answer is still no. No disciple is expected to submit to any other man. However, The Lord instructed all to receive them as His messengers (Jn. 13:20) for receiving them is receiving Him, while rejecting them is rejecting Him and God (Lk. 10:16). How is it then to receive the apostles were we alive during their time?
20 “I do not pray for these alone, but also for those who will believe in Me through their word...
Receiving the apostles did not mean to submit to them but to believe in all of their teachings about The Lord Jesus being The Savior of the world. Let it be clarified that receiving them is not the same as submitting unto them. With all that are said, we only have to be submissive unto God and unto His legal representation, His Son Jesus The Christ.