STUDIES IN THE NEW TESTAMENT
“Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you. ”
(Hebrews 13:17 ESV)
This verse has been called spiritual authority’s most abused verse. Sadly, it has been used by pastors and other church leaders to silence any opposition that might come their way. Is this verse saying that Christians must submit unquestioningly or blindly to spiritual leaders without critically thinking about the nature of the leadership being exercised? Certainly not.
The reason given for obeying and submitting to leaders in the church is based on the fact that they are keeping watch over souls. The authority that church leaders have is not based on position or power. Verse 7 gives us the basis of their authority: “Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith.” (ESV). The authority of church leaders then and now is based upon the truth of the message they proclaim and on the godly example they display.
The Apostle Paul is a wonderful example
of a Christian leader.
Paul’s ministry was based on revelation from God (Galatians 1:11-24). He also appeals to his godly character especially throughout 2 Corinthians where he refers to himself as a “servant for Jesus’ sake” (4:5), and as one who has not taken advantage of anyone (12:17-18). This is the type of leader the writer to the Hebrews calls on Christians to obey and submit to.
Paul was not infallible, and neither are church leaders today. Their authority lies not in themselves, but in the Word of God. It is, therefore, only insofar as they faithfully discharge the responsibilities of their office that they are to be obeyed and submitted to. If church leaders preach any Jesus other than the Jesus of the Bible, believers should do well to close their ears and not obey them.
Where church leaders rightly preach and teach God’s Word, and where their conduct is godly, then believers will want to willingly and joyfully obey such leaders. This is in the best interest of both leaders and those being led. Leaders have the great responsibility of watching over the people of God, and they will give an account before God for their leadership. This is a responsibility that many church leaders take very seriously. They love those under their care and want nothing more than to see them believe in God’s Word and live godly lives. When this is the case, members should obey and respect their leaders. When such leaders are not obeyed and respected, the work of the church can become burdensome, and this is not good for anyone. When church leaders feel that their calling is a burden, they do not properly feed their members with God’s Word and, in turn, the members become even more irritated with their leaders.
Our Savior Jesus lived, died, and rose again for us, and He has gathered us into His Church around the Means of Grace so that the benefits of what He did might be our own. In His Church, He has called some to be shepherds and others to be sheep so that the Gospel might be proclaimed and shared among us. Thanks be to God for faithful pastors, teachers, and members. May God help us to carry out the role He has given us for His glory.
Robert Sauers is pastor of Luther Memorial Church in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, and a member of the CLC Board of Missions.