Last night I couldn’t get Hebrews 13:17 out of my mind. I spent the afternoon with a few dear people in my church who are struggling with a recent decision our elders have made. Though we did our best to explain the rationale behind that decision, ultimately I simply had to ask people to submit to the leaders of our church on this matter. For me, that’s a pretty harrowing proposition. I don’t casually call people to follow my leadership on anything…That’s where Hebrews 13:17 comes in.

Here’s what the author of Hebrews says, to Christians like you and me…to Christians like those I spent a few hours with yesterday:

Have confidence in your leaders and submit to their authority, because they keep watch over you as those who must give an account. Do this so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no benefit to you.

As I see it, there are four puzzle pieces in this verse. When fit together in the right way, the resulting picture is a surprising joy that God intends for all his people. Let’s look at each piece, and then at the whole.

1. For all Christians, this verse contains one command with two prongs: have confidence in your leaders and submit to their authority. This is a high calling, but it is a baseline calling for believers. Submission runs against the grain of our culture and our fallen nature, but it does not run against the grain of the New Testament. All believers are called to submit to one another out of reverence for Christ (Eph 5:21). Wives are called to submit to their own husbands (Eph 5:22-25; Col 3:18; Titus 2:5). Employees are called to submit to their employers (Titus 2:9). Citizens of earthly nations are called to submit to the rulers and governing authorities of those nations (Rom 13:1-5). And members of a church are called to submit to the leaders of their church. Submission is integral to the Christian life. We follow a Savior who submitted himself to his Father’s authority for our sake when he went to the cross. Every Christian should therefore live in a posture of submission, and (according to Hebrews) every member of a local church should submit in a special way to the leaders of their church.

2. There is one ground for this two-pronged command: because [your leaders] keep watch over you as those who must give an account. The reason a church member can/should submit to their church leaders is because those leaders keep watch knowing that they will give an account to the Lord for the sheep in their flock. These words strike a holy fear and reverence in my heart. They tell me that I will one day stand before the Lord and he will judge me based on the faithfulness and fruitfulness of my care for those who call me pastor. These words shape the way I pastor, knowing that I will give this account for every decision I make, every sermon I preach, and every soul I shepherd. According to Hebrews, this should give church members confidence in their leaders and compel them to submit to their authority. Because I know that someone at my CPA’s office is going to double-check my tax return, I have great confidence in his work…Maybe I don’t understand some of the equations, but I trust that things are right at the end of the day. This is the confidence church members can have: Though you may not understand or agree with some of the decisions that your church leaders make, you can submit, knowing that the Lord will take an account of their leadership and that all will be made right in the end.

3. A church member’s submission is a means to a pastor’s joy: do this so that their work will be a joy, not a burdenI am called to pastor my people in view of the account that I will give to the Lord. People in my church are called to trust in and submit to my church’s leadership in such a way that it is our collective joy to pastor them. If you are a church member, God’s Word commands you to pursue the joy of those God has appointed as pastors and elders over you through the means of your confidence in and submission to their leadership. If you are a pastor or elder, you should base some measure of your joy in Christ on the trust and submission you see from those God has appointed you over.

But what’s in it for the church member? Does this system that God has ordained only serve to benefit the leaders in a local church? The answer is no, as Hebrews 13:17 makes clear in its final puzzle piece.

4. The church member forfeits a benefit when he is a burden to his church leader: for that would be of no benefit to you. It is of no benefit to the church member if his failure to submit makes his pastor’s work a burden. However, if that is true, then the opposite is also true. If a church member does submit, and his pastor’s work is a joy because of his submission, then there is some implicit benefit to the church member. At the very least, that benefit would include the grace of being led by a faithful, joy-filled pastor and being a part of a unified, loving Body of Christ. Imagine the long-term benefits of fellowship and ministry and discipleship in such an environment.

That’s where we step back and look at this whole puzzle, now that the pieces are properly ordered and aligned. This is God’s design for his church. The leaders shepherd their flock with the care and knowledge that they will give an account to the Lord for their leadership, finding great joy in the task because their flock submits to them when necessary, and consequently they are able to serve out of that joy for the long-term benefit of the flock. The church members meanwhile prosper, from the labor of joy-filled leaders and the fruit of joy-filled ministry.

Every church I know is an imperfect version of this design. We are all, by God’s grace, growing into obedience within our God-ordained roles as leaders and followers. But we all have more growing to do. Regardless of your role in your local church, would you pray today for the health of your church? Would you pray that the members of your local church grow in their confidence in their leaders and their willingness to submit to their authority? Would you pray that you would grow in that regard? Would you pray that your church’s leaders would serve with the holy reverence that comes from knowing that they will give an account to the Lord for their leadership and ministry? Would you pray that they would be able to serve out of the joy that comes through willing and submissive church members?

10 comments

  1. I appreciate this message, James, and how clearly the Word presents instruction we need to live abundantly. The result of obedience is joy. We should long to grow in obedience and see our church body filled with joy. Thank you for accepting daily the huge assignment to lead us. Date: Tue, 21 Jul 2015 04:12:16 +0000 To: mnbproctor@outlook.com

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  2. James, certainly appreciated this new post on Until the Day Dawns.  Thanks a bunch.Lovingly and Prayerfully, Sylvia From: Until The Day Dawns To: sylvianjos@yahoo.com Sent: Monday, July 20, 2015 11:12 PM Subject: [New post] a surprising joy for god’s people #yiv4270103830 a:hover {color:red;}#yiv4270103830 a {text-decoration:none;color:#0088cc;}#yiv4270103830 a.yiv4270103830primaryactionlink:link, #yiv4270103830 a.yiv4270103830primaryactionlink:visited {background-color:#2585B2;color:#fff;}#yiv4270103830 a.yiv4270103830primaryactionlink:hover, #yiv4270103830 a.yiv4270103830primaryactionlink:active {background-color:#11729E;color:#fff;}#yiv4270103830 WordPress.com | James Sharp posted: “Last night I couldn’t get Hebrews 13:17 out of my mind. I spent the afternoon with a few dear people in my church who are struggling with a recent decision our elders have made. Though we did our best to explain the rationale behind that decisio” | |

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  3. I have always had respect and admiration for the pastors and elders of Capitol City. As a child this was ingrained in me from my parents and the many people who taught or mentored me. I don’t feel decisions are made selfishly to benefit the leadership, I feel difficult decisions are made to strengthen the church body in some way or minister to someone in some way. I know that every decision is prayed about and ultimately made with the desire to glorify God.
    With that being said I also feel that relationship is integral in building trust. Parents want a relationship with their child’s teacher, we go to the same doctor because that doctor knows us, we like walking into a store and having the owner know us by name.
    It is imperative that we know the leadership of our church and through knowing them, and walking alongside them,we can be reassured that they are making decisions that are in the best interest of the church body.
    As a church kid growing up in Capitol City I knew the elders and pastoral staff, in fact many were my Sunday School teachers, youth leaders, or played the role of surrogate fathers (and mothers). At this current stage of my life many of the leadership are personal friends, people I’ve known for decades. Having this advantage helps me trust the leadership to make decisions that will further God’s kingdom through the church.
    I’m wondering if there is a lack of faith in the leadership and their decisions, by some church members, because there isn’t a relationship.established. Is there a way to remedy this?
    Thanks James for your thoughts on this matter. Keeping you and the elders in my prayers as you work through this.

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    1. Thanks for your thoughts, Shelly. While my post really wasn’t intended to speak to present leadership dynamics at our church or any church in particular, what you suggest about relationships and trust is surely wise and true. If Isaac (my soon-to-be first grader) has the same first grade teacher that Hudson (my soon-to-be third grader) had two years ago, we’ll walk into that situation trusting her input and judgment far more than we would a teacher we don’t have a relationship.

      However, the more-foundational and necessary trust in this dynamic is trust in God. A church member can and should trust God to lead his/her church leaders, knowing that God has appointed them to that position of leadership. While he or she may also trust the leader, that level of trust should be secondary.

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  4. Thank you Father for your guidance and your reassurance. For the hope you give us each day as we continue to serve you and seek you in all areas of our lives. Let your Word continue to speak true in our trials. In Jesus Name…Amen.

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  5. God is proud of you James. Your spirit is so connected w/Him & His will for your leadership.I have learned trust and insight into His word through you.

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