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 burden. I 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?