“Obey them that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves: for they watch for your souls, as they that must give account, that they may do it with joy, and not with grief: for that is unprofitable for you.” Hebrews 13:17
1. Two times in this chapter the writer of Hebrews admonishes his readers to heed their spiritual rulers. Two obligations are given: remember them (v. 7) and obey them (v. 17).
To remember one’s elders means to remember that one has spiritual leaders and therefore that one has an obligation to them. It means to “know them which labour among you and are over you in the Lord” (1 Th. 5:12). It means to support them properly (1 Tim. 5:17-18). It means to think about them so as to be an encouragement to them.
To obey them is to submit to their teaching and follow their example. “Christians must submit to be instructed by their ministers, and not think themselves too wise, too good, or too great, to learn from them; and, when they find that ministerial instructions are agreeable to the written word, they must obey them” (Matthew Henry).
Obedience to pastoral authority is something that is enjoined upon every believer and it must be performed as an act of the will. The Spirit of God says, “Submit yourselves.” Obedience to human rulers is always a difficult matter for a sinner, even a saved one, because he is rebellious and stubborn by nature. Furthermore, elders are far from perfect. One is always tempted to think, “Who is that man to tell me what to do! He is no better than I am; he isn’t so very perfect himself; I know that he has made mistakes. Anyway, I have the Spirit of God just as he does.” Obedience even to the most respectable human authority, therefore, is an act of self sacrifice. Submit yourselves. It is an act of the will. I submit to those that God has put over me as unto the Lord and not merely as unto a man. That is how a wife can submit herself to her husband. “Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as unto the Lord” (Eph. 5:22). She doesn’t surrender her will to a man only; she surrenders it to the Lord through that man. Obedience to pastoral authority is a serious matter and cannot be ignored without consequences. Pastors are one of God’s gifts to churches (Eph. 4:11-12). Many professing Christians have the idea that they don’t need pastors and elders, that God is their ruler and they don’t need men, but this philosophy flies in the face of Hebrews 13. Every believer should ask himself, “Who has the rule over me spirituality under God?” because two times in Hebrews 13 we are told how to relate to those who “rule over you.” It is certain that pastoral authority has been abused at times, but that is no reason to discard or discount it altogether. Every kind of authority has been abused in this sinful world, but that does not mean that we are free to ignore it. Churches should be governed by a combination of pastor-elder and people rule. This is what we see in Acts 6. The elders gave the standards for the deacons, the people selected them, and the elders ordained them (Acts 6:3-6). This is a model of a church properly and scripturally governed.
Obedience to pastoral authority is not absolute, of course. Bible believers do not blindly follow their spiritual leaders. Pastors are not popes. God’s people are to follow their leaders as they follow Christ and as they follow the Word of God. We see in Hebrews 13:7 that “the word of God” is the absolute standard and as long as the leaders are speaking the Word of God, they should be obeyed. “They are not to make laws of their own, but to interpret the laws of God; nor is their interpretation to be immediately received without examination, but the people must search the scriptures, and so far as the instructions of their minister are according to that rule they ought to receive them” (Matthew Henry).
Pastors have real authority but it is not a lordly authority; it is a shepherd’s authority. “Neither as being lords over God’s heritage, but being ensamples to the flock” (1 Pet. 5:3). We see this in Hebrews 13:17, where the ruler’s role is described in terms of watching for the souls of the believers. See also Mk. 10:42-45; 1 Cor. 3:5; 2 Cor. 1:24; 3 Jn. 9-10. The pastor’s job is to watch over the spiritual. He watches for men’s souls. In contrast, some pastors have attempted to lord it over every aspect of people’s lives, interfering with their every decision, forbidding them to do things that are not forbidden in Scripture, and putting obligations upon them that go beyond the bounds of Scripture. “It is for your own good that they do this [‘for they watch for your souls’], and you should, therefore, submit to these arrangements. And this shows, also, the true principle on which authority should be exercised in a church. It should be in such a way as to promote the salvation of the people; and all the arrangements should be with that end. The measures adopted, therefore, and the obedience enjoined, should not be arbitrary, oppressive, or severe, but should be such as will really promote salvation” (Barnes).
2. Even though the book of Hebrews is not written to a particular church, as most of Paul’s epistles were, we see that the church is never out of sight. In Hebrews 10:25 we are reminded of the importance of the assembly and in chapter 13 we are reminded of the necessity of obeying church leaders. From the very beginning of this dispensation God’s people have been taught to organize themselves into New Testament assemblies. Christ said He would build His church (Mat. 16:18). From the day of Pentecost, the church has been the focal point of God’s people (Acts 2:41-42). The apostles established the first churches and left this as the pattern for the rest of the age (Acts 14:23; Titus 1:5). It is the church that is the pillar and ground of the truth (1 Tim. 3:15). Much of the New Testament is written directly to individual churches.
3. The two broad standards for church leaders are given in Hebrews 13:7, which reminds us again that God’s people are not to blindly follow men but are to submit to those who give clear evidence of a divine call and who are scripturally qualified and are living what they preach.
They are sound in doctrine and practice (“who have spoken unto you the word of God,” Heb. 13:7). This refers to their teaching. They are men described in Titus 1:9 -- “Holding fast the faithful word as he hath been taught, that he may be able by sound doctrine both to exhort and to convince the gainsayers.”
They have strong faith and a good manner of life (“whose faith follow, considering the end of their conversation” Heb. 13:7). This standard is described in detail in 1 Timothy 3:1-7 and Titus 1:5-9. Godly living is a necessary qualification for pastors and elders because the character of the church depends upon it. God’s people are exhorted to follow the faith and example of their leaders. If the pastors’ lives are not right the people will not have the proper example to follow and God’s work on earth will be seriously hindered. Therefore, pastors must have the right kind of personal testimony and family life. How often in this age have pastors failed to maintain the biblical teaching and practice and how often and grievously God’s work has suffered as a result!
4. Pastors watch for the souls of the brethren and must give account for them (Heb. 13:17). Pastors are given watchcare over the Lord’s flock and they have the responsibility to present it back to Him in good shape. The flock is not their own; it is loaned to them for safekeeping. If they do not feed the sheep properly and do not protect them from the wolves and do not go after the wayward they will be judged by the Great Shepherd. The pastor will give account for his teaching, for his pastoring, for his example, for his decisions, for everything. Therefore James says, “My brethren, be not many masters, knowing that we shall receive the greater condemnation” (Jam. 3:1).
5. Believers must give account for how they relate to their church leaders (Heb. 13:17). The Bible indicates that it is “unprofitable” for brethren to be a grief to their pastors (apart from a clear scriptural basis, of course, which might require them to resist false teaching or sinful living) because of their rebellion or stubbornness or laziness or carnality. Unless the pastor is teaching or living contrary to the Word of God in such a manner that I must resist him in order to be faithful to Christ, he should have joy from my life and service in the church. He should be encouraged at how I love and heed the Word of God, at how I am growing in Christ, at how I am diligently serving the Lord, at how I am supporting the cause of Christ with my finances, at my faithfulness, at my zeal, at my compassion, at my holiness.
It is good for every believer to ask himself, “What kind of account would the pastor give of me if he were to stand before Christ this very day? What can I change so that the pastor has more joy when he gives this account?”
Also see our free eBook - “The Pastor’s Authority and the Church Member’s Responsibility” and the article “Unquestioning Loyalty to Pastoral Leadership the Mark of a Cult” at www.wayoflife.org/database/unquestioningloyalty.html
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