Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they keep watch over your souls as those who will give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with grief, for this would be unprofitable for you.
I said last week that I see three points in verse 17: the aim of leadership in the church, the means of leadership and the response to leadership.
The Aim of Leadership
The aim of leadership I saw was in two phrases: "that would be unprofitable for you" - which means that the aim of leadership is the profit of the people - that they would be benefited. The other phrase was, "keep watch over your souls" - which means that the benefit that matters most to leaders in the church should be the benefit of the soul. And I argued that we exist to save the souls of the saints. Not just to get people converted to Christ, but to help you persevere to the end, because Hebrews 10:36 says, "You have need of endurance, so that when you have done the will of God, you may receive what was promised." Endurance is not icing on the cake of saving faith. It is the proof that your faith is real. Therefore every message is a salvation message, every small group is a salvation small group, etc. Your perseverance is our main concern, because your soul hangs on it. That is the main aim of leadership - the profit of your soul, namely, its eternal salvation through persevering faith.
The Means of Leadership
The second point was the means of leadership in the church. How are leaders to lead so that saints persevere in faith and are saved? We saw three things mentioned in the verse, and we got through one of them: watchfulness, joyfulness and seriousness.
1. Watchfulness considered in Part One, last week.
We saw "watchfulness" in the words: "they keep watch over your souls." I said that a literal translation was that leaders "keep watch on behalf of your souls or for the sake of your souls." And to do that for your souls, they watch four things, not just one thing. They watch the word of God; they watch Christ; they watch their conduct; and they watch the people. In other words leaders are vigilant to be Biblical, Christ-centered, morally exemplary, and caring for the people. They are "watchful" - that's the first means of leadership.
And that is where we stopped last week.
2. Joyfulness of leaders.
Now the second means of leadership is that leaders be joyful in their leading. First, watchfulness. Second, joyfulness. You see this at the end of Hebrews 13:17: "Let them [the leaders] do this with joy and not with grief, for this would be unprofitable for you." The profitableness of spiritual leadership for the people comes through the leaders' joy.
The implications of this are profound. It means that a leader who is indifferent to his joy in God is also indifferent to the benefit of his people. Do you see that? If we do our work begrudgingly and with complaining and groaning and sadness, "this will be unprofitable for you." Our loving you depends on our delighting in the ministry.
That is not hard to see. If God is not the satisfying portion of those who give their whole lives to knowing his word and living it, why should anyone in the church believe this God is real? And if you do not believe he is real, your faith will fall and not persevere. So the joy of leadership is not optional. It is essential. Which is why Paul said in 2 Corinthians 1:24, "Not that we lord it over your faith, but we are workers with you for your joy." Joy is not something you can take for granted. It takes work to maintain joy in God. It is very much against our fallen nature that finds joy in all but God. We must be directed back to his all-satisfying greatness over and over. That is what we leaders must do for each other, and what we must do for our people. And it is so important that even the people are commanded to help us do our work with joy: "Let them do this with joy and not with grief, for this would be unprofitable for you."
3. Seriousness of leaders.
Which leads to the third means of leadership, seriousness. Watchfulness, joyfulness, seriousness.
I find this in the verse 17 in the phrase, "as those who will give an account." There it stands in the middle of the verse: "They keep watch on behalf of your souls as those who will give an account." This means that when the elders of Bethlehem stand before the judgment seat of Christ, he is going to say something like, "What did you do to preserve the faith and obedience of the members of Bethlehem? What did you teach? How did you live? What steps did you take in the case of the disobedient, the rebellious, the suffering, the grieving, the perplexed, the lonely, the aged, the teenagers, the children?" And we will have to give an account.
This is unbelievably serious business. So the joyfulness is not a flippant or trivial or shallow thing. It is immensely weighty. Not sad. Not burdensome (1 John 5:3). Not depressing. One of our answers at the judgment must be: I sought to maintain a happiness in you and to lead the people into a joy that could not be destroyed by cancer or calamity, or criticism.
Watchfulness, joyfulness and seriousness - these are the means of leadership in the church.
The Response to Leadership
Now we come to the third point in the verse, the response to leadership. First, we looked at the aim of leadership, then the means of leadership, and finally the response to leadership.
The response God appoints is given in the beginning of Hebrews 13:17: "Obey your leaders and submit to them." I said to a group of pastors gathered on Wednesday that I was not especially eager to preach on this phrase. There are cultural reasons and Biblical reasons that make it difficult. Culturally, the defining spirit in America today is self-determination, not submission to the will of another. The ultimate value in America is the unencumbered self. Anything that enhances my individual liberty to do as I please is good. And anything that encumbers me and limits my ability to do as I please is bad. Self is king. And autonomy is the highest law. That makes this text culturally outrageous: "Obey your leaders and submit to them.
Another part of our culture that makes this text difficult is that authority and power have been so often abused that there are legitimate misgivings about making obedience and submission the norm. There are books today on "spiritual abuse" and "churches that abuse." And what they have in mind in part is the abuse of power to manipulate and coerce and use people to enhance the leader's status and stroke the leader's ego and sometimes line the leader's pocket. So preaching on this text in this atmosphere is like standing up the Sunday after 60 million people have watched police beat up Rodney King and preaching on submission to your law enforcement officers.
But there are more important Biblical reasons for why this text is difficult to preach on - that is, why it is not easy to know exactly what this obedience should look like in actual practice. Let me mention four Biblical facts about church leadership that feed into how we hear the command to obey church leaders.
1. The Bible teaches that elders sometimes go bad and teach wrong things and do wrong things. For example, in Acts 20:30 Paul is speaking to the elders of Ephesus and warns them, "From among your own selves men will arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them." The clear implication here is that some elders will turn bad and will try to lead disciples away, and that these should not be obeyed. We have seen this too often in the news. And I am in the midst of dealing with a church's leadership outside our state where a leader is resisting discipline and trying to lead a group out of the church with him. It is tragic and Paul warns that it will happen. This means the command to obey elders is not absolute.
2. This is confirmed in Galatians 1:8. Paul says that the gospel is so sacred that you should not obey anyone who comes with another message, not even an angel: "But even if we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to what we have preached to you, he is to be accursed!" The truth of God is the litmus paper of all true leadership. If I don't preach God's truth, don't believe what I preach. That is what the apostle says in Galatians 1:8. Neither I nor the other elders at Bethlehem have final authority, the gospel does. Christ does.
3. In 1 Timothy 5:19-20, Paul instructs Timothy what to do if an elder is found to be in sin. He says, "Do not receive an accusation against an elder except on the basis of two or three witnesses. Those who continue in sin, rebuke in the presence of all, so that the rest also will be fearful of sinning." In other words, individual elders are not perfect and a procedure must be in place for correcting and disciplining them. We are not above error and mistake. There will be times when we must repent and make public apology.
4. In 1 Peter 5:2-3, Peter tells us that elders should be good examples to the flock and not use their office for sordid gain, or for the pleasures of power. "Shepherd the flock of God among you, exercising oversight . . . not for sordid gain, but with eagerness; nor yet as lording it over those allotted to your charge, but proving to be examples to the flock." This is a very important word to how the relationship of leader-follower is to work in the church. There is real leadership, and real authority, but there should not be what Peter calls "lording it over" the flock.
This is probably the closest phrase in the New Testament to the modern "spiritual abuse." I think "lording it over" (katakurieu) means using power without a servant heart, and trying to sway people without setting an example for them, and exerting influence for the enhancement of one's own status and ego - not for the glory of Christ and the good of the people. That's what "lording it over" a people means. And that is not what elders are to do when they hear the command for the church to obey them. This command should make them tremble with the weight of spiritual responsibility, rather than gloat over the right to rule. Thinking in terms of rights of official power rather than responsibilities of spiritual leadership is one root of "lording it over" the flock.
Now none of this nullifies Hebrews 13:17: "Obey your leaders and submit to them." But it does shape it and give it a certain spirit and put limits on it and show both groups (leaders and people) a beautiful kind of dynamic that can exist when all is working as it should.
Safeguards Around the Exercise of Leadership at Bethlehem
One of the things these texts do is cause us to put safeguards around the exercise of leadership at Bethlehem. Let me mention some of them. Some are explicitly Biblical; others are matters of wisdom that have grown out of years of spiritual experience.
1. There is a plurality of leadership at Bethlehem, not just one person with authority. This is Biblical. All churches that we know of in the New Testament were led by a plurality of elders, not just one elder, or pastor (terms referring to the same person in the New Testament). Hebrews 13:17 does not say, "Obey your leader", but "Obey your leaders." Bethlehem has 18 elders, and when they speak in concert, the church should be very slow to reject their direction.
2. All the elders have equal authority. I get one vote just as the other 17 do.
3. The congregation approves the elders by secret ballot and can call them to account. The council is not autonomous, but accountable to the congregation.
4. The council must consist of twice as many lay elders as vocational elders. This is not prescribed in the Bible. It is just another check on the potential abuse of power by those of us who have a lot of influence by virtue of our teaching roles.
5. All the elders except the vocational elders may serve only two consecutive three-year terms before having to take a year off the council. This allows for a lot of valuable longevity for gifted elders with sabbaticals every 7th year. But it also encourages healthy growth as newer men are called to spiritual leadership.
6. We are constitutionally regulated, and the constitution is ratified by the congregation. The elders operate with a lot of leeway, but within the limits of a constitution that captures what we believe is Biblical church order.
7. We submit as a congregation - leaders and people - to a church covenant. This is what we agree will govern our way of life together. The elders cannot decide to make something a matter of church discipline that would contradict the covenant we took when we joined the church. If the covenant is changed, it is changed by the vote of the congregation.
All of these and others are way that we have tried to express our Biblical conviction that the authority of church leaders is not absolute or above limit or correction.
What's Left of Obedience and Submission?
Now that leaves the question: Well, what's left for obedience and submission to mean? Have we been so fearful of authority that we have stripped verse 17 of any significant meaning at all? I think that is a very legitimate question. So let me try to answer it. And I admit freely that we are very much influenced by our culture here. If we lived in an authoritarian culture, we would probably not be nearly so vigilant over the abuses of leadership.
What then does "Obey your leaders and submit to them" mean? The word for "obey" (peith) is a very broad word and means "be persuaded by" (Hebrews 6:9), "trust" (Hebrews 2:13), "rely on" (Luke 11:22), and comes to mean "obey" because that is what you do when you trust somebody. So you might say it is a "soft" word for obey. It encourages a good relationship of trust, but still calls for the people to be swayed by leaders.
The word for "submit" (hupeik) occurs only here in the New Testament. It's the more narrow word, and means "make room for by retiring from a seat," or "yield to" or "submit to."
So with all this background, what I would try to distill as the meaning would be something like this: Hebrews 13:17 means that a church should have a bent toward trusting its leaders; you should have a disposition to be supportive in your attitudes and actions toward their goals and directions; you should want to imitate their faith; and you should have a happy inclination to comply with their instructions.
Now you can hear that these are all soft expressions: "a bent toward trusting," "a disposition to support," "a wanting to imitate," "an inclination to comply." What those phrases are meant to do is capture both sides of the Biblical truth, namely, 1) that elders are fallible and should not lord it over the flock, and 2) the flock should follow good leadership.
Where these two truths are working, it is a beautiful thing. We have tasted it and we should pray with all our hearts that God preserve it and deepen it among us for the good of the people and the glory of his name in this city and around the world.