A regular listener named Steve from the great city of Omaha, Nebraska asks, “Pastor John, what does it mean to submit to and obey your leaders in Hebrews 13:17?”
The text says, “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.”
Leaders Who Serve
And culturally, Tony, the defining spirit of America today is the opposite of that, isn’t it? It is self-determination, not submission to the will of another. 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. That is the spirit breathed in America. And that makes this text culturally outrageous: “Obey your leaders and submit to them.”
And we know from the side of leaders that power corrupts. So, for leadership, the emphasis must always fall on servanthood, not lording it over others. Paul said, “Not that we lord it over your faith, but we work with you for your joy” (2 Corinthians 1:24). That is the kind of leaders we are supposed to submit to. They come alongside, and they work for our joy. And the New Testament itself says leaders can go wrong. They can go bad and disqualify themselves from being obeyed or submitted to. In Acts 20:30, Paul is speaking to the elders, and he says, “From among your own selves will rise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them.” So there you have people submitting to elders who are taking them to destruction. And Paul wants to warn the church: Don’t let that happen.
It’s the same thing in 1 Timothy 5:19–20. Paul instructs what to do if an elder is found to be in sin. He should be disciplined and publicly removed from office, if necessary, so that the people will not be hurt by that. Same thing in 1 Peter 5:2 — Paul tells the elders, “Shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight . . . not for shameful gain, but eagerly; not domineering over those in your charge.” So the New Testament is not naïve about the abuses of leadership. And, nevertheless, here we have Hebrews 13:17: “Obey them, submit to them.”
Trusting and Yielding
Now what would that mean? Here is my best shot at how it would look. There is a certain spirit and a certain limit and a certain shape that leadership has and that the people have in response to this verse. The word obey is a very broad word that means be persuaded by, trust, rely on. It 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. So be a swayable person. Be a person ready to learn, ready to be taught, ready to be led, not eager to kick and rebel against anybody that calls you to do something at church.
And the other word, submit, occurs only here in the New Testament — this particular form of submit: upeiko. It is narrower than the other one and means make room for by retiring from a seat or yield to or submit to.
So, with all that, I would try to distill the meaning of Hebrews 13:17 something like this: I should have a bent toward trusting its leaders. Be bent that way. Don’t be a distrustful people. Second, I should have a disposition to be supportive in my attitudes and actions toward the goals and the direction of the leaders. If they craft a vision and they set some goals, be supportive. Go with them. I think it means we should want to imitate their faith, and I think it means we should have a happy inclination to comply with their instructions.
Inclined to Follow
And if you listen carefully to those several paraphrases of what I think this means, I have used phrases like a bent toward trusting and disposition toward support and wanting to imitate and inclination to comply. But the reason for that kind of phraseology is to capture both sides of the biblical truth — namely, elders are fallible and should not lord it over the flock and are not absolute. God is absolute. Yet, the flock should follow good leadership. Our hearts should be bent, and our disposition should be that way, and our wants should be that way, and our inclination should be that way. And where those two truths are working, it is a beautiful thing in a church.
In fact, as I look back, over the 33 years I enjoyed at Bethlehem, it was a wonderful thing to have an eldership and a people who, while not being naïve, unbiblical yes-men — I don’t think we produced a cult — there was a sweet experience where, if I tried to rally them for something, they were basically ready and eager to be rallied for biblical things.