An Exposition of Hebrew 13:17

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. – Hebrews 13:17

Let me state from the outset of this article that I fully affirm congregational polity in the church. This article is not aimed at commenting on that discussion; instead it is more instructive on the interplay between a church member and their pastor(s). It is seeking to understand the command that pastors should lead their church and members should willingly follow.

I have been thinking and meditating on this verse over and over since Remedy Church began.  This verse says a lot.  It has implications for both the elders/pastors and for the church.  So, finally, I thought I would put some of these things down to consider.  I’m going to approach the verse from two different perspectives. The first approach is the point of view of the elders; the second approach is from the view of the church.

First, let me say from the beginning, I believe JESUS is the head of the church.  The elders/pastors are not the head of the church.  Jesus is the Chief Shepherd mentioned in 1 Peter 5:4.  However, we do see in Scripture that the elders have been given the duty to lead the church.

Approach 1:  2 Implications for Elder/Pastors

The first implication is that elders are to keep watch over the people’s souls.

This is a massive task that has been assigned to the elders.  To think of all this encompasses is daunting and somewhat overwhelming.  Nevertheless, it is the task of the elders of the church to do this.  This is the same exhortation given to elders in 1 Peter 5:1-2 where elders are told to “shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you“.

Why would this be important?

I can think of two reasons.  Reason one is right in the text of Hebrews 13:17.  Reason two is an obvious reason.

The first reason is that the elder will give an account. Hebrews 13:17 instructs elders clearly that they will give an account for the oversight they give for the church God has put them over.  This sounds very much like the caution given to elders in James 3:1 where we are told that elders will be “judged with greater strictness“.

To know that we (elders) will stand before God and give an account for the way we led the church and for the oversight of souls we provided to the church that God put in our charge should be taken seriously.  It should cause every elder/pastor to take pause and consider if they are honoring Jesus with the way they are leading.  This isn’t some game.  Being an elder/pastor is not just some job we take and do.  IT IS LEADING THE CHURCH.  This must not be taken lightly.  We will give an account for the way we lead.

The second reason is that their eternity is literally at stake.  If pastors/elders do not take seriously their God-given responsibility to watch over the souls of their people, and shepherd them toward Jesus and not away from Jesus with goofy worldly thoughts and practices, then the eternity of the people in the church is literally at stake.  Their final state between heaven and hell could fall directly on the shoulders of the pastor and his lack of shepherding them well.

This is not to take away from the responsibility that each person has before God because of his or her sin, but to remind each elder/pastor of the high calling he has been given by God to proclaim the Gospel to this lost and dying world.

To sum up, pastor must take seriously the importance of considering that one day elders “will give an account“ to God.  Pastors MUST take seriously their calling and shepherd their people well, so that they will know Christ truly and not hear these dreadful words when they die, “I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.” (Matthew 7:23)

The second implication is that elders should expect the church to submit to their leadership.

There is no other way to read the text of Hebrews 13:17 than to draw from it that the church is absolutely expected to submit to the leadership of the elders (see below where I clarify on this following). Because of this, the elders of the church must expect the church to submit to their leadership. Half-hearted expectations of leadership will produce half-hearted, weak leaders of the church.  This will prove to be detrimental because the pastor will inevitably not stand of up for truth because he fears man and not God. The elders must be strong here and absolutely expect the church to submit to their leadership.

As I have already said, Jesus is the head of the church, not the elders, but elders have been given the duty to lead. So, elder/pastors, lead with boldness, expecting the church to follow.  Lead them in depth to know Jesus intimately.

One thing must be said here.  If elder/pastors are going to expect the church to submit to their leadership, then they must lead the church into a deep walk with Christ.  Their exposition of the Scriptures weekly must be gospel-centered. Pastors must call them to repentance and faith in Jesus.  They must call out their sin, and tell them to trust only in Jesus, not their works for right standing with God.

Further, if elders are to expect submission from the church, then the elders themselves MUST BE PURSUING HOLINESS.  I cannot stress the importance of this enough. (See Richard Baxter’s The Reformed Pastor) If you are calling people to trust Christ and live for Him, then YOU as the elder/pastor must be the leader in this and the pacesetter.  You MUST be striving everyday to know Jesus, repent of sin, be in the Word, be memorizing Scripture, leading your family and killing sin in your life.  If you are not, you are a hypocrite and have NO PLACE leading a church or being an elder/pastor.

Approach 2:  2 Implications for the Church

The first implication is that the church must obey and submit to their leaders. (the elders)

Let me be clear here from the beginning.  I am not speaking of blind trust.  That would be foolish.  I am speaking of following the kind of elder being spoken of in the previous paragraph who is pursuing Jesus deeply.

So the church, as best as they can discern, should know if their elder/pastors are these kind of men, then they should obey and submit to their leadership.  This is the direct command given by God in this verse.

Absolutely, if there is a time where they think the teaching of the elder is not in line with Scripture or if there is a time where they discern problems in the character of the elders, then submission to their leadership may halt, but following the instructions prescribed by the apostle Paul in 1 Timothy 5:19 is necessary.

However, provided the elders are men of God, that exposit the Scriptures with accuracy, who are pursing Jesus, have an understanding of the gospel of Jesus, and try to discern His will for the direction of the church, then the church should obey and submit to their leadership and let them lead well and not hinder their leadership.

The second implication is that the church must follow with joy and not with groaning.

It is very difficult to lead someone who is not a joyous person, but groans all the time.  It is ALMOST impossible.  Groaning can be contagious in a church and contaminate the “unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:3) that pastors should strive to maintain.

Groaning can include complaining to others without trying to improve things or not going to the elder/pastors first about your concerns.  This kind of behavior is so destructive in the church and can bring in an air of negativity that is very difficult to exterminate.  As Christians, we should fight having a complaining and critical spirit within us.

So, not only should the church obey and submit (first implication) they should also do it with JOY and not groaning. You should strive to make it easy for the elder/pastor to lead the church and not difficult. You should desire the holiness of the church, but with encouragement not groaning. You should pray for your pastor, and seek to listen to the encouragement and exhortations he challenges you with each Sunday. You should seek to do what he says, in accordance with Scripture, because it’s his desire to see you become sanctified.  You should JOYFULLY SUBMIT because he has been entrusted with watching over your soul.

This is an enormous task that he has been called to by God.  You should be joyful that he desires to do this.  God has called the Christian to a life filled with JOY (Philippians 1:4).  Again, this is provided the elder/pastor is pursing holiness in his life.

Consider to this exhortation to the church from 1 Thessalonians 5:12-13 regarding the elders in their church:

We ask you, brothers, to respect those who labor among you and are over you in the Lord and admonish you, and to esteem them very highly in love because of their work“.

The Bible asks the church to respect and esteem highly those who labor in the Lord and are over them. Why?  Because of the work they do. If the church obeys 1 Thessalonians 5:12-13, then the church is living out these implications of Hebrews 13:17.

Hebrews 13:17 is an amazing text! There are MAJOR challenges for the elders and the church.  May every church pursue these things!


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