April 28, 2019
I have wanted to talk to you for a while now about some challenges facing the church of Jesus Christ. But I knew our text today, Hebrews 13:17, was coming. The text? “Obey your leaders and submit to them…” It’s even worse when you understand the word obey means to put your trust or confidence in your leaders such that you can submit to them. And some of you no doubt, given current events, rightly think, how can we do that? How can we obey, submit to leaders, given the abuses we see in the world, and in the church, today? I want you to know I understand that concern – it is a legitimate question.
If you’re not sure what I’m talking about, let me share discreetly some of those current events. For decades now, the Catholic Church has come under much deserved scrutiny for sexual abuse perpetrated by their clergy, particularly on children. And you may say, that’s true, but we’re not Catholic, we’re evangelical – and you’re right.
And yet, the Metoo movement has found its way to the evangelical church. I suppose we thought ourselves immune, as professing followers of Christ, to such sinful activity. As you likely know, the Metoo movement is the name given to the rightful exposure and prosecution of largely men using their authority to take advantage of people under them – primarily women. It’s not just children, is it? Whether the entertainment industry such as Hollywood producers or actors or music moguls, or politicians, military leaders, the medical community, and now the church, no one seems exempt. There has been much in the news lately that even pastors have used their positions of authority to sin, greatly.
Just a few years ago, the charge was brought against the SGC, Sovereign Grace Churches, that they had covered up or dismissed instances of abuse by those in authority – even suggesting such abuse not be reported to the authorities. We will keep it in house. It subsided for awhile, until the evangelical church started facing its own Metoo movement. Most recently, the SBC, the Southern Baptist Convention, has also been found to allow some pastors, so accused, to simply walk away, only to serve as pastors elsewhere. It’s a mess. And by the way, it is not just physical abuse – but sometimes pastors have exercised ungodly, dogmatic, dictatorial, aggressive, spiritual authority. Recently, some big name pastors have been fired because of their verbal, arrogant, offensive abuse of staff, elders and others – their lack of accountability, and their lack of financial transparency.
There is much I could say about all this – many I could quote to include Al Mohler, President of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and Beth Moore who wrote an open letter to evangelical leaders. But, allow me to quote Russell Moore, President of the Ethics and Religious Committee of the Southern Baptist Convention in an op-ed published just two months ago:
“When churches do cover up abuse, they often justify it by acting as if they are preventing the world from seeing ‘scandal.’ If the public saw such a dark reality, they say, they might not want to hear the gospel, the reasoning goes. Nonsense. Jesus does not need the church to protect his reputation. And Jesus was, and is, enraged by those who would seek to blame him for empowering atrocities.”
He goes on to write that we should not be covering up such abuses. And I would add further, the church should be a place where those so abused find understanding, shepherding, loving care. All too often, they find instead, dismissive, uncaring, it’s the way things are, attitudes. Moore finished his article with these ominous words, “A world in need of good news is watching to see just how born again we are.”
And so, I come today, with this text before us – Obey your leaders and submit to them. And perhaps some of you have obeyed, submitted, and faced spiritual, mental, verbal, physical or sexual abuse. Outside, and inside the church. If the statistics are right – and they are probably understated, many of you have faced abuse from boyfriends, family members, coworkers, supervisors, and incredibly, church leaders. To you, I want to gently and clearly say, I am deeply sorry. In the name of Jesus, I ask you to forgive those who have appropriately sought repentance. Forgive the church for its egregious oversight. And allow the church to bring fruit in keeping with repentance. We lay our sin at the feet of Jesus, and accept the rightfully placed responsibility.
And so, as I begin to read and teach the text – I want you to know I am not calling for unqualified submission to ungodly leadership. Abuse will not be tolerated in this church; further, I want us to be a safe place for people who have been marginalized, uncared for, or dismissed in situations of past abuse. Forgive us for any way in which we’ve done that.
I will make some further qualifications as I teach through the text – but the overriding principle is submission to godly leadership – and inasmuch as leadership is not godly, it will be handled rightly. Perhaps not perfectly – but we will try to be holy. As the author says today, we will try to conduct ourselves honorably in all things. So let’s read the text, with the understanding that the church of Jesus Christ is to be different from the world – Hebrews 13:17-19.
This is our second-to-last study in the book of Hebrews. The author has been both encouraging and warning his readers – ultimately reminding them of the supreme value of Christ, our greatest treasure. And so don’t leave Him. I would suggest, for example, if you leave Him, it would bring grief to me, and would be unprofitable for you. He’s now closing his letter, giving some final instructions. He has said things like:
- Let brotherly love continue
- Show hospitality
- Remember the prisoners
- Honor marriage
- Be content
- Continually offer up the sacrifice of praise
- Do not neglect doing good and sharing
- Remember those who led you
Now, that last one was found back in verse 7, and he seemed to be referring to past leaders who were now dead. He said, remember those who spoke the word of God to you, and considering the result of their conduct, imitate them. The implication was – leaders speak and live the word of God – and inasmuch as they do, imitate them. If they don’t, don’t. There are plenty of examples of those who have faithfully taught and lived the gospel. And plenty who have not.
He now gets to verse 17 and speaks of present leaders – living leaders, to include himself. But the earlier truth still applies – leaders in the church speak and live the word of God. As they do, obey and submit to their leadership. If they don’t, don’t. Let me give you the outline:
- Obey Your Leaders (17)
- Pray for Your Leaders (18)
- A Personal Prayer Request (19)
I suppose we should start by defining who our leaders are. It is a general word for leaders, speaking of all those who lead in some capacity, some kind of authority. But here, it is used within the context of the church, so it certainly includes elders, not exclusively, but it includes them. This gives me the opportunity to discuss briefly our form of church polity or government. Now, we are truly an alliance of people here – believers who have come from a variety of different churches and denominations.
Many of you have been in churches of congregational rule – sort of a pure democracy where every member, regardless of spiritual maturity, has a vote on all matters involving the church. As much as that satisfies our democratic leanings and fits the US Constitution, it’s really not found in the NT. I suppose in this model, we would submit to one another’s leadership since technically, we all lead.
Another form of church government is the Episcopal model – from the Greek work episcopos which means bishop or overseer. This is kind of a hierarchical form of government, where a local church is governed by a priest or rector or pastor, and reports to a bishop outside of the local church. There’s actually more biblical support for that kind of government than congregational rule. And so, in this church, people submit to the lead pastor, who in turn submits to a bishop who in turn submits to the hierarchy of the denomination.
Another model, while not usually acknowledged, is the Senior Pastor model – you could call it the totalitarian model. That is, the lead pastor is the supreme leader in the church, under of course, Jesus. What the leader says goes, and everyone follows him, I suppose as he follows Christ. The challenge, besides being totally unbiblical, is there is no accountability for this single person.
Which leads to the last model, which happens to be ours – the Presbyterian or elder form of leadership. I’m not going to take the time this morning to run through all the Scripture that supports the model, but trust me when I suggest, it is the most biblically faithful. And it makes the most sense. God calls a group of qualified and gifted men to serve the church in this way. By the way, we find the qualifications of elders in Titus 1 and 1 Timothy 3 and their duties in Acts 20 and 1 Peter 5. The primary function of the elder is to shepherd the church – through leading, feeding and protecting.
So in our context, elders are the leaders of the church. And there is the responsibility of oversight, of management, of leading. And so as leaders are qualified, called, gifted and godly, we are to obey them and submit to their authority. Now, I say we on purpose. Yes, I am an elder, but I am not the lead elder. I’m not the supreme leader. There is a plurality of elders who mutually lead and submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.
We have then a responsibility to obey, and submit to our godly leaders – as those leaders themselves obey and submit to Christ and His Word. Should they fail to themselves obey and submit to the Word of God, we don’t obey and submit to them. There is a sense in which the authority lies with the Word of God. What I mean is, as leaders are submitting to the Word, we submit to them. But if they do not, the authority reverts to the people who are obeying the Scripture. Of course, if no one is obeying the Scripture, then it’s a mess. To be clear, we should not allow leaders to lead apart from, or contrary to the Word of God.
Now, not all leaders in the church are necessarily elders. For example, Marci leads our Women’s Ministry, and we should submit to her leadership. The same can be said for Halle in Children’s Ministry and Hunter in Worship Ministry. But that’s also not to say leaders are only those on staff, either. No – those who lead in any capacity should also be obeyed, submitted to as they obey and submit to their leadership, and the Scripture.
The author goes on to tell us why we obey. First, it is for the sake of the leaders. Notice, they keep watch over your souls. A couple important thoughts about that: the phrase keep watch carries with it the idea of sleeplessness. Meaning, leaders who lead well, are deeply and passionately concerned about their people – that is, their souls – to the point of losing sleep. We remember the words of the Apostle Paul in 2 Corinthians 11. He lists a lot of his sufferings for Christ – imprisonments, beatings, in danger of death, stoning, shipwrecks, in dangers from robbers, countrymen, from Gentiles, in the city, in the wilderness, on the sea – labor, hardship, sleepless nights, hunger, thirst, in cold and exposure. It was a miserable existence. So much for prosperity. But, apart from such external things, he says there is the daily pressure of his concern for all the churches.
A good and godly leader is concerned about the church. But not external things. Notice also, our author says, they keep watch over your souls. That’s the real you, the eternal part of you – not your physical cares and comforts – although it includes physical care – that’s why, for example, we have a benevolence fund. But infinitely greater, they care for your eternal souls. For your spiritual well-being. Where you will spend eternity. How you grow in your sanctification, your holiness as we make the journey toward the city He has prepared. The godly leader wants his or her people to be discipled, and grow to be like Jesus. The good and godly pastor wants his people to hear, well done, good and faithful servants. A godly leader says with John in 3 John 4, “I have no greater joy than this, to hear of my children walking in the truth.” That’s why the author wrote this book – I want to hear that you are walking in the truth, not away from it.
Paul wrote to the Thessalonians, “For who is our hope or joy or crown of exhultation? Is it not even you, in the presence of our Lord Jesus at His coming? For you are our glory and joy.” He told the Philippian church, I want you to “prove yourselves to be blameless and innocent… holding fast the word of life, so that in the day of Christ I will have reason to glory because I did not run in vain nor toil in vain.”
Further, he says, leaders keep watch over your souls as those who will give an account. The language speaks of giving an account to God. What does that mean? Does that mean they will give an account for others’ good and bad deeds? Certainly not. But how they led, or didn’t lead – how they cared, or didn’t care – how they loved or abused – they will give account of their leadership. And it seems that leadership, good or bad, can have an impact on the souls of others. Certainly not their eternal salvation, but their growth and care. Obey them, do what they say as it is right, so that they can give an account for your souls with joy and not with grief. The grief will come perhaps in two ways – through poor leadership, or through poor followership. You see, they will give an account for poor leadership. And they will an account for you not following rightly – for not obeying God’s word as rightly taught – for not rightly submitting to godly leadership.
This is why James said, “Let not many of you become teachers, my brothers, knowing that as such we will incur a stricter judgment.” Teachers, leaders, pastors will give an account for their leadership – and they will be judged more strictly, more severely.
So obey, submit in such a way that their accounting will bring joy, not grief. Yes, joy because after countless hours of work, and countless hours of sleepless nights – watching over your souls, they find joy when your accounting is praiseworthy. And yes, grief perhaps because of poor leadership, but perhaps because of poor followership. You see, the author goes on to say, grief caused by not obeying, not submitting, will be unprofitable for you. Everyone of us, as followers of Christ, will give an account to God. We will all stand before the judgment seat of Christ – to be rewarded for deeds done rightly – and to lose reward for deeds done wrongly. Live in such a way that it will be spiritually profitable for you.
Which brings us to our second point – Pray for your leaders. That’s interesting. The author seems to have been personally connected to his readers – we’re not sure how. In the next verse he speaks of being restored to them. Most agree he has been a leader in the church – with this group of believers before. And now, having reminded them to obey godly leaders, he suggests they also pray for their leaders.
Pray for us. You see, the task is enormous, with awesome responsibility and accountability. Pray for us that we perform the task well – rightly. Godly. Listen, if you look for faults in your leaders, you will not have to look hard to find them. Elders and leaders are not perfect. Yes, they are supposed to meet the qualifications of I Timothy 3 and Titus 1 – but no one will meet them perfectly. They are not without sin. Failure. They, too, need to grow in holiness, in Christlikeness – so pray for them. The best thing you can do for your leaders is not to complain about them to others, but talk about them to God.
Look what he says next, “for we are sure that we have a good conscience, desiring to conduct ourselves honorably in all things.” I find that interesting. He says the reason I can ask you to pray for us – leaders – is because our conscience is clear – God knows we desire to conduct ourselves rightly, honorably – above reproach – in all things. Now think about that. Those leaders in the evangelical church – the ones I talked about in the introduction – they don’t have a clear conscience. They must not sleep at night, not because of those they lead, but because of the way they miserably lead. They are not seeking to live honorably. And there is no reason to ask for prayer – not in this sense – that they may continue to behave honorably. They aren’t. Perhaps they can pray for repentance – but they don’t deserve this kind of prayer.
Which, as an aside, is perhaps how we should pray for ungodly leaders – pastors, elders, lay leaders – who have significantly missed the mark. Perhaps we should pray for their repentance – and that having repented, God, per the promise of Scripture, would forgive them, restore them.
Well, this brings us to our last point – the author’s personal prayer request – in verse 19. I urge you all the more to do this – that is, pray for me – so that I may be restored to you the sooner. Again, this is how most suggest the author has been connected to his readers in some way in the past. Given the context, very likely he was a leader in the church.
But notice the personal prayer request. I call you to do this abundantly, all the more – I urge you to pray for me earnestly. Notice, not for personal gain – that’s interesting. Again, given the current context in which we find ourselves, many leaders want prayers for personal prosperity. But this author – a former leader in this church – urges prayer for himself…why? That he may be restored to them sooner. His concern is not necessarily personal – it is for them. For their spiritual benefit. I am reminded of the times Paul asks for prayer from his churches. Consider some examples:
In Romans 1, he says he prays always, asking that he may succeed in coming to see them at Rome – why? Because I long to see you, that I may impart some spiritual gift to you, that you may be established. He was concerned about a church he had never even been to.
So, in Romans 15, near the end of the letter, he says, I urge you, pray for me that I may be rescued, yes, that my service to the saints in Jerusalem may prove acceptable, yes, but so that I may come to you by the will of God.
At the very end of Ephesians, he asks for prayer that he may open his mouth to make known the gospel with boldness. He asked the Colossians to pray for him that God would open a door for the word, so the he could speak the mystery of Christ. To the Thessalonians, he asked for prayer that the word of the Lord would spread rapidly and be glorified.
The point is, Paul, our author asked for prayer – ultimately for the benefit of others. Because of my concern for all the churches, Paul says. Because our author wants to be with these, his people – to encourage and warn them. To love them, care for them, disciple them. Because he couldn’t be there then, he wrote this rich letter – for which we are the beneficiaries.
So in summary, a church leader – a pastor, an elder, a staff leader, a volunteer leader – we are all to be others’ focused – to care for the flock. Not for our own benefit, but for theirs. And we are to lead watching over their souls, knowing we will give an account. We are to seek clear consciences, conducting ourselves honorably in all things. And you, inasmuch as leadership is godly, are to obey, submit, so our accounting can be with joy. To not do so will be unprofitable for you. So let’s pray – for each other – that we will be godly, together.