Hebrews 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.”
Obey and Submit
Church leaders, pastors are essential to God’s design for the life of the church (1 Timothy 3). We see the same truth in Hebrews.
Hebrews thirteen has already mentioned leaders (Heb. 13:7). There the church was exhorted to remember their leaders. Their leaders spoke the word of God to them, instructed them in the doctrines of the faith. Their leaders also practiced what they preached. They were obedient to what God revealed, and therefore their lives were worthy of imitation. The church needed to go one step further. Not only were they to remember their leaders they are to obey and submit to them.
Admittedly, this verse probably raises the hair on the back of our necks. We do not like being told what to do, especially to obey and submit. Jesus told His disciples that our love for Him is shown by our obedience to Him (John 14:15). The New Testament clarifies that believers live in a posture of submission (Eph. 5:21). This submission extends to all areas of life (Rom. 13:1-7; 1 Pet. 2:13-24; Eph. 6:1-4). Here the author of Hebrews tells his original readers that submission extends to life in the church.
The context is important here. Leaders are those who teach and preach the word of God. That is their primary role, their primary work. The authority of church leaders only comes from the word of God. Therefore, the obedience and submission we give to them must line up with Scripture. If their teaching does not line up with Scripture, we must not obey.
As we think about the first part of this verse, we must admit we do not think about this or its impact on our leaders often. These words may sound foreign to us. After all, many of us may view our church leaders as working for us, and they need to submit and obey us. But here, the author turns this thinking on its head, saying you are to obey and submit to the church leaders God has placed you under.
The Reason for Obedience and Submission
With the command comes the reason for obedience.
Our church leaders, pastors keep watch over our souls. But they not only have the God-given task of keeping watch over our souls, but they also do it as those who will give an account to God for how they do it. This is their continuous work; they are keeping watch. One-time keeping watch does not enter their thinking. They preach and teach to keep watch over our souls, they persist in intercessory prayer on our behalf, they work hard to present everyone mature in Christ (Col. 1:24-29).
All the while, they do this work knowing they will give an account to God for how they did it. Those who teach will be judged with greater strictness (Jam. 3:1).
Church leaders are working for our good. They want to see us grow in Christlikeness. They work hard for our sanctification, and therefore we should obey them and submit to us. Faithful pastors point us to Christ continually and call us to live in a way that exalts Him and glorifies our heavenly Father.
Obey for Their Joy and Your Advantage
The first reason for obeying and submitting to our leaders is their work on our behalf. The verse concludes with two more reasons.
First, we should obey and submit to our church leaders so they can keep watch over our souls with joy and not groaning. Pastoral ministry is hard work. We see some of the weight of ministry when Paul describes for the Corinthians his concern for the churches (1 Cor. 11:28). Because of the weight and toil of ministry, it would be natural to do it with groaning. Paul is an example of the hard work a pastor does on behalf of his people (See Acts 20:24-31).
As they work for your good, obey and submit for their good. Your obedience and submission will take a weight off your pastor; you may never know. They work for your joy, and you should do the same. One way, surely not the only, to support your pastor’s joy is to obey and submit as the author of Hebrews calls us to here.
At the end of this verse, the second reason to obey and submit is it is for your own good. In general, obedience to God’s commands are for our good, but the text narrows the scope for us. Obedience to the command at the beginning of the verse is for our good because our pastors will be able to keep watch over our souls with joy, and that is to our benefit.
Have you ever tried to get help or support from someone who lacked joy? What about trying to get that help from someone who is burnt out? Maybe you didn’t know the reason at the time. They worked hard, but nothing they did could seem to help you. You became frustrated, and eventually, they did too. Discouragement no doubt set in, and perhaps you gave up on the relationship.
When we do not obey and submit to our leaders, and then we come to them for support, this scenario will hold true again. The pastor has been doing his work while groaning and not with joy. He is already beat down. He is already discouraged. He will work to support you but do not be surprised if you become frustrated and discouraged. Could this have been avoided? According to the text, it could have.
By obeying and submitting to our church leaders, we support them in doing their work with joy. Keeping watch will be joyful for pastors, even when it is hard because of various situations when we obey and submit to them.
We all want to find loopholes for not obeying and submitting. Many of us are Yeah but” Christians. We may admit Scripture commands us to do something, but we explain it away. Don’t explain this one away (or any other command of Scripture) because it is for your good and for the good of those who are actively keeping watching over your souls, supporting you to become more like Jesus.
What step do you need to take today to obey and submit to your church leaders? Ask the Holy Spirit for help, repent of where you have sinned, and move forward in obedience. You’ll be glad you did.