Hebrews 13:17 exhorts, “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.”
This verse connects obedience with joy, disobedience with groaning, and response with consequences. Fundamentally, it speaks to the relationship between a congregation and its appointed leadership. Its aim is joyful relationship. That is, its goal is joyful sheep led by joyful shepherds. This joyfulness is mutual, for the joy of sheep and the joy of shepherds are intimately intertwined. At the heart of this verse is the thought of healthy and joyful sheep cared for by healthy and joyful shepherds—and, vice versa. Joyful sheep make for joyful shepherds. How, church member, can you help?
The command to “obey your leaders and submit to them” is a well-known responsibility and has received a fair amount of teaching in local churches. The weighty challenge to pastors “as those who will have to give an account” is also a truth that has received much expositional attention. Rightly so. Those appointed to lead God’s flock must daily realise and seek to responsibly carry out their mandate to do all they can for the spiritual welfare of the congregation.
But what does not receive much instruction is the statement, “Let them do this with joy and not with groaning.” Perhaps these words are passed over because pastors feel self-consciously awkward in speaking about their own concerns. Yet pastors should not be hyper-sensitive about this for, as the rest of the verse reveals (“for that would be of no advantage to you”), the concern of elders is directly connected to the welfare of the congregation. That is, joyful shepherds and joyful sheep are two sides of the same coin. Joyful shepherds tend to produce joyful sheep and joyful sheep tend to produce joyful shepherds. And that is an “advantage” to all of us.
Several years ago, a couple left our church and, in an exit interview, the wife said, “We are not joyful, and we don’t think you are joyful either.” It was helpful for me to hear that. I realised that my disposition was affecting theirs. And though I have a long way to go, I regularly pray and work towards this end. But what this couple failed to realise was that their increasingly critical spirit, and their non-participation in the life of our church, was a factor in the depletion of my joy. Their frequent pushing against the leadership was causing serious grief and groaning among the elders. In the end, this was of “no advantage” to them. Nor was it any “advantage” to us as an eldership, nor to the congregation.
I understand that, regardless of people’s behaviour, a Christian is called to lovingly and joyfully follow our Lord. The writer of Hebrews addresses this (see Hebrews 11:1–12:2). But the writer of Hebrews also acknowledges the relationship between joyful submission and joyful consequences. Specifically, when church members joyfully submit to elders who seek to lead in a biblical and therefore helpful direction, such submission fuels the leaders’ joy—to the “advantage” of everybody. After all, in the words of Paul, “We are fellow workers for your joy” (2 Corinthians 1:24).
As BBC continues to grow in our understanding of biblical congregationalism (in which the congregation and its leaders do their respective “jobs”), we are wise to pay attention to the symbiotic relationship between joyful shepherds and joyful sheep.
When church members take seriously their responsibility for matters of membership, and for the protection and promotion of the gospel, coupled with elders who take seriously their responsibility to lead, feed, and give heed to the members, then joy abounds. Church members are happy to follow the directives of the leaders in matters of biblical vision, and church leaders are happy to defer to the congregation as it exercises its responsibilities of admission, dismissal, and discipline.
However, when church members stand in the way of elders who seek the welfare of the church, those elders are shouldered with the heavy burden of addressing division and the enormous discouragement that can result. As biblically qualified elders take seriously their mandate to shepherd the flock of God towards Christlikeness, it is vital that the congregation give them the benefit of the doubt. Elders are not sinless, they are not omniscient, and therefore their decisions will not be flawless. But if, over time, biblically qualified elders have a track record of seeking the welfare of the flock, then joyful submission should be a given.
“Heavy lies the head that wears the crown,” wrote Shakespeare. To be accurate, he wrote, “Uneasy lies the head,” but the two go hand in hand. Elders who take seriously their God-given mandate often go to bed “heavy” and “uneasy.” The knowledge of wandering sheep often leads to wondering shepherds. They not only wonder how they might help but also about the wider ramifications of those who have strayed. Further, they wonder how they have failed, and they often wonder whether they are doing any good to the flock. Sometimes they wonder if they should leave the eldership. After all, doesn’t failure disqualify them? Sometimes, but not necessarily.
Often, sheep stray despite prayers, counsel, teaching, pleading, and tears. And true shepherds feel the weight of these straying sheep—even to the point of struggling to maintain their joy. Perhaps if we gave thought to the burden carried by shepherds, perhaps if we considered the sense of unworthiness and weakness that elders usually carry, then perhaps we would be slow to criticise, quick to encourage, and, if the elders are wrong, gentle in our correction.
As I have said, both in private and from the pulpit, if a church member is persuaded that he cannot trust their church’s eldership, he should find a church with an eldership he can trust. But this needs to be qualified. Make sure that there are legitimate reasons for such distrust. Too often, what lies behind angst and subsequent distrust towards church leaders is unjustified (dare I say, sinful?), unloving suspicion. A good dose of 1 Corinthians 13:4–7 will often heal such a heart of dis-ease.
But there is another aspect of joyful shepherds that must be addressed. Not only can shepherds lose their joy through the response of stubborn sheep; they can also lose their joy from simple fatigue. When this happens, the shepherds may need a rest.
It is not easy for a church to build a biblically faithful eldership. One significant challenge is the awareness of its weighty responsibility. The knowledge that elders will give account to God for his flock is daunting. This is one reason otherwise qualified men sometimes hesitate to pursue this noble task (1 Timothy 3:1). It is hard work, but it needs to remain joyful work. So, how can we all work together to have joyful shepherds? Well, in addition to the above, sometimes a sabbatical is called for.
In recent months I, along with others, have become increasingly sensitive to the hard work carried out by our “non-vocational” elders (that is, those who do not receive remuneration for their labours). In addition to their vocational and familial responsibilities, they have the added weight of feeding, leading, and giving heed to the flock of God. This can produce fatigue. And so sometimes they need a break. As a means towards this end, the eldership of BBC is recommending that all the elders, at some point, step back from the eldership either for a sabbatical, or, if they prefer, a longer (even indefinite) time period. They can rest, be refreshed, and, if they desire, can pursue the eldership again. Regardless, in the long run, this will empower the eldership to serve with more effectiveness, joyfully shepherding a joyful congregation.
In conclusion, let me make an appeal for both your prayers, and for your understanding. Church member, you are a means towards God’s provision of joyful shepherds. May we all be joyful, together.