Hebrews 13:17 was recently the text of a sermon and therefore a topic of discussion in the Grace Groups. It seems that there was some good back and forth about what this means and the limits of the commandment. This article will not settle all the questions, but I hope that it will provide a framework for constructive reflection and for the building of even greater harmony between the flock and its shepherds.
The verse says, “Obey those who rule over you, and be submissive for they watch out for your souls, as those who must give account. Let them do so with joy and not with grief, for that would be unprofitable for you.”
Simply put, the congregation is instructed to be responsive—happily—to their spiritual leaders, the elders. Since elders are responsible for the flock, the flock should submissively respond to them.
Of course, the assumption of the text is that the eldership is biblically qualified. Further, because they are biblically qualified, the implication is that their leadership will be in a biblical direction. Though sadly this verse has been abused by the unscrupulous, nevertheless, the clear meaning is that biblically qualified and biblically faithful elders are to be followed; they are to be happily submitted to. To do less is to cause such leaders unnecessary grief, and this in no way can be beneficial for the congregation.
It must be noted that the verse does not command the congregation to agree with the leadership. It does, however, command the congregation to submit to the leadership. But what does this look like?
God’s appointed leaders do precisely what the NKJV says: They “rule” the flock. The ESV translates “leaders.” What do leaders do? Well, they rule. They lead by ruling. They therefore apply rules. And I would argue that they therefore at times must make rules.
Some would argue that the leadership of the church can only apply God’s prescribed rules, those clearly stated in Scripture. To add to those is therefore seen as adding to God’s Word and makes one guilty of ugly, pharisaic spiritual abuse. Not necessarily.
The point of God-appointed leaders is not merely for them to read the Bible to the congregation, nor to only expound it, but in fact to help the church to apply it. This is why Paul told Timothy to “give attention to reading [Scripture], to exhortation and doctrine [teaching]” (1 Timothy 4:13).
Yes, leaders exposit (explain, unpack) the words of the Bible but they also then apply (exhort) the text. This is part and parcel of teaching the Bible (doctrine).
For instance, the Bible commands us, “You shall not commit adultery” (Exodus 20:14). That is clear. The leadership of the church must teach this to the congregation. It is to expound the various Scriptures that address the heart and soul of this commandment. Yet the leadership is also to practically apply this commandment and to give specific warnings to guard the congregation from this sin. Because we take God’s Word seriously, our church has a policy that we will not allow a man to disciple a woman, one on one. Yes, this is a rule. There is no chapter-and-verse for this, but this rule is for the purpose of keeping God’s rule. Since we “watch out” for the congregation, we put measures in place to guard the congregation.
Another example: The Bible commands that corporate worship be done “decently and in order” (1 Corinthians 14:40). In the immediate context, this means that those who spoke in tongues and who exercised the gift of prophecy had to do so according to prescribed rules, as indicated in the text. Though tongues and prophecy are no longer gifts in operation, certainly the principle of decent and orderly worship continues. And because the leadership of the church takes this seriously, because we watch out for the welfare of the church, we have some policies that we have implemented and “rules” that we follow. For example, we have a particular order of service. It is by human design, yet in it we seek to follow God’s definition of worship. We have a dress code for certain participants in worship. We have a starting time (thankfully, we do not have rule for finishing time!), which we ask the congregation to respect.
Another example: Because we understand the need for godly and effective leadership (grounded in such passages as 1 Timothy 3:1–15), we have some policies and rules for elders and deacons. Some of these we extend to Sunday school and Family Bible Hour teachers. Though these teachers are not necessarily elders, they are nevertheless spiritually influential and therefore, rooted in biblical principle, we have developed some practical policies. Do we have chapter-and-verse for each of these rules? Not always. But what we do have in each case is a biblical principle, a principle derived from the text of Scripture, from which we design practical applications.
The function of the Old Testament case laws (see, for example, Exodus 21–24) serves as a good example of this principle. These laws were authoritative examples concerning the application of the Ten Commandments. However, they were not exhaustive in the sense that they did not address every possible scenario. But the principles they revealed were to be applied in similar cases. Though the parallels between case laws and the rules and policies of biblically faithful leaders are not exact, nevertheless they do illustrate well the principle: practical application of the inspired Word of the Lord for the benefit of the community.
Let me provide one final parallel example. The Bible commands children to obey their parents (Ephesians 6:1). So if little Johnny is told to not climb on the couch, he is responsible before God to keep his feet where they belong—not on the couch! Does the parent have a chapter-and-verse for that command? Of course not. (At least, when I was a younger parent, I searched in vain for one!) But since the parent has been given authority by God, the child is to obey. Parents, of course, are to be careful to neither be arbitrary nor partial, thus provoking unnecessary angst (Ephesians 6:4; Colossians 3:21).
The same holds true in a church. The office of the eldership has been entrusted with authority from God. So if they adopt a rule for the household of faith over which they are responsible, then the family is to obey this. Of course, the assumption here is that those rules do not violate God’s rules. And as with a parent, wise elders will neither be arbitrary nor partial as they seek to apply God’s Word.
So, rather than the congregation rising up and saying, “We will put our feet where we want to because the elders do not have a specific command in the Bible saying otherwise,” the Spirit-filled congregation will give the benefit of the doubt and do what they have been asked to do. Hopefully, they will assume that their leaders are concerned about the welfare of the Body.
In discussion with others concerning this matter, I sometimes hear the accusation that, in such cases, the leaders are guilty of “binding people’s consciences.” Such a response usually misses the point. If, for instance, the elders were to say, “It is sinful to begin an evening worship service without first having a prayer meeting,” then the above charge would stick, for the Bible does not teach this. However, when the elders say, “BBC will begin its evening worship at 5:30 with a prayer meeting,” they are not guilty of binding the conscience of church members when they expect them to be there. On the contrary, the elders simply expect church members to behave like church members and to submit to their leaders.
No doubt this article has raised even more questions, and it may not have answered your particular ones. However, I hope that it has at least highlighted that God has given to us both the Bible as well as those who can explain and apply it beneficially to our community of faith. As leaders, we of course do not always get it right, but please give us the benefit of the doubt. Remember that the Bible is not mandated to watch out for your souls; rather, elders are. Yes, we need leaders even though, and because we have, the Bible.