Submit To One Another
Scripture: Hebrews 13:17
Submit To One AnotherHebrews 13:17
Sunday, August 29, 2004
Pastor Randy Smith
Although God wants His spokesmen to preach all that is contained in the Bible, there is a tendency to shy away from topics that often generate controversy. Very few, if any, balk at a sermon on the love of God or encouragement during trials, but a message that deals with gender roles or election or money is bound to ruffle some feathers. Therefore the Bible repeatedly denounces cowards and "man-pleasers" and "ear-ticklers" in the pulpit.
For me the most difficult topic to cover is the subject of hell - not so much due to its controversial nature or my disbelief in the Scriptural description, but rather due to the reality of its dreadful existence. Hell, biblically described, is exceedingly fearful. And all of us know loved ones who are heading down that broad road of eternal destruction.
The topic I'd like to cover this morning as we conclude our series on church and home unity is a distant second to hell, but nevertheless difficult to address. I feel very uncomfortable speaking about this issue (as a matter of fact, in the three years I've stood behind this pulpit, we've yet to cover this subject in any detail). But it is my intention to faithfully present the whole counsel of God (Ac. 20:27), especially when the subject is imperative to unity and harmony in this flock. This morning I'd like to present a biblical view of a church's response to her leadership.
If you have your Bibles I ask you to open them to Hebrews 13:17. "Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they keep watch over your souls as those who will give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with grief, for this would be unprofitable for you."
I plan to deliver this sermon by simply allowing the text to address four key questions:
1. Who are the "Leaders" spoken of in verse 17?
I believe a biblical case could be made for all in any position of leadership. God has established various authoritative positions clearly outlined in His Word. Wives are to submit to their husbands (1 Pet. 3:1). Children are to obey their parents (Eph. 6:1). Employees are to obey their employers (Col. 3:22). Citizens are to obey their government (Rom. 13:1). However, the writer in this case primarily has in view leadership within the church, namely, the office of pastor/elder. This is made clear as the verse identifies these leaders as those who "keep watch over your souls."
2. What is the specific responsibility of the church toward her leadership?
According to verse 17, she is to obey them and submit to them. Again, I feel very uncomfortable, as a leader saying that and you may feel very uncomfortable as a follower hearing that. I even think the writer of this verse was aware that the defenses that go up when we hear these words. Therefore he will provide many reasons in this verse alone why such conduct is necessary. But before we cover those reasons, maybe we need to have a better understanding regarding the topic of submission and obedience.
3. What is biblical submission and obedience?
The way I see it, two primary reasons make these terms difficult pills to swallow. First of all, leaders fail. The Puritans would always say, "The best of men are only men at best." Some of them fail "big time." To the extreme our minds conger up images of David Koresch (of the Branch Davidians in Waco Texas) and Jim Jones (of the Guyana tragedy). To a lesser degree, but yet still very serious, we think of church leaders who have abused their power, taken financial advantage of innocent people, promoted false doctrine and lived hypocritical lifestyles contrary to their message. With these negative stereotypes buzzing around in our minds, we obey and submit with fear and trepidation.
Another reason biblical submission and obedience is resisted is because we live in an individualistic, self-reliant, egalitarian, rights-driven society. Personal liberty is often pursued at the expense of others and self is the ultimate lawgiver. Moreover, our flesh wants nothing to do with these concepts. We hear the words submit and obey and say YUCK!
Let me see if I can soften the blow. The call for biblical submission and obedience is not exhaustive. Leaders have no authority over your personal affairs unrelated to the specific ministries of the church. The mark of cults and legalism is when leaders begin dictating (and not suggesting) how you spend your money and what you watch on TV. A leader's authority does not extend beyond the parameters of Scripture.
Additionally, true biblical leaders advise their congregation to be Bereans (Ac. 17:11) of the Word of God, to examine everything they say with the content of Scripture. They welcome accountability, concerns addressed to them in private, questions confronting their decisions and even disagreement over gray issues that cannot be defended biblically. God's true shepherds rule with love (1 Cor. 13:1-3), humility (Num. 12:3), gentleness (2 Tim. 2:25), service (Mk. 10:45) and example (1 Pet. 5:3). They hold each other accountable and make decisions based upon a plurality of leadership.
With that as a backdrop, obedience and submission to men who follow these biblical guidelines should be a blessing to the congregation.
We now return to answer our original question. The Greek word for obedience is peitho. It is a soft word often meaning to have confidence or trust in someone. The word translated "submit" (hupeiko) is a strong and more narrow word, meaning "yield to," "give way to" or "defer to." Bottom line, as we consider these two words the verse calls for the congregation to trust and stand beside her leadership.
John MacArthur said, "In many churches today the congregation rules the leaders. This sort of government is foreign to the New Testament" (MacArthur, Hebrews, 445). Alexander Strauch in his book Biblical Eldership said, "This means Christians are to be responsive to their leaders, yield to their authority, and subordinate themselves to them even when they have a difference of opinion" (Strauch, 268).
The practical implications are significant for church unity.
Conducting the affairs of the church require many decisions to be made. Often these decisions come from months of concentrated research, discussion, biblical investigation, prayer, outside counsel and meditation. The congregation when they hear the decision for the first time must remember that they were not part of this entire process. They do not have the advantage of time and facts to potentially arrive at the same conclusion. Often they are not privy to personal information that cannot be disclosed to protect another's privacy. Therefore, similar to a child commonly in this predicament with a parent, the Bible simply calls them to trust, to obey and submit.
Furthermore, regarding the "controversial" decisions. Rarely, if ever, will the church be entirely unified. So what do we do? Engage in a public debate? That's a good way to faction the church into "sides" while the leaders sit back and wait for a decision by people often unfamiliar with the situation and untrained in church leadership. What about those who find themselves on the "losing side?" Should they continual a verbal protest until they get their way? Should they institute a silent protest by a decrease in serving, giving or attendance? Nothing would make Satan happier in his attempt to get our eyes off the main issues and drive wedges of disunity in our flock. Listen, the writer to the Hebrews under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit knew what he was talking about. The remedy to avoid divisiveness and promote edification is obedience and submission to leadership.
Biblically speaking, churches are called to submit to the elders, not the other way around. As a matter of fact, the Bible calls for the elders (and not the congregation as a whole) to "rule well" (1 Tim. 5:17). This concept is affirmed in our Constitution: "We believe and teach that these leaders rule and give example as undershepherds of Christ and have His authority in directing the Church, and that the congregation is to submit to the leadership of the elders." I am so glad that this church seeks to have biblical leadership and not political puppets, men who are sensitive to the congregation, but not ruled by the congregation.
4. Why should a congregation obey and submit to its leadership?
This procedure of obedience and submission is further explained in Paul's letter to the Ephesians. In chapter 1, half way through verse 10 we read about "the summing up of all things in Christ, things in the heavens and things on the earth." Jesus Christ is the supreme head of the cosmos. All things are in subjection to Him. "all authority has been given to (Him) in heaven and on earth" (Mt. 28:18). Look at verses 20-22: "Which He (God) brought about in Christ, when He raised Him from the dead and seated Him at His right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come. And He put all things in subjection under His feet, and gave Him as head over all things to the church" (Eph. 5:20-22).
Now, as the ultimate leader to whom all are to be submissive, Jesus Christ has established levels of authority to reflect His headship and maintain order in creation. When there is no authority, there is chaos! These orders exist in the government, the workplace, the home and the church. When we demonstrate biblical leadership and biblical submissiveness we glorify the Head of the cosmos who has personally appointed these leaders (see Rom. 13:1; Ac. 20:28).
Is it easy to submit? Absolutely not! Therefore, before addressing the issue, Paul covers the necessary ingredient. We need God's help! In chapter 5 verse 18 he says, "And do not get drunk with wine, for that is dissipation, but be filled with the Spirit." Three verses later we read (in verse 21) we read, "and be subject to one another in the fear of Christ." Then the next begins to address the specifics. Verse 22, "Wives, be subject to your own husbands, as to the Lord." 6:1, "Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right."
Submissiveness in the applicable levels is the mark of a Spirit-filled life. It is essential to glorify Christ, the Head of the cosmos. And it is crucial to maintain home and church unity.
For example, if a wife disagrees with a husband's decision (that does not violate Scripture) should she pester her husband everyday until he changes his mind? Should she publicly defy her husband in front of the children? Should she and the kids call for a vote to overrule the husband? No! She should "submit therefore to God" (Jas. 4:7a) and in doing so submit to her husband whom God has established as the authority (Jn. 13:20). Her Spirit-filled attitude will be well pleasing to God in bringing Him much glory by respecting His established tiers of authority and promoting the order and unity found within the Trinity.
This same scenario also applies in the church. As much as we struggle not getting our way, God demonstrates the power of His Spirit working within us that enables us to submit with joy and contentment. And if God's glory wasn't a good enough reason for submission, allow me to give you a few more based on our verse from Hebrews.
Leading is their job
Verse 17 says, "They keep watch over your souls."
Leaders have the responsibility to take prudent actions to protect the welfare of the flock from false teachers and spiritual pitfalls. It is their responsibility as God's undershepherds to exercise alert, conscious, diligent, tireless, self-disciplined, selfless concern for the church.
This is a call that ultimately goes out to the leaders. Jesus Christ is not saying all of you are to be leaders. Rather He is saying all of you submit to your leaders as you submit to Me. And to the leaders He is saying shepherd the flock as I shepherd the flock. It fits into perfect place when we simply follow the Scriptures.
However, when we fail to submit to God's ordained leadership, it makes it very difficult for the leadership to perform their God-ordained function. Simply put, God's leaders don't need more leaders they need less chiefs and more Indians; less chefs and more cooks. In addition, it also places the insubordinate one outside the spiritual umbrella of protection that God has appointed to watch over his or her soul.
Leading is their responsibility
Verse 17 also says leaders are "those who will give an account." God's leaders will bear far more responsibility than you (Lk. 12:48b; Jas. 3:1). They are the ones who will stand before God (2 Cor. 5:10) and give an account for the ministry entrusted to their care. You won't! I believe God will ask them, "Did you shepherd My sheep?" "Did you preach My Word?" "Did you live as My example to the flock?" "Did you lead My sheep to greener pastures?"
I'll never forget one difficult student I had during my years as an educator. His name was Albert. Every teacher struggled with Albert. It seemed that everything we did to reach out to this kid was in vain. Nothing made a difference in his behavior.
At one parent-teacher conference, Albert's parents confronted us as to why their son's behavior had yet to improve. A fellow colleague made a terrible mistake. She said, "He never listens to us so we sometimes just let him do his own thing." This was not what the parents wanted to hear. Immediately they responded, "Who's in charge around here?" With leadership comes responsibility and accountability. Excuses are not tolerated.
God will call His leaders to account for the errors that surface in the church. God will ask them, "Why did My money get wasted?" "Why were unqualified men in leadership?" "Why was unbiblical doctrine tolerated?" And I don't think He'll settle for the response, "Well, that's what the church wanted to do." That sounds a little like Adam's lame answer when he was called to give account for his failed leadership in the Garden. "The woman whom You gave to be with me, she gave me from the tree, and I ate" (Gen. 3:12). Or remember Aaron's response to the Golden Calf? "And I said to them, 'Whoever has any gold, let them tear it off.' So they gave it to me, and I threw it into the fire, and out came this calf" (Ex. 32:24).
For example, let's say a person wanted to place an item on the ballot for church approval at our next congregational meeting against the desires of the elder board. And you came up to me and said that such a proposal was wrong. And my response to you was, "Yes I know that will be damaging to the church, but we'll just let the people decide." Would I be the kind of leader you'd feel comfortable following? Would I be the good shepherd who is concerned for the health of the flock? Would I be able to give an adequate account before God at the Bema Seat judgment?
Accountability before God keeps the leaders forever on their toes, knowing they will have to give a response to their Creator. They are forever reminded of their need to serve the congregation, but never above the need to serve God. They are forever reminded that they must lead as God leads them and take full responsibility for their actions. God holds the leaders responsible. And you intuitively hold your leaders responsible as well. For all those who say they want the church as a whole to decide every issue are the same ones who will blame the leadership when things go astray. We can't have it both ways. If leaders are accountable before God and the church, those in the church must, as the Bible states, recognize their authority and responsibility through submission.
Leading should be joy and not grief
Another reason from Hebrews 13 that advocates submission is the congregation's need to see their leadership happy. In verse 17 we read, "Let them do this with joy and not with grief."
There can be no question that your response to leaders has a direct bearing on their joy. I can't even begin to tell you countless stories of pastors who are the subject of gossip, endless complaints and insubordination. Many a pastor has had his zeal and passion sucked out of him, oftentimes from the actions of his own congregation. A refusal to submit and obey according to verse 17 leads to grief and a lack of joy according to verse 17 as well.
The illustrations in Scripture are legion. Paul had numerous individuals (1 Tim. 1:20; 2 Tim. 4:10, 14) who served as a "thorns in his flesh," not to mention many in the Corinthian church. To them he said (almost mirroring this concept from Hebrews 13:17), "This is the very thing I wrote you, so that when I came, I would not have sorrow from those who ought to make me rejoice; having confidence in you all that my joy would be the joy of you all" (2 Cor. 2:3). Jesus had His Judas. John had his Diotrophes, "who love(d) to be first" (3 Jn. 9). Jeremiah was called the "weeping prophet for a reason. For those he ministered to were rebellious and stiff-necked. Moses continually met resistance to his leadership as he sought to lead the people to the Promised Land (Num. 20:4). If Moses adopted congregational consensus, Israel would have returned to Egypt. At one point he even pleaded for the Lord to take his life because the grief brought to him from those he was called to lead. "I alone am not able to carry all this people, because it is too burdensome for me. So if You are going to deal thus with me, please kill me at once" (Num. 11:14-15a)
Of this grief, pastor John MacArthur said, "It is a serious (and all too common) thing for stubborn, self-willed people in church congregations to rob their pastors of the joy God intends faithful pastors to have. Failure to properly submit brings grief rather than joy to pastors, and consequently brings grief and displeasure to God, who sends them to minister over us. Grief (stenazontes) means an inner, unexpected groaning. It is a grief often known only to the pastor, his family, and to God. Because lack of submission is an expression of selfishness and self-will, unruly congregations are not likely to be aware of, or care about, the sorrow they cause their pastor and other leaders" (Hebrews, Moody, 1983, p. 446).
Leaders' joy is for your profit
There is no neutrality. You need to ask yourself. Do you contribute to your pastors' joy or your pastors' grief? If you were a pastor would you be encouraged and happy to have someone like you in the congregation?
Not only do you have the biblical obligation to further your pastor's joy, you need to realize that his joy or grief has a direct bearing on your joy or grief. Remember what Paul said in 2 Corinthians 2? "Having confidence in you all that my joy would be the joy of you all." Look at the end of verse 17. "Let them do this with joy and not with grief, for this would be unprofitable for you." Simply put, joyless leaders do not benefit the congregation if the aim of the pastors is the joy of the people. How can a grumpy and grieving pastor ever expect to shepherd the church with vigor and love?
Alexander Strauch in his book Biblical Eldership said, "Rebellious behavior takes its toll on the shepherds. Sometimes good shepherds give up because of the painful kicks and deep bites of disobedient sheep. When that occurs, everyone in the congregation suffers…Only when believers properly submit to their spiritual leaders does the local church have any chance to be the growing, loving, joyous family God intends it to be." (p. 273, 269). MacArthur again, "You will never find a truly happy pastor apart from a happy congregation, or a happy congregation apart from a happy pastor." (p. 448)
There's no doubt that the anti-authoritarian strain of American individualism and subjectivism has contributed to a leadership crisis in the modern church and an entire generation of beat-up clergy. Such a result has contributed to aimlessly drifting church lost in the hostile seas of a neo-pagan culture (Kent Hughes, Hebrews, Crossway, 1993, p. 234). It may be only one short verse, but Hebrews 13:17 gives us the solution and teaches us much that is necessary for unified and joyous churches.
Pastor John Piper give us a great summary: "So with all this background, what I would try to distill as the meaning would be something like this: Hebrews 13:17 means that a church should have a bent toward trusting its leaders; you should have a disposition to be supportive in your attitudes and actions toward their goals and directions; you should want to imitate their faith; and you should have a happy inclination to comply with their instructions (Sermon, Obey You're your Joyful Leaders, Hebrews 13:17)
As I previously stated, this is a very difficult sermon to deliver. However, I hope you can see beyond me and receive it as an exhortation from the Word of God. I would never claim that pastors are infallible. I would never claim that following leaders should be done in "blind obedience." I would never claim that some pastors are disqualified from office and should be removed according to the principles outlined in 1 Timothy 5:20. But I would claim that submission to God-ordained and biblically qualified authority is a biblical concept, crucial for church and home unity.