Hey church family! I realize that we just got finished with an 11-month jog through the book of Hebrews. However, I have some additional thoughts on the command to follow leadership that I did not have time for in my last sermon that I would like to share with you. I pray they enhance your love for God and give you a deeper understanding on church health. First, consider some broad thoughts on submission.
Rebellion and Lordship:
Human beings were born with a nature to rebel against God. Because of our sin nature, we are tempted to disregard every commandment of God, but especially the submission commands. These submission commands are challenging because we are spring loaded to declare our independence, self-sufficiency, and happiness, apart from our maker. This lie of sinful individualism, that I spoke of often in this series, originates from Satan who attempted his own rebellion against the Lord. Have you considered how salvation is the opposite of rebellion?
The very foundation of salvation is a laying down of our rebellion against God. The Bible teaches that when a person experiences the new birth, a critical heart change takes place. The heart of rebellion changes to a heart of submission to Jesus as Lord (Rom. 10:9). And this should not be understood as a cold relationship like a master to a slave. On the contrary, we joyfully submit to Jesus as Lord because we know that He will always lead us well. Thankfully, we are not left without a divine example. Consider the joy and harmony of authority and submission that exists in the Trinity.
Authority and Submission in the Godhead:
Very briefly, consider how the Father sends the Son (Jn. 7:28). Not the other way around. And then, the Son willfully does whatever the Father tells him to do (Lk.12:49). Never is there a hint of the Father taking advantage of the Son. Nor is there any hint of the Son begrudging the Father’s instructions. All we see is loving authority from the Father and joyful submission from the Son. Complete harmony! So, if submission is a sign of weakness or being lesser in value (as some say) then how do we explain Jesus’ relationship to His Father? Both are God and yet the Son always willfully submits (Heb. 12:2)! So, human relationships where God ordains authority/submission flow from the Godhead and should be embraced by believers. In other words, submission is a very Christ-like thing to do. In order to follow Christ, we must learn to follow joyfully as He does.
Submission, Church Membership & The Danger of Independence:
Let’s look at the whole verse again. “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 (Heb. 13:17).”
When you mix in our sin nature to rebel against authority along with the reality that your pastors are human beings also who share that sin nature, we quickly realize what a challenge it is to obey verses like this. This is one of the many reasons why the New Testament applications of local church membership are so important. While there is no verse in the Bible that says, “you must officially join a local church”, there are dozens of situations in the New Testament that simply do not make sense without the principle of local church membership. Submission to pastors is one of those situations. If a person “forsakes the assembly”, how are they to obey the command to love one another or submit to pastors? They simply can’t. The “one another” commands are designed to be lived out in a local church. The command to submit to pastors is no different. Is every believer in the world called to submit themselves to every pastor in the world? No. When Paul says, “Wives, submit to your own husbands as to the Lord”, Paul is not saying that every wife should submit to every husband any more than he is teaching that every child should submit to every parent. Here is the point of Hebrews 13:17. There must be a clear relationship between a believer who willfully commits to a local church and submits to the pastors of that local church and pastors who willfully take on the joyful responsibility to watch over the souls of those who willfully submit themselves to those pastors. I do not believe that Jesus is going to hold me accountable for every person who attends a service at FBCF. This is why meaningful church membership is the only thing that makes sense in this verse and many others. Jesus will only hold me accountable for those who willfully enter into the relationship expressed in Hebrews 13:17 in membership. Peter would say “shepherd the flock of God that is among you” (1 Pet. 5:2). Anything short of obedience to this command brings confusion to pastors and leaves sheep vulnerable to false doctrine (Heb. 13:9).
Think about how rare it is these days for a Christian to actually have this type of relationship with a pastor. I would say precious few. There are four categories of claiming Christians with this command. I say “claiming” for a reason because there are many who do not obey the Lord to obey their leaders. Consider four categories of claiming Christians.
- Claiming Christians who do not attend any local church.
- Claiming Christians who do attend but never join.
- Claiming Christians who join a church but do not submit to the pastors.
- The faithful follower: The believer who joins a church and willfully submits themselves to men called by God to watch over their souls.
Let me be very clear. If you do not have a relationship with a pastor where you are willfully submitting to him and granting him permission to lead and correct you then you are in danger! If you feel this is overstated, then how do you explain Heb. 13:17? God commands every believer to be in submission to a pastor who sacrificially accepts his calling to watch over your souls. Many claiming Christians cannot say they have such a relationship with a pastor which exposes them to false beliefs and practices.
The command to submit to your pastors does not depend upon exterior traits like their age, experience, or education level. Saul was tall but the Lord rejected him because the Lord looks at the heart (1 Sam. 16:7). The motive for believers to submit to their pastors should be a desire to follow Jesus, who commands us to follow pastors whom He appoints as under shepherds, who must give account for your souls. How good it is of our father to grant us watchmen! Christians should embrace this relationship because it comes from an all-wise, good, loving Father. So, what about pastors? Who pastors the pastors?
A Plurality of Pastors:
The short answer is pastors pastor pastors. Notice the plural in the verse. “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 (Heb. 13:17).” Pastors are not exempt from submission any more than husbands or parents are. We all need accountability. This is why God, in His great wisdom, desires local churches to be managed and cared for (1 Tim. 3:4-5) by multiple pastors. I do not know of one person who argues that Churches should only have one deacon. For many of the same reasons, churches should not be pastored by one man. Consider just a few references.
“And when they had appointed elders (plural) for them in every church (singular), with prayer and fasting they committed them to the Lord in whom they had believed (Acts 14:23).”
“Now from Miletus he sent to Ephesus and called the elders (plural) of the church (singular) to come to him (Acts 20:17)”.
“Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus, to all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi, with the overseers (plural) and deacons (plural) (Philippians 1:1).”
“This is why I left you in Crete, so that you might put what remained into order, and appoint elders (plural) in every town (singular) as I directed you (Titus 1:5).”
I really hope you have enjoyed the book of Hebrews as much as I have. As you know I have been praying for God to bless our church for three years now. Please join me in prayer asking God to bless us with a healthy church and healthy pastors. May God bless you!