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. (Hebrews 13:17 ESV)
That passage of Scripture is one that pastors do not like to preach, though they fantasize often about doing so. It is a passage that has been both abused by church leaders and ignored by church members. In a time when the church is plagued by individualism and rampant immaturity it is a passage that does not sit well with many. It is uncomfortable. But it is a passage that if looked at properly, can lead to increased joy and unity in the church.
Before I talk more about this passage, or at least one aspect of it, I want to start by saying what this passage is not. It is not a blanket statement that as a member of a church you must obey everything your pastors say and you must accept everything they speak as inspired truth. In fact, Paul writing to the Galatians had strong words for the teachers and leaders that were troubling the people there with false teaching. This is what he said there:
But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed.(Galatians 1:8-9 ESV)
The Scriptures are clear that false teaching, false Gospel, and ungodly living is reason to rebuke a leader with 2-3 witnesses and to flee from that church if need be (1 Tim. 5:19). If a pastor leads you into sin or into false teaching you do not obey him, you do not follow him! Period!
So what is that passage in Hebrews talking about?
It is that which I want to address. As a Christian you have the responsibility to stand up for the truth of the Gospel with the Scriptures as your ultimate authority. And it is obvious that as your leaders lead you in the foundational, clear-cut truths of Scripture you should obey them. But what about the areas of every day life in the church that are not as clearly lined out? What about those things over which there may be various opinions? What about the gray areas?
It is my aim to encourage you to stand firm in the Gospel, ground yourself on the word of God, and then follow your pastors into the gray areas.
What is the gray?
What I mean by the gray is this: The grey is those things in the life of the church that are applications of Gospel truth and implications of Scriptural mandates which may not be clearly spelled out in Scripture. It is those necessary things in the life of the church which are matters of wisdom, things which may not necessarily be proven or refuted in a black-and-white manner from Scripture but are deduced from Scripture or hinted at in Scripture. Matters of application.
Gray areas in the life of the church are those things which you may have an opinion about – an opinion which you may even feel strongly is correct. Maybe it has to do with music choice, service style, preaching, leadership style, church government, kids’ ministry, ministry initiatives, etc. None of these things are necessarily unimportant, but they may qualify as gray areas.
You have the responsibility as a congregation to maintain a faithful Gospel ministry, faithfulness to God’s word comes first of all, but then in the day-to-day you are called to follow your pastors into the gray – to trust them even when you don’t agree because you know that in the black-and-white of the Gospel they are faithful. A failure to “let them do this” makes leadership, which is already a burden, a grief instead of a joy.
As a pastor I know what it is like to keep watch over souls with groaning and a little bit of nausea. It is not fun. I want to be held accountable for preaching the Gospel faithfully and caring for people’s souls. And I also want to hear the insights and views of those in my care. But pastors have to make decisions. They have to take biblical truth and make specific applications that they are convinced will be for God’s glory and the eternal good of their people. Every pastor knows what it is like to make those decisions with groaning and not with joy, because we know how it will be received. It is a profound burden.
It is not your job to judge the motives of your pastors, but simply to obey them insofar as they are not leading you astray from the Gospel. Your pastors are sinners saved by the same Gospel as you. They make mistakes. They too are being sanctified. There are many gray areas that you will follow your pastors into that you won’t agree with and you may be right! But it is a gray area. So you follow. You follow and when you hear your brothers and sisters begin to complain, you stop them. And guess what? As time goes on you may find that what you thought was “the gray” was not so gray after all. As you mature you may come to see that want was once unclear or even faulty to you, was actually just what you needed.
Faithful pastors are jealous for the souls of the people in their care. Like an overtly cautious father who doesn’t let their child go into the deep end just yet, they may falter and disappoint, holding back a little too long. But know they love you.
For the faithful pastor the things in the gray are not unimportant – just like they are not unimportant for you – but the difference that you need to acknowledge is that your pastors will stand before God and give an account for your soul. They will be held responsible for how they led in the gray areas. If your pastors have any awareness of their calling, any idea of the God whom they serve, any knowledge of the Father over whose children they watch – then you need to know they carry a heavy, heavy burden.
In closing, notice that the writer of Hebrews does not call us to begrudging obedience toward our leaders. Where we have the attitude, “Of course I will submit, but I need you to know that I don’t like it!” That is the posture that makes leading a grief for your pastors. Rather, have the humility to recognize that it is God that has made them you leaders (Acts 20:28), therefore, pray that God will give them wisdom and then trust that He will (James 1:5). Be aware of your own sin and immaturity (1 Cor. 10:12) and trust in the Great Shepherd who never fails – though his under-shepherds often do. And finally, thank God that you have pastors who love you enough to preach the Gospel to you and to put up with the stress and pain and spiritual struggle of church leadership. Marvel that by God’s grace you have men in your life who are willing to be held accountable for your soul! Pray for them. Stand firm on the Gospel. And then follow them into the gray.