Every true Christian wants to grow and to yield a harvest of spiritual fruit for the glory of God and the good of others—not to mention the benefit this accrues for us personally. The Christian also desires this for his local church. We desire to be a church that happily and holily brings in the harvest. But this requires a holy harmony between the congregation and its leaders. The author has this very idea in mind when he exhorts his readers here to yield to their leaders, who are also yielded. And when both congregation and leadership yield, the church will experience the joy of yielding fruit to the glory of God.
I suppose there are some pastors who, for selfish reasons, may relish the opportunity to exposit a verse like this. No doubt, an unscrupulous leader might abuse this verse to embark on a power quest. But I believe that such pastors are an aberration, at least in most truly evangelical and Reformed churches. I hope so, at least. In fact, for a thinking pastor, this verse should give us cause for serious pause because this verse addresses the spiritual leadership of the church as much as it does the congregation.
If this verse will be properly applied, if it will be properly lived out, it requires the yielding of both pastors and the people they lead. In other words, if pastors properly yield to Christ, and if those they lead properly yield to Christ, then the congregation will yield much fruit. I trust that this is the case generally with BBC. May today’s study, however, yield a greater yield as we all learn to yield some more!
We will study this important verse by addressing three ideas that arise from the text:
The Responsibility of Leaders
In short, the leaders are to give constant care to the congregation. The text opens with these well-known words: “Obey those who have the rule over you, and be submissive.” The KJV reads, “Obey them that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves.” The ESV translates it more simply: “Obey your leaders and submit to them.”
These are not two commands but two sides of the same exhortational coin. The writer is saying, “Obey your leaders by yielding to them.” There is an awful lot in that phrase to consider, but let’s begin with who these leaders are.
As we saw in our examination of v. 7, the word translated “rule over” is properly speaking those who “lead”—church leaders. In v. 7, he told them to remember their former leaders, and now he tells them to remember their current leaders.
The question naturally arises, why are these men not called “elders” (see also v. 24)? There may be a couple of reasons.
First, since he was writing to Hebrew Christians, who were facing immense pressure to return to old covenant Judaism, he may have deliberately avoided the word “elders” because of a negative connotation with most Jewish elders of the day. The Jewish elders that are addressed or mentioned in the four Gospel accounts are, for the most part, a blight on the spiritual landscape of Jewish religion in the time of Christ. And they don’t fare much better in the book of Acts. So perhaps he is avoiding the term to not confuse them. After all, for twelve chapters he has told them to leave the camp of Judaism, so he certainly does not here wish to say anything that might confuse them to yield to the spiritual leadership of apostate Jewish elders. So this is perhaps why he does not use this term.
It is worth noting that not all who are in positions of leadership in the church are worthy of being followed. As John Calvin remarked concerning this verse, “But it ought at the same time to be noticed that the [writer] speaks only of those who faithfully performed their office; for they who have nothing but the title, nay, who use the title of pastors for the purpose of destroying the Church, deserve little reverence and still less confidence.”1
There may, however, be another reason that he avoids the use of “elders.”
It may be that he speaks of “leaders” because, in fact, they were not elders. Rather, they may be those who were appropriately functioning as elders in the absence their duly appointed elders. It is possible that the writer was this church’s pastor, but that he was separated from the church, longing to be reunited with the sheep (see vv. 18–19). These Hebrew Christians were probably expelled from Rome under the reign of Claudius, and perhaps the writer (their pastor) and others who were also elders had stayed behind. But God had not left His flock without leadership.
Regardless, it is clear that the local church needs leadership. And it needs leadership that is characterised by submission to the Lord to such an extent that they are willing to lose sleep in exercising a shepherd’s care for the flock of God. In other words, for a local church to be spiritually healthy, it requires leaders (elders) who are appointed by God.
I believe that this verse is partially intended to help us to recognise the kind of leaders that he is speaking about, so let’s examine these. What characteristics are required of those who lead God’s people? That is, according to this text, what are the responsibilities of those who lead God’s people?
Leaders are to Be Submissive
As we saw above, merely having the title “leader,” “elder” or “pastor” is not sufficient. The kind of leaders the writer has in mind are those who are qualified according to God’s standards. And the first quality would be that of their own submissiveness to Christ. After all, if the leader is not submissive to the Chief Shepherd, he will prove a failure in leading His sheep.
The word “obey” carries the idea of being persuaded. Lane notes, “The specific quality of the obedience for which [obey] asks is not primarily derived from a respect for constituted structures of authority. It is rather the obedience that is won through persuasive conversation and that follows from it.”2 The congregation is commanded to believe their leaders. Clearly, the implication is that the leaders are teaching truth and that the congregation is to persuaded of the truth, to believe and obey the truth as taught by the leaders. The term “be submissive” appears only here in the New Testament. Literally, it means, “yield themselves truthfully.” The opening phrase therefore can be translated “be persuaded and therefore yielding.” Later, we will look at what this looks like, but for now let’s focus on the implication for leaders: they are to be believable. The congregation is to follow their credible leadership.
The leadership is as responsible to yield to the authority of God’s Word as is the congregation. Leaders, generally speaking, will only effectively persuade people to follow if they themselves are believable, if they are submissive to the Scriptures that they are telling others to submit to.
Submissive to Scripture
In v. 7 they were told to remember their former leaders who had “spoken the word of God to” them. It is the leader’s relationship with the Word of God that indicates his worthiness to lead. The former leaders were submissive to the Word of God and they therefore taught the Word of God. The current leadership obviously had the same commitment, and they must have shown the same submission.
Because these leaders were faithful to cling to God’s Word, because they were faithful to God’s gospel, they were worthy of being followed; in fact, it was because of this that it was safe to follow them.
Faithful to the Faith
Again, we need to understand that the submission enjoined here is submission to the Word of God. Leadership in a church does not have carte blanche authority to command on a whim. Rather, the authority rests in the Word of God. The context here is clearly that of the entire epistle: the gospel of Christ. The congregation is exhorted to submit to these leaders as they lead them in the path of gospel truth. Godly leaders are faithful to the gospel. This is hugely important. Those leading the church are responsible for faithfulness to God’s gospel.
Godly leaders are faithful to God’s Word (2 Timothy 3:15–4:2). Therefore, we can say that they will be submissive to God’s Word. And when this is the case, the sheep are safe. It is safe to submit to the submissive. The centurion whose servant Jesus heard understood that his authority depended on submission to authority (Matthew 8:5–10).
Leaders are to Shepherd
It is clear from this verse that these leaders were characterised as having a shepherd’s heart. Their demeanour was one of constant care for the congregation. The phrase “they watch out for your souls” speaks of their responsibility for the spiritual condition of the flock (see 10:29 and “souls”). This is a common theme in the New Testament.
Paul refers to this many times, perhaps most memorably in Acts 20:28. Peter also used this shepherding metaphor in 1 Peter 5:1–5. Jesus instructed Peter to shepherd His flock in John 21:15–17. And as the verse before us tells us, such spiritual shepherds will one day give an account of the condition of the Chief Shepherd’s flock. Spiritual leaders are deeply concerned about the souls of “their” people. As Morris notes, “We are to see here a reference to spiritual well-being. The leaders are concerned for the deep needs of their people, not simply for what lies on the surface.”3
No one should ever be appointed as a leader (elder/pastor) of God’s people who does not demonstrate a shepherd’s heart for the flock. And that means far more than his zeal to preach and corporately teach. That, of course, is a large part of it. But more is required: Availability, involvement in the nitty-gritty of the sheep is vital. There must be a demonstration for soul care of the sheep. Pressing the matter of the gospel and doing what is necessary to help the sheep to persevere. The hard work of preparing sheep for sacrifice to the glory of God is essential and nonnegotiable. Demonstrated love for the flock, evident commitment to their welfare, and tireless labour for the health of the sheep are nonnegotiables for those who will lead the church of God.
Perhaps I could sum this up by highlighting that shepherds are characterised, generally, by lovinginspection and by loyal exposition. We teach the Word, but we labour to ensure that the flock applies the Word to the eternal good of their souls.
Leaders are to Be Sleepless
The words “watch out” or “watch for” means, literally, “keep oneself awake” or “be awake.” The picture is that of leaders losing sleep due to their concern for the welfare of the sheep. They are like the shepherds to whom the gospel first came as they watched over their flocks by night (Luke 2:8). To use another metaphor, they are like the watchmen of whom the prophets spoke. Like a sentry who stays alert for the welfare of those he serves to protect, so the pastor is willing to lose sleep for the welfare of the church. Shepherds who look tired may be an indication of their diligent care for the congregation.
Some have suggested that the writer’s words regarding sleepless shepherds perhaps indicate some tension between the pastors and the people. That may or may not have been the case. Sadly, of course, this is often the case in churches. That is, pastors lose sleep because some member or some group in the church is heading for spiritual disaster and are bringing down others in their wake. The pastors respond with sacrificial care in order to help them to avert spiritual shipwreck, and yet some in the congregation resist. Any pastor who has sought to reform a church according to the Word of God knows this experience. This goes with the territory. Sleeplessness may occur because of resistance to biblical change and/or confrontation and correction.
But it is also true that pastors will be constantly caring to the point of sleeplessness even when all is well. He knows that, even when the sheep are resting well, dangers still lurk and therefore they are watchful, desiring the best for those for whom they are responsible. This is par for the course.
What the Sleepless Sacrifice
The man who will lead God’s people will not have the luxury of weekends for himself and his evenings will often be at the mercy of those who need him. Faithful leaders will probably suffer socially due to their commitment to attend to shepherding matters, often on a continual basis.
As much as they would love to spend down time having dinner with friends, often evenings are consumed with ministry needs such as counselling, discipling, etc. Such is the life of the faithful leader.
One of the most valuable lessons that I ever learned as a pastor was from my own pastor. Years ago, my wife and I arrived at his house to take him to the airport. He and his wife had a holiday booked in Florida, but when we arrived there he told me that they were not going to the airport; he needed to go to the hospital. A church member, expecting triplets, had been rushed to the hospital. We went to visit her and learned that she had lost one of the triplets. My pastor immediately cancelled his holiday so that he could stay to minister to the family. I never heard him or his wife complain about this. He had a shepherd’s heart and wanted to minister to grieving sheep.
Unfortunately, too many churches are “shepherded” by hirelings (John 10) with the result that the “hungry sheep look up and are not fed.”4 It takes hard work to have a healthy flock. Whiners need not apply.
Such an understanding of this weighty responsibility should go a long way towards cautioning any man from thoughtlessly enlisting as a leader. Such a responsibility is not for the faint of heart. As Oswald Sanders once said, “It doesn’t take much of a man to be a minister, but it does take all of him.”
All of the above is a fair synopsis of the responsibility of those called and equipped by God as the leaders of His people. Such a recognition of this responsibility paves the way for the main emphasis of this verse, which is an appeal to the congregation to help to make the work of the leaders easier, more rewarding and therefore a joy. Bruce comments, “The leaders carried a weighty responsibility; they were accountable for the spiritual well-being of those placed in their care…. The readers are [therefore] invited to cooperate with their leaders.”5
Let’s now examine what this cooperation should look like.
The Responsibility to the Leaders
In a word, the congregation is to cooperate with the leadership.
As we have seen, this is the heart of the text, though without the above understanding this perhaps will fall on deaf ears. In other words, once the congregation understands what is at stake, once it grasps the importance of what the leaders are charged to do, then most likely they will happily embrace this commandment. So, what is commanded?
Be Persuaded and Yield
As we have seen, “Obey and be submissive” carries the idea of being persuaded to yield. A parallel word picture is found in James 3:3 with reference to the bridle in a horse’s mouth by which they “obey” us in the sense of our being able to persuade them to turn. The writer is appealing to this congregation to trust and obey their leaders. He is appealing to them to allow themselves to be persuaded by their ministry.
Obviously, the persuasion in mind is their being persuaded towards the truth. This is not some exhortation to mindless, cult-like following. But assuming that these leaders are speaking the Word of God, the congregation is being called to follow them as they do so.
In the immediate context, the congregation is responsible to obey the biblical doctrine the leaders are proclaiming. Specifically, they are to follow their leaders away from Judaism to Christ. They must allow themselves to be persuaded of the gospel by their leaders. They are to be teachable; they are to yield to the Word proclaimed. Several observations should be made.
First, a large part of this obedience requires gathering. After all, to learn we must be where the teaching is taking place. Yes, I know all about TV, YouTube and podcasts. But this is no substitute for being shepherded in the context of a gathered flock.
Second, the text makes clear that the congregation is to obey and submit to these leaders and to these alone.
The words “for they” are emphatic and can be translated “for no other than they.” The implication is that these local leaders are alone accountable for the congregation and this should endear the congregation to them.
I find it significant that the brilliant author of this epistle is “not usurping their place as leaders of the flock that God has put under their shepherdly care. Rather he urges the reader to ‘Obey your leaders and submit to them.’”6
In other words, this writer—whoever he was—understood that local spiritual leadership is to be respected and followed . With reference to this, F. F. Bruce helpfully observes,
There would always be a tendency throughout the churches for visitors who came purveying new and esoteric doctrines to be regarded as much more attractive and interesting personalities than the rather humdrum local leaders, who never taught anything new, but were content with the conservative line of apostolic tradition. Nevertheless it was those local leaders, and not the purveyors of strange teaching, who had a real concern for the welfare of the church and a sense of their accountability to God in this respect.7
This does not apply only to “flashy” false teachers who gain the allegiance of the flock, but it equally applies to the danger of “faithful teachers” outside of the local church who have the hearts and minds of the congregation. This can be a real problem in our day.
I can remember in the early days of television and radio, when church services began to be televised and when Christian radio stations began to multiply. On a few occasions, I remember hearing my pastor (a faithful shepherd) bemoaning that church members seemed to be more loyal to such televised and radioed churches and preachers than their own. I remember him saying, “When you are in the hospital, I doubt that they will be visiting you. And when your world begins to fall apart, it won’t be the preacher on the radio coming to help you.” Having pastored for a while, I understand what he was saying.
Your elders may not be as gifted as many who write blogs and whom you listen to on a regular basis. And we have no desire to compete. In fact, we probably can’t. Yet we are the ones charged with the welfare of your souls. We may not be as gifted, but I do believe we are seeking to be faithful. Compare all you want. When it comes to giftedness, we probably do not match up. But compare our care for you. I think we win that one.
Third, trust is a huge part of being teachable. If you will trust your leaders enough to be persuaded to obey them, you will need to know them. Paul exhorted the same in 1 Thessalonians 5:12–13: “And we urge you, brethren, to recognize those who labour among you, and are over you in the Lord and admonish you, and to esteem them very highly in love for their work’s sake. Be at peace among yourselves.”
How can you trust whom you do not know? And how can you get to know them? By spending time with them. This requires your initiative as much as that of your leaders.
Fourth, it is the teaching that primarily the congregation is to obey. No leader has inherent authority. It is the Word that carries the weight. But please note that the word indeed carriesweight.
We need to be persuaded of the truth and sufficiency of Scripture. And when this Word is explained, we are responsible to obey it. We are responsible to be in a position where we can be persuaded, and we need a frame of mind and spirit to be persuaded. The Word of God is not to be trifled with and exception-alised away.
When the leaders exhort you from Scripture to gather, then gather. I remember visiting a church several years ago. During the service, one of the elders welcomed some new members into membership. He called them on stage and straightforwardly asked them, “Will you submit to your elders?” He fleshed was this out in a number of ways, at one point specifically asking, “When the elders call the church to gather for worship, will you gather?”
When the leaders exhort you from Scripture to pray with one another, then pray.
When the leaders exhort you from Scripture to make disciples, then make disciples.
When the leaders exhort you from Scripture to repent, then repent.
When the leaders exhort you from Scripture to practice the ordinances, then do so.
When the leaders exhort you from Scripture to reconcile with your aggrieved brother, then reconcile.
When the leaders exhort you from Scripture to love your wife or to respectfully follow your husband, then do so.
When your leaders exhort you from Scripture to join the church, then join.
When you leaders exhort you from Scripture to believe the gospel, then believe the gospel.
Do you the point? Are you persuaded? Then yield. As Richard Phillips, a seasoned pastor, comments, “The greatest gift a Christian can give to a spiritual leader is a readiness to believe and obey God’s Word.”8
Be Considerate and Yield
The writer gives a reason for his exhortation: “for they watch out for your souls, as those who must give account.” This provides a major reason why the congregation should allow themselves to be persuaded to yield. That is, when you consider the constant care of your pastors, why would you want to kick against them? As Calvin so succinctly put it, “As they are to give an account of us to God, it would be disgraceful for us to make no account of them.”9
If congregations gave due consideration to the responsibility of their leaders, then no doubt they would more readily yield to them. Of course, this assumes that the leaders were providing the constant care they were called to. But if they were, the congregation should consider that the welfare of the flock was tied to their response to the leadership.
The text makes clear that these leaders will give an account. Most interpret this in an eschatological category, and rightly so. Even if the idea is first that these leaders would one day report to the absent leaders for whom they were temporarily filling in, no doubt the Scriptures teach that shepherds will give account of the condition of the sheep to the Chief Shepherd. The point I want to make is that godly and faithful shepherds want to present healthy and blameless sheep to the Shepherd. This is not an exhortation for the congregation to “behave” so that the pastors look good. Not at all. Rather, it is an appeal for their own welfare, as we will see more clearly perhaps in a moment.
The point to be made is that the congregation has leadership that they can trust for their welfare and they need to keep this in mind and faithfully yield. Of course, this raises some important issues.
First, it assumes that the congregation desires to be a heathy one—healthy according to God’s standards.
Second, it implies that leaders/pastors are necessary for the health of the church.
Third, it clearly teaches that church members, by nature of being members, are accountable members.
Perhaps we can summarise this point by saying that there are at least three principles that the congregation needs to consider when it comes to yielding to its leaders.
First, a congregation needs to consider the authority of its leaders under God. We yield because God has delegated authority to our elders. Second, the congregation needs to consider its leaders’ activity as prescribed by God. We submit to our elders because they are doing what God has called them to do. This, the congregation must consider its accountability to its leaders, as its leaders are accountable to God.
This latter point is important both for the congregation and for the leadership to constantly consider.
Faithful leaders and elders will give an account for their shepherding. Those who lead are responsible to go after the straying and to help restore the repentant. More positively, they are accountable before God to faithfully feed the flock the Word of God (2 Timothy 4:1–2). If they fail here, they fail everywhere.
All of this should motivate the congregation to consider what is at stake when it comes to how it responds to its leaders. To resist their ministry, to turn a deaf ear to them, to refuse to even gather to learn from them, to fail to obey the Word of the Lord proclaimed by them, is detrimental, not only to the leaders as individuals but to the congregation as well. In other words, this is not an appeal for the readers to feel sorry for their leaders. He is not saying, “These guys have such a hard life, so please yield to them.” Though no doubt a congregation should yield to its leaders driven partially by love for them, nevertheless it seems that there is an appeal here to their own self-interest: “These guys want what is best for you, so yield to them.” The goal is the perfection of the congregation. The leader’s desire is that of Paul’s: “Now may the God of peace Himself sanctify you completely; and may your whole spirit, soul, and body be preserved blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Thessalonians 5:23). Again, “Him we preach, warning every man and teaching every man in all wisdom, that we may present every man perfect in Christ Jesus” (Colossians 1:28).
And so, to the extent that the congregation yields to biblical leadership, the congregation will yield much fruit. After all, in God’s creation economy, healthy things grow.
Be Joyful and Yield
The final phrase substantiates what has been said above. The congregation is to yield to its leaders in such a way that they will give an account “with joy and not with grief.” “The writer is eager for those leaders to have the joy of a willing and loyal response from the men and the women they serve.”10
Again, if the congregation properly loves its leadership, causing them grief will not be their pursuit. Rather, the congregation will consider the ministry of their leaders and will desire to bring them joy. And if the leaders are joyful, then most likely so will be the ones they are leading. Perhaps this is what is behind the caveat “for that [causing leaders grief] would be unprofitable to you.” In other words, if the congregation gives its leadership grief, there will be absolutely no advantage to them; in fact, it will be greatly to their disadvantage. As Dods notes, “Your unwillingness to listen to them means that you are out of sympathy with their teaching and that can do you no good.”11
So, what is this “joy” all about?
Paul exhorted the Philippian believers to cling to the truth and said that, if they did so, he would “rejoice in the day of Christ that I have not run in vain or laboured in vain” (Philippians 2:16). Paul would rejoice because those he shepherded persevered to the end. He said something similar to believers in Thessalonica: “For what is our hope, or joy, or crown of rejoicing? Is it not even you in the presence of our Lord Jesus Christ at His coming? For you are our glory and joy” (1 Thessalonians 2:19–20). To the Corinthian church, Paul expressed his affection and concern when he said that he had no desire to “have dominion over their faith,” but rather he saw himself (and his coworkers) as “fellow workers for your joy” (2 Corinthians 1:24).
In these examples (and there are many more), we see that godly leaders desire those they lead to obey the Word ministered by them so that they will yield spiritual fruit resulting in joy. In fact, Jesus said this very thing when speaking of the spiritual growth of believers. His desire was that we obey His Word (“abide”), which would result in His joy being in us (John 15:11).
The point to take home is that, when the congregation obeys the Word proclaimed by its leadership, the congregation experiences joy and this brings joy to the leaders.
The text is not merely a suggestion but rather it is an imperative. “Let us” bring them joy is what he is saying. When you joyfully obey the Word then they will be joyful. On the other hand, those who resist the biblical appeals of the leadership will not have joy. And those who do not have joy will not bring joy to others. Calvin emphasises the importance of this admonition when he writes, “We cannot be troublesome or disobedient to our pastors without hazarding our own salvation.”12
The grief that the writer mentions here is a strong word. It speaks of an inner agony. The word is used this way in Mark 7:34, Romans 8:23 and 2 Corinthians 5:2, 4. In each case there is intensity of feeling, strength of desire. And when it comes to the realisation of resistance to his biblical ministry, he experiences a “grief often known only to a pastor, his family, and to God.”13
MacArthur is right when he observes, “One of the saddest tragedies that can come to a pastor is that of spending years of his life working with those who do not grow, do not respond to spiritual leadership, and do not walk in the truth.”14
The Results of Mutual Responsibility
In conclusion, we must see that, when the leaders and the congregation they lead faithfully carry out their responsibilities, everyone wins. We are all advantaged. Specifically, we all finish the race. We all receive the crown. We all persevere to the end. We all sail safely into the harbour of heaven, having been the recipient of the winds of God’s grace. As veteran pastor Kent Hughes writes, the congregation is “to be eager to obey and to submit to authority. Such ought to be one’s first impulse when the leader and the people are right with God. Such churches will sail well, because all hands will be coordinated to point the ship in a single direction.”15
Let’s continue to allow ourselves to be persuaded by God’s Word and experience the yield of a wonderful crop of grace and growth to the glory of God. Yielded and yielding. This is both our responsibility and our rejoicing.
Doug van Meter
(Brackenhurst Baptist Church)