Prepared by Dr. John E. Marshall
Heb. 13:17a “Obey them that have the rule over you, and submit
yourselves:. . .”
I have the privilege of serving a congregation which is sensitive to the needs of its leaders. My people know how to treat a pastor, how to respond to his guidance. I thank God for them.
Obedience and submission to pastors is to issue voluntarily from a heart of love. Pastors are neither popes, dictators, nor “lords over God’s heritage” (1 P 5:3). Not being magistrates, they have no way to enforce compliance with what they preach.
As we obey a doctor when he speaks about physical health, a lawyer when he talks of laws, an accountant when he speaks about finances, a teacher when he talks about making good grades, we should similarly obey a pastor when he deals with the spiritual.
Heb. 13:17b “. . .for. . .”
“For” is the key word for interpreting this verse correctly. Obedience should be rendered only to pastors who faithfully fulfill the office. The title “Pastor” does not make one a pastor.
A man should hold the position of elder only if he meets the high standards of 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1: blameless, husband of one wife, having faithful children, vigilant, sober, holy, of good behavior, hospitable, not greedy, patient, able to teach.
“Able to teach” bears directly on the text before us. A pastor’s pulpit authority is limited to teachings in which he is “holding fast the faithful word as he hath been taught” (Titus 1:9). Pastors are to expound God’s laws as revealed in Scripture, not create their own laws. A congregation should obey their pastor as long as he is proclaiming Biblical directives.
Many mores, customs, and actions are not specifically dealt with in Scripture. A pastor is beholden to speak to such situations. This means he has to make certain applications of Scripture which are his own interpretations. A pastor should not expect his people to accept his views in such matters as divine law. Final deliberation on “debatable” issues must be left with each individual. However, even in these situations, the people should respect their pastor and weigh his words in light of Scriptural principles and guidelines.
If a pastor says, “Do not live together outside marriage,” obey him. If he says, “Do not watch R-rated movies,” prayerfully and carefully ponder his words. If the pastor says, “Nothing is wrong with sex outside marriage,” fire him.
Heb. 13:17c “. . .they watch for your souls,. . .”
Our forebears used the term “watching for souls” to describe what they deemed the greatest task in the world, the work of a pastor. We no longer use the term much, but its validity abides.
“Watch” is a picture drawn from shepherds. The word conjures up images of men who keep a sleepless vigil over the sheep.
Watching carries the idea of feeding the sheep, as well as tending, protecting, nurturing, healing, and seeking them. It involves a willingness to sacrifice for their well being, to enter into conflict against the wolf in their behalf.
Some people are flippant about their pastor, but he is given by God Himself to perform a sacred work. “Watching for souls” is a holy labor of utmost significance, yielding everlasting consequences. An eminent minister of the Gospel once said, “I continually hear the surges of eternity beating against my study door.”
A shepherd is a person through whom God’s choice blessings are conveyed to sheep. Do not take the local church pastor for granted. Others more flashy and impressive come to town from time to time, but the local pastor is the one who labors long to feed you the Word regularly, dedicates your babies, stands by your hospital bed, prays for you, performs your weddings, and says appropriate words at the graveside of your loved ones.
In olden days, when a pastor went to one place and stayed there, we better appreciated the elder and called him “Reverend,” because we revered him. He was often referred to as “Parson,” meaning “the” person, the most important individual in our community, and the most significant person in our lives outside our family. Today such a scenario too often sounds like a passage from a novel written long, long ago in a land far, far away.
Heb. 13:17d “. . .as they that must give account,. . .”
If a pastor ever wants to use this verse as a club to bludgeon his people, he had best watch out! For pastors, “must give account” contains thunderbolts, not words (Erasmus). It makes the verse a boomerang which recoils with a violent kick.
When a shepherd returns home from watching a flock in the field, he has to make a reckoning, by number and tale, of all the sheep which were entrusted to him. God’s sheep are owned by the Good Shepherd who is seated in the fold, Heaven. While His sheep wander in the field, Earth, away from the fold, He entrusts them to undershepherds, pastors. As each pastor comes to the fold, he must give an account of his handling of the sheep in the field.
Chrysostom deemed verse 17 a dreadful passage. He preached nearly every day. His messages were so powerful that some said, “Better the sun shine not than that Chrysostom preach not.” Nevertheless, even the golden-tongued orator said he never read this text without trembling.
Every pastor will give a reckoning of how he discharged his duty, and what became of the souls committed to his charge. I will someday stand before God and be evaluated for my dealings with each of you. Were any of you scattered through my neglect? Did the wolf snatch away some while I slept? Did you grow under my teaching? Such questions will rise up to confront me.
Heb. 13:17e “. . .that they may do it with joy, and not with
grief:. . .”
Nothing grieves a “watchful” pastor more than unmanageable sheep. If the flock is not listening or following, the shepherd feels his words and leadership are in vain. It is hard to keep the mouth open when the sheep’s ears are closed (Calvin).
Sometimes people act as if they do not care about the mental state of their pastor. A lack of submission in and of itself reveals a self-centered spirit. Thus it is no surprise when such people are not concerned about the grief they cause.
The pain of the ministry can be inexpressible. Jeremiah knew what it meant to be grieved by his people. He is rightly called the weeping prophet. His opponents could not silence him or thwart his ministry, for God was with him. “But even God could not prevent them from breaking the prophet’s heart” (MacArthur). Jeremiah lived a life of anguish due to the sinful, self-willed, people over whom God had appointed him.
Pastors are prime targets of Satanic attacks. They bear the brunt of his assaults. Lucifer knows if he can undermine the shepherd, many sheep will go down with him. When the shepherd falls, a flock on the hillside soon looks like a bomb has exploded in its midst. Some sheep are destroyed, others maimed, some limp the rest of their lives, many scatter, never to return or be seen again.
Satan wants pastors, and seeks primarily to sidetrack them by making them grow weary in well doing. For each pastor rendered ineffective by sex or money scandals, many more are nullified by a grief which makes one disheartened and careless. Sexmongers and money-grubbers are a bane to the ministry, but few, not nearly as numerous as the many grieving disheartened pastor who sadly whisper to themselves, “What’s the use?” and thus perform their ministries at a substandard level.
Heb. 13:17f “. . .for that is unprofitable for you.”
In addition to sending a pastor broken-hearted to the grave, church trouble keeps the morale of the flock extremely low. Burdened pastors find it difficult to lift the spirit of the sheep. Disobedience to a faithful pastor recoils on the disobedient. If you will not follow him, the sufferer will be yourself.
On the other hand, obedience and submission to a true pastor yields profit to the obedient and submissive. Your kindness to the pastor returns to you. A contented pastor, true to the Word, is an unspeakable profit to his sheep. When a pastor is glad, his people are glad.
Sheep have no guidance without a shepherd. Pastors have no focus without a congregation. Our lives are knit together by sovereign appointment. (You are stuck with me whether you like it or not.) Our spirits are merged in such a way our emotions are intertwined. “You will never find a truly happy pastor apart from a happy congregation, or a happy congregation apart from a happy pastor” (MacArthur).