03 Oct Hebrews 23: Obedience to church leaders
17 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. 18 Pray for us, for we are sure that we have a clear conscience, desiring to act honorably in all things. 19 I urge you the more earnestly to do this in order that I may be restored to you the sooner.
Today’s sermon is an awkward one for me to preach. Because here is what I am going to tell you. “Church, you have to obey me because it is to your advantage that you do so.” And I am not exaggerating. The author of Hebrews literally commands his audience to obey their leaders and submit to them for their good. And I thought to myself, “How am I supposed to preach this passage without feeling awkward?” Is anyone feeling awkward already? I am! I think there are many reasons why we feel uncomfortable hearing this command. Let me list out three reasons. First, it is counterintuitive to our culture. We lived in a very individualistic western society. Which means we do not like other people telling us what to do. We are educated and trained to think critically and decide for ourselves. And that’s good. It teaches us to be smart and independent. But the downside of it is that we have the tendency to reject authority. We become very suspicious of anyone who tries to tell us what to do. So, when we hear the command to obey our leaders and submit to them, we immediately think, “Why should I obey them? What rights do they have to tell me how I should run my life? This is my life and I get to decide what I do with it.” That’s the first reason. The second and third reasons are more personal.
Second, we have seen many examples of toxic church leadership. It is not a secret that many leaders in the church abuse their authority. Just look at what happened in the last few years. We saw a well-known pastor who had an adulterous relationship and kept it a secret. From the outside, it looked like he was being used mightily by God. No one suspected him. And one day, he was wildly exposed, and the world found out about it. We saw a well-known pastor who used the church’s money to fund his lavish lifestyle, and he was sent to jail because of it. We saw a pastor who used his spiritual authority to abuse the people in his church and he got fired. So, the news of sex scandals, financial corruption and spiritual abuses among church leadership is not shocking anymore. It has become too common for us. We see examples of toxic church leadership all around us. And it not only affects the church with bad doctrines. I mean, I wish I can say, “You know what’s the problem? The problem is that they do not have the right doctrines. If they have good doctrines, these issues won’t happen.” But that’s not true. There are many church leaders with good doctrines who fell spectacularly. A few months ago, I started listening to a new podcast called, “The rise and fall of Mars Hill.” Mars Hill Church was one of the most influential churches in the world a decade ago. The church’s video and audio sermons were constantly at the top of the most popular sermons. But everything fell apart in 2014. And the podcast told the story of what happened behind the scenes. It is an extremely sobering reality for me. Because Mars Hill was one of the churches that have good doctrines. Our church would probably affirm 90% of Mars Hill’s doctrines. And yet the church had an extremely abusive leadership. That’s the second reason.
Third, we know people who are personally affected by toxic church leadership. One of the main reasons many Christians left the church is because of their painful experiences with church leadership. We know people who were mistreated by their pastors. We know people who had their trust shattered by their pastors. We know people who were bullied by their pastors. We know people who were used by their pastors to advance the pastors’ personal agendas. And they walked away from the church because of it. And here is what is extremely heartbreaking. Many of them never return to the church. And those who return, they struggle for years to trust church leadership again. This is a real story that happened to real people in our lives. Or maybe it is your story. You experienced firsthand how devastating a toxic church leadership can be. This is why you cringe when you hear that you have to obey your leaders and submit to them.
But here is what I want us to do today. I want us to put aside whatever subjective experiences we might have with church leadership. Some of you might have a very positive experience with church leadership and that’s awesome. But whatever subjective experiences we might have, let’s put it aside for the next 45 minutes. Let us look at the objective truth of what the Bible teaches us about church leadership. Because the Bible paints a glorious picture of what church leadership should look like. And it is not a one-way street where the leaders tell the congregation what to do and they simply obey. It is more like a dance where church leaders have their parts to play, and the congregation have their parts to play. And when both do their parts properly, what we see is a beautiful dance that glorifies God. And that is my desire for us. I want us to be a church that embraces this beautiful leadership dance that glorifies God.
Let me give you the context of our passage first. This passage is the last instruction that the author of Hebrews gives to his audience. Remember that this letter is written to Jewish Christians who were persecuted because of their faith. And the author tells them, “Don’t walk away from Jesus. Jesus is better than everything you left behind. Don’t go back to your old life. It is foolish to do so because only Jesus can give you access to God and eternal life.” And at the end of the letter, the author appeals to his audiences to take his word of exhortation seriously. The author hopes that he would be able to come to them soon. However, he is not sure whether that would be possible or not. So, he tells the Jewish Christians to look to their church leaders for guidance. Because the leaders in the church are appointed by God to help them persevere in faith and preserve their souls. We need to get this. The main goal of church leadership is not to make the church famous and big but to help people love Jesus and persevere in faith. This is the main goal of church leadership.
I separate this sermon into three parts: Pastors’ responsibilities; Congregation’s responsibilities; The Great Shepherd.
Hebrews 13:7 – Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith.
Before we go any further, we must define who these leaders are. Because we are commanded to obey our leaders and submit to them. Who are these leaders? Is the author talking about every leader in the church? Does this include our ministry team leaders or our MC leaders? I don’t think so. I believe what the author has in mind is not every leader in the church but specific leaders. He is specifically referring to the elders in the church, or what we call pastors. He is talking about those who teach the word of God. And in the New Testament, this responsibility is specifically given to the pastors in the church. So, the author is telling us, “Church, I want you to obey your pastors and submit to them.” Which mean, our pastors do have some power and authority over our lives. To which, something inside of us immediately kicks in. Why? Because we have seen how power corrupts people. We have seen many pastors in the church abused their power.
So, let me acknowledge the discomfort you might feel at the thought of obeying and submitting to your pastors. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Because if we understand church leadership rightly, leadership in the gospel is always servant leadership. Leadership in the church exists not for the good of the pastors but for the good of the church. The purpose of church leadership is to help the people in the church grow in Christ and sustain their faith. The goal is to help the church to look to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith. This means that Jesus’ authority is absolute and unconditional. But pastors’ authority in the church is conditional; it is not absolute. Despite what many people teach, the Bible never commands unconditional obedience to pastors. The Bible do not teach unconditional obedience but discerning obedience to pastors. And to the degree that pastors reflect Jesus and his word, to that degree we submit to them. Let me put it a different way. To the degree pastors live out their God-given responsibilities, to that degree the congregation joyfully submit to their leadership. Pastors’ authority is conditional, not absolute. So, what are the responsibilities of pastors?
Look at the first part of Hebrews 13:7 – Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith. The first responsibility, teach the word of God rightly. Note, I use the word rightly intentionally. Because there are many pastors today who no longer teach the word of God rightly. I mean, they are still preaching every Sunday and they use some verses from the Bible. But they are not faithful to the message of the Bible. They simply use the verses in the Bible to preach their own thoughts. Listen to me carefully. This is crucial. Pastors are not called to preach a relevant sermon. Pastors are not called to preach a self-help sermon. Pastors are not called to preach an interesting sermon. Pastors are not called to preach a motivational sermon. Pastors are called to preach the word of God. That’s it. And I think this is where many people get it wrong. When people come to church, many expect uplifting, encouraging, engaging, funny and helpful sermons. I am not saying that those are wrong, but I am saying that is not the main responsibility of pastors. The responsibility of pastors is not to entertain people but to tell people that they need to repent of their sins and put their faith in the perfect work of Jesus Christ. Now, I realize that this is not a good church marketing strategy. People do not like it. People want their pastors to give them the 10 steps on how to overcome financial difficulties in life. And that is why many pastors change their message. Rather than teach the word of God, they cater to people’s palate.
A few years ago, I attended a church conference where one of the speakers said, “Pastors are called to serve the people in the church. How do you know if servants are doing a good job or not? By the satisfaction of the people they are serving. If pastors do not meet the need of people and people are unsatisfied, then pastors fail at their job.” It makes sense, right? When I first heard it, I nodded my head and said amen. But then I got home and realized how bad it was. Here is the problem. Yes, pastors are called to serve the church. But pastors are not servants of the church. Pastors are servants of God. Pastors are not called to please people. Pastors are called to please God. And the Bible is abundantly clear. Pastors are not called to preach to satisfy people’s palate. Pastors are called to preach the word of God rightly. Pastors who do not preach the word of God rightly have no business being pastors. Pastors are not only people with authority but people under authority. And their authority is tied to their faithfulness to teach the word of God rightly. So, if I stand here and start teaching my own thoughts and opinions that are not written in the Bible, you should not listen to me. Am I clear?
Next, look at the second part of Hebrews 13:7 – Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith. The second responsibility, live the word of God faithfully. This mean, it is not enough for pastors to teach the word of God rightly. Their lives must show that they are living the word of God faithfully. We have to be able to look at their lives and imitate their faith. It is not enough for pastors to be good preachers; they must live in a manner worthy of the gospel. That is why if we look at the qualification of pastors in the Bible, the Bible puts a high emphasis on the characters of the pastors and not so much the gift of the pastors. Look at what Paul writes to Timothy. 1 Timothy 3:2-3 – Therefore an overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. In the list of qualifications for pastors, there is only one set of skills that pastors must have. And that is the ability to teach the Bible. The rest of the list is about characters. Paul puts high emphasis on the characters of pastors. And these qualifications must not be compromised. We must have high standards for our pastors’ characters because the Bible demands us to do so.
There should be high standards for pastors in the church. Any sin is serious, but sins committed by pastors are particularly lethal. Any wrong doctrine is problematic, but a wrong doctrine among pastors is deadly. The spiritual health of pastors affects the spiritual health of the church. That is why it is extremely important for pastors to pay careful attention to themselves. A moral failure of pastors causes great damage to the church. And it is happening all the time. Almost every time well-known pastors fell into a moral failure, they came out and said, “I was leading from the place of empty.” In other words, they have forgotten to live out what they preached. They are too busy teaching the word of God to others and pay no attention to their own lives. And this is extremely dangerous. Because the fall of pastors heavily damages those who looked to them for guidance. I am not saying that pastors ought to be perfect. If that is the case, no one can be a pastor. Every pastor is also a sinner saved by grace. Every pastor has weaknesses. If we look to our pastors as the ultimate example of the Christian life, we will be disappointed. Only Jesus can carry that weight. Jesus is the example that we should look to. However, weaknesses and imperfections are no excuses for unfaithfulness. Pastors are not the example but an example of the Christian life. Pastors should be a living example of how the gospel transforms life. They should be an example of repentance and growth in the gospel. So, when we look at our pastors’ life, we should see a model of gospel-shaped life. They are quick to acknowledge and repent of sins. They are growing in godliness. They are not a superhero, but they are running hard after Jesus. They are not perfect, but they live in a manner worthy of imitation. And we imitate them as they imitate Christ. Let’s move to the third responsibility.
Hebrews 13:17a – Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. The third responsibility, keep watch over the people of God. The word keep watch means to stay awake at night. It does not mean that we can call our pastors at 3 AM since they are not allowed to sleep at night. If you try to call me at 3 AM, I won’t answer your call. My phone is on silent at night. I used to have my ringtone on at night in case of an emergency. But then one night, someone called me at 3 AM while I was asleep. I looked at it and it was from a private number. I was half awake when I picked up the phone. And the moment I said hello, this man yelled at me, cursed at me and threatened to kill me. It only took me 10 seconds to be fully awake. He said he would kill me if I continued to date his daughter. And I thought, “But I am single. How can I date your daughter if I am single? Did I unintentionally date a girl without knowing about it?” After listening to him cursed at me for 5 minutes, I figured out what happened. His daughter dated a pastor’s son. And this pastor is a pastor at another ROCK Church. And the name of the pastor’s son is Yosua. So close, yet so far. So I told him, “Yes I am pastor’s son and my dad is the pastor of ROCK Church in Sydney. But my name is not Yosua, it is Yosia.” And he hung up on me. Ever since that night, my phone is always on silent.
But the idea behind keeping watch is not to stay up at night but to be vigilant. Pastors must always think about how they can help the people in the church to grow in faith. And the image that the Bible gives to describe the relationship between pastors and their congregation is not one of dictatorship but a shepherd and his sheep. The way a shepherd keeps watch over his sheep is the way pastors keep watch over the congregation. So, when a shepherd sees a lion messing with his sheep, a good shepherd would run after the lion, struck it, get the sheep out of its mouth, grab the lion by the beard and kill it. And I am speaking metaphorically here. Do not expect me to kill a lion for you. Even to kill a mouse, I needed my bb gun. But pastors know that their life is about so much more than them. Pastors keep watch over their congregation. God has appointed pastors to care for the congregation, to pray for the congregation, to weep with the congregation, to counsel the congregation, and to protect the congregation from false teachers. It is my responsibility as your pastor to keep watch over your souls. But it also means that it is my responsibility to rebuke you and warn you if I see anything contrary to the word of God. Sometimes, the best thing I can do as your pastor is to save you from you. And it is not easy. Especially for people like me who have the tendency to please people. Coming to you and rebuking you in person is not my cup of tea. But it is what I am called to do to keep watch over your souls. Let’s continue.
Hebrews 13:17a – Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. The fourth responsibility, give an account to God. Pastors must give an account to God on how they watch over the souls of the people God entrusted to their care. This is a very sobering thought for me. One day, I will stand in the judgement of Christ, and I must give an account of how well I watch over your souls. On that day, Jesus will not ask, “How big are your church? How many people subscribe to your YouTube channel? How many followers do you have on Instagram?” but “Are you shepherding the sheep I have entrusted to you? Are you teaching them my word rightly? Are you living my word faithfully for them to witness and imitate? Did you point them to me and my glory or did you point them to you and your glory?” I must give an account before the all-knowing all-powerful God. And there is absolutely nothing I can hide from him. The church is ultimately God’s sheep and not my sheep. The sheep belong to God and God is simply using me as an extension of his hand to lead his sheep to him. So, these are the pastor’s responsibilities.
Now, before I list out your responsibilities, think about this for a bit. If the pastors do their responsibilities well, if the pastors are teaching the word of God rightly, living the word of God faithfully, keeping watch over your souls, and do it in such a way that they know they are accountable before God, don’t you want to follow their lead? And this is the picture of church leadership that the Bible gives us. The Bible does not give us a picture of forced submission but joyful submission to church leadership. When pastors do their responsibilities, the congregation responds with glad obedience. This is the dance of church leadership. As pastors follow Christ, congregation follow their pastors.
Hebrews 13:17-19 – 17 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. 18 Pray for us, for we are sure that we have a clear conscience, desiring to act honorably in all things. 19 I urge you the more earnestly to do this in order that I may be restored to you the sooner.
So, what are the responsibilities of congregations? Three things. First, obey and submit to your pastors. And again, let me make it very clear. Your obedience to your pastors is not unconditional; It is conditional. It is not blind obedience; It is discerning obedience. Conditional upon what? Listen to this carefully. To the extent that your pastors are teaching the word of God rightly, to that extent you are responsible to obey their teaching and submit to them. In other words, you obey and submit to your leaders as they obey and submit to Christ. This is crucial. This means that it is not enough for me to say to you, “Follow me and imitate me.” I have to say, “Follow me and imitate me as I follow and imitate Christ.” So, you do not obey me unconditionally. You do not follow me blindly. My authority as your pastor only goes as far as my submission to Christ’s authority. The Bible never encourages blind submission but intelligent submission. It requires you to think and discern.
For example, let’s say that one day I get a revelation that Bob must marry Sally. And I tell Bob that he must marry Sally or he is disobeying God. What should Bob do? Should Bob obey me? Maybe not. Bob must pray about it and go back to the word of God. What does the Bible have to say about a matchmaking pastor? Is there even one? There isn’t. At that point, Bob is free to disobey me. Because there is nothing in the Bible that tells Bob that he must marry Sally. In fact, the best thing Bob can do is to move to a different church. Because what I am doing is I am abusing my authority as a pastor. I am using God for my personal agenda. Is it possible that I get an impression from God that Bob should try to get to know Sally? Absolutely. I’m a charismatic. But it is very wrong to equate what I believe God is impressing on my heart with the written word of God. And the same applies to the grey area of life, where the Bible is not black and white. I can provide loving wisdom and biblical guidance to help you make decisions, but I cannot make those decisions for you. I am not God. You have to make those decisions for yourself. I can’t equate my word with God’s word. This is how false doctrines came to be. People begin to equate their own thoughts and words with God’s word. And the New Testament warns us that false teachers come from within us. They are among us. It is happening. And we should not listen to them. In fact, we should kick them out of the church.
So, listen. You are to obey and submit to your pastors as they obey and submit to the word of God. I love the way Alistair Begg puts it. “We are to submit to leadership while it is exercised in the name of Christ, when it is according to the direction of Christ, and when it is by the rule of the word of Christ.” When your pastors teach the word of God rightly and live out the word of God faithfully, your obedience and submission to them is ultimately obedience and submission to God. Your pastors are simply a means by which you submit to God. It is not about their authority but God’s authority over your lives. Are we clear on that? So, if I tell you to do anything contrary to the word of God, you should disobey me. But if I tell you to do what is written in the word of God, you should obey me. And it leads me to the second responsibility of the congregation.
Look at the second half of Hebrews 13:17 – 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. Second, make your pastors happy. Some of you think that I am joking. Did you read that phrase, “Let them do this with joy…”? It means that it is your responsibility to make your pastors happy. How? Here is how. Send them lots of food, especially homemade food. That’s how you make them happy. Okay, that’s not true. That is how you make your pastors fat. And if he gets fat, he is unhappy with himself because his suits do not fit anymore. So, what does it mean to make your pastors happy? What the author implies is that your obedience and submission to the word of God are what make your pastors happy. It is certainly true in my pastoral experience.
Do you know what makes me really happy as your pastor? It is when I see your obedience to the word of God. I am happy whenever people text me to say how blessed they are by my sermons. I smile whenever I receive a surprise package from you. I rejoice whenever people take me out to eat not because they need help but because they appreciate my ministry. Those things are great but if I am not careful, it just fuels my ego as your pastor. But my greatest joy as your pastor is when I see or hear people tell me that they make the hard decision to obey God’s word despite what it cost them. When I hear how people share the gospel with their co-workers and neighbours. When I hear how people are eager to learn more about the Bible not because they want to boast about it but because they are in love with the God of the bible. It is your obedience to the word of God that brings me the most joy. The opposite is also true. Do you know what saddens me the most as your pastor? It is not the long hours of counselling. It is not the endless zoom meetings. It is not the endless sermon preparations. It is when I see you live in disobedience to the word of God. It is when you know what the word of God said but chooses to ignore it and walk your own ways. That’s what breaks my heart the most.
Then the author tells us, “Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.” In other words, he is saying, “Don’t break your pastors’ heart. But make them happy by your obedience and submission to the word of God. It is actually to your advantage that your pastors are happy.” I am not sure if any of you ever think of it this way. But it is to your advantage that your pastors are happy. You do not want grumpy tired sad pastors. They would be of no advantage to you. They won’t be able to do their responsibilities well if they are sad. So, answer these questions. Do you want your pastors to consistently preach the word of God rightly? Do you want your pastors to consistently live out the word of God faithfully? Do you want your pastors to consistently keep watch over your souls vigilantly? Then do not make them do their responsibilities with groaning. Make them joyful by your obedience and submission to them. But do not get me wrong. You do not obey them simply to make them happy but because it is the reflection of your obedience and submission to Christ. The greatest gift you can give your pastors is your readiness to obey and submit to the word of God.
Next. Hebrews 13:18-19 – 18 Pray for us, for we are sure that we have a clear conscience, desiring to act honorably in all things. 19 I urge you the more earnestly to do this in order that I may be restored to you the sooner. Third, pray for your pastors. Church, your pastors desperately need your prayers. And I hope and pray that verse 18 is true of me. I want to pastor in such a way that I have a clear conscience and desire to act honorably in all things. But here is the problem. I fail more often than I would like to admit. Maybe you do not realize this. Yes, you must hold your pastors to higher standards. The Bible demands it. But it is easy to forget that your pastors are also sinful people struggling with sin just like you. They are as weak, as needy, as fragile as you. Your pastors experience the same temptations, the same trials as you. But more is expected of them. Sometimes, what you see of them is them at their best on Sunday, behind the pulpit. But you do not see them on Monday morning where they are struggling to find their rest and joy in Christ alone. How do I know? Because that’s the story of my own heart. On Sunday, I can tell you to find your joy and acceptance in Christ’s approval of you alone. But on Monday, I wonder if I preach good enough for you to like my sermon. I wonder if I preach well enough for you to understand my sermon. I wonder how many people are actually listening to the sermon. My heart is extremely prone to wander. And there are so many times where I do the right things for the wrong reasons. That is why I yearn for your prayers. Listen. If you want better pastors, the solution is not to get other pastors. If you want better pastors, the solution is to pray for your pastors. The greatest ministry you can offer your pastors is to pray for them.
I hope you now understand what I mean by the dance of church leadership. There are pastors’ responsibilities and there are congregation’s responsibilities. And both need to happen simultaneously for it to work. If only one party does all the work and the other does nothing, we are not going to have a dance. What we have is break-dancing. We dance until we break. It’s not going to work. It requires both pastors and congregations to live out their responsibilities. And this does not happen overnight. It does not happen automatically. It takes time and trust to create a healthy church leadership culture. And I am going to be very honest with you. Our church is not there yet. We still have a long way to go to have healthy church leadership. But we are not idle. We are working hard to pursue it. We are very intentional about establishing healthy church leadership. But you also have a role to play. The pastors in this church need to work hard to teach and live out the word of God faithfully. And you must never accept something as true just because your pastors say it. But when you know that it is the word of God, then you must be eager to obey and submit to your pastors. This is what healthy church leadership looks like. And it is not going to be easy. This dance is extremely hard. We will make lots of mistakes along the way. We will hurt each other many times in the process. There will be many tears, disciplines and repentances involved in the process. So where do we get the strength to do it?
The Great Shepherd
Hebrews 13:20 – Now may the God of peace who brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus, the great shepherd of the sheep, by the blood of the eternal covenant.
I am not going to explain the verse in-depth as we will talk about it next week. But the author of Hebrews calls Jesus the great shepherd of the sheep. And this is what we must understand. Pastors are often called shepherds of God’s people. But pastors are not ultimate. The true Shepherd of the church, the true Pastor of the church is none other than Jesus Christ. And that is why pastors only have authority over the church as much as they are under Jesus’ authority. So, the goal of the church is not to imitate the personality of pastors but Jesus Christ. Jesus is the Great Shepherd of the church. And Jesus is a far better Shepherd than all human shepherds. Jesus is the great shepherd who lays down his life for his sheep. Here is the truth about all of us, God’s sheep. You and I should be eternally separated from God because of our sins. Our sins deserve eternal condemnation and separation from God. But Jesus came. Jesus came and defeated sin on our behalf and gave his life to bring us back to God. Through his blood, Jesus reconciled us back to God. He died for the sake of his sheep, but he rose again and is seated at the right hand of God. And now Jesus lives to intercede for his sheep, and he will not lose a single sheep. Jesus, our Great Shepherd is saying to us, “I am going to lead you. I am your true Shepherd. I bought you at a price. I bought you with my blood. You are mine.” This is the promise of the Great Shepherd. And this is where we find the strength and the confidence we need to be a healthy church. Not because our pastors are awesome, not because we are good at obeying our pastors, but because Jesus is the Great Shepherd of the church. And he won’t fail. Let’s pray.
- What are some concerns people (or you) might have with obeying and submitting to church leaders?
- How does the Bible address these concerns?
- Out of the four responsibilities of pastors, which one do you think is most lacking in most churches and why?
- Out of the three responsibilities of congregation, which one do you think you need to improve the most?
- Why is it important for the church (both pastors and congregations) to be deeply rooted in the gospel?
- Spend time to pray for your pastors and the church.