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)
Perhaps the most pertinent verse relating to our conduct to our spiritual leaders; those who are placed above us by the Lord, this verse is at one time important for us Christians yet also easily abused. Due to the very very practical application of this particular verse and thus the immediate impact of it on all Christians, it would be good before I start to state what I am not arguing for. I am NOT arguing that we should rebel against our leaders nor am I am arguing for forcing our personal preferences down the throats of church leaders and expecting everybody to conform to our idea of orthodoxy and orthopraxy. It is expected that my enemies would slander and libel me as stating any of such errors, but this is totally not the case, and I disavow believing any of these errors.
In discussing this verse, it would be good to look at what it positively teaches and then at its abuse.
What it teaches
This verse teach us to obey and submit to our leaders. That is for sure. However, how are we to do it and why?
Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith. ...
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. 13:7; 17)
As it can be seen, the context of Heb 13 especially verse 7 sheds some light on the meaning of the verse, and how we should go about applying it. The teaching of this particular verse can therefore be stated in the following points:
1) We are to obey our leaders and submit to them because God has commanded us to do so.
2) Such obedience and submission should be done in considering their godly lives and imitate their faith.
3) One aspect of our submission to our leaders can be seen in 1 Tim. 5:17, where we are to respect our leaders and give them the honor due to their labor in the Lord.
4) According to 1 Tim. 5:19, we are not to entertain frivolous accusations against leaders in the church. All such accusations are to be proven via objective evidence and/or the verbal evidence given by two or three witnesses of the sin, otherwise the accuser is to be rebuked.
5) Coming back to Heb. 13:17, the rationale for such obedience, honor and submission is that the leaders as good shepherds are watching over the souls of the sheep entrusted to their care. Taking care of the sheep is not an easy job, and as part of our love for our leaders, we are to make their job easier.
6) Leaders whose service is a joy would be of benefit to the sheep, as that would make it easier for them to love the sheep and serve them better.
As it can be seen, godly obedience and submission to church leaders is a good thing which God has commanded us to do. Those who refuse to obey and submit to biblical authority are living their lives in violation of the commands of God.
What it does not teach
1) Church leaders are above any form of criticism
This line of argument is better known by its "sacred" form: "Thou shall not touch the Lord's anointed!" That Heb. 13:17 is not against criticism of churches, church leaders, Christian organizations and entire denominations can be easily deduced from Scripture. The context in Hebrews already gave us one solution to this problem as it talks about Christian leaders who are keeping watch over our souls, and of speaking the Word of God. Therefore, those who are not keeping watch over our souls (in the sense of shepherding it) but are instead lording over the flock, and those who do not speak the Word of God, cannot be considered true Christian leaders (Modus tollens).
We are exhorted in Scripture to judge and discern false teachers and false "christs" (1 Jn. 4:1; Jude 1:4), and such people will indeed enter the church (Acts 20: 29-30, 1 Jn.2 :18). We can see such episodes in the narrative of the early churches most especially seen in Paul's strong denunciation of the Judaizers in the epistle to the Galatians, and most certainly the Judaizers were calling themselves Christians, and Christian teachers and leaders at that!
Therefore, Christian leaders are not to be above criticism, though as we have stated, we are not to be frivolous in accusing others. We are not to be trigger-happy in our criticism and try to intentionally find fault with our leaders. However, if these leaders are in fact in error, they are to judged severely and publicly as an example to all (1 Tim. 5:20), "so that the rest may stand in fear". Leaders are the public face of the Church in its institutional form, and as such are to be held to strict standards.
2) Only church leaders can criticize other churches and church leaders
To a certain extent, such has often been the case in the early church and the history of the church. Criticism and charges of heresy etc were often made by leaders within the institutional Church. However, is this more the case that those who know enough about the Bible will be able to see the errors and identify false teachers, and such people would predominantly be found within the Church as leaders as the people recognize their gifts?
When one looks through the Scriptures and the historical record of the Church, one finds quite a few people who are not church leaders in the proper sense of the term. Old testament prophets like Amos were not of the priestly order for example, Amos being a herdsman and a dresser of sycamore figs (Amos 7:14). In church history, Peter Waldo was certainly not a church leader, while during the Reformation era, besides Luther, Zwngli and Calvin and maybe a few others, almost none of the non-Anglican reformers were ever Christian leaders until they started preaching and planting churches. An extreme example of such would be the Baptist preacher John Bunyan, who became a pastor simply by preaching and planting a church as people turned to Christ through his preaching. Yet he was never seminary trained or ordained in his entire life. This view is therefore not biblical and in error.
One effect of such a distortion of Heb. 13:17 is that it creates a false distinction between the clergy and the laity, and deny to the "laity" what it gives to the clergy. Also, it does not take into account the fact that the epistles written to the churches with their warning of false teachers were to be read to the entire church, not just the church leaders.
3) Disagreement with church leaders and the church's or their vision is rebellion
In many modernist business model churches with pastor-CEOs, such a particular distortion of Heb. 13:17 would invariably come up. Instead of seeking to follow the Scriptures, leaders would rather follow the business world and her methodology. The pastor-CEO's vision would then be imbued with almost the same amount of authority as the Bible, and those who oppose the vision and especially the entire methodology would be thought of as being in violation of Heb. 13:17. However, nothing can be further from the truth. As we have seen, the biblical imperative concerns Christian leaders who are following God's Word, not leaders who are intentionally or unintentionally leading the sheep astray. To follow God's Word even in defiance of the dictates of any Christian leader is never a violation of Heb. 13:17, if we are indeed following God's Word and the leader is not. If however, both are within the bounds of Christian liberty, then we should of course obey our leaders in that respect.
We have seen in some detail the teachings and the possible abuses of Heb. 13:17. May we therefore learn to properly apply this verse and have a heart to obey and submit to our church leaders, yet do so in a way that is consistent with Scripture, never allowing it to be abused so that Christian leaders become de facto dictators. Amen.