"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
I wish that when I was a pastor I had spent more time with all the low-maintenance church folks. In church life, the squeaky wheel, as they say, gets the grease. Meanwhile, the folks who quietly and humbly served, gave, and simply showed up without causing heartaches or headaches just keep on keepin’ on. God love ‘em. I sure did. They were a joy to me, and I fear I neglected them too much simply because they didn’t seem too needy.
It is my goal now, for as long as God would have me simply as a sheep and not a shepherd, be as low-maintenance as I can manage for my church. I want when my pastor sees me coming — his name is Nathan — Hi, Nathan, if you’re reading this — not to inwardly sigh or tense up or have to marshal some extra patience or energy, but to relax a little, smile, and feel safe.
As a twenty-plus year veteran of ministry who knows an awful lot of pastors, I can tell you that this feeling can be rare.
There’s even a Bible verse about this, and it’s one that many pastors are too scared to ever preach on. I’m gonna do them all a favor right now and share it with you:
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)
Some of you reading this might actually need to print that out and tape it to your mirror or the dashboard of your car.
Yes, there are some bad pastors out there. There are some authoritarian, domineering leaders out there. Too many, in fact. Some pastors are indeed bullies. These guys need to be held accountable and in many cases removed from their position of authority, as the biblical qualifications for the pastoral office forbid the quarrelsome, short-tempered, domineering man any part in church leadership (Titus 1:5-9, 1 Tim. 3:1-7, 1 Peter 5:1-4). (I have written about the necessity of pastoral gentleness numerous times, perhaps most notably here.
But can I be honest? In my entire life in the church, despite some negative experiences with a few pastors, I’ve encountered way more bullies in the pews than in the pulpits. There are just as many pastors victimized by graceless congregants as vice versa.
I have a pastor friend who said he once dared to preach on Hebrews 13:17, and he had no sooner read the verse at the start of his message — hadn’t even started preaching yet! — and a woman stood up and shouted, “We’re Baptist. We don’t submit to anybody!”
You may not be Baptist, but you do need to submit to your church leaders. The Bible says so. Argue with it, if you want, but know that you are arguing with God.
To be a Christian is to be a churchman or churchwoman. The New Testament knows of no vibrant discipleship apart from life in the local church, no authentic Christianity divorced from the covenant of life together according to the biblical structure of the local church. And if this is true, it behooves us to be the best churchmen and churchwomen we can be. And good churchfolk love, respect, and submit to their pastors.
This does not mean idolizing them, treating them like celebrities or becoming yes-men. It doesn’t mean becoming our pastor’s rubber stamp committee. But it does mean giving grace not just to your fellow sheep, but also to your shepherds. In fact, they may need more, as the responsibilities they carry are more burdensome and they will have to give a greater account before God. Submitting to your leaders means repenting of the impulse to “yes, but” everything they say, especially if what they say isn’t sinful.
In matters of differences of opinion, it means being circumspect in how we voice our own. It means remembering that playing the “devil’s advocate” is not a good thing. Christ doesn't need any advocates for the devil in his church!
Generally speaking, submitting to your elders means maintaining a posture of encouragement and gracious support for them and working to make the church a safe place for them (and their families!).
Some people in our churches see it as their role to “keep the pastor honest.” These people are usually the kind that make pastors keeping watch over them groan.
Look, you may be a total mess. You may have a lot of pain and a lot of struggle. You may find it frustrating to get your act together. If you know this about yourself, why not give the same grace to your leaders that you expect for yourself?
And if you think it should be a great honor to your leaders to get to shepherd you, you’re probably the most groan-worthy of all. It’s the ones who reckon themselves totally put together who usually cause the biggest problems.
How can we work toward our leaders’ joy and not their anxiety? It’s no advantage to us to be a nagging pain to our pastors. They’ll have to give an account for how they pastored us. And we’ll have to give an account for how well we presented ourselves to be pastored.