Many people in our culture cringe when they hear words like leadership, authority, and submission. The same is true for some Christians, particularly those who have experienced harsh, self-serving, or abusive leadership in the church. However, our response to bad leadership as followers of Christ should not be to reject all forms of leadership. Our response should be to embrace good, biblical leadership. In this message from Hebrews 13:17, David Platt points us to the Bible’s teaching on biblical leadership in the church. God has given leaders as a gift to the church, not to serve for their own interests but to serve for the glory of God and the good of others. Submission to this kind of leadership is good for our souls.
Well, if you have a Bible—and I hope you or somebody around you does that you can look on with—let me invite you to open with me to Hebrews 13. It’s good to be together around God’s Word. Please forgive my voice today. Along with about half of the DMV, I’m a bit under the weather right now, but I did not want to miss this Sunday in light of something we’re going to do together a few minutes from now.
We’re in week 11 of 12 weeks in God’s Word, seeing how every one of us needs a biblical church, how God has uniquely designed the church—unlike any other group, organization or gathering in the world—for our good. You and I will not experience our highest good without the church, specifically without commitment to meaningful membership in a church. Up to this point in this series, we’ve seen ten reasons why this is true, including some things we know we need, like biblical prayer or biblical worship. We’re also looking at some things we may not, at least instinctually, think we need, like biblical giving, biblical accountability and discipline. This all leads to what we’re going to look at today—biblical leadership. We need a church where we are led by people according to the Bible.
I’m going to use “we” or “you and I” very intentionally throughout our time today, because even as an elder/pastor in this church, I need other elders, pastors and leaders in my life. In our sinful nature, we don’t think we need this. Instead we think, “I don’t need to follow somebody else; I’m quite capable of leading my own life.” As a result, even when somebody is in a leadership position, we think, “Well, that doesn’t mean I have to follow their leadership.” But listen to the Bible. This is God speaking to you and me about leaders in the church.
Listen to what God says in 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.”
Now, I know what you’re thinking: “Of course you, as a leader in the church, would choose this text to preach. Of course you would find the verse in the Bible that says people are supposed to obey and submit to you, and make you happy.” You might even go so far as to think, “This is what’s wrong in the church: leaders who crave this kind of power or who wield this kind of influence.” If that’s what you’re thinking, I actually agree with you.
There are so many examples, more than any of us would like to count, of leaders craving power and wielding influence in unhelpful and even harmful ways, even in the church. We’ve all seen headlines of scandals and sexual abuse that absolutely are what is wrong with the church. But that’s just it. Those headlines happen because those leaders are not leading biblically and the consequences of bad leadership in the church are personally devastating and far-reaching. This is why you and I need good leaders who lovingly, caringly, selflessly and biblically lead us to experience life to the full in Jesus.
To be clear, it’s not just Christians who need good leaders in the church; the world needs good leaders in the church. Some of you may be visiting today; you may be exploring Christianity. We are so glad you’re here, and I trust that even if you’re not a Christian, you hate and are sickened by self-seeking, self-interested, self-promoting and self-protecting leaders anywhere, especially in the church.
So let’s think together about what God is saying in His Word about how we need biblical leadership whom we can obey and submit to, knowing even these words—obey and submit —have negative connotations. Let’s pause for a moment and realize what the Bible is not saying here.
The Bible is not promoting absolute obedience to authoritarian leadership.
The Bible never says to do whatever a demanding or dictatorial or even despotic leader in this world says to do. Acts 5:29 says, “We must obey God rather than men.” If anyone in any role of leadership is ever telling us to do that which is disobedient to God in His Word, then we should not obey or submit to that leadership. We know this is not God promoting absolute obedience to authoritarian leadership over Him in this world.
The Bible is not promoting abuse of power.
Throughout the Old Testament, God rebukes leaders among His people for abusing their own power for their own gain. When you get to the New Testament, what does God say to elders? Look at 1 Peter 5:2-3: “Shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock.”
Jesus made it clear throughout the Gospels that power is a gift from God to be used to serve people. In Mark 10:42-45 (NIV), Jesus said:
You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.
God makes it very clear in His Word that He is promoting service toward people, not abuse of power.
The Bible is not promoting acknowledgment of inequality.
Sometimes when we hear “submission,” we think “inequality.” We think someone who submits is inferior to someone else who is superior. If two people are equal, we think there’s no submission involved. This is where we need to guard ourselves, especially in our culture and in our country, where we can so exalt freedom to the point that any kind of authority is seen as oppressive or evil. But that is not true.
According to God, authority, accountability and submission to good leaders is a really good thing. Jesus Himself, the Son of God, takes on human flesh and submits to His Father. “Not as I will, but as You will.” Yet His submission does not strike in any way at His dignity.
Or think of human relationships. When the Bible says that children should obey their parents, that doesn’t mean children are less dignified than their parents in any way. When God tells a wife in Ephesians 5 to submit to a husband’s loving, sacrificial leadership, that doesn’t mean a wife is any less than her husband in any way. Now, obviously there can be abuses of that authority in marriage or parenting, as well as in any other sphere. But that doesn’t mean submission and authority in and of themselves are bad things. They are good things designed by God for our good. So how is this good for us? Why is God telling us to obey and submit to leaders in the church?
Let me pause here for a moment to make sure we’re on the same page when we’re thinking about who leaders in the church are, according to God. Turn back just a few pages in your Bible to 1 Timothy 3. There you see two primary kinds of leaders in the church: elders and deacons. We’re not going to spend exhaustive time in this text; we’ve studied it before when we’ve talked about biblical leadership, so you can go back to those sermons if it would be helpful. Let’s just read 1 Timothy 3:1-13 to make sure we’re on the same page with the kinds of leaders God is talking about submitting to and obeying, then I think Hebrews 13:17 will start to make a lot more sense. Follow along beginning in 1 Timothy 3:1:
“The saying is trustworthy: If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task.” I should just point out that the word “overseer” here is used interchangeably in the New Testament with the word “elder,” the position we commonly refer to as “pastor.” So whenever you see one of these words in terms of leadership in the church, they’re talking about the same group of people: elder, overseer, pastor. Verse two continues:
2 Therefore an overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, 3 not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. 4 He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive, 5 for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church? 6 He must not be a recent convert, or he may become puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil. 7 Moreover, he must be well thought of by outsiders, so that he may not fall into disgrace, into a snare of the devil.
So these are the qualifications 1 Timothy 3 outlines for overseers, elders or pastors in the church. You can see a similar list of qualifications in Titus 1:5-9. Then, in 1 Timothy 3:9-13, the Bible talks about another group of leaders in the church and their qualifications:
8 Deacons likewise must be dignified, not double-tongued, not addicted to much wine, not greedy for dishonest gain. 9 They must hold the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience. 10 And let them also be tested first; then let them serve as deacons if they prove themselves blameless. 11 Their wives likewise must be dignified, not slanderers, but sober-minded, faithful in all things. 12 Let deacons each be the husband of one wife, managing their children and their own households well. 13 For those who serve well as deacons gain a good standing for themselves and also great confidence in the faith that is in Christ Jesus.
Back up in verse 11, you see where it says, “Their wives likewise..”? You might see a footnote that says this could mean just wives, or “women likewise must be dignified,” referring to women deacons.
So to summarize, these verses in 1 Timothy 3 describe the two primary groups of leaders in the church: elders who oversee the church, a group of leaders who are specifically men and who are entrusted with the authority to teach, care for, pastor and shepherd the church. Then we also see deacons as men and women who lead out in different ministries across the church to meet specific needs. One example is in Acts 6, where deacons were appointed to oversee the distribution of food to people in need.
These standards for leadership in 1 Timothy 3 are clearly outlined by God. We could talk a lot about these character qualifications, but for the most part I think you’ll notice they’re really just expectations for every follower of Jesus, which is kind of the point. These are men and women who are supposed to lead in the church by example. In other words, the leaders we’re obeying and submitting to should be people whose lives look like Jesus.
So we read Hebrews 13:17 about obeying and submitting to leaders, but that’s actually not the first time Hebrews 13 mentions leaders in the church. Go back with me now to Hebrews 13:7. Ten verses earlier, the author of Hebrews says, “Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith.” Verse eight says, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever.” I love this. The whole point of leadership in the church is to point people to Jesus Christ.
1. We need leaders who speak the Word of God to us faithfully and continually.
So now it’s starting to make sense why you and I need biblical leadership in the church. We need people who are doing two main things here. We need leaders who speak the Word of God to us faithfully and continually. It says, “Remember your leaders…” who did what? “…who spoke to you the word of God.” If leaders in the church are speaking the Word of God to you, then of course you should do what? Obey and submit to them because we’re obeying and submitting to the Word of God they’re speaking.
We need people speaking the Word of God to us faithfully. I emphasize that word in light of the context around here in Hebrews 13. Look right after this in Hebrews 13:9: “Do not be led away by diverse and strange teachings.” Then it goes into some specific examples of diverse and strange teachings that the people of God needed to avoid. We need leaders who are teaching God’s Word to us faithfully.
Which is why—if you remember what we just read back in 1 Timothy 3, talking specifically about the role of elders, pastors and overseers—it says they must be “able to teach.” Out of all the qualifications in 1 Timothy 3, each one is a character qualification except for this one competency qualification. An elder/overseer/pastor must be able to teach God’s Word, because their whole leadership in the church is contingent on speaking the Word of God to others. They must be stewarding that gift faithfully.
Do you remember the very first week of this series, when we saw our need for biblical preaching and teaching? Remember these words in 2 Timothy 4:1-4 from God to His leaders:
I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching. For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths.
In other words, you and I don’t need leaders in the church who tell us what we want to hear. We need leaders in the church who are telling us what God says, regardless of whether we want to hear it or not. If that means we are reproved, rebuked or exhorted, we need leaders who will teach God’s Word to us faithfully…and continually. Last week we looked at Deuteronomy 6. You and I need leaders who have God’s Word flowing from them all the time, whose lips and lives are overflowing with the Word of God.
2. We need leaders who imitate the life of Jesus helpfully and humbly.
Going back to Hebrews 13:7, “Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God,” and who do so faithfully and continually. Then it says, “Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith.” We also need leaders whose faith and way of life is worthy of imitation. We need leaders who speak the Word of God faithfully and continually, and we need leaders who imitate the life of Jesus helpfully and humbly.
We all know this, right? Think about it on just the most general level. Think about people in your life who make you a better person just by being around them. Don’t you want people like that in your life? People who make you better by being around them? That’s God design for leadership in the church. That’s why I use the word “helpfully” here. The whole picture in Hebrews 13:7-8 is we need people in our lives whose influence helps us look more like Jesus, helps us look more to Jesus.
This is why I also put “humbly” here, knowing that no leader in the church is perfect, myself first and foremost. Every leader in the church needs Jesus and, praise God, He is the same yesterday, today and forever. There is no other leader like Jesus. We want people in our lives whose faith in Jesus draws us closer to Him. We need leaders like that.
So now, let’s put it all together and hopefully we’re getting a different perspective on Hebrews 13:17: “Obey your leaders and submit to their authority.” That command starts to make sense when you start to realize how good it is for us when these leaders are teaching the Word of God to us faithfully and continually, when they’re imitating the life of Jesus before us helpfully and humbly.
3. We need leaders who care for us responsibly and joyfully.
Let’s keep going because the next description of them says, “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.” So third and finally here, we need leaders who care for us responsibly and joyfully.
This is an awesome image that God gives us here in His Word: people who are keeping watch over your soul, caring for somebody’s soul. Do you see God’s kindness toward you and me here? Obviously, He is ultimately the One Who keeps watch over our souls, but don’t miss what he’s saying here. God gives leaders in the church—in your life and my life—to keep watch over us as a reflection of His care for us.
I think about times when we leave our kids at home with someone to care for them, and how important it is that this person will watch over them responsibly. Think of our five kids at home. Yes we’re still waiting to bring one home through adoption. Can you imagine us leaving our five kids in someone’s care, then coming back home but there only being three kids in the house? Heather and I would ask, “Uh, where are the other two?” Then the person entrusted with the care of our children says, “I’m not sure where they are, but three out of five isn’t bad, right? 60%. I mean, that will get you through major league baseball, MBA and the Hall of Fame. 60% is pretty good.”
Part of the reason I use this illustration is because up to this point, as we’ve been talking about this, you’re thinking about leaders in the church, specifically pastors like myself or Mike, or maybe various location pastors. As you should, because we are obviously in leadership positions in the church. But this church has thousands of people who need care for their souls, and two or three or ten or twenty pastors can’t do that responsibly before God. This is why one of the conclusions I hope you take away from this word today is that we need a lot of leaders across this church—and God may be calling you to be one.
This is why you hear us talking all the time about Church Groups, why we’re moving and working to see every member of this church in a Church Group, led by people who are keeping watch over and caring for our souls. That’s why eventually we want as many of these Church Groups as possible to be led by a Church Group pastor. Not necessarily somebody who stands up here on stage and preaches to the whole church, but other leaders across the church who are saying, “We’re going to make sure we’re caring for every single person’s soul.”
This is why we take church membership and all 12 traits of this church seriously, because we don’t want to stand before God and say, “We took care of 60% of them. That’s pretty good, right?” Or even 80% or 90%. No!
This is where you as a member of this church family can help leaders in this church family by saying, “Okay, if the leaders of my church, before God, are trying to care for my soul, trying to provide as biblical a church as possible for my good, then unless they’re telling me to do something that goes against God’s Word, I will follow their leadership. I’ll work to get into a Church Group. I’ll let go of this or that way of doing things that I’ve always done, or this program I love, if the people God has provided to care for my soul are leading me in a different way.”
I think about the invitation a couple weeks ago to potentially move somewhere else in the world for the spread of the gospel. We have a process in place to help you discern if God is leading you in that way and what that might look like. So it’s helpful for you to say, “Unless they’re leading me to go against God’s Word, I’ll go through that process and follow their leadership.” This is so different from the way we are wired to think and work. We think and work like we’re going to do this on our own, regardless of what somebody else says. But God is saying it is good for you to follow leaders in the church whom He has entrusted to teach His Word to you and to keep watch over your soul. This all means you need to be in a church where you can do this. In other words, if you’re not willing to obey and submit to leadership in a particular church, you need to find a church where you can obey Hebrews 13:17. You don’t need to be in a church where you’re disobeying God’s Word in Hebrews 13:17.
This then leads to the last part of this verse and why leaders are to be joyful, not just responsible. “Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.” So on my behalf and on behalf of other leaders in this church, it’s time for you to make us happy, right? It’s in God’s Word, so do it! Well, in a sense, yes. But listen to the way the Bible talks about joy and happiness in church leaders.
I started diving in as I was preparing for today, and there are so many different places in Scripture I’d love to go, but then we’d be here another hour to depict the joyful relationship between leaders and members of a church. So I’ll just take you to one, my favorite is 3 John 1:4. This is where John is writing as a spiritual father to a church of his spiritual children. He says, “I have no greater joy than to hear that my children are walking in the truth.” Don’t miss this. We all know this with physical children. Doesn’t it bring you great joy to see your children thrive? I’m a happy man when my children are growing and thriving.
And in the church, I can totally testify to this verse. My greatest joy as a leader is seeing members of this church family grow in your relationship with Jesus, seeing you receive God’s Word and walk in obedience to it, seeing you share God’s Word and lead other people to Jesus. Do you want to make a church leader’s day? Tell them how you shared the gospel and that somebody is now going to be in heaven for all eternity as a result of their obedience to the Word.
Our joy is also in seeing you care for each other. I think about circumstances right now in our church family—some really hard pictures of suffering and death—and seeing brothers and sisters come alongside each other and walk with each other through that. It’s seeing you say a couple weeks ago, “God, I’ll spread the gospel to unreached people groups, no matter what it costs. Lord, I’m going to explore what that looks like with total surrender in my heart.” It’s seeing you take radical risks to follow Jesus in your workplace, in this city and among the nations.
So now, it all makes sense. When leaders in the church are teaching the Word of God, imitating the life of Jesus, keeping watch over people’s souls, and people in the church are obeying and submitting to that kind of leadership, there is much joy to be had by all. So, God help us.
Right after Hebrews 13:17, the writer of Hebrews, a leader in the church, says, “Pray for us, for we are sure that we have a clear conscience, desiring to act honorably in all things.” Pray for us. Pray for me, church. Pray for other leaders in this church, that we would lead like Hebrews 13 and 1 Timothy 3 are describing. Pray that we as members of the church would follow leaders like this in ways that lead to their joy, our good and God’s glory.
What does the passage say?
- In multiple Bible translations, read Hebrews 13:17 aloud as a group. Take some time to let group members share observations about the passage. Try not to move into interpretation of the passage or application of what you have read quite yet. Simply share what you all observe from the text.
- How would you explain or summarize today’s passage in your own words?
What does the passage mean?
- Review the immediate context of today’s passage.
- Read Hebrews 13:1–7. What expressions of brotherly love are reflected in this passage? What is the basis of these expressions of brotherly love (cf. Hebrews 12:18–29, 13:8 and 13:10–12)?
- Read Hebrews 12:28 and 13:15–16. In these passages, we are invited to offer God acceptable worship and a sacrifice of praise that is pleasing to Him. How might these ‘bookend’ passages shed light on the significance of the expressions of brotherly love reflected between them?
- Read Hebrews 13:9, 20–21 (cf. Ephesians 3:7–10). What are some outcomes of sound Biblical teaching and obedience in the body of Christ?
- Focus on the form of brotherly love presented in Hebrews 13:7. Considering your previous observations, what significance might the surrounding scriptural context give to this specific verse?
- Read Hebrews 13:17. How might your observations on its surrounding context shape your understanding of this verse?
- Based on today’s passage and its context, why does the LORD desire true Biblical leadership, and obedience to it, amongst the members of His body?
How can we apply this passage to our lives?
- How or when has your relationship with the LORD or His Church been challenged by unbiblical leaders in a church? How might these challenges actually confirm your need for sound leaders who lovingly, selflessly, caringly, and biblically lead you to know Jesus truly and follow Him wholeheartedly?
- Review the character and competency descriptors of sound Biblical leaders in 1 Timothy 3:1–7, 9–13, and Titus 1:5–9. (Take note also of the cautions in James 3:1–2 and 1 Peter 5:1–3, 8–9):
• Considering the importance and outcome of sound Biblical leadership in the church, how might the LORD work through you to recognize and encourage this kind of leadership in the church?
• Considering the importance and outcome of sound Biblical leadership in the church, how might the LORD be working in you to become this kind of leader in the church?
- For you personally, as you strive to steward your membership in His church well, what might it look like for you to follow the LORD ultimately and, by His grace, follow Biblical church leaders faithfully?
A church is characterized by biblical leadership. The Bible recognizes two types of leaders in the church: pastors/elders/overseers and deacons/deaconesses. In the New Testament, the words pastor, elder, and overseer are used interchangeably and refer to the same office. The qualifications for these leaders are given in 1 Timothy 3:1-7 and Titus 1:5-9. They must be examples of faithful discipleship, and they must hold firmly to sound doctrine. They lead under the authority of Christ, teach the Word of Christ, care for the body of Christ, and model the character of Christ. According to Scripture, pastors/ elders/overseers must be men. Scripture is clear that not everyone is gifted and called to teach and lead in the church, but all gifts are equally honorable and equally necessary to the church. The consistent pattern in the New Testament is for churches to have a plurality of pastors/elders/overseers. Deacons/ Deaconesses are servants of the church whose qualifications are listed in 1 Timothy 3:8-13. They meet needs according to God’s Word, support the ministry of the Word, and unify the church around the Word. In order to be a biblical church, MBC must appoint, affirm, follow, and pray for biblical leaders across the church.
Hebrews 13:17 ESV
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.
The Bible is not promoting—
- Absolute obedience to authoritarian leadership;
- Abuse of power; or
- Acknowledgment of inequality.
The whole point of leadership in the church is to point people in the church to Jesus.
1. We need leaders who speak the Word of God to us faithfully and continually.
2. We need leaders who imitate the life of Jesus helpfully and humbly.
3. We need leaders who care for us responsibly and joyfully.