Once again we come to the first Sunday of the month. We have set aside these first Sundays for a sermon series on the 9Marks of a healthy church. We have been going through these nine marks, not just because SonRise is a part of the 9Marks church network, but because we believe these nine marks are the ingredients that make a healthy ministry. We’ve looked at expository preaching, biblical theology, the gospel, conversion, evangelism, church membership, church discipline, and discipleship. Today we come to the end of this series by looking at the 9th mark in the 9Marks, leadership.

To begin the topic of leadership I would like you to join me on a brief tour through the history of western civilization. It is possible to define the history of the western world in three large time periods. First is what’s called the premodern time, where it was commonly accepted by all that God had all the answers. So if anyone wanted to know the truth, have meaning, or gain a sense of purpose or identity they would look to God to show them the proper path. Then the renaissance or the enlightenment moved the premodern culture to modern culture. No longer was it believed that God had the answers. For the first time in history, it was commonly accepted by all that man had all the answers. So if anyone wanted to know the truth, have meaning, or gain a sense of purpose or identity they would look to themselves to find the proper path. This time period went on for some time and gave rise to some of the worst world leaders in history. Dictator after dictator burst onto the scene saying ‘I have the answers, follow me!’ Masses and masses of people followed these leaders and died because of them. Slowly but surely people began growing weary of those who abused authority by claiming to have all the answers. This weariness gave rise to the next revolution of thought and culture. Modern man who believed man had all the answers became postmodern man who could care less about answers. No longer do we look to leaders to give us truth, meaning, or a sense of purpose, postmodern man doesn’t think truth, meaning, or purpose really exist. Truth is relative and different for each person they say. This postmodern revolution still rages on today and largely at the center of it is a suspicion of authority, so much so in our day the exercise of authority is thought of as the abuse of authority.

I begin by discussing our current cultural context because when it comes to the 9th mark of a healthy church, when it comes to church leadership, one thing comes squarely into view – authority. So all I ask is that you be what you say you are, Christians, who embrace what the Bible says regardless if it flows with or against the tide of culture.

Our text to examine church leadership is Hebrews 13:17, you heard it read earlier, now let’s take the time to walk through it slowly, phrase by phrase, seeing what God calls us to in it.

The Duty of the People

In chapter Hebrews 13, v17 comes to us within the larger context of 13:10-21 where God gives instructions for how His people are to do life within His Church. The instruction in view in v17, obedience and submission, is the third one mentioned in this larger passage.[1] The same leaders the author calls us to consider and imitate back in 13:7, he calls us to submit to and obey in v17. See this for yourself in the first phrase of v17, “Obey your leaders and submit to them…”

I know the words obey and submit may bring negative ideas in your mind such as a strong leader forcing a weak follower to do something they don’t want to do, or a leader intentionally making someone feel underneath or lesser than they are. Maybe even the idea of physical or emotional abuse comes to mind when you hear these words. This is not what’s in view in this idea of obedience and submission. Rather the call for people to obey and submit to these leaders is a call to have a certain kind of heart attitude toward the leadership of the church. This kind of heart attitude is one of confiding in, trusting in, relying on, to place hope and confidence in, to yield to, to willingly be convinced by, to believe, to assent to, to listen to, and even to follow. All of these are possible translations for this first phrase in v17. These images describe what the character and behavior of every person within the local church ought to look like. Rather than seeing the leaders, specifically the elders of the Church, as simply managers of people and programs, we’re called by God to see the elders of the church as set apart and gifted men of God who are called by God to lead the people of God. So in a very real and weighty sense, to not obey and submit to them is to not obey and submit to God.

Of course this duty of obedience and submission is not a call to a blanket obedience and submission.[2] If I, or any of the elders, ever call you to do something the Bible forbids, or call you to not do something the Bible commands, it is your duty to disobey us in order to obey God. Sadly, throughout history and even in our day, we don’t have to look very far to find examples of this kind of pastoral abuse. It’s often joked about but Jim Jones really did strong arm 900 of his followers into drinking poisoned Kool-Aid. Other more recent pastors of well known churches really did bully their congregations into submission for years before they were asked to resign. What’s the lesson here? If an elder ever calls you to something sinful or bullies you into submission, that elder is out of order and is allowing chaos and disorder run amuck inside the congregation. But insofar as the elders of a church lead and call you to live in line with the Bible, v17 says it is to be your duty and first instinct to obey and submit to them. Paul asked the church in Thessalonica to do this very thing in 1 Thessalonians 5:12-13 saying, “We ask you, brothers, to respect those who labor among you and admonish you and are over you in the Lord, and to esteem them very highly in love because of their work.”

When a congregation lives like this with the elders of the church a culture of peace, love, unity, and order is created within the church. But a new questions comes up here though, why? Why are the members of a church called to obey and submit to the elders of that church? We’ve gotten hints of the reason, but the next phrase in Hebrews 13:17 clarifies it fully for us. So we’ve seen the duty of the people, now see…

The Duty of the Elders

Look at the next phrase in v17, “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls as those who will have to give an account.”

As we saw leadership from the view of the people in the first phrase of v17, we now see leadership from the view of the elders in the second phrase of v17. The connecting word between the duty of the people and the duty of the elders is that little word for. The meaning of it is the people should obey and submit to their leaders for (or since or because) the leaders are keeping watch over their souls. In other words the reason the people are to willingly obey and submit to the elders is because their elders are already willingly keeping watch over their souls. The obedience and submission of the people is a response to the watchful shepherding of the elders. This is the order presented to us on the surface of things in v17.

Let’s go a little deeper and ask what does this keeping watch look like? The word translated as ‘keeping watch’ is the Greek word ‘agrupneo’ which literally means to ‘keep awake.’ So v17 is really saying, “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are staying awake, or keeping awake, over your souls.” These elders, therefore, are diligently doing a kind of pastoral care that caused them to stay awake or to lose sleep. Why would an elder lose sleep because of pastoral care you may ask? It could be that they lost sleep because true pastoral care demands being available at any hour of the night. Or it could be that they lost sleep because true pastoral care sometimes keeps elders awake at night. Both of these things are likely in view, because both are an ever present reality for the New Testament elder, then and now. The image coming forth of this kind of pastoral care that elders willingly take on themselves is the image of a shepherd tending a flock. Remember the small detail given of the shepherds in the nativity story? They were “keeping watch over their flocks by night” (Luke 2:8).[3] Leadership within the church, or the pastoral shepherding done by the elders of the church is no different. It requires the elder to be ever watchful of the sheep. When multiple demands are pressing, when people are joining, when people are straying, when counsel is needed and accepted, when is needed and given but rejected, when sermons have been prepared and preached, when much prayer has spent, it’s the elder who loses sleep over the congregation.

You ever thought about this? For the elder, deep joy is truly had over those who are walking with the Lord and growing. The apostle John speaks of this in 3 John 4, “I have no greater joy than to hear that my children are walking in the truth.” Yet the opposite is also true. Deep sorrow and grief is felt over those who are diving into sin, ignoring counsel, or slowly drifting away. Paul speaks of this when he says he feels a daily pressure and anxiety for all the churches (2 Cor. 11:28). So, what does church leadership like? It looks like a group of elders willingly watching over and shepherding a congregation, experiencing a daily joy mixed with grief over the congregation, which can and often does result in them losing sleep.

As if the weightiness of pastoral work and care were not already heavy, the author of Hebrews brings it to a whole other level saying, “…for they are keeping watch over your souls as those who will have to give an account.” Yes elders are shepherds of the congregation and are truly responsible to the congregation for how they shepherd. But there is a great Shepherd they must answer to, the Good Shepherd Himself, Christ. To Christ, then, every under-shepherd will have to give an answer for how he led, cared for, admonished, taught, pursued, counseled, and loved Christ’s sheep. 1 Peter 5:2-4 speaks of this weightiness also when it calls elders to, “…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. And when the chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory.” God truly gives the elders and increased responsibility but with that comes an increased accountability.[4] Knowing that God is ultimately the one with whom the elder has to deal, is also another reason why sleep can easily flee. God’s people are just that, His people. Elders don’t have people, they shepherd God’s people. Elders don’t want to harm them but help them. This demands a God-given discernment, that must be pled for in the early hours of the morning.

v17 doesn’t end there. We’ve seen the duty of the people, the duty of the elders, and now the author adds one more phrase to v17 and in that phrase we see our last point…

Shared Delight In These Duties

v17 ends by saying, “Let them do this with joy and not with groaning for that would be of no advantage to you.” This final phrase calls the people to so live underneath the authority of their elders that the elders find shepherding them a joy and not a source of grief or groaning. Why? So all would benefit. The opposite of this is just as true. As all benefit when the people obey and submit, so too, all are wounded/stunted when the people disobey and refuse to submit. See here not only that personal actions have congregational implications, see here that God calls you to a shared delight with your elders. A delight that is deep and rich and joyful in the care of your soul. For the people to pursue this joy and for the elders to pursue this joy will profit the whole people.[5] Paul thanked the Philippians for this in Phil. 1:3-4, “I thank my God in all my remembrance of you, always in every prayer of mine for you all making my prayer with joy…” Paul thanked the Thessalonians for this as well, telling them in 1 Thess. 2:19-20, “For what is our hope or joy or crown of boasting before our Lord Jesus at His coming? Is it not you? For you are our glory and joy.” And again in 1 Thess. 3:9, “For what thanksgiving can we return to God for you, for all the joy that we feel for your sake before our God…”

I want to be careful here, lest too much is given to the elder. v17 has been abused from pastors all around the globe in strong arming congregations to bend to their own desires. When, in reality, v17 is a call for pastors to have joy in serving and loving a people who take joy in having their souls attended to. Both the people and the elders must be willingly gracious with each other, or both their joy will be small.


Let me sum all this up briefly. Paul, the apostles, and every elder ever since are not Christ. Christ is Christ. That is clear. But when elders lead like Christ, and the people submit to them like Christ, the joy of Christ abounds in all. True leadership within the Church and true membership within the Church is always a reflection of the gospel. What is the gospel? It’s the good news that “Christ loved the church and gave Himself up for her, that He might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that He might present the church to Himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish” (Eph 5:25-27). The love of Christ toward His Church is a costly love. It’s a sacrificial love. It’s a love loaded with good news. This gospel love is a model for how the elders are to lead and love the congregation as under-shepherds. This gospel love is also a model for how the people obey, submit to, and follow the elders. And this gospel love creates gospel joy among the congregation when both the elders and the people respond to one another as they’re called to. So true leadership within the Church begins by the gospel, is upheld by the gospel, and lasts by the gospel.

But, perhaps you think this is all too arranged, or structured and think because of this heavy structure that true love cannot be possible within the Church. People submitting and obeying, elders ruling and leading. Authority is too often abused, why can’t we all just gather together and worship God? Why does there have to be any kind of authority or system of leadership in the church? Well, as much as some want to throw out the baby with the bathwater when it comes to authority…without the authority of church leadership the church would feel like a car with no controls, a busy intersection with no traffic lights, a board game with no rules, a home with no parents, and a road with no guard rails. A church without the authority of leadership may go on for sometime, but in time it would not only become chaotic, it would become tragic.[6] Sure there are many bullies in the pulpit and these men will have to give an account of that one day, but don’t overlook the fact that bullies can also exist in the pew. You may think it’s your calling to keep the pastor humble or in line, it’s not. It’s your job to live joyfully under the leadership of the elders, and it’s the elder’s job to lead faithfully under the Great and Good Shepherd, Christ.

Perhaps I can say it like this: God intends the elders to rule with a loving and sacrificial authority and God intends the people to submit with a loving and sacrificial willingness so that there would be order within His Church. This order is not meant to hinder freedom, but exists to let the good things run free. What are the good things that run free in a church under a healthy grace based gospel leadership? Gospel truth, gospel joy, and gospel growth.




[1] John MacArthur, The MacArthur New Testament Commentary: Hebrews, page 440.

[2] R. Kent Hughes, Hebrews – An Anchor for the Soul, Preaching the Word Commentary, page 463.

[3] Thomas Aquinas quoted Luke 2:8 in his own exposition of Hebrews 13:17, see Kent Hughes, page 463.

[4] Ibid., page 464.

[5] John Piper, Desiring God, page 306.

[6] Mark Dever, Nine Marks of a Healthy Church, page 255.

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