Soul Care and Submission (Hebrews 13:17)
Topic: The Church Passage: Hebrews 13:17
Soul Care and Submission
(One Body: Each Part Working Properly)
May 14th, 2017
I. A Selling Point?
When's the last time you heard about a church highlighting the submissiveness of its people as a selling point?
I've heard about churches that highlight the friendliness of their people, or the diversity of their people, or the community-mindedness of their people, or the relevance or relatability of their people. But the submissiveness of their people?
When it comes to our life together as the church, submissiveness is not usually a hot topic. But as we will see from God's word this morning, it is a topic that is near and dear to the heart of God.
Turn over in your Bible to Hebrews 13. We are looking this morning, we are digging this morning, into verse 17 of this chapter.
II. The Passage: “Let Them Do This with Joy” (13:17)
This is the same verse we heard shared at the beginning of our Gathering, but let me read it again. As I do, think carefully about how God is speaking to you through it. The writer states:
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 right away, we see that this passage talks about leaders in the church, as well as those they lead. Now clearly the verse contains an instruction for those being led. But did you notice it also says a lot about those who are leading? And I would argue that those two parts of this verse are inseparable.
So to both understand and apply this verse, let's begin with the description we have here, a description of those leading.
1. A Description of Those Leading (v. 17b)
It is not difficult to make a case for the existence of leaders in the NT church. There have been some throughout the centuries and there are some today that argue the church really shouldn't have any designated leaders. For these, the idea of leadership in the church seems inconsistent with the idea of equality in the church.
But clearly, this verse, without extensive argument or qualification, refers to leaders over God's people and our response to them as God's people.
You see, the issue with Jesus and the other voices of the NT was not about the legitimacy of leadership. The issue was always the nature of leadership.
So from the description here in verse 17, what do we learn about church leadership, specifically the nature of church leadership? I see here three aspects of NT leadership, all revolving around the work of soul care.
For example, the first thing we see in verse 17 is that these leaders were entrusted with the work of soul care.
A few chapters earlier, the writer encouraged his struggling readers with these words: But we are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who have faith and preserve their souls. (10:39)
Endurance in the truth about Jesus, specifically the superiority of Jesus, is the theme of this entire letter. The writer cares deeply about his readers' souls and the preservation of their souls. And this kind of spiritual care and concern is the very thing that characterizes the church's leadership. They are “keeping watch over your souls”.
This is precisely the work to which Paul called the elders in the church at Ephesus. In Acts 20:28, he charged them with these words: Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood.
It isn't surprising then that these elders were also called pastors, that is, shepherds. Just a real shepherd keeps watch over his flock with care and concern, so too do these spiritual shepherds.
Think about this: how precious is your soul? Didn't Jesus touch on this in our passage last week? For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul? (Mark 8:36) Clearly, according to Jesus, your soul is your most precious possession. Did you know God put church leaders in your life to help you protect and provide for and preserve your soul?
But this verse also tells us that those entrusted with, are also accountable for the work of soul care. Did you see that? The author of Hebrews stated such leaders are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account.
Paul described his work of soul care like this: This is how one should regard us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God.  Moreover, it is required of stewards that they be found faithful. (I Corinthians 4:1, 2)
To be a steward is to be a manager of someone else's treasure. Good stewards know they must be faithful with that which does not belong to them, and good stewards know they will have to answer, at some point, to the one to whom it does belong. This is true for every leader who watches over souls. And such leaders must carry out this work of oversight as those overseen.
That's a pretty sobering thought, isn't it? Being called to a work of caring for an incredibly precious commodity, souls, as stewards entrusted with God's flock, who will one day have to give an account before His heavenly throne.
But even as daunting as that sounds, we also see here that such leaders are to be delighted by the work of soul care. The ideal the writer has in mind is a dynamic within the church characterized by leaders who joyfully watch over God's people. As we here, this is not always the case, but it should be the ideal.
So if we take all of this into consideration, what kind of leader is being described here? It's the same kind of leader Peter is encouraging in I Peter 5:1-4. Listen how he exhorts the elder/pastors of the church or churches to whom he writes:
So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed:  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.
2. An Instruction for Those They Lead (v. 17a, c)
But the central thrust of Hebrews 13:17 is instructive, rather than descriptive. And the instruction the writer gives to those led is clear from the start. It can be summarized in two keywords from that verse: obey and submit.
Moreover, it's clear that the obedience and submission mentioned here is not only to be rendered or exercised, but is to be exercised in such a way that the leadership can fully enjoy their work. I think writer is speaking against everything from outright rebellion and divisiveness to lip service and begrudging compliance.
Now, think about those words: “obey” and “submit”. those sound like pretty no-nonsense words, don't they? They sound pretty authoritarian don't they? They sound like the kind of words that might make me uncomfortable as the teacher this morning, especially since this is talking about OUR relationships, me and you...right?
But there is no reason for me to be ashamed or uncomfortable, and there is no reason for you to be concerned. Remember how Jesus spoke about leaders in Luke 22? Listen to how he uses that word, the same word for leader used in our main verse. Jesus told his disciples:
And he said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them, and those in authority over them are called benefactors.  But not so with you. Rather, let the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves. (22:24-25)
So true and godly leadership in the church should not and cannot smell like authoritarianism. As Peter encouraged those elders, it should not and cannot be marked by a domineering spirit. So if that's true, what do we do with these words obey and submit?
Well the first thing we need to know about these words is that they are not the usual NT words for obedience and submission. There are a number of passages in the NT that speak about authority structures in the government, workplace, and home, and our response to those in authority, but these are not those words.
The Greek word translated “obey” here is typically translated as “persuade”, “trust”, or “have confidence in”. And so it helpful to think about this instruction in terms of those terms. Does it sound any different to you if we translate this instruction as “be persuaded by your leaders”? Or “Trust your leaders”? Or “have confidence in your leaders”?
There is a different feel to that, isn't there? To be clear, this does not mean the writer is not encouraging his readers to obey their leaders. But his choice of words to make that point is very important. More about that in a minute.
Think about that next word: “submit”. Interestingly, this is the only time this word appears in the New Testament. It come from a root word meaning, “to be weak”, and conveys the sense of yielding.
But think about what the opposite of this would look like. The author is calling his readers to trust their leaders and yield to their work of soul care. Not to be rebellious. Not to be contentious. Not to be stubborn or arrogant or difficult. Now as you think about that picture, I don't think any of us want to be painted with that brush. That's not who we want to be.
So what have we seen? We've learned that church leaders are entrusted with, accountable for, and to be delighted by the work of soul care. And in response to that important work, God's people are to be led with a trusting and yielding heart.
III. Who's the Boss?
As you think about the evangelical church today, it might be good to ask, “How well are we doing in these things?” Is the church a place in which joyful soul care before the face of God is central? Is that what leaders are trained for and striving for? In the same way, is the church a place where God's people are following such leaders with soft, trusting hearts?
Like we said at the outset, submissiveness is not a quality you hear highlighted when it comes to healthy or successful churches. But shouldn't it be? Yes, so many church leaders and church goers have a consumer mentality when it comes to the church. Those leaders say, “This is our business and this is what we have to offer.” And n the other side, members ask, “Show me what you have to offer and how I can get it?” Clearly, if you color it like that, submissiveness is an irrelevant concept.
But that is not how God's word describes the relationship between church leaders and those led. Leaders are loving shepherds serving under the Chief Shepherd, Jesus Christ. And isn't it important for sheep to trust and yield to such shepherds?
But for many, especially those who have been hurt by abusive church leaders, or those who have, for one reason or another, a general distrust of those they see in positions of authority, there is still this nagging question: “Who's the boss?”
Are these leaders in charge of me (which may not be safe), or am I ultimately in charge of me (which generally feels safer to most people). Well, the answer is “neither”! Who's the boss? God is the boss. Listen to what the author of Hebrews says earlier in this chapter about leaders. This is actually where our discussion begins. Look at verses 7-9...
Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith.  Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.  Do not be led away by diverse and strange teachings, for it is good for the heart to be strengthened by grace, not by foods, which have not benefited those devoted to them.
At first glance, it almost seems like these verses don't go together. But they do. Let me explain. First of all, look at what the writer points out about their leaders. Two things: first, he points out how they faithfully preached God's word, and second, he points out how they faithfully lived out God's word.
And, verse 8, that faithfulness, that consistency, is a reflection of Jesus Christ, who is the same yesterday and today and forever. That is a call to persevere, to not change course. Why? Because Christ does not change. For these readers the temptation was to go back into Judaism, or some form of Judaism, labeled in verse 9 as “diverse and strange teachings”.
But I don't want you to miss what this is saying about authority. What is authoritative here is not ultimately church leaders or their office per se. What is authoritative is God's word. God is the boss. God's word faithfully preached and faithfully modeled is what the writer is highlighting here. Do you see that?
And this is what helps us make better sense of the first word in verse 17, the summary word for our response to church leadership: obey. Remember what I said? This word is not the typical NT word for “obey”. It is a word typically translated as “persuade”, “trust”, or “have confidence in”. And so we might ask, “What should be persuasive, what should inspire confidence in terms of such leaders?” The answer is the word of God.
As a leader in the church, God's call on my life is to serve you by proclaiming and practicing the word of God in the midst of this church family. Those are the leadership tools of a biblical pastor/elder. Leaders who depend more on decrees and pressure and playing favorites and micro-managing are not practicing biblical, servant leadership. It should be God's word in my life, both proclaimed and practiced, that inspires confidence in you.
But consider your response. If you were rock climbing up a sheer cliff face, what kind of guide would you want leading you? One that barked orders from below? Maybe someone who seemed unfamiliar with the area? Or one that could show you the map of footholds and places to put your hands; one that went ahead and showed you what it looked like, not perfectly, but with encouragement? Would it be of any advantage to you to be indifferent or distant, disagreeable or divisive with such a guide? Not if you wanted to get to the top.
Christian, God's plan is to get you to the top. And to do that, He has provided leaders for his church. As those leaders seek to do that weighty work of soul care, will you joyfully and regularly follow their lead? Will you pray for them? And encourage them? May the love and leadership of the Good Shepherd, Jesus Christ, motivate and guide us as we look to the under-shepherds He is using to bless you. Amen? Amen!
More in The Essentials: One Body
July 9, 2017When You Don't Come to Church (Hebrews 10:24, 25)
June 11, 2017When You Live Under God's Roof (I Timothy 3:14, 15)
April 9, 2017The Church-Building Heart (Ephesians 4:31, 32)