When faced with difficult questions, we should look to the Bible for answers.
What does the Bible mean when it says to “obey those who rule over you” (Hebrews 13:17, NKJV)? There’s been a lot of debate, misunderstanding, and misuse of this passage. Many Christians have been hurt by pastors who have used this as a bludgeon and many church-going Christians have cavalierly ignored it to the detriment of the congregations in which they worship. What does Hebrews 13:17 really mean?
What is Hebrews 13 About?
Let’s of course understand that the early church added the chapters and verses. The books of the Bible were originally penned without these reference points. Thus, to understand Hebrews 13, it’s appropriate to look at the entire book of Hebrews. And the focus of the epistle to the Hebrews is a call to “perfection” or completion. God’s people are called to live out their lives in sacrificial devotion to the Lord Jesus Christ as they continually grow and develop as disciples.
In this context, the writer of Hebrews shows how the revelation of God to mankind as unfolded in ways that emphasize this growth toward perfection. As Dr. Elmer Towns put it, the key word or theme in Hebrews is “better.” Hebrews show us that “Christ is better than the angels, better than Moses, better than the Aaronic priesthood, and better than the Old Testament Law.” The entire book centers on the “superiority of Christ to Old Testament rituals,” and thus calls on us to perfect our own lives by centering them on Christ.
In the course of the book of Hebrews, there’s much the writer says about maturity, sin, study, sacrifice, prayer, and faith. By the time we get to the thirteenth chapter of Hebrews, the writer is bringing his overall exhortation to conclusion by giving us practical ways in which we can insure that we are, in fact, bettering ourselves as disciples of Christ.
What Does Hebrews Say About Pastors?
The book of Hebrews reminds us that we’ve moved beyond the Old Testament system of laws and priests, but still emphasizes the need for assembly (Hebrews 10:25) and spiritual authority (Hebrews 13:7, 17). In so doing, the writer of Hebrews gives exhortations that are wholly consistent with other New Testament teachings on churches and pastors. We do not need the church as an institution to impart grace to us. God has given us grace through Christ. We do not need priests, pastors, or spiritual leaders as any kind of go-between. Christ is our go-between. We do not need churches, pastors, priests, or anything of the sort in any kind of legalistic manner. Instead, pastors and churches are there for our benefit as we move on toward “perfection.”
In Hebrews 13, the writer hones in on how we can best benefit from churches in general and pastors in particular. In addition to of course attending (see Hebrews 10:25), we should ”[r]emember those who rule over you, who have spoken the word of God to you, whose faith follow, considering the outcome of their conduct” (Hebrews 13:7) and “obey” or (depending on the translation) “submit to” to their spiritual leadership (Hebrews 13:17).
What Does it Mean to Submit to a Pastor?
As with any passage, context is key to understanding it. This is not a command for unconditional submission or obedience, nor is it prohibiting members from disagreeing with the pastor or offering constructive criticism. It’s simply a recognition of the responsibility and authority God has placed on pastors. Church-going Christians should “submit” in the following manner:
- “Remember” their pastor – The should take note of the importance of the pastor’s call and recognize the importance of the work. They should value that call, respect it, and pray for the pastor accordingly.
- Follow their example – Since pastors are called to a high standard of living (I Timothy 3), Christians are urged to look to their example and draw inspiration from it.
- “Obey” or “submit” to their spiritual authority – Church members are expected to follow the leadership of their pastor, to let their pastor lead.
This is all in the context of church leadership and spiritual example. Pastors do not have a right to exert authority into an individual Christian’s home, personal finances, employment, or community. In other words, the pastor doesn’t have the right to give you orders when it comes to how you raise your children, spend your money, handle your career, or live in your community. If a pastor tries to do this, that pastor is stepping way outside the biblical guidelines of spiritual leadership and stepping into the realm of abuse. Such abuse is how many cults operate.
The pastor does have the right to exhort you or call attention to areas in your life that he perceives are out of sync with what God says. That’s definitely his role, so long as he backs it up with Scripture and is doing so with the right motive (namely concern for you and out of sincere love for and obedience to God). As a pastor, I can tell someone that it’s wrong for them to thus-and-so (and show them from the Bible why it’s wrong), but I don’t have the right to force them to heed my words. That’s between them and God.
A pastor also has the responsibility to teach and lead the congregation to which God has called him. As the late Adrian Rogers once said, the pastor’s job is to “feed and lead.” While different churches may assign varying levels of authority to the pastor, the pastor does have the overall role of leadership in the church. That’s clearly taught in Scripture and is generally the case with evangelical churches across the board. This means the pastor will sometimes make people unhappy. That’s the nature of leadership. Sometimes, pastors preach on topics or in ways that make people uncomfortable. Sometimes, pastors make changes that don’t always sit well with the churches they lead. Sometimes, pastors have to say “no” to church member requests. Sometimes, a pastor will ask people to step out of their Comfort Zones. The bottom line is that the pastor, like any leader, cannot make everyone happy and will sometimes make at least a few people unhappy.
Most of you reading this will nod and agree with the above paragraph, but remember….Sometimes, the person made unhappy will be YOU. How’s your loyalty and spirit of submission then?
Even though pastors are imperfect and even though you will not always agree with your pastor, please remember that a pastor needs the love, prayers, support, respect and cooperation of those within the congregation in order to effectively fulfill his God-given responsibility of watch care and leadership.
How to Criticize a Pastor
What if the pastor is wrong? What if the pastor has done something to hurt you? What if the pastor is leading the church in a way that you find inconsistent with God’s Word or flawed in some other way? How do you criticize the pastor?
If a pastor is corrupt or has, in some way, violated the standards of a biblical elder, look to the Scriptures and your church’s Constitution & Bylaws in how you should lovingly investigate the issues or situation – and, as appropriate, lovingly remove the pastor. This sometimes needs to happen. And when it does, such a situation needs to dealt with openly, wisely, humbly, clearly, and prayerfully.
In most cases, conflicts between pastors and parishioners (if I can use that term) do not rise to the level of corruption or even doctrinal disagreement. In most cases, conflict revolves around issues of personality, style, and a difference in vision or priorities. In this respect, it’s important that you carefully examine the foundation of the conflict and ask yourself whether it’s worth the attention, anxiety, or focus that you’re perhaps giving it. Are you holding the pastor to proper, reasonable expectations? If you feel the pastor is wrong, do you base that assessment on your feelings or on some objective standard (such as the Bible)? If you feel the conflict is important, how do you handle a conflict with the pastor in such cases? As with any question, the best place to look for the answer is in God’s Word. Here are some great Bible passages that deal with conflict:
- “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in Your sight, O Lord, my strength and my Redeemer.” -Psalm 19:14
- “And just as you want men to do to you, you also do to them likewise.” -Luke 6:31
- “Moreover if your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he hears you, you have gained your brother. But if he will not hear, take with you one or two more, that ‘by the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established.’ And if he refuses to hear them, tell it to the church. But if he refuses even to hear the church, let him be to you like a heathen and a tax collector.” -Matthew 18:15-17
- “Therefore, as the elect of God, holy and beloved, put on tender mercies, kindness, humility, meekness, longsuffering; bearing with one another, and forgiving one another, if anyone has a complaint against another; even as Christ forgave you, so you also must do. But above all these things put on love, which is the bond of perfection.” -Colossians 3:12-14
- ” ‘Be angry, and do not sin’: do not let the sun go down on your wrath, nor give place to the devil.” -Ephesians 4:26-27
- “Let no corrupt word proceed out of your mouth, but what is good for necessary edification, that it may impart grace to the hearers.” -Ephesians 4:29
When it comes to criticizing pastors, are you following the above verses? There are many other such passages. Do a study on conflict and reconciliation in the Bible. Make sure that you are offering criticism and handling conflict in a manner that glorifies God.
Pray for your Pastors
Pastors aren’t perfect. They are people. As people, they are sinners like you, me, and anyone else. They also have weaknesses, emotions, and difficulties like anyone else. Make sure your expectations are fair and reasonable. And make sure that your attitude toward your pastor always reflects the love and grace God has shown you – and is consistent with how you would want people to approach you (see Golden Rule). Most of all, remember your pastor in prayer.
A lot of our problems would go away and a lot of our conflicts would disappear if we spent less time complaining and criticizing – and more time loving and praying.
May God bless you, your church, and your pastor.
**For more on this topic, check out “Pastoral Leadership vs Pastoral Care: What Does the Bible Say About Pastoral Ministry and the Role of a Pastor?”