Obey and Submit to our Elders

To help prepare us to recognise new elders, our pastors have been considering what the Bible says about the roles, qualifications and spiritual gifting of an elder. But what about the role of the church? This week, Pastor Oliver reveals what God has to say about our role and disposition towards our elders. 

"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 (ESV)

Obeying and submitting? Don't we naturally react against these concepts? Culturally, our bent is either towards embracing self-determinism or towards rejecting authoritarianism. With our accomplishments and abilities, we tend towards wanting to control our own lives and determine decisions for ourselves. We say "no one tells me what to do!" Or we have experienced past abuse by authority figures – they expected strict obedience, without caring or showing concern for us. We then react and say "I will no longer be subject to anyone!". It is no wonder we view any call to obedience and submission with suspicion and distrust.

Scripture in Hebrews 13:17, however, tells us to "Obey your leaders and submit to them". Who are we to obey and submit to? The leaders of the church who spoke to you the Word of God (Heb 13:7a). Leaders of the church – the elders guide and protect God's flock according to God's Word, which is their authority. Their authority is derived or borrowed authority – the authority that comes from God's Word. The command to the church is then to obey and submit to their leaders as they lead from God's Word. "Obey" here means to be persuaded by, to be convinced by, to trust and be ready to be led. "Submit" here means to yield or to give way to. These commands when taken together, the thrust is for the church to incline towards trusting their leaders. The church is to have a disposition that is supportive of their elders.

The reason for doing so? "For they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account." God has charged his under-shepherds with the responsibility of watching over His flock. The sheep have the responsibility to follow their elders, but the elders have to be diligent in keeping watch over the sheep. God will hold them accountable for the wellbeing of His sheep. Elders are ultimately held accountable by God for the wellbeing of the congregation – a heavy responsibility indeed.

Hebrews 13:17 urges us to obey and submit to our leaders so that our leaders' efforts will be "with joy and not with groaning", as they commit to shepherding the church. If these attitudes are lacking, the leaders will "groan" as though under a heavy burden. If members of the church behaved in ways that lead to the leaders' commitment becoming burdensome, it would be "be of no advantage to you” – it would not benefit the church! If the church inclines to trust and support their elders, it will be a thing of joy and beauty as the church work together for the sake of the gospel.

The elders are to be recognised by the church as gifts from God for the good of the church. The church should trust, protect, respect and honour its elders. It should also submit to the elders' guidance and care. The elders, on their part, are to exemplify godliness and to exercise their authority with love and humility, for the building up of the church and the sake of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

A podcast by John Piper is available on Desiring God's website for those of us who wish to study this passage further.


This Sunday we will hear a message from Hosea 4:1-6:3. You can prepare your hearts by reading this passage before this Sunday Service as you reflect on God our judge who will punish covenant transgressors who refuse to know Him.

Our Young Adults will be away on their annual retreat from Thursday 14 Jun to Sunday 17 Jun. Do pray for them to find rest and refreshment from God's Word during this time and for their growth in Christ-likeness.