As we examine this verse briefly, there are several other considerations to keep in mind.
This verse should be considered in concert with other biblical teaching on submission to leaders, particularly 1 Peter 5:5. It should also be remembered that SUBMITTING weakens the FLESH, demonstrates obedience and encourages the godly leader. In my own life, I find that my flesh is always in need of weakening. Here is a weapon against the flesh.
On the other hand, OBEDIENCE strengthens the spirit of the disciple and brings great reward.
In my own spiritual growth and study of Scripture, I have been struck recently by the simplicity of the Christian life. Life in Christ is a life of obedience to the clear commands of the word of God. Therefore, when the disciple of Christ discovers clear commands in the word of God, the reflex response should be to obey those commands.
Here in Hebrews 13:17, as in 1 Peter 5:5, we have a clear command to submit to the leaders of the church. It is important to note that this submission is not conditional. It is not conditioned on our assessment of the qualifications of our leaders or on my judgment of their biblical knowledge, nor is my submission based on my agreement with everything that they decide to do or ask me to do. In essence, I do not get a vote about what they do, and I am nevertheless called to do what they instruct me to do. That is what it means to submit.
MEANS TO HUMILITY
One of the rarest and most Christ-like of all spiritual virtues is humility; and submitting leads to humility. Submitting is one of the means God has given us to grow in humility, but it does so only with years of practice. Humility as a lifestyle does not come easily or quickly. Rather, humility is gained over time as the sin of pride is identified, is confessed and is repented of and as the flesh is gradually and consistently weakened. As has been said well, “Humility is not thinking less of yourself, but it is thinking of yourself less.”
All believers should seek out opportunities to humble themselves and should praise the Lord when He presents to us an opportunity to exercise humility.
In this verse (Hebrews 13:17), “Obey” and “submit” are both imperatives. Thus these are commands. “Obey” is the action, while “submit” is the attitude. If there are other parts of this verse that are not crystal clear, “obey” and “submit” are clear. In the Scriptures, commands are first to be obeyed and then later to be understood. In fact, the only required action of the disciple is obedience to the command. Because we trust the COMMANDER, then we do not require a justification of the command. In other words, our trust in the Lord makes the question, “Why am I doing this?” unnecessary. I am obeying a command of the Lord because the Lord has commanded me to do so. I obey the commands of Scripture because I am a follower of the Lord Jesus Christ, and a follower of Jesus obeys the commands of Scripture. My default, then, in this verse is to seek to obey and to submit to my leaders.
Now sometimes in God’s infinite mercy and grace, He will tell me why and give me further explanation. In fact, here is this verse, the author gives several justifications for the action that is commanded, and we will look at those in detail later, but my point here is that whether or not the Scripture adds reasons for a command, the command is to be obeyed. The disciple of Christ obeys the commands given in Scripture . . . period. And here the command is clear. “Obey your leaders and submit (to them).”
“. . . for they keep watch as those who will give an account.”
Here we see that leaders in the church are responsible for the decisions they make because they will give an account. The leaders are accountable to God for the way they have shepherded those souls that have been entrusted to them.
“Let them do this with joy and not with grief for this would be unprofitable for you.”
This has applications for both the leaders and for those who are led by them.
For the leaders, the application is indeed sobering. The Chief Shepherd (1 Peter 5:4) is watching to see if the “under-shepherds” are taking their positions seriously and if they are leading humbly and prayerfully. Are they making their decisions and leading their flock by studying the word of God and by praying without ceasing and by listening to the Holy Spirit?
For those who are led, their obedience and submission are motivated by a love for the leaders that Christ has placed over them and by a desire to see those leaders encouraged and to see those leaders filled with joy. My submission to my leaders strengthens the entire church and causes Christ’s light to shine brighter.
But also note that the verse ends with the phrase, “for this would be unprofitable for you.” So there is profit to be lost by not submitting to my leaders. God’s design is for godly leaders to lead the flock with joy and with humble boldness, guiding the flock into new paths of fruitfulness as God works in His people, and for the flock to follow their leaders, eagerly trusting that their leaders are listening to the Lord and knowing that they will give an account to the Lord for how they have led. When God’s design for the local church is carried out, then there is immense profit and “many will see and fear and trust in the Lord (Psalm 40:3).”
SDG rmb 4/7/2018