Hebrews 13:17 is one of those verses I’d rather not write about. And at the same time, it’s one we really need to talk about. But, especially in our hyper-individualistic, pursue your own dreams, go against the grain, stick it to the man, fierce-independent thinking society, there is almost no way to make today’s verse something that will be popular. I wouldn’t expect to get any good, viral quotes out of today’s devotional. There probably won’t be anything that’s fun to read let alone share. Nevertheless, we must talk about it. Because it was important enough to be included in the text. And we’re not Thomas Jefferson, so we can’t just cut out the parts that we don’t like. It’s all there for a reason.
What is this controversial text? “Have confidence in your leaders and submit to their authority, because they keep watch over you as those who must give an account. Do this so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no benefit to you.”
I had lunch with a pastor today and I mentioned how this was the text I had to cover next. He talked about how the entire foundation of our country is built on rebellion and sticking to the man. Then we talked about how it was the rebels who took the long trail west. I also shared my thoughts on the fact that the majority of technology that dominates our society today was developed on the west coast by the offspring of those rebels. My point?
Rebellion is literally woven into the fabric of our society. And, I would argue that because of technology, it’s being more and more woven into the world as a whole. As if our original rebellion against God wasn’t enough. We’ve turned it into a sport for profit.
The reality of the situation we are in is, if you want to be a true rebel, be submissive. There is nothing rebellious about doing the exact same thing every other human on the planet is doing. That’s not rebellion that’s conformity. For all the talk about being non-conformists, why does everyone act exactly the same? If you want to be a true non-conformist, submit to the authorities in your life. That’s a radical thought.
That said, some specificity is necessary. Paul makes the case in some of his letters for submitting to the governing authorities. We don’t have time to get into his argument in detail, but I do want to point something out. I have often heard that we only have to submit to authority as long as it doesn’t violate our conscience. Of course, we “take that to mean” we don’t have to submit to governing authorities in any way when disagree with them on the tiniest of issues. But, that’s not Paul’s argument in Romans 13. He actually says: “Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience.” Isn’t that interesting. Now, if you’re legitimately being ordered to rebel against God, well that’s different. But, if you’re using the fact that you have a difference of economic theory as a reason not to submit to your authority, I don’t see how you can use scripture to justify such a rebellion. “The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves.”
But, like I said, that’s not the point. Because the author of Hebrews is not arguing for the readers to submit to their governing authorities, he is arguing for them (us) to submit to their spiritual authorities. “Have confidence in your leaders and submit to their authority, because they keep watch over you as those who must give an account. Do this so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no benefit to you.” Who are they who must give an account? Your Spiritual Shepherds.
James 3:1 says: “Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly.” Anyone who takes on the role of teaching people God’s word, teaching people about God and how to follow God is going to be judged more strictly. All teachers will have to give an account. It’s a serious calling.
1 Timothy 4:16 says, “Pay close attention to yourself and to your teaching; persevere in these things, for as you do this you will ensure salvation both for yourself and for those who hear you.” Did you hear that? The teaching of Spiritual leaders doesn’t just ensure salvation for the teacher but for those who hear. That’s a lot of responsibility.
I’ll be honest with you. This is a hard verse to teach because I know firsthand how little confidence people in our time have in their spiritual authorities. Unfortunately, there has been a lot of abuse under spiritual authorities in our time. A lot of people have been deeply wounded. There have been leaders who haven’t taken their role as spiritual shepherds with enough weight and have instead used it to manipulate, control and abuse. It’s disgusting.
The call on spiritual leaders is high: “Shepherd the flock of God among you, exercising oversight . . . not for sordid gain, but with eagerness; nor yet as lording it over those allotted to your charge, but proving to be examples to the flock.” 1 Pet 5:2-3
But, because some have abused their position, does that mean we never have to trust or submit to another authority in our lives? Yes.
Wait. No it doesn’t. But, we have translated it that way. Because we can’t trust some (albeit a true, legitimate minority), we aren’t going to trust any.
Those leaders who have abused their position will have to give an account. And they will be judged harshly by God for what they did or didn’t do. By God. They will be judged by God. Not us. But, what we’ve done is to not only take God’s job as judge against those who have abused their position, we have also applied that same level of judgement against all spiritual authorities everywhere. Because some catholic priests have abused children, we assume all catholic priests are untrustworthy. Because some evangelical pastors have been unfaithful to their spouses, we assume they are all pigs. Because some leaders have used the church to line their pockets, we don’t trust any leader with finances.
So, not only do we refuse to submit. We are intentionally stubborn and resistant. Now we think it’s the pastor’s job to do their job the way I think they should do their job. And when they don’t we critique them as being abusive, manipulative, lazy or incompetent.
But, according to today’s text, in the situation the church is in today, it’s not the spiritual leaders who are in the wrong. Sure, those who make such mistakes mentioned above are in the wrong. And they need to repent. I would hope the church would be a place of grace and walk alongside such brokenness in the same way we expect pastors to walk alongside the brokenness of their congregants. But, that’s not my point.
As unpopular as it may be for me to say this, when any of us make the choice NOT to submit to our spiritual authorities, we are in the wrong. “But,” you may say, “I didn’t agree with the pastor’s decision!” or “I didn’t agree with the elders!” or whomever the spiritual authority may be. To which my response would be, and…so what…There is no agreement clause in this text or any text in scripture. “Have confidence in your leaders and submit to their authority unless they do something you don’t like. Then feel free to rake them over the coals, leave the church, gossip and talk trash about them behind their back and do everything within your power to make their life a living hell.” Not that that has ever happened.
No, we are just supposed to submit. Why? Because they keep watch over you as those who must give an account. They are your shepherds. Believe it or not, the majority of pastors are looking out for your best interests, especially your best spiritual interests. I can almost guarantee that what they want most for your life is God’s absolute best. That’s what I want for our people.
But, if I can be honest again, there are a lot of days when the work of a pastor in our time is not a joy. I cannot tell you how many conversations I’ve had with people seeking my advice, seeking what scripture says about a topic, which I do my best to graciously give. And then they just flat out choose their own way. That’s hard.
However, I think it might be harder to love someone unconditionally who is never going to trust you, follow you, listen to you or even give you the benefit of the doubt that your desires for them aren’t manipulative. It sure sounds to me like there were people who were making the job of leaders amongst the Hebrews difficult with their resistance.
What’s my point in this really long post? As with anything else in Scripture, we don’t get to choose what we are and aren’t going to embrace. It’s our job to work at incorporating it all into our lives. And there’s a reason. Especially for this specific teaching.
Rebellion is the foundational problem of humanity. As much as it is celebrated in our time, rebellion is THE thing that got us evicted from God’s paradise. Wanting to do things our way is why the garden was closed off and guarded. You may not like it. You may not like your pastor or spiritual authority. Still, that doesn’t give you the right to refuse to submit to their authority. They are there because God wants them there. If God didn’t want them there, they wouldn’t be there. That’s true for all leaders around the globe.
The whole of following Christ is trust. If you haven’t noticed, we can’t see God. It’s hard to trust someone you can’t see. But, do you know who you can see? Your pastor. Your shepherd. Your spiritual leaders. Belief is very close to trust. Some argue trust would be a better translation of the word. Trusting God is going to be hard if you can’t trust the pastor God has put over you.
Do you want to blow your pastor away? Just start submitting to what they say as if their intention was to help you become more like Christ. And see if that doesn’t change you and your perception of your pastor. Do your best to make the work your pastor does a joy instead of a burden. And if you’ve made it a burden, it might be good to apologize.
Or you can keep being a rebel like every other person on the planet. The choice, because we love you and God loves you, really is up to you. And no matter what you choose, we will keep on loving you. Because that’s how Jesus loves.