God desires for his people to live in subjection to the individual and institutional authorities he places over them. He commands us to yield to the governing bodies (Rom. 13:1-7), our parents (Eph. 6:1), our employers (1 Pet. 2:13-25), and our spiritual leaders (1 Pet. 5:5). Sure, there are circumstances in which we must disobey these human authorities. If the government demands that we recant our faith, if our parents insist that we do something immoral, if our boss asks us to do something illegal, or if our pastor preaches heresy, we must obey God rather than men (Acts 5:29). But as long as those who are in authority over us are not leading us into sin, we are expected to submit to them—especially to those whom he has appointed to watch over our souls.
Pastors/elders/shepherds/overseers—the Bible uses all these terms interchangeably—are gifted and godly men whom God endows with authority to lead and care for local churches. These men, if they are faithful in their calling, are not power-hungry, boss-like control freaks. They do not view themselves as superior to their congregations but as servants of their congregations. They do not abuse their authority but rather use it to build up the believers under their care (2 Cor. 13:10). They strive to lead as the Scriptures command them to lead:
- “You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mk. 10:42-45).
- “ . . . 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” (1 Pet. 5:2-3).
- “ . . . Preach the word; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching” (2 Tim. 4:2).
Elders are one of God’s most precious gifts to the church. But do we see them as such? Better yet, do we treat them as such? I’ll be honest—when I entered into the church as a new Christian, I was pretty put off by this whole “submit to your elders” thing. My pastors were gracious and gentle men who sincerely loved Jesus and the members of our church. But I just didn’t like the fact that these mere men—sinful and imperfect men, at that—had authority over me. Who were they to exhort me? Who were they to rebuke me? Who were they to have a say-so in various decisions I made? I didn’t have any issue with submitting to God’s authority. But I had tremendous issue with submitting to the pastoral authority of these men.
However, as I continued to study the Scriptures, the Holy Spirit revealed to me that submitting to the elders was something God required of me. To resist their authority was to resist his authority. My reluctance to live in subjection to my pastors was actually an act of defiance against the One who had sovereignly placed me under their care! Upon this realization, I repented of my rebellious, individualistic attitude and began submitting to my elders as the Scriptures commanded me to submit to them:
- “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” (Heb. 13:17).
- “Likewise, you who are younger, be subject to the elders. Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble” (1 Pet. 5:5).
- “Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching” (1 Tim. 5:17).
We who are blessed to have godly leaders should continually give thanks for these men as we gladly submit to their God-given authority. They are not perfect. If the apostle-elder Peter could make mistakes and commit sins (Galatians 2:11-14), you better bet they will, too. But despite their imperfections, our pastors are co-laborers with God (1 Corinthians 3:9) who are working tirelessly to mold us into the people Jesus has called us to be. For their sakes, for our own sakes, and in obedience to God’s command, may we let them do this with joy (Heb. 3:17)!