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)
Beginning in Hebrews 12:28, the author of the epistle takes up the matter of acceptable worship. We can rightly think of worship as the single occupation of God’s people in the church. In chapter 13, we see how acceptable worship is lived out in the lives of those who love the Lord Jesus Christ. Acceptable worship is the fruit of lips (13:15) – an offering of praise and thanksgiving, confessing the name of Jesus. True worship also consists of practically loving others (13:1), showing hospitality (2), remembering those in prison (3), honoring marriage (4) and living sacrificially (5-6) in submission to sound spiritual leadership (7, 17). The leaders of the church in turn are responsible for the demanding task of guiding members committed to their care. The responsibility is grave as every spiritual leader must give a special account to the Lord, the Head of the church and great Shepherd of the sheep.
In the early church, with all the contributions made by its members, obedience and submission was always expected for its leadership (1 Cor 16:16, 1 Thes 5:12-13, 1 Pet 5:5). Congregationalism does not negate the need for sound leaders; and leadership will always be accountable to the church (13:9) and to God (Jas 3:1). Of course, the church is not exhorted to submit to leaders who deviate from the Gospel (13:9), but they are to remember, honor, obey and submit only to the authority of those faithful leaders in their local church. Obedience is linked to trust. When a church obeys its leaders, it is like saying, “we trust this man to lead us in the gospel without being influenced by strange teaching.”
The reason for the church’s trust and submission lies in the special responsibility that leaders have, to watch over (literally, “sleeplessly watching”) the spiritual lives of their church. This fits in with the New Testament description of its leadership as “overseers” (Acts 20:28, Phil 1:1, 1 Tim 3:2, Titus 1:7, 1 Pet 5:2). The elder must be sober, alert, and watchful and is trusted based upon his accepting the responsibility for shepherding the souls of those in his care. The tedious work of shepherding is made joyful in an atmosphere of trust and cooperation. By contrast, leaders groan under the heavy burden of the lack of trust; and this in turn is detrimental to the health of the congregation. Submitting to the sound oversight of leaders who are faithful to the Gospel of grace is synonymous with submitting to God and the gospel itself. Godly shepherds diligently and tirelessly strengthen their flock with the hope that anchors their soul to heaven.