Submission to the Government of the Church: Is It Biblical?

Stephen D. Doe

New Horizons: May 2004

Obey Your Leaders and Submit to Them

Also in this issue

Who Runs This Church?

Books on Presbyterian Polity

Warren's Purpose Driven Life

Machen Memoir: Fifty Years Later

It may be that the commitment least understood and hardest to keep when people profess their faith as they join the Orthodox Presbyterian Church is the fourth membership vow:

Do you agree to submit in the Lord to the government of this church and, in case you should be found delinquent in doctrine or life, to heed its discipline?

What does this membership vow mean? Is it biblical? Is it important? Is it possible to keep?

As we look for answers, let us listen to Hebrews 13:17:

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.

Who Are These Leaders?

This certainly sounds like the government of the church, but who are these "leaders"? The New Testament speaks of church leaders in a number of ways. There are overseers (bishops) and shepherds (Acts 20:28), elders (Titus 1:5), pastor-teachers (Eph. 4:11), and governors (Rom. 12:8). In Hebrews 13:17, there are "leaders" (the "going-ahead-of-you-ones," the participial form of hegeomai), men whose activity is characterized by being out in front. Just as a shepherd goes ahead of his flock and leads them (Ps. 23:2; John 10:3-4), so these leaders in the church are the first people out of the gate, spiritually speaking. They lead the way in spiritual matters, and therefore are to be remembered (Heb. 13:7), submitted to and obeyed (Heb. 13:17), and greeted with honor (Heb. 13:24). It seems most likely that Hebrews 13:17 is referring to what we call pastors and elders.

What Are They to Do?

These leaders are to be sleepless or watchful. "They are keeping watch...." The Greek word used in Hebrews 13:17 has the idea of chasing sleep away. Christians are to be watchful regarding Christ's return, always alert (Mark 13:33 and Luke 21:36 use the same word), and these leaders are to be attentive like a soldier on guard duty. Because the lives of his buddies depend on his watchfulness, the man on guard duty will struggle against sleep, listening for the sounds of danger. That picture of alertness captures how pastors and elders are supposed to be.

Notice that you are the object of the leaders' careful watch. "They are keeping watch over your souls...." These leaders are concerned for the spiritual welfare of those whom they guard. We are not used to thinking of government being concerned about our spiritual well-being, yet here are men who have a duty to be sleeplessly guarding the health of our souls. We might ask ourselves how much we consider the health of our souls to be worth. Do you value your own soul as much as God tells you to (Matt. 16:25-26)? How gracious God is to give us leaders who are committed to "soul watching"!

God values our souls highly. Therefore, he appoints watchmen to warn us of spiritual danger (cf. Ezek. 3:16-21). We face many grave dangers, like the danger of apostasy (Heb. 6:4-6; 10:26-31) and that of false teachers who act like savage wolves (Acts 20:28-31). What a blessing it is to have watchmen looking out for the safety of our souls, shepherds who search for the straying, nurse the sick and wounded, and comfort the frightened or confused among God's flock (Ezek. 34:1-24; cf. 1 Thess. 5:14). The pastors and elders are tools in the hands of the Chief Shepherd and Overseer of our souls, the Lord Jesus Christ (1 Pet. 2:25). He knows every sheep by name (John 10:3). He never slumbers or sleeps (Ps. 121:4). And the way Christ ordinarily shepherds his beloved sheep is by his Word and Spirit working through faithful leaders whom he graciously gives to the church (Eph. 4:11).

Why Do They Do It?

Why would anyone willingly lose sleep over the spiritual well-being of others? Parents watch through the night when the child they love is ill. A friend may sit for long hours by the bedside of someone who is dear to him. This is the type of love that Jesus Christ shows his sheep, and he shows it through faithful pastors and elders (cf. 1 Thess. 2:7-12). For this reason, the calling of a pastor or elder involves not only love, but also accountability. Hebrews 13:17 tells us that the Lord will make church leaders answer to him for their stewardship. "They are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account." On the great Day of Judgment, there will be a reporting of the faithfulness of men called to be pastors and elders. What have they done with the souls entrusted to them? Have they discharged their duties faithfully, or have they slept on their watch? Have they fed the sheep or fed themselves? Have they been concerned for the spiritual growth of the sheep in their charge, or have they been preoccupied with budgets and schedules and the like? The Lord will hold them to account.

This accountability should make any man tremble. It should make him consider carefully whether he truly desires to be a pastor or elder (1 Tim. 3:1). It is an unbearable burden unless Christ makes a man willing (1 Pet. 5:2), promises a crown of glory to a faithful watchman (1 Pet. 5:1, 4), and sustains him by his grace. But Hebrews 13:17 mentions something else that he gives: joy. "Let them do this with joy...." There is joy for pastors and elders in seeing children added to the covenant community, and then hearing those covenant young people profess their faith. There is joy in seeing God's people use their gifts for the edification of the body. There is joy in encouraging homes to develop according to biblical principles and seeing the church manifest the love of Christ for one another. There is joy in unity, and there is joy in seeing saints persevere in the faith through hard times of life. There is joy in having God's people submit to the spiritual oversight of pastors and elders because church members know they are thereby submitting to Christ.

What Does It Say to Us?

Submission—the word sounds so oppressive. We tend to find it difficult to say yes to the membership vow that calls us to submit. We tend to find it difficult to keep that vow. Yet this is exactly what God himself commands: "Obey your leaders and submit to them...." This is not the implicit obedience that a dictator demands, unquestioning obedience without reservation or doubt. This is obedience set in the context of a church governed, not by the opinions of men, but by Christ himself speaking by his Spirit through his Word. The authority of pastors and elders resides with the Bible. They are to minister the Word of God and declare what it declares, not propound their own ideas and opinions. They may not bind consciences where Scripture does not. Such submission to the leaders, therefore, is ultimately submission to Christ himself, working in our hearts by and with his Word.

Hebrews 13:17 gives imperatives or commands. "Obey your leaders and submit to them...." The fact that these commands to obey and submit are placed first in the verse shows that obedience and submission receive special emphasis. What do these words mean?

There are two things that are involved in our response to the care of pastors and elders. The verb to obey (peitho) means "to be persuaded" or "to follow freely." Obedience is not just blindly following orders. Rather, it indicates that, having trust or confidence in those over us, we follow their lead. It is important to understand that this is much more than mere trust or confidence in men, for the very best of men will fail. Instead, it is ultimately a confidence in the exalted Christ, who gives pastors and elders to his church and works through them for blessing. The second verb, to submit (hypeiko), means "to cease resisting" or "to yield," like one knight yielding to another after a battle.

There is an important difference between these two words. The first means to follow trustingly because you have been persuaded. The second means to follow trustingly even when you disagree. In the second case, you yield to Christ through the men he has given to lead the church by terminating resistance. It is one thing to obey pastors and elders when you are enthusiastic and think they have a great idea. It is another thing to submit to them when you disagree with their decision. In the second case, we submit because we are acting in faith. By faith we trust Christ himself to rule over us by his Word and Spirit through these pastors and elders.

Think of Paul's epistle to the Philippians. For most of the letter, Euodia and Syntyche would have gladly obeyed Paul's commands. But could they submit to his specific admonition to them (Phil. 4:2-3)? They both might have said, "You don't understand how difficult she is to get along with, Pastor Paul." Were they ready to yield to Paul's authority and act against their inclinations? If they did in fact agree with each other in the Lord when it was hard to do so, then they understood submission to the word of Christ as declared through his leaders.

How Does It Affect the Church?

Hebrews 13:17 indicates that the quality of our obedience affects the whole church. "Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you." If we are constantly criticizing and complaining about the pastor and elders, we will cause groaning, not joy. When someone is resentful and critical, believing that the pastor and elders are unworthy of respect or honor, then he is like a burden or weight. Picture yourself sighing because you are wearily facing a thankless task. You scrub the kitchen floor, only to have people keep tracking in more dirt before it even dries, and so you feel tired before you even start. When pastors and elders continually deal with critical people, they can lose energy or desire for their calling. If they are faithful to Scripture, however, the real loser ends up being you! Hebrews 13:17 tells us that when we are unsubmissive to our leaders, it is unprofitable (literally, "no pay") for us.

John Calvin's comments on this verse are very penetrating:

Let us therefore remember that we are paying the penalty of our own obstinacy whenever our pastors grow lax in their duties or are less diligent than they ought to be.

The Scottish commentator John Brown also gives wise counsel:

Put the question, Has he said anything that Christ has not said? If he has, disregard him; if he has not, blame him not—he has but discharged his duty to his Master and to you; and recollect, you cannot in this case disregard the servant without doing dishonor to the Master.... The heart of the minister is discouraged, the great Master is displeased; the tokens of his favor are withdrawn; spiritual barrenness prevails; and the clouds seem, as it were, commanded to rain no rain on the unfruitful vineyard.

The alternative to this conflict is to submit to lawful direction from the pastor and elders with a deeper trust in the Head of the church ruling his people through these leaders. This attitude brings joy to the pastor and elders. Why? Because they get to throw their weight around? No, a faithful pastor or elder has joy because God's people are growing in the truth of the gospel. They rejoice when Christ is honored and when people are repenting, obeying, and believing, for then they see that their labor is not in vain. So there is joy for the entire church.


Is this membership vow easy to keep? No, not always. Is it biblical? Yes, because Christ himself rules his church by his Word and Spirit through the pastors and elders. Is it important? Yes, conflict, joylessness, and the frustration of our Lord's ideals for us and the church often arise because we neglect or refuse to submit to the means that Christ provides for our spiritual well-being. We learn about sovereign grace as we see that Christ uses flawed tools, these leaders, to accomplish his good purposes for his church. He can and does use sinful men because the purpose and power are his. When we scripturally submit, ultimately we are in faith yielding to Christ himself and learning that we cannot rule ourselves.

Thus, it is possible for us to keep this commitment, but only by God's grace and only through faith in Christ. This commitment springs from God's grace, and it requires us to trust—really trust—Christ, the Head of the church. But through believing submission, Christ richly blesses both us and the church.

The author is the pastor of Bethel Reformed Presbyterian Church in Fredericksburg, Va. Reprinted from New Horizons, May 2004.

New Horizons: May 2004

Obey Your Leaders and Submit to Them

Also in this issue

Who Runs This Church?

Books on Presbyterian Polity

Warren's Purpose Driven Life

Machen Memoir: Fifty Years Later

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