We began this series in Hebrews 13, and we return there for this next step. Hebrews 13.17 reads,
Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they keep watch over your souls as those who will give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with grief, for this would be unprofitable for you.
I didn’t start off with this one, because I think there are necessary prerequisites to this step. We needed first to think about how we value our pastor and the work he does. Now it’s time for the difficult part.
The writer says we’re to “obey” and to “submit to” our pastors. Before I deal with that, I want to talk about the rest of the verse, because it lays out reasons to do this hard thing, and all of us benefit from knowing the reasons why we’re asked to do a hard thing.
He says that one day our pastors will give an account (to God, obviously, as we all will [2Co 5.10]), and specifically for how they have “kept watch over our souls.”
That’s a tough job. Souls are complicated—and broken by sin, at that—and they’re invisible, which makes them harder to work on than, say, an automobile engine. Diagnosing a problem is difficult enough, but fixing it, when you can’t take a soul apart, replace the defective part, and put it back together again, is unimaginably difficult. Add to that the fact that with souls, you can’t impose a solution, even if you’re demonstrably right; in the end, you have to depend on the individual—who, as we’ve noted, is already broken—to implement the solution to his own problem.
While the job is difficult, it’s not impossible, for God provides solutions in his Word, through his Spirit, and his power to convict and illuminate and empower is never limited. It’s remarkable that even as he holds the pastor accountable for his “keeping watch,” he promises to supply all that is needed for the successful “repair” of the soul. The pastor’s job is not to fix things, but to “keep watch”—to pay attention, to notice when there’s a problem, and to handle the Scripture accurately and appropriately in pointing the “patient” to the cure.
We help our pastors with that job by obeying them and submitting to them. As I’ve noted before, the Scripture doesn’t call for blind obedience to any man; like the Bereans (Ac 17.11), we test what our leaders say against the touchstone of the Scripture. But having done that, when they’re right, we’re told here to submit. This is the idea of surrendering to a superior power.
Back in college, I studied judo. The sport comprises 5 subdisciplines; I studied 3 of them, one of which was shimewaza, or choking. It involves, not cutting off the windpipe (that takes too long), but cutting off the blood supply to the brain, which can render the opponent unconscious in just a few seconds. As you can imagine, that’s a very dangerous technique, and we were taught to take it seriously. In a match, you surrender by tapping out—which you can’t do if you’re unconscious. Our sensei told us very sternly that if we felt the technique applied correctly, we had just seconds to tap out and avoid death. Don’t be a hero, he said. When he’s got you, surrender.
When your pastor is speaking biblical truth, and you know he’s got you, you’d be a fool to try to outlast him—not because he’s such a tough guy, but because if you’re dealing with the Scripture, you’re dealing with God himself, and as the founder of my school said, “Your arm’s too short to box with God.” When he’s got you, surrender.
This passage ends with good news. In the martial arts, nobody likes to surrender; Asian cultures place great importance on not losing face. But in this case, surrender is delightful; all kinds of good ensues from it. The pastor’s faithful work is successful; that encouragement empowers him for the next round; the entire body, the church, is more healthy; and you are set up for more success down the road. To paraphrase our passage, obeying your pastor turns out to be profitable for you.
How about that. The way down is the way up.