What is the basis for saying Christians must obey church elders?
Have you been told to submit to church elders? Have you heard the ‘rule’ that we must obey church leaders?
What is the basis for this ‘rule’ that you, as a professing Christian, must (must) obey church elders?
Definition of terms…so we all start on the same page.
I will be using the term ‘elders’ to refer to those who have been appointed to spiritual leadership positions: pastors, church elders, ministers, reverends, presbyters, moderators, bishops, archbishops…and you can add cardinals & popes to that list. Some translations of the bible use the word ‘overseers’. For the purpose of this article, all those titles are interchangeable.
Let us examine the two verses in Hebrews 13 which speak about obeying or submitting to elders. Most pastors focus on Hebrews 13:17 which says:
Obey those who have the oversight of you, and submit yourselves to them, for they watch for your souls even as those who must give accounts. Let them do it with joy, and not with grief. For that is an unprofitable thing for you.
However, verse 7 in the same chapter says:
Remember those who have the oversight of you, who have declared to you the word of God. See that you look upon the way they live out their life, and follow their faith.
The ones who have oversight over the congregation need to be able to rightly divide the word of truth: rightly explain and apply what the Bible teaches. If the elders do a poor job of that, if they twist, selectively hammer, and misapply the Word, they ought not be in the position of overseer!
It is not a sin to ponder whether the elders are rightly dividing the word of truth.
Verse 7 also tells us to look at the way the elders are living out their lives. In other words, use your brain, your capacity to think independently, and ask yourself: Is what this elder says consistent with what he does?
If you have not been brainwashed…if you observe and are discerning and can think independently, you may notice gigantic inconsistencies between their rhetoric and their conduct.
Often these discrepancies are particularly obvious when it comes to the way elders deal with interpersonal abuse and oppression, i.e., injustice perpetrated by the more powerful onto the less powerful.
The conduct — the pattern of behaviour — of arrogant / prideful church leaders shows you that they are hypocrites and Pharisees. Instead of defending and vindicating the oppressed, they are ignoring or re-traumatizing the oppressed. One of the ways elders do this is to give the impression they support the abused…but when it comes to the crunch, they let them down.
It is clear from Hebrews 13:7 that every true Christian is urged to scrutinise and evaluate the pattern of conduct of church leaders.
You need not obey or follow a church leader whose pattern of conduct is glaringly inconsistent with the whole counsel of the Word.
How can you evaluate the pattern of conduct of elders?
James 1:27 is a good verse to use when evaluating the pattern of conduct of church elders. Pure devotion, and undefiled before God the Father, is this: to visit the fatherless and widows in their adversity, and to keep oneself unspotted from the world.
If you think that women abused by their husbands are not widows, I encourage you to read this: The Widows and Orphans of Our Time.
Apart from Hebrews 13, there are only two other passages in the New Testament which allude to submitting to church elders
Here are those two passages in context. The ‘submit-to-elders’ parts are in purple.
1 Thessalonians 5:12-15
We beseech you, brethren, to recognize those who labour among you, and have the oversight of you in the Lord and give you exhortation – to have them the more in love for their work’s sake, and be at peace with them.
We desire you, brethren, to warn those who are unruly, comfort the faint-hearted, bear up the weak, and have continual patience toward all people. See that no one returns evil for evil to anyone, but ever follow that which is good, both among yourselves and among all people.
1 Peter 5:1-7
The elders who are among you I exhort, who am also an elder, and a witness of the afflictions of Christ, and also a partaker of the glory that shall be revealed. See that you feed the flock of Christ that is among you, taking the oversight of them not as though you were compelled to it, but willingly; not for wrongful gain, but of a good mind; not as though you were lords over the parishes, but so that you are an example to the flock. And when the chief shepherd appears, you shall receive an incorruptible crown of glory.
Likewise you younger people, submit yourselves to the elders. Submit yourselves everyone, one to another. Knit yourselves together in lowliness of mind. For God resists the proud, and gives grace to the humble. Submit yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, so that he may exalt you when the time is come. Cast all your care upon him, for he cares for you.
Scripture quotations are from the New Matthew Bible (NMB).