When two people wed, they enter into an altogether voluntary relationship; that is, under normal circumstances, the choice to marry is made by the parties freely, willingly, and without any external compulsion. But once that holy covenant has been executed voluntarily by the couple, it becomes altogether binding on both parties. And although no one has forced a couple into this relationship initially, the preservation of it once it has been initiated is enforceable on both legal and moral grounds. Much the same thing might be said of the relationship between a pastor and the congregation to whom God has called him to minister, not with regard to the illegality of ever severing the relationship but with respect to the moral duties both parties voluntarily have obligated themselves to fulfill. For his part, the pastor vows to be faithful to his duty before God to preach the whole counsel of God. In turn, the congregation vows to heed that preaching. Regarding the responsibilities of the congregation, in particular, the writer of Hebrews declares this: “Obey them that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves” (13:17).
This verse immediately rankles our flesh, which is by nature independent, self-seeking, and, in short, rebellious. Our flesh protests that we are “free moral agents,” who are capable of drawing our own conclusions, making our own choices, and exercising our own wills. Furthermore, our pastors are neither different from nor better than we are. And in some sense, all of that is true. But those arguments do not trump the Word of God, which while acknowledging that we are all equally sinners in the flesh and equally brothers by grace, nevertheless, exhorts members of each local congregation to “obey them that have the rule over [“lead,” or “guide”] you, and submit.”
Obedience and submission are two sides of the same coin. And there seems to be an element of redundancy in the repeated admonition, probably because we are so reluctant to obey it. Some commentators have suggested that the exhortation is making a distinction between a duty that is easy and/or obvious (in that case, “obey”) and a duty that causes us personal difficulty or conflict (in that case, “submit”). But there may be another facet to this seeming repetition as well. To obey may indicate action that is external and visible. To submit may indicate attitudes that are internal and invisible and that involve the will, the heart, and the mind. Paul makes a similar distinction in another context when he exhorts: “Servants, be obedient to them that are your masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in singleness of your heart, as unto Christ; Not with eyeservice, as menpleasers; but as the servants of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart; With good will doing service, as to the Lord, and not to men” (Eph. 6:5-7). Our duty involves external, visible actions that arise from a submissive heart and a yielded will.
When a pastor faithfully preaches God’s Word and leads the flock in accord with its tenets, it is the sacred duty of the members of the congregation, then, to obey and submit to him. Failure to do so, is not an inconsequential matter. It is not merely the independent exercise of the will in a free society. Politics is not the issue here. Spiritual submission to the Word of God and obedience to its truth is. Failure to do so is more than an affront to God, it is sin. And like sexual infidelity within a marriage, it causes virtually irreparable harm. God instructs believers to be part of a local assembly that is faithful to the Word of God and to obey and submit to the pastor that guides the flock. To do so is to honor and obey God, to acknowledge His holy will, and to secure blessing for ourselves. Self-will is an egregious violation of that covenant.
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