Should You “Obey” Your Pastor?
There’s only one verse in the Bible where it suggests that believers are to “obey” their spiritual leaders:
Obey your leaders and submit to their authority. They keep watch over you as men who must give an account. Obey them so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no advantage to you.”
The verse instructs us to “obey” those who are over us in the Lord and “submit to their authority.” Does this mean to obey and submit in the absolute sense? If your spiritual leaders told you to jump off the roof of a building, should you do it? Of course not. If they instructed you to do something immoral, should you do it? Clearly not. So these instructions have obvious parameters or limitations. Such limitations can be observed throughout the rest of the New Testament.
The exhortation here to obey & submit to spiritual leaders is akin to other appeals in the Epistles for wives to submit to husbands, children to obey parents and believers to submit to governing authorities (Ephesians 5:22-6:9 & Romans 13:1-6). Such instructions are only applicable when the authority gives good or neutral instructions. Otherwise “we must obey God rather than human beings” (Acts 5:29).
One important guideline of Bible interpretation is that we must “interpret Scripture with Scripture,” meaning our interpretation of a passage has to gel with what the rest of Scripture teaches on that topic, as long as it’s relevant (for instance, dietary laws for Hebrews under the Old Covenant are decidedly irrelevant to New Testament believers; see this article for details). You see, the Bible itself is the ultimate context of every passage and, therefore, every passage must be interpreted within that context, not to mention its more immediate context, i.e. the book, chapter & verses in question.
Clearer and more detailed passages obviously trump the more ambiguous and sketchy ones. This paves the way for balance and keeps believers from taking one or two passages and going to extremes. Consider the above verse, Hebrews 13:17 — Authoritarian pastors could take it and implement a spirit of domination over their congregants. They could say, for example: “As a believer you are obligated to obey God’s Word and God’s Word says that you must obey me and submit to me.” They might say it in a more subtle manner, but — whatever the case — this fosters an unhealthy dictatorial environment.
We know for a fact that this passage doesn’t give ministers a license to be authoritarian because 1 Peter 5:1-4 plainly states that spiritual leaders are to “serve” and not “lord it over” believers. Moreover, Christ repeatedly rebuked the arrogance of the religious leaders of 1st century Israel. Matthew 23 is a good example.
Notice what Jesus plainly taught about Christian leadership to his 12 disciples:
“You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. 26 Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, 27 and whoever wants to be first must be your slave — 28 just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
This doesn’t mean, of course, that Christian leaders are to be spineless milksops; Christ, Peter, Paul and John were anything but, yet it does reveal the style of leadership believers are to have — an attitude of a servant or slave. Do servants or slaves “lord it over” others? Obviously not. Do they “exercise authority” with a dictatorial, intimidating air? Again, the answer is obvious. The Messiah taught that Christian leaders are not to be like this, period.
Furthermore, beware of a spirit of condemnation — aka “condo” — wherein the minister tends to put believers down and tries to shame them into obedience. We must understand that the authority ministers have is for building believers up and not tearing them down (2 Corinthians 10:8 & 13:10). This is stressed in Ephesians 4:11-13 where Paul detailed the purpose of all fivefold ministers: “to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up”. Of course, this doesn’t negate the necessity of righteous correction when appropriate (Matthew 18:15-17 & Proverbs 27:5).
With this understanding, never feel obligated to obey or submit to ministers who have an arrogant, authoritarian bearing. If you do, I guarantee you’ll be abused in some manner down the road. As for those who have proven their godly character and sound doctrine via rightly dividing the Scriptures (as opposed to just weakly parroting whatever their sect/camp claims is true doctrine), please submit to them so that their work will be a joy and not a burden. Hold them in the highest regard in love, assuming they’re diligent and not lazy (1 Thessalonians 5:12-13). After all, if their work is a joy they’ll obviously serve better and you’ll be blessed because of it. This is just common sense.
Submit to their vision for the local assembly and worldwide Church and do your part to help it manifest. If you can’t do this, please leave and find a fellowship with whose vision you can agree. After all, two opposing visions naturally create di-vision.
As far as obeying spiritual authorities goes, we’ve already established that this doesn’t mean to obey them in an absolute sense. The Greek word translated as “obey” in Hebrews 13:17 is peithó (PAI-tho), which means to be persuaded of what is trustworthy. The Lord persuades the yielded believer to be confident in His preferred-will (observe how it’s translated as “I am confident” in Galatians 5:10 and as “I am convinced” in 2 Timothy 1:12). This involves obedience, yes, but it is the result of God’s persuasion through (1) the proper instruction/interpretation of God’s Word and (2) the leading of the Spirit.
So — by all means — be sure to obey what your spiritual leaders have proven to be true from God’s Word as confirmed in your own study time with the help of your Counselor (1 John 2:27). But never blindly obey anyone, especially if you sense they’re putting on big-headed airs to impress or intimidate.
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