Let me share with you the scariest, most terrifying verse, in all of the Bible for church leaders. No, not the ones about giving to the church – we don’t like preaching those for different awkward, but not scary, reasons. But this one is genuinely terrifying. And if you are a church leader and are not terrified by it, I don’t think you fully grasp what it says. Not really.
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.Hebrews 13:17
A lot of church members don’t like this verse. Why should I obey or submit? It’s like a red rag to a bull for some. Frankly, I find that a funny response because what it demands of them is pretty small potatoes compared to what it asks of church leaders.
Look again at what it says to church leaders: ‘they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account’ (emphasis added). I once badly offended a non-member who regularly attended our church when I pointed out that, as they refused to join the church, they were not accountable to the elders and we were not accountable before the Lord for them. These verses in Hebrews assume a membership that is submitting to a defined eldership.
Minimally, if your church has a membership – and your elders would call you into it – you aren’t submitting to those elders. In reality, if you aren’t in membership anywhere, you have no elders to whom you have submitted. Given that, it seems perfectly reasonable of the Lord not to hold elders accountable for the souls of those who refuse to submit to them, just as Jesus takes no responsibility for those who similarly do not submit to him either. The Lord ultimately holds us accountable if we choose not to submit to another authority who will be accountable on our behalf.
But for those who do submit to the local church, the Lord holds the elders of that church accountable for their souls. And, I don’t know about you, but that terrifies me. I already have to give an account of my own soul before the Lord. I then got married and had a family, which the Bible tells me I – and I alone – will bear the responsibility of accounting before him for how I led them too. So, I’m already accountable for 4 souls and this, frankly, already feels like a lot. But then I was called as pastor of a church and, though we’re a little church, Hebrews 13:17 now tells me I’ve been chosen to account for a further 30 or so souls on top of all that. Which, when it boils down to it, is pretty terrifying.
I am almost certain that those who clamour to be elders very rarely sit and consider the weight of this. We’re quick to note that he who desires to be an elder desires a good thing (1 Tim 3:1) but less willing to think about Hebrews 13:17. We might consider it as far as the ramifications for church membership, polity and ecclesiology go. But before we take on eldership, do we really wrestle with the fact that the Lord is going to hold us to account for how we shepherded the souls he entrusted to our care? It is a good thing to be a pastor, elder, overseer; but it is terrifying in equal measure. At least, it is when you wrestle with the gravity of what is being asked of us.
But once we are in it, the clamour for bigger and slicker church kicks in. We want to be seen to be successful and struggle not to measure that by our size. But if we really grappled with Hebrews 13:17 a bit more, who in their right mind wants a bigger church?! Doesn’t 30 or so souls seem more than enough to be answerable for on the last day? I am troubled enough by the four in my family even before we get to the 30 or so more in my church. Suddenly being a megachurch pastor responsible for hundreds or thousands of souls doesn’t seem nearly so appealing. No pay packet and benefits will make up for that.
I think this verse is really important for church leaders to keep at the forefront of their mind. We are ultimately answerable before the Lord for how we shepherd the souls of the people entrusted to our care. Remembering this might well limit our aspirations for growth. It might well stop us seeing people as resources to be used and utilised for our grand purposes (whatever they may be). It might stop us focusing on our pet projects and platforms and instead focus more fully on those who have submitted to our care. I hope we have enough theological nous to not let it paralyse us with fear – the Lord remains sovereign in all things after all, including our being called as elders and overseers – but it might just help to focus our attention a bit more and help us recognise both the gravity of what we have been called to do and the fundamental reason we have been called to do it.
The Lord has given us his sheep to care for. And as the great shepherd of the sheep, he will understandably ask his undershepherds exactly what they have done with and to his flock. Knowing that, perhaps some of our ambitions ought to scale back and our obsessions with growth might want reigning in. Maybe we need to recognise that however small your church might be, it will be more than enough to answer for before the Lord. Equally, however big your church might be, remember the Lord won’t hold you to account for how big you were, but how well you cared for the sheep he entrusted to your care.