Should Pastors Tell Church People to Obey Them?

Several passages in Scripture pose challenges to preaching. Even so, we shouldn’t skip the tough ones. However, when we must deal with tough passages such as this one below, we must take care how we teach them. 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. (Heb 13.17, NIV) That first part, “Obey your leaders,” poses the challenge. How should we approach the “followership” concept this verse speaks to?

Should Pastors Tell Church People to Obey Them? Dr. Charles Stone

I’ve excerpted a section from my book 5 Ministry Killers and How to Defeat Them below that captures the essence of this verse.

“Obey your leaders” sounds quite strong. Certainly this does not condone dictatorial leadership, as Peter makes this clear in saying, “Don’t lord it over the people assigned to your care, but lead them by your good example.” (1 Pet 5.3, NLT) After all, God calls us shepherds, and shepherds don’t push—they lead. Unfortunately, in our world, where self is king and where those in spiritual authority have abused their power, many in our churches would struggle with a sermon titled “Obey Your Leaders.”

But that’s not the part upon which I believe we should focus. It’s the last part: “that their work will be a joy, not a burden for that would be of no advantage to you.” Often it seems ministry brings more burdens than joy. After a tough meeting I sometimes wish I could get away with giving an elder a swirly. Other times, in response to a critic, I’m tempted to use King David’s words as a club: “Do not touch my anointed ones; do my prophets no harm.” (Ps 105.15)

Other translations render “that their work will be a joy” in these ways:

  • So don’t make them sad as they do their work. Make them happy. (CEV)
  • Let them do this with joy and not with grief…. (NASB)
  • Give them reason to do this joyfully and not with sorrow. (NLT)
  • Let them do all this with joy and not with groaning. (ESV)

A similar verse mirrors this one. Paul writes, We ask you, brothers, to respect those who work hard among you, who are over you in the Lord and who admonish you. (1 Thes 5.12, NIV)

Other translators render “respect” (Greek: oida) as “appreciate” (NASB), “be thoughtful of” (CEV), “honor” (The Message, NLT), and “pay proper respect to” (TEV). On the other hand, just as “obey your leaders” can sound dictatorial, these statements can sound like they promote the self-serving, egotistical, and narcissistic.

Don’t make us sad…Honor us…Respect us…Make us happy…Appreciate us…Give us reasons to be joyful.

These thoughts likewise might seem oxymoronic when contrasted to our ministerial call to selflessly give ourselves away. But no matter how they’re translated, these verses raise some important questions. Is it wrong to want our ministries to bring us joy? Would we be sinning or at best self-serving to expect from our congregations certain things that would make serving them more joyful, less burdensome?

Should we dare even broach these matters? Did one pastor correctly assess church folk when he said, “Most truly aren’t concerned with my joy”? Conversely, should we affirm the answer of several others that “My joy is from the Lord, not from people”?

I don’t suggest a simplistic solution to pastoral joy. However, God’s Word leaves no room for misunderstanding. He expects believers to respond to healthy pastoral leadership by taking concrete steps to help make ministry more fulfilling for His servants.

Perhaps the key to making this truth become reality in the church lies in this: the church must see us as servants first and foremost. When we model Christ-like servanthood, I believe we create an atmosphere conducive for those in the church to become good followers, without our having to demand it.

What do you think? What do you believe is key to making this verse a reality in the church?


“I just learned insight about how to encourage followership in the church.” (tweet this quote by clicking here)


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