The Bible commands submission to the authority of the elders.
As Paul writes, “be subject … to every fellow worker and laborer” (1 Cor 16.16). Or again: “We ask you, brothers, to respect those who labor among you and are over you in the Lord and admonish you, and to esteem them very highly in love because of their work” (1 Thess 5.12-13).
The most direct and frequently-cited instance of this command is found in the letter to the Hebrews, where the author writes: “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account” (Heb 13.17).
To extend the boundaries a little, it is not debatable that God commands submissiveness as an essential, non-negotiable Christian virtue: “Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution” (1 Pet 2.13; cf. Rom 13.1-5). In an interview on leadership, late pastor Harry Reeder spoke about those ‘human institutions’ as “the God-appointed arenas” of the family, the church, and civil society, and then he said the following: “If you can’t follow, you can’t lead. If you are not able to submit yourself to other leaders in the God-appointed arenas, then you’re not going to be a leader.”
It does not even need to be said that Christians must never obey any authority when that authority commands them to disobey God (cf. Acts 5.27-29). That is a given, and that is peripheral to what we are saying now. Our point here is clear: Christians are to be humble people who honor and submit to the appropriate authorities.
And in the ‘God-ordained arena’ of the church, that submission is to the pastoral leadership of the local church—namely, its elders.
“If you can’t follow, you can’t lead. If you are not able to submit yourself to other leaders in the God-appointed arenas, then you’re not going to be a leader.” –Harry Reeder
Defining the Term “Elders”
Before we go any further, it is important to define what we are talking about. According to the Scriptures, “elder,” “pastor,” and “overseer” are interchangeable terms that refer to the governing office of local church leadership. To expand on this is simply outside of our purposes here, so we would simply commend to you our sermon series entitled “The Blueprint for Biblical Leadership” where these things are discussed in detail.
In other words, when we are talking about “elders” or “pastors,” we are talking (as the Bible does) about the same office, and it is to those men whom the Bible calls us to submit. And our question is, ‘How do we do that?’
What It Means to Obey Your Elders
Practically speaking, there are at least three things we might say in answer to the question of what it means to submit to our elders.
1 . Submit to the Authority of the Word of God
Elders are charged with the task of publicly proclaiming, teaching, and defending the Word of God in the local church (Acts 6.1-4, 1 Cor 9.14, 1 Tim 1.3-5, 2 Tim 4.2, Tit 1.10-14, 1 Pet 4.11). When they do that faithfully—when they are accurately conveying God’s meaning in a given text and not their own ideas, hangups, or hobby horses—i.e., when they handle the Word expositionally—then it is not merely the words of men that are being proclaimed, but the Words of God.
This is not to say that everything an elder says is authoritative just because he can attach a Bible verse to it. All of us have the perverse ability to abuse Bible verses and attach them to wrong ideas—and that is precisely what countless so-called “pastors” do—but that is called twisting Scripture, not proclaiming it.
Neither does an elder speak with the authority of the Word of God when, for instance, he is treating conscience, preference, or wisdom issues as if they are Bible mandates. A pastor may have strong personal convictions about alcohol, or music, or certain holidays, or about who Christians should vote for, or about whether or not it’s right to take out a home loan, or any number of issues. In those kinds of cases, while it may be right for a Christian to honor the ‘house rules’ of how the church is governed, or to give serious weight to what their pastor has to say on that issue (see below on both points), neither his conscience nor his convictions constitute scriptural authority.
“All of us have the perverse ability to abuse Bible verses and attach them to wrong ideas—and that is precisely what countless so-called “pastors” do—but that is called twisting Scripture, not proclaiming it.”
By contrast, when an elder says, “Don’t cuss because the Bible says not to cuss”—which the Bible does in fact say, in passages like Ephesians 4.29 and Colossians 3.8—then the appropriate response for a Christian is to obey that and not to cuss. And examples might be multiplied: “Don’t cheat on your wife.” “Stop getting drunk.” “Be faithful in church attendance.” “Stop gossiping.” “Pay your taxes.” “Be consistent in prayer.” “Get a job and be a good worker.” All these are instances of clear, reasonable, legitimate scriptural commands, and should be obeyed.
In other words, Christians are to obey their elders when the Word of God comes from their elders’ mouths. But in that case, we’re not really talking about obeying elders so much as we’re talking about obeying the Lord. As John MacArthur has said in effect, ‘I have no authority in the church; I have zero authority to tell the people in my church what to do. The only authority I have is delegated authority when I speak the Word of God.’ It is when—and only when—a Christian is on the receiving end of the faithful, accurate, expository handling of the Word of God that he or she is accountable for obeying what he or she is hearing.
2. Honor the Church’s “House Rules”
The scriptural model of local church leadership is not a democracy (as many congregational churches are), or a monepiscopate (as the Roman Catholic Church is, and as many baptist and nondenominational churches are), but a group of qualified, compassionate, gifted men called elders who equally share the responsibilities of shepherding and governing the church.
In other words, the biblical model of local church leadership is a plurality of elders. Therefore, it is the elders of the local church who are responsible for all of the decisions about how the church is governed or organized.
What is the church’s official position on eschatology? How does someone become a member here? Does the membership covenant include an agreement to abstain from alcohol? Does the church belong to a denomination or some other ecclesiastical fellowship? How many ministries or programs does the church have, and what do those look like? It is the elders who are responsible for answering these and all similar questions. For this reason, Christians should submit to the particulars of how a church is governed.
For instance, a church may have in its membership covenant (as many do) an agreement to abstain from alcohol, not as a matter of sin and righteousness, but as a matter of testimony. Or, a church may practice formal church membership (as ours does), not as a matter of biblical mandate, but as a matter of practical wisdom and stewardship. If a believer is not comfortable with those things, he should attend a church where there is no formal membership, or where membership does not include an abstinence clause. But seeing as how it is the duty of the elders to make those kinds of policy decisions in the local church, any Christian who voluntarily agrees to attend there should ‘obey the elders’ and abide by those policies.
“The scriptural model of local church leadership is a group of qualified, compassionate, gifted men called elders who equally share the responsibilities of shepherding and governing the church.”
We do not mean by this that a Christian should simply obey anything that comes from on high in a local church. For example, maybe a church insists on a particular approach to church membership as the only acceptable biblical model and anyone who does differently is in sin. Or, maybe a church affirms an illegitimate externalism that turns conscience issues into matters of sin and righteousness. In such cases, we we would say that those are probably not healthy local churches and that you should probably find a different church.
(What you should not do in those cases, by the way, is wage a crusade against their bad ideas and try to change the current of the church. Not only will you be unsuccessful in all likelihood, but you might also cause irreparable damage to yourself and others in the process.)
Christians can obey their elders by honoring the ‘house rules’ in a local church. Not as matters of sin and righteousness, but out of respect for the elders’ responsibility to make decisions about such things—similarly to how you might respect someone else’s wishes in someone else’s house. You might not do things the way they do, and you might not even like the way they do some of the things they do, but it’s “their house, their rules,” so to speak, and it’s good and right to respect and submit to that.
3. Give Weight to Their Counsel
A third and final way Christians can submit to their elders is by giving serious weight to their counsel and advice.
According to the biblical qualifications, elders must be men who are demonstrably wise (1 Tim 3.1-7, Heb 13.7). Because they have the gift of teaching, they are, by nature of the case, men who have been equipped by the Holy Spirit with a special, unique, supernatural ability to understand, explain, and apply the Scriptures, first in their own lives, and then in the lives of others (see the previously-referenced passages, as well as Ephesians 4.11-14 and Hebrews 5.11-12).
As the saying goes, ‘the proof is in the pudding.’ You can see their wisdom in their example, maturity, and the outcome of their life; you can see the fruit their teaching and counsel have borne in the lives of others—how they’ve overcome sin, become stronger Christians, and have become better spouses and parents and leaders. By the very nature of the case, elders are wise and gifted men—at least they should be if the Bible is truly controlling how they got into that office in the first place.
“By the very nature of the case, elders are wise and gifted men—at least they should be if the Bible is truly controlling how they got into that office in the first place.”
As implied above, elders have no authority to tell you what job you should take, how you should spend your money, or who you should marry (unless, of course, you are violating clear scriptural commands in those things; e.g., maybe you’re taking a job as a drug dealer, or blowing all your money on drinking binges, or planning to marry an unbeliever; in such cases, see item 1). Elders have no authority to dictate your career path or whether or not you should homeschool your kids. Anything that falls outside of the clear commands and principles of Scripture also falls outside of the scope of their authority.
However, it is clear that God has given godly counselors for the imparting of wisdom (Prov 20.18, 24.6, Eccl 12.11). In practical terms, this means that your pastor is a grace and a mercy of the Lord to you for your benefit, and a big part of that is being a voice of reason in uncertain times or in big decisions.
In other words, you can obey your elders not by allowing them to dictatorially control your day-to-day life—they have zero authority to do that—but by honoring God’s design for pastoral leadership and valuing their counsel, even if in the end you decide not to take it.
Conclusion: Let Your Shepherds Shepherd You
Christians are Christ’s sheep. The church is Christ’s bride, Christ’s body. The Lord Jesus is the Great Shepherd who loves his sheep. He nourishes his body, and he loves his bride. And in a mystery of mysteries, God has appointed men who are fallen and flawed—men who are dysfunctional liabilities even though they are divinely called and equipped—to shepherd his sheep and to feed his lambs (Jn 21.15-17, Acts 20.28).
Christians are under no obligation to submit to their elders when they overstep their areas of biblical authority. (It goes without saying that they should also not obey elders who are not biblically-qualified.) But they should obey their elders by obeying the Word of God in their teaching, by honoring the ‘house rules’ of the local church, and by giving weight to their counsel.
Any undershepherd worth his salt loves Christ’s sheep and is willing to spend and be spent for their benefit and growth. If you have faithful elders over you and you allow them to shepherd you biblically, you will find the affection, joy, safety, love, and growth in Christ-likeness that God has always intended in the sheep-pastor relationship.
“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.”
About the Author
Tony de la Riva is an elder and pastor at Firm Foundation Bible Church and is earning an MDiv at The Master’s Seminary. He is originally from Fresno County, CA, and he and his wife Beki have been married since 2007 and have four children. More from Tony ⟶