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September 1, 1981

Dear Timothy,

In my last letter to you I began a discussion of a prevailing evil that is present in the Church of Christ: the evil of carping criticism of one’s minister, which makes his work so exceedingly difficult and undermines the authority of His ministry. I want to pursue this discussion with you a bit in this letter. And I want to do this by calling your attention to a passage inHebrews 13:17: “Obey them that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves: for they watch for your souls, as they that must give account, that they may do it with joy, and not with grief: for that is unprofitable for you.” 

While the text speaks particularly of the relation between those in the congregation and the elders (for they, specifically, are those who have the rule over the saints), the apostle refers here also to the ministers of the Word. They too are elders. This is clear from I Timothy 5:17: “Let the elders that rule well be counted worthy of double honour, especially they who labour in the word and doctrine.” And it is the calling of members of the church towards their ministers that concerns us. 

In this passage in Hebrews the Scriptures speak of obeying those who are our pastors and ministers. The word which is translated “obey” is not the common word in the New Testament for “Obey.” It is a word which means literally: “to be persuaded, to listen to.” It is rather interesting that this word should be used here. It suggests the fact that our natural inclinations are in quite the opposite direction from what our pastors say to us. This is understandable. Our pastors bring to us the Word of Christ which is found in the Scriptures. And our natural inclination is exactly the opposite of what the Scriptures say. The figure is, therefore, of unrestrained sin and rebellion against God which characterizes us in our life in the world. But the Word of God acts as a restraint, a check, a constant pull on us to draw us away from the direction in which we would ordinarily go. It tugs us away from the roads of sin and pulls us in the direction of God’s will. But because we are creatures with minds and wills and because God sanctifies us also so that our minds and wills are renewed, this work of the pastor in bringing us the Word is directed to our minds and wills so that we consider what the minister has to say and are persuaded of the correctness of the Word which he brings. We see that what he says, because it is the Word of Christ, is the truth, the description of the way of righteousness, of happiness and joy. And so we are persuaded that we ought to abandon our ways in which our natural inclinations lead us and follow the way of our pastor’s instruction.

The same is true of the admonition to submit ourselves. Here too, the word “submit” means literally: “give way to, yield, resist no longer.” This is a very powerful word and clearly imposes upon us the calling to deliver ourselves over, without reservation, to the instruction which we receive at the hand of our pastors. Our natural tendency is to set ourselves up as being just as knowledgeable (and perhaps more so) than those whom God has appointed over us. I recall that while I was going to college, my philosophy professor told us that he did not go to church any more. He told us that the reason for this was that he knew more than his minister and could say it better. Now this was undoubtedly true because he was a very brilliant man. But this was hardly the point. And yet he expressed what is really in all of us. We have a natural inclination to go our own way. We are like sheep who constantly go astray. We are bullheaded and like to have our own way. We are stubborn and resentful when anyone tells us that what we do is wrong. And this is characteristic of us because we all like to think that we have a corner on knowledge and ethics, that we all know better than anyone else what the truth is and what ought to be our own conduct in the problems of life. It is the natural inclination of man to set himself up as the final authority in all matters of life and walk. There is something in everyone of us which agrees with the proud boast of the poet, Henley: “I am the master of my fate / I am the captain of my soul.” 

And this is, after all, the point at issue. It is disagreeable and contrary to our inclinations to submit to another’s authority. And to submit to a minister’s authority is repugnant to us. But the authority with which he comes is the authority of his office and of the Word of Christ. And, therefore, what is required of us is that we yield to this authority and stop resisting it. We are called to fight against our tendencies to set ourselves up as authorities and to listen to Christ. This is very difficult and can come about only through the sanctifying power of the Spirit which breaks our stubborn and resentful wills and gives us the proper humility to yield to Christ. But this is essential if we are to be persuaded of the truth. The two admonitions go together. The Scriptures are saying here: “Be persuaded by them that have the rule over you; and, in order to do this, you must learn to yield to them.” Notice: Yield to them! Yield to what they say, surely. But yield to them! They are the ambassadors of Christ. They speak Christ’s Word for Christ and in His name. Only when we yield to them will we be in a spiritual frame of mind to be persuaded by them. If we refuse to yield to them, you know what the result will be. We will never be persuaded either of the truth of what they say, nor will their word bring about even a semblance of change in our lives. 

The whole matter comes down to this: we must recognize the fact that we have a higher authority than ourselves. We are creatures whose every breath is given by God; but we are also servants of the Lord Christ. And we bow, therefore, before His authority. We have none of our own. But that authority over us comes through our pastors. When they speak we hear the very voice of Christ Who is supremely our authority.

Now, the apostle gives a good reason why we must do this. He does not mean to say that we must this because Christ is supremely our Lord. That true too, and it is taught in other passages of Scripture. But he comes here with another reason: “For they watch for your souls, as they that must give account.” That is quite a statement. 

The idea is that pastors are fully aware of the fact that Christ, when He put them in office, gave them the responsibility of taking care of the spiritual needs of God’s people. Christ will also some day, in the day of the great judgment, ask of every pastor: “What did you do for my sheep?” Christ will require of them that they explain all their conduct as pastors and give account of everything which they did to see whether or not these pastors were always caring for the spiritual needs of the sheep. 

I would tremble with fear if I stood in the boots many so-called pastors. Their concern is not the spiritual welfare of the sheep, but their own personal well-being. They shear the sheep instead of feeding them. They gather the wool from the sheep their own financial gain rather than lead the sheep into the green pastures of the Word. They lead the sheep down roads of heresy and worldliness and care not at all what happens to the sheep long as they have their houses and lands. They scatter the sheep on the hills and mountains of Israel while they live lives of leisure and earthly pleasure. But this is not the point here. The text is talking about faithful pastors. And it is saying that faithful pastors do all their work in the consciousness of the fact that someday they shall have to give account of everything they do to Christ Who has set them in their office. This is a tremendous thing to look forward to. And pastors are so conscious of this that it is a thought which governs them in all their work. 

When they prepare their sermons to be delivered on the Lord’s Day, they are controlled by the knowledge that they shall have to tell Christ someday how they prepared that sermon for the spiritual benefit of Christ’s sheep. When they come with that Word to the side of a saint in the hospital, when they bring that Word to those who grieve deeply because they have just seen one they loved very much die, when they put their Bibles under their arms to bring the Word to one who seems to prefer the ways of sin to the ways of the Scriptures —whenever they open their Bibles to speak a Word from Christ, they know that they shall have to give account to Christ someday. And they shall have to answer this question: Did you watch for the souls of My sheep? 

So all controlling is this thought, that they literally give their lives for the spiritual well-being of God’s people. 

This is what the reference to “souls” is all about. Jesus tells us in the parable of the rich fool that a man’s life consisteth not in the things which he possesses. We have food and drink for our bodies. But that is not the whole of our life. We have also a soul life. And, contrary to what the rich fool thought, the soul cannot eat corn and drink wine. The soul, because it is spiritual, needs a spiritual food. That food is the Word of God. The ministers are called to give that food to God’s people. 

The souls of God’s people are constantly threatened. They are threatened, not with material and physical dangers, but with spiritual dangers. They are threatened by temptation, by the devil, by their own natures, by the world about them. And this threat is very great because it is the threat of eternal suffering in hell. Pastors know how dangerous a life we live. We do not know the half of it ourselves. It must look to Christ sometimes as if we play freely and loosely with our everlasting salvation. .We jeopardize the well-being of our souls by playing fast and loose with danger. 

But the pastors watch for our souls. They know that the Word of Christ is alone able to deliver us from all these fierce animals that threaten our eternal salvation. And so they are duty bound to come with that Word. 

If we get a hold on that idea once, then we will understand why we must yield to them and be persuaded by them. When we resist we throw our eternal bliss into jeopardy. When we carp and criticize, when we pick and bite, when we nag and condemn, then, we show our callous disregard for the eternal blessedness of our soul. When our pastors speak to us therefore, we must recognize this fact: they are watching for our souls. What a difference this will make in our attitude towards them. 

But I must sign off for the present. We can talk more about this again. 

Franternally in Christ, 

H. Hanko