So that they can do this with joy

Hebrews 13:17 is one of those verses that I’m uncomfortable addressing. As a leader myself, I don’t like telling people that they need to shape up so I can have joy; it seems inappropriately self-serving. And as a person who has leaders over me, I don’t like hearing that I’m supposed to enable them to experience joy because, well, sometimes they make my life miserable. Further, I’m not entirely sure how broad the scope of this mandate is: are we talking about pastors and others in the church, are we talking about civil leaders, are we talking about all of the above? And what implications does that have on the way I approach things from worship services to general elections?

Perhaps it is God’s timing that I’ve reached this verse right ahead of what many are calling the most important election in the history of our nation. Frankly, I don’t know if that’s true. But I do know that our nation is dangerously polarized, and if this verse impacts how I am to relate to civil leaders, then there is a great number of us who need to repent.

To augment the confusion, the Amplified version and New Living Translation render the first bit of the verse as “Obey your spiritual leaders.” The Message renders it, “Be responsive to your pastoral leaders.” But while the text does say these people “watch over your souls,” a significant number of other translations don’t qualify “leaders” as “pastoral” or “spiritual.” And Strong’s explains the participle that these are all translating to mean, essentially, one who leads or rules or influences in general. Indeed, isn’t the point of any leader, spiritual or otherwise, to show people the right way to go?

So I guess I have to go with the broader definition. The leaders of whom the writer was speaking includes everyone who has any form of authority over me.

And my job is two-fold. First, the author calls me to “obey” (HCSB) these leaders. But there is a great deal more to this than simply obeying. The NIV2011 suggests that this same word be translated as “Have confidence in your leaders,” and Strong’s indicates that this is a valid rendering. In fact, the word carries the idea of relying on, agreeing with, having confidence in, making friends with, trusting, and obeying.

Boy, I wish I could say that I could do all of those things with all of the leaders over me. But maybe that’s the point: I need to at least try.

And then there is the second job here: “submit.” Perhaps the New International Reader’s Version makes this one the clearest: “Put yourselves under their authority.” As though obey wasn’t clear enough, the author of Hebrews very nearly reiterates the exact same point, indicating that the leaders over me shouldn’t have to compel me. Rather, I should just do what they ask or command.

Why should I do this? Well, again, the author provides two reasons. The first is that these leaders will be held accountable for my soul. As a follower, that’s a pretty humbling response. And as a leader, it’s pretty sobering. But it is what it is. Indeed, this notion is not unique to Hebrews. Elsewhere in the Bible, the idea that leaders will be held accountable for those under them is also introduced and reinforced. So if I step out of line, the leader will be held responsible. At least in some way. I guess I will have to trust God to figure out exactly how to do that because I don’t know that I could.

And then there is this: “so that they can [keep watch over your souls] with joy and not with grief” (HCSB). In other words, I need to obey and submit – trust and surrender – so that the leaders over me can do their jobs with joy. I shouldn’t make the leaders’ lives more painful, stressful, frustrating, etc., than it needs to be. Because, as I can say from personal experience, they already have enough of that stuff as it is!

So once again, we see that the Christian life is not all about me getting joy. It’s also about me bringing joy to someone else. Particularly leaders. And that, regardless of whether I like them personally, agree with their politics, fully subscribe to their vision, and on and on.

And if that’s the case, then why do I speak badly of them? Why do I criticize them, often without knowing all that they’re going through. Why do I resent them?

I mean, sure, in our republic we need to objectively assess the leader’s performance and all that stuff. But that doesn’t negate what the author to the Hebrews – who had no such luxury – said. I need to live and speak in such a way as to bring joy to those who have been placed over me.

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