Abstract of a Sermon Preached on December 6, 1999

In Hebrews 13:17 we read, “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.” This verse contains four unpopular words, concerning which I will speak this morning.


The first of those unpopular words is “obey.” The whole human race has a strong aversion to obedience. We like to do our own will, not to submit to the will of another. To do our own will is the essence of sin, but since the fall of Adam we are all sinful, and love therefore to do our own will. We very much dislike being told what we have to do. We want to determine that ourselves. This is true of all of us by nature—-not nature as God created it, but nature as it now exists, fallen and sinful. We are not born with a natural inclination to obey our parents, but quite the reverse. When my first child was very small, I taught her a little rhyme, which I required her to repeat on suitable occasions. It said, “Obey, obey, right away.” But though this rhyme was often in her mouth, it was not in her heart. Neither was it in yours, or mine. We had to be forced to obey, by hard strokes on our posterior ends, and most of us didn't learn it very well after all.

But as though it were not enough that we were born with an aversion to obedience, we have been nurtured in that aversion since the day we were born. In America at least, all these evil propensities of our sinful nature have been immeasurably strengthened by the principles of democracy, in which we have been immersed since we were rocked in our cradles. We grew up in an atmosphere of self-will, being told ten thousand times that “This is a free country,” the implication of this always being that we may therefore do as we please.

Our nature and our education and environment have thus combined together to make obedience extremely unpopular. We do not care to obey anybody. The carnal will do as they please. The carnal who think they are spiritual will profess that they owe obedience to God alone. They will obey God, but not man. They need no pastors or elders to tell them what to do, and certainly no church hierarchy. They proceed of course on the assumption that they are as competent as any pastor or elder to know what the will of the Lord is, and perfectly inclined also always to do it, whereas the plain fact is, if it were the will of the Lord which concerned them, they would set themselves to obey them that have the rule over them. The text does not command us to obey God, but men. God commands this, yet they repudiate the command of God, under the plea of obeying him. Whence it plainly appears that it is not the will of God which moves them, but self-will, and a good deal of pride besides.

But I proceed to the second unpopular word, which is “rule.” People don't like to be ruled, for the same reasons they don't like to obey. They want to do their own will, and want no one telling them what they have to do. But here is the plain fact: if you belong to the church of God, you are under rule, and not the rule of God only, but of “them that have the rule” under God. Somebody has the rule, and those who have it have been given it by God. Paul says to the Ephesian elders in Acts 20:28, “Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over the which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers.” The flock is bound to obey these, and submit to them—-not merely follow their advice if they please, but obey them. I am very well aware that there are many who occupy the office of elders who are no way fit for the place. They are disqualified by the Scriptures, and have no business in the office which they hold. This is true, without a doubt. But I say nothing of such elders at this time. The fact is, though it may be hard to find them in such a day as this, there are true elders in the church, to whom God himself has given authority over the flock, and these the flock is commanded to obey.

The church is no democracy. Democracy is not God's way of government. God has never established a democracy, and never will. Marriage is no democracy, the family is no democracy, and neither is the church. But people today are so steeped in democracy that they seem unable to understand God's method of government. The only notion they have of obedience is the keeping of laws which they themselves have had a part in enacting, and which they understand and approve. But God does not command obedience to laws, but to rulers. “Obey them that have the rule.” They may require things which you do not understand, and which you have no capacity to understand. If God has made “them” overseers in the church, your business is to obey “them,” and not merely their enactments which you happen to understand, or to like.

And you must understand that the whole theme of this morning's sermon is bound up with the subject of church membership. There are many who repudiate church membership in principle, claiming they can find no such thing in the Bible, but there are also many who decline it as a simple matter of self-will. They do not wish to be ruled. They want their independence. They will do as they please. Let any man endeavor to rule them, and they will immediately declare their independence. I have seen people leave churches ostensibly over the most trifling issues, where I believe the only real issue was, they were not willing to be ruled. This scripture is a perfect dead letter to them, and this is precisely as they would have it. Nobody has the rule over them, and they are generally as confused and unsettled as the Israelites were in the book of Judges, when there was no king in Israel, but every man did that which was right in his own eyes. I used to have great hopes of these folks who could never find a church which they could join, for I certainly am not blind to the wretched condition of most of the churches today, but the experience of thirty years has taught me that most of these independent souls are simply unwilling to be ruled. They are ruled indeed, but it is by pride and self-will. God says, “Obey them that have the rule over you,” and this assumes that somebody has that rule, unpopular as this may be.

We realize that there are two sides to every question, and of course two sides to this one. We know very well that there are thousands of pastors and elders in churches all over this land who are utterly unqualified for their places, being worldly, unspiritual, and ignorant of the Scriptures, elders in the church who cannot rule well their own houses, and indeed, elders who care nothing about ruling the church. We are not preaching submission to such elders (though it will usually be harmless enough) and rather suppose that saints ought to depose them, or leave their churches—-probably the latter, as the former course is likely to cause endless strife.

But to proceed. The third unpopular word in this text is “submit.” “Obey them that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves.” Submission is as unpopular as obedience, and for all the same reasons. But submission is not quite the same thing as obedience. Submission is a deeper thing. It goes farther. “Submit yourselves,” the text says. This is more than mere obedience to a requirement.

But we must look at what this submission is not, before we endeavor to explain what it is. We are absolutely opposed to any cultish notions of submission. We are not to sacrifice either our mind or our conscience to any man, no matter what his authority. This is the cultish doctrine, the doctrine of the Mormons and Catholics and Jehovah's Witnesses. Authorities have no right whatsoever to compel or over-ride the conscience of any man—-to compel them, that is, to do what their conscience disapproves. This is the way of the cults, and its effect—-no accident, by the way—-is to make the authorities equal to God himself, to displace God, and put themselves in his place. To “submit yourselves” to them that have the rule over you certainly does not mean that. You must render to God what is God's, and to lesser authorities—-to Caesar—-what is Caesar's. To submit the conscience to man is to rob God of his due, for the conscience belongs by all means to God, and this I hold to be a fact which requires no proof. It is self-evident to all who understand the workings of conscience.

We are very well aware that refractory souls will usually plead conscience for their independent course, where conscience in reality has nothing to do with the matter. If the authorities require you to do what God forbids, then you may plead conscience. But if they require you to abstain from what God permits, it is mere perversity to plead conscience. Paul admonishes us in Romans 14 voluntarily to abstain from things which are right, and if so, we may certainly do so without violating our conscience. Permission to do something is no command, and it is certainly within the rights of authorities to require abstinence from things which God permits, such as the drinking of wine, or the killing of game. It is no sin to sleep on the floor, yet if your mother forbids it, you submit, and acknowledge her right to forbid you, and that whether you understand her reasons or not. To claim that her prohibition violates your conscience, because it is right to sleep on the floor, is just perversity. Very shallow reasoning also, such as no man of sense would be moved or intimidated by. Authorities have no right to over-ride the conscience, but they certainly have the right to over-rule these shallow pretenses concerning conscience, though they will be branded as tyrants and persecutors for so doing.

But authorities have no more right to subject the minds of their people than they do their conscience. Brigham Young, the successor of Joseph Smith as the Prophet of the Mormon Church, taught that a woman must not only submit to the practice of polygamy, but must approve it in her heart. He declared that any woman who rebelled against the “divine ordinance” of polygamy in her heart would be damned—-to which Fanny Stenhouse rejoined that then every woman in Utah must be damned, and every woman in the world besides. Authorities have no right to subject the minds of their people, and this for the simple and obvious reason that they have no ability to do so. Authority is meant to control the conduct of men, not their thoughts. The authorities in the church have the God-given right and responsibility to require submission to their standards, but they have no ability to require men to agree with them. It is just here that one of the primary reasons for the existence of authority lies. If all men understood what was right, what was wise, what was best, and were also inclined to do it, there would be no reason for authority to exist.

We require women to dress modestly, and this for these two reasons. First, they may have no understanding of what is immodest, or why. And if they do understand, they may not be inclined to do as they ought. We can make rules and set standards, but some people can find as many loopholes as we can make rules. Some will do their best to keep the letter of the law, and discard its spirit. It is not the business of the shepherd merely to give the sheep a rule-book, but to watch over them, and see to it that they do as they ought. We once had a woman here who habitually dressed immodestly. I dealt repeatedly with her husband about it, but nothing changed. At length I told this woman that I had often dealt with her husband about the matter, but that he had never done anything effectual. She replied—-to my surprise—-”He never did anything.” So here you have the two reasons for the existence of authority. She had little understanding of what she ought to do. He understood it perfectly well, but had little inclination to do anything about it. He did not care to tangle with his wife over this, and so left it alone. This is why God has put authorities over the church, and given them the right and the responsibility to require the people to do as they ought. And it is equally the business of those who are under that rule to submit themselves to it.

But this does not extend to the submission of the mind. We may require a woman in this church to wear dresses, and modest dresses too, but we cannot require her to understand the matter, or to believe it wrong to wear trousers. The authority exists precisely for those cases which she does not or cannot understand. Babes in Christ cannot understand much of anything. They may see no wrong in watching television—-no wrong in following the major league ball games—-no wrong in wasting their time—-no wrong in a hundred kinds of conformity to the world. They need someone to tell them what to do, and require them to do it. Understanding will come later.

I do not much concern myself about it if a woman can see no wrong in wearing slacks, so long as she doesn't wear them. She may submit herself, and yet her mind remain just where it was. The mind cannot be forced. But to submit herself certainly means more than mere obedience to the requirement. What would you do with a woman who submitted to our requirement that she wear dresses, but made it her business to talk it around that there was nothing wrong with wearing slacks? What would you do with her? I would put her out of the church. I was about to say I would put her out of the church as soon as I would a woman who refused to wear dresses, but the fact is, I would put her out a good deal sooner. She is a trouble-maker, and she really has no business in the church. She spreads dissention and discontent, and is certainly not submitting herself to them that have the rule, though she obeys their requirement. Submission is more than obedience. Submission embraces the spirit of obedience. It honors “them that have the rule,” and does honor to their standards also, even where it disagrees with them, or cannot understand them.

Paul charges Timothy to charge the people “that they teach no other doctrine.” (I Tim. 1:3). Christ indeed goes beyond this, and says to the angel of the church in Pergamos, “But I have a few things against thee, because thou hast there them that hold the doctrine of Balaam, who taught Balac to cast a stumblingblock before the children of Israel, to eat things sacrificed unto idols, and to commit fornication. So hast thou also them that hold the doctrine of the Nicolaitans, which thing I hate.” (Rev. 2:14-15). There is nothing here of teaching at all, but only of holding certain doctrines. But these doctrines are abominations. To hold them is proof of a wrong state of heart, and those who hold them are to be put out of the church. The Lord's complaint against this angel is that he had them there, in the membership of the church, who held such doctrines. So far, then, “them that have the rule” have power over the mind also, but this does not extend to every innocent mistake or every matter of mere ignorance. We may let folks hold a good many things, but yet forbid them to teach them.

But some will say, This will undermine the right of free speech. What right of free speech? This is one of the principles of democracy, but not of the Bible. You look at the Holy Catholic Church of the dark ages, and the Communist regimes of the present century, and you see one extreme. You look at American democracy, and you see the other extreme. Neither are right, and neither are wise. On the one side, a totalitarian state will establish what is wrong, and allow none to speak against it. On the other side, a democratic state will establish what is (in general) right, and allow everybody to speak against it. Seditious and treasonous speech is protected by the constitution. If this is a necessary part of democracy, then democracy is suicidal in its constitution. If you had a child in your house who meticulously obeyed all your requirements, but continually told the rest of the children how stupid they were, would you allow such conduct? You would prove yourself stupid indeed if you did.

“Submit yourselves,” the Lord says, and this is more than mere obedience to the letter of the requirement.

And who is it to whom God requires this submission? Angels? Glorified saints? No, but to men in the flesh, men of like passions with yourselves, men who are failing and fallible. You of course know very well how fallible your leaders are, but you may be assured that God knows it as well as you do, and yet God requires you to obey them, and submit yourselves to them. This is for your benefit, and in fact it ought to be easier to submit to the authorities in the church than to any other authorities whatever. God lays down very stringent and particular qualifications for the elders in the church, to assure that they are good and wise men, and fit to exercise authority over others. God requires you to obey husbands and parents and masters and civil authorities also, while all those positions may be occupied by the basest of men. Any man who is old enough to have a child can exercise parental authority, and God requires his children to submit to him. Any boy old enough to marry may exercise the authority of a husband, regardless of his character, and wives must submit, though it be with many tears and sorrows. In the church it is quite otherwise. There God allows none in authority but those who are fit for it. To submit here, therefore, ought to be easy enough, and I believe it will be easy enough to those whose hearts are right. I am perfectly well aware that many of those who actually occupy the positions of authority in the churches are not fit for the place, and this raises many other questions. Certainly such rulers should be put out of their office, but that may not be possible. Family ties may reign, or party politics, or popular indifference. The path of the true-hearted saint will be a difficult one then, but I cannot pursue that here. When God requires his people to submit to those who have the rule, and obey them, he is certainly speaking of those who ought to have the rule, those who are fit for the place, and whom God himself has put in that place.

But “them that have the rule” by God's appointment are not perfect. Even the best of men may err, and do err. Yet their errors won't hurt you. The authority of the shepherd remains a benefit to the sheep, in spite of any errors which he may make. He may require you to give up something which is not wrong, but you would have a hard time finding a case of a Scripturally qualified elder actually requiring anybody to do anything which is wrong. God so safeguards authority in the church as to make this a practical impossibility, and if it should occur, you ought to obey God rather than men. In all other matters, God requires you to obey and to submit, and this is for your good, for they watch for your souls, as a tender parent would.

But this brings me to the fourth unpopular word in our text. The first time I preached on this text I entitled the sermon “Three Unpopular Words” —-but I have since discovered that there are not three, but four. The fourth of these unpopular words is “watch.” Do you like to be watched? Do you like somebody keeping an eye on you, to make sure you are behaving as you ought? With all the modern ideas of freedom and democracy firmly established in people's minds, along with a good deal of rhetoric about “the right to privacy,” most people have an aversion to being watched. But let me tell you a thing or two about this. It is generally those who are not behaving themselves who object to being watched. When I hear someone speaking contemptuously of the methods used by policemen to catch speeders, I know I am talking to someone who speeds—-or wants to. When little Johnny is into mischief, of course he doesn't want his mother watching him. One of our men recently mentioned a conversation he had had with a labor union boss, who objected to the workers being watched by the management. My response to this was, It is the worthless who object to being watched. I have worked in many different places during my life, and it never troubled me at all to be watched by the supervisor. I supposed if he watched me long enough, I might get a pay raise, or a promotion. I worked for five years for a temporary employment agency. We had to call the office to get a job assignment, and when one job was finished, we called in for another. Two of us were sent one day to a large warehouse, to unload two semi trailers of roofing and siding. I asked the regular men at the warehouse how long they thought it would take us, as I wanted to call in for another job for the next day, if we could finish this one in a day. They assured me there was no way we could do it in one day. But as a matter of fact, we did it in half a day. We were done by noon, and we didn't work ourselves to death doing it. We worked at a good pace, as I always did, but certainly nothing heroic or extraordinary. At any rate, the supervisor soon noticed us, and after the mid-morning coffee break he gathered all his regular men together, to the number of eight or ten, lined them up in a semi-circle around the loading dock where we were working, and said, “I want you to stand here and watch these fellows for a while, and learn how to work.”

Now I tell you, it was my glory to be watched that day. I didn't object. The first job my son Timothy had was cutting and loading fire wood. His boss told me one day that he and another man had together loaded the truck in the same amount of time that it took Timothy to load it by himself, “but,” he added, “it almost killed us.” Now I really doubt my son would have objected if the boss had watched him. It is the loafers who object to being watched. It is the thieves and pilferers. It is the little boy who is into mischief. It is the man who is trying to get away with something. These all hate to be watched. The upright have no objection. One of our women came to me once and said, “I'm glad to have an elder watching over me.” She wanted to be corrected if I saw something wrong in her.

But let me tell you another thing about this. It is the proud who hate to be watched. The humble are willing to be corrected, glad to be corrected. The proud can't bear it. Yet God has set elders in the church precisely for this purpose. He calls them bishops, or overseers, and puts them in the place of authority for the very purpose of over-seeing, or watching over the flock. Yes, and he requires the flock to submit to them also. If you think this is hard, you will have to have a battle with God over it. He is the one who requires you to obey and submit, and he is the one who requires the elders to watch over you.

And if you think your place is hard, you ought to try the place of an elder. John Wesley was envied by many for his authority, but he continually speaks of that authority as a heavy burden. The Lord says, “Lovest thou me? Shepherd my sheep.” Tyrants may love such a position, but nothing short of love for the Lord will move a humble and spiritual man to take up such a burden. The Lord says, “Lovest thou me? Shepherd my sheep.” This is what the Greek says, though it is obscured in the English, by the rendering of two different words as “feed.” Shepherding is more than feeding. This is keeping the sheep together, keeping them in bounds, keeping them in order, keeping them out of trouble. The shepherd who loves the Lord will take up the task, but he is sometimes ready to think the Lord has set him over a herd of mules, instead of a flock of sheep. We all have something of the mule in us, inherited from Adam, and it is the business of the shepherd to perform surgery, and cut the remnants of the mule out of the sheep. And what God requires of the sheep in this scripture is that they deny themselves, and obey and submit.

Here, then, are our four unpopular words. “Obey them that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves, for they watch for your souls.” And all this God commands, as unpopular as it may be, and commands it all for the good of his people, though he knows very well their rulers are not perfect.


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