East of Eden, every calling has its toil. With Adam, we all eat bread by the sweat of our face. We all suffer pain or sorrow in our work, battling “thorns and thistles” of some variety or another (Gen. 3:17–19). There are aspects of our callings, to be sure, that we enjoy and for which we are well suited. Yet there are also those tasks that go with our callings that are like thorns in our flesh, messengers of Satan sent to buffet us (2 Cor. 12:7). Our vocations are blessings from God in which we contend with the curse of sin that causes the whole creation to groan. Toil and grief and joy are part of every calling, including the call to ordained service in the church.
Knowing that our elders will experience both joy and grief in their ministry to us, how can we promote their joy? Hebrews 13:17 connects their joy or groaning with our obedience and submission. This connection is perhaps clearer in the King James Version, which carefully follows the grammar of the original Greek language: “Obey them that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves . . . that they may do it with joy, and not with grief.” Our obedience and submission to our elders promotes their joy. On the other hand, our disobedience makes them groan with grief. So if you would promote the joy of your elders, according to this text, obey them.
John Owen helpfully notes that “it is not a blind, implicit obedience and subjection, that is here prescribed.” That false notion of obedience to religious authorities, Owen lamented, “hath been abused to the ruin of the souls of men.” He reminds us that gospel obedience is termed “reasonable service” (Rom. 12:1, KJV throughout); thus, Christian leaders are to lead by persuading from the Scriptures (see Acts 17:2), addressing the mind with sound doctrine, not demanding, “Because I said so” (see 1 Peter 5:3).
The Greek term translated “obey” in Hebrews 13:17 means to be open to persuasion, or what we might call being teachable. We all know the temptation to close our ears to teaching that calls on us to change. We can be “stiff-necked” (see Deut. 31:27), like a stubborn mule that won’t follow. We can become adversarial hearers, formulating our defense in our minds while being addressed rather than humbly listening. This resistance to learning, refusing to subject ourselves to the truth, causes our elders to groan.