Ordained church leaders, as we have seen, do not serve as mediators between us and God as the old covenant priests did. That does not mean, however, that there is no distinction between clergy and laity or between leaders and laypeople under the new covenant. As we have seen in passages such as 1 Timothy 3:1–13, there are offices in the church for which men are set apart in order to meet the spiritual and physical needs of God’s people. These officers have particular duties to fulfill, but it must be noted that Scripture also prescribes duties to those who are not ordained to vocational ministry. In other words, the Lord also gives responsibilities to the laity.
Hebrews 13:17 tells us that laypeople are to submit to and obey church leaders. First, let us note that the author is not speaking of unthinking, unquestioning, absolute obedience. Scripture never sets anyone in absolute authority over us besides God Himself. Furthermore, John Calvin notes in his commentary on this verse that the qualifier “they are keeping watch over your souls” shows the kind of obedience in view. We are to submit to church leaders who in the main strive to preach the Word of God, teach what is in accord with sound doctrine, and love God’s people. No leader besides Christ is perfect, of course, but there is a world of difference between a sound leader who is fallible and makes errors for which he is sorry and false teachers who are out to destroy the servants of Christ. John Calvin writes that Hebrews 13:17 “speaks only of those who faithfully performed their office; for they who have nothing but the title, nay, who use the title of pastors for the purpose of destroying the Church, deserve but little reverence and still less confidence.”
So, when we have leaders who love God and His people and seek to proclaim the truth and lead in accordance with it, our general disposition should be to take their counsel seriously, heed their warnings, and follow their leadership. But today’s passage does not call the laity to grudging submission, but rather to joyful and willing obedience. Laypeople are to let their leaders direct them “with joy and not with groaning” (Heb. 13:17). That is to say, laypeople are to do what they can to make their leaders glad and eager to shepherd them. This means, among other things, not causing division over unnecessary matters, not slandering church leadership, and not refusing to help our leaders when we are asked and are available.