The Bible gives us a clear command about respecting those who govern the church. In Hebrews 13:17 we read this: "Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they keep watch over your souls as those who will have to give account, so that they can do this with joy and not with grief, for that would be unprofitable to you."
We know that this passage is talking about leaders in the church because of the phrase "they keep watch over your souls." The government doesn't keep watch over our soul. Also in this chapter the word leader is referred to and each time it refers to church leaders.
The church is not a democracy. God has given authority to a group of men to take care of His sheep. They shepherd Jesus Christ's sheep on His behalf. The elders are men in high position because God has given that position. Therefore we are called to obey the elders and submit to them. To disobey them is to disobey God. If we love and obey Christ, then we should submit to those He has put in place in this position of authority in the church.
Let me give an example of what this submission looks like. There are churches that require their members to abstain from drinking alcohol. Now I would disagree with this requirement, but maybe this is the only good church in town. The church has good preaching and the elders are caring and godly. In order to join this church I would have to promise not to drink alcohol. Also I should not try to convince others to reject this requirement. The right way to try change this requirement would be to go the elders and present my case against this requirement and ask them to change it. If they don't however, then I need to submit to their judgement.
We should respect their authority both in our words and in our hearts. We should do this without grumbling and complaining. This doesn't mean we can't give helpful criticism or advice or share with them our concerns about how they do things. But if they disagree with our concerns, then we need to submit to them. We should not complain about the elders to others. We shouldn't cut them down before others. Gathering people to your cause to bring down the elders or to force them to listen is forbidden by this command. Even disrespect, unsubmissiveness and grumbling in our hearts is contrary to God's will for His people. This is a hard command, but it is important as we shall see.
Do we have to submit and obey our elders in every instance? So long as they don't ask us to do anything unBiblical, we need to obey them. If this is God's plan for His sheep, then it is important for us to find good shepherds. Are they qualified to be in this position? Are they godly men who can teach the Word? We should give careful thought to who the elders of a local church are before we become members. No group of elders will be perfect. They will make mistakes. If you are looking for perfection you will never be a member of a church. No, we are looking for a pattern of godly character that is progressing. We are looking for men who are skilled in teaching the Bible. I believe there are few good reasons for leaving a church. Before we leave a church because we don't think the elders are qualified, we should pray much about this decision and check our hearts for sin. We should make sure there is a church that is doctrinally sound and that has qualified leaders in our area before we leave. It is a serious thing to submit to and obey our elders, and therefore we should give great attention and care before we are members of a church.
The task of shepherding the church of Jesus Christ is one of the hardest jobs on earth. The elder is a sinner dealing with his own sins while having to call other sinners to leave their sins, which we know is at times like pulling teeth from a lion. The work of an elder is mentally exhausting as one deals with serious and difficult issues. But this hard work can get much harder when the sheep refuse to submit to their leadership. This situation is bad for the elders and bad for the sheep.
Let me illustrate from my life as a farmer. Taking care of dairy cows is a lot of work. I need to keep them fed, clean their stalls, milk them twice a day and treat them when they are sick. When the cows are healthy and calm, it is not too bad. But when you have cows that try to knock out your teeth in the parlour or smash you with their head, farming becomes a burden. Cows that refuse to listen and go where they are supposed to make simple tasks a frustration. When this happens I can become gruff with the cows and my rod and staff need to be used. The more a cow fights me when I have to give her medicine, the worse it will hurt. It doesn't pay to fight with the farmer. Sometimes the cow goes to market.
Well, the same is true in regard to elders/pastors and the members of the church. When the members don't submit to the elders, it makes shepherding difficult. The elders spend time trying to sort out the conflict rather than studying, praying or counseling. This conflict can make the elder depressed. It can make him frustrated and angry. This will hurt his preaching and teaching, which will in turn hurt the sheep. Such conflict can lead to divisions in churches and at times it will lead to church splits or pastors leaving. When the sheep don't make a peep by being submissive and obedient, the work of shepherding is a joy. When the sheep revolt, the work is a deary business, and the spiritual health of the shepherds and the sheep will suffer. Sheep who rebel only bite the hand that feeds them. This is truly unprofitable for them.
There is a downward spiral into misery in the church when the members do not obey this command to submit and obey their elders. First, some members do not listen to the elders, slandering and complaining openly about them. Then the work of the pastors becomes more difficult and burdensome. So their work of shepherding starts to suffer due to the conflict. Next these members and, maybe more, start to complain even more because the elder's work is not done as it should be. This fresh wave of hostility further burdens the elders which makes their work suffer even more. And so it goes on until people repent or the church implodes or ceases to be effective.
For a healthy church, we need faithful pastors and submissive members. If either of these two are missing, the church will be in great trouble. So I ask you to be a good sheep or a good shepherd if you are one. Pray for your leaders. Love them. Support them. And submit to and obey them as if you are obeying and loving Jesus Christ. If you don't, you will only bring spiritual illness on yourself and dishonor to the fair name of Jesus.