It is becoming more and more common for people to point to Hebrews 13:17 as giving pastors and elders in the church an almost unlimited authority to tell other Christians what to do — not just in affairs of the church, but also in their personal lives.
This is a complete misunderstanding of the passage. The great Puritan John Owen does a fantastic job of expounding for us what this passage actually means, including the actual nature of the authority that it grants to elders in the church and its real and clear limitations.
The passage reads:
Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account.
Here is Owen’s exposition:
There are two parts of the duty enjoined with respect unto these guides, and that with distinct respect unto the two parts of their office before mentioned, namely, of teaching and ruling.
[1.] It is with respect unto their teaching, preaching, or pastoral feeding, that they are commanded to “obey them.” For the word signifies an obedience on a persuasion; such as doctrine, instruction, or teaching, doth produce. And, —
[2.] The submission required, “Submit yourselves,” respects their rule. “Obey their doctrine, and submit to their rule.” [Note: Christians are to obey the true doctrine of their leaders, but submit to (which is not always the same as obey) their rule.] And some things must be observed, to clear the intention of the apostle herein.
1st. It is not a blind, implicit obedience and subjection, that is here prescribed. A presence hereof hath been abused to the ruin of the souls of men: but there is nothing more contrary to the whole nature of gospel obedience, which is our “reasonable service;” and in particular, it is that which would frustrate all the rules and directions given unto believers in this epistle itself, as well as elsewhere, about all the duties that are required of them. For to what purpose are they used, if no more be required but that men give up themselves, by an implicit credulity, to obey the dictates of others?
2ndly. It hath respect unto them in their office only. If those who suppose themselves in office do teach and enjoin things that belong not unto their office, there is no obedience due unto them by virtue of this command. So it is with the guides of the church of Rome, who, under a presence of their office, give commands in secular things, no way belonging unto the ministry of the gospel.
3rdly. It is their duty so to obey whilst they teach the things which the Lord Christ hath appointed them to teach; for unto them is their commission limited, Matthew 28:20: and to submit unto their rule whilst it is exercised in the name of Christ, according to his institution, and by the rule of the word, and not otherwise. When they depart from these, there is neither obedience nor submission due unto them. …
[The office of pastor is to be discharged with] design, care, and diligence….Where this is not the design of church rulers, where it is not their work and employment, where they do not evidence it so to be, they can claim no obedience from the church, by virtue of this rule….
An assumption of right and power by any to rule over the church, without evidencing their design and work to be a watching for the good of their souls, is pernicious unto themselves, and ruinous unto the church itself.
(John Owen, Hebrews: Volume 7, 11:1 – 13:25, pp. 464 – 466.)