Watching for Souls

There is an interesting reference to the work of church leaders in Hebrews 13:17; “they watch for your souls…” (KJV). What does this mean? Let’s think about it in this article.


The book of Hebrews was not written to a particular church like many of the other letters. It was written to a widely scattered group of professing Jewish believers whose faith was being tested by adversity. Some of them were considering a return to Judaism. The writer seeks to encourage them by skill- fully presenting a contrast of what they had left and the better things into which they had come in Christ. After describing the faith of bygone saints (ch. 11) and some strong words about discipline (ch. 12) the writer closes the book with a collection of practical reminders and exhortations in chapter 13.

Three of these instructions to believers involve those who “have the rule” over them. Together they imply some sort of structured gathering of believers, along with those who exercise authority among them. In verse 7 Christians are to remember them, possibly recalling former leaders, although the present participle in the original Greek permits the idea of remembering present leaders in prayer. “Remember those who rule over you, who have spoken the Word of God to you, whose faith follow, considering the outcome of their conduct.” (Hebrews 13:7)

In verse 17 they are to obey and submit to them (“Obey those who rule over you, and be submissive, for they watch out for your souls, as those who must give account. Let them do so with joy and not with grief, for that would be unprofitable for you.” Hebrews 13:17). And in verse 24 they are to greet them, perhaps on behalf of the writer (“Greet all those who rule over you …” Hebrews 13:24a). Taken together, they paint a picture of cordial Christian church life. God can more easily bless a company in which the people pray for their leaders, submit to them, and speak kindly to them. One thinks of the warm relationship that must have existed between Boaz and his laborers with whom he exchanged greetings in the book of Ruth (“Now behold, Boaz came from Bethlehem, and said to the reapers, ‘The Lord be with you!’ And they answered him, ‘The Lord bless you!’ ” Ruth 2:4).

Questions Verse 17 raises at least four interesting questions: 

1) Who are the ones in authority? In all three occurrences in Hebrews 13, the Greek term for “rule” is “hegeomai” often used in the NT of military rulers and leaders. Acts 15:22, using the same Greek word, speaks of “chief men among the brethren.” The NIV and Darby’s translation render the word as “leaders,” which gives a good sense.

Why aren’t they called elders? There are a number of possible reasons for this. In young churches, it takes time to recognize elders, but there are usually men providing leadership from the start. Further, such a word can also include gifted men of influence in the church (see Acts 13:1,2). Paul would not become an elder when he visited the churches of his day, but he would certainly be recognized as someone with spiritual authority, a leader or man of influence among the Christians. Since the Lord is the ultimate source of all authority, the desire of the spiritual man is to submit to the Lord’s authority wherever he encounters it.

2) What shades of meaning are conveyed by “obey” and “submit?” Homer Kent comments: “Be obedient (peithesthe) denotes assenting to another’s direction. Submit (hupeikete) yielding one’s contrary opinions in favor of someone else’s.” Two prominent responsibilities of shepherds are teaching the people God’s Word, and setting direction for the church (leading). Perhaps the word “obey” corresponds to the former, and “submit” to the latter. The New Testament provides some striking examples of both (see Acts 6, 15, 20).

In any case, the whole matter of coming into a right relationship with authority is foundational to the Christian life. Without submission to God’s authority, one cannot even be saved. After conversion, Christian discipleship centers around teaching younger believers all things that the Lord has commanded (Matt. 28:18-20).

3) What is the meaning of watching for the souls of people? According to Hebrews 4:12, there is a difference between the soul and the spirit of a person, and the Word of God helps us discern the difference. By our spirit we have God-consciousness and the soul provides self-consciousness. (Normally, we think of the body, soul and spirit, where the body with its senses allows us to interact with the physical world around us. See 1 Thess 5:23 where all three are referred to as distinct entities in the same verse).

We can think of the functions of the soul as the mind, the will and the emotions. How necessary that each of these be brought under subjection to the Spirit and the Word of God in the believer! Paul charges the Christians at Rome to be transformed by the renewing of the mind (Romans 12:1,2). Certainly the will must undergo change from the world’s out- look ,“My will be done” to the believer’s prayer, “Thy will be done.” And who can deny that the emotions, while God-given and precious are no foundation on which to build the choices of life?

This relationship between soul and spirit is beautifully illustrated in the words of Mary (Luke 1:46,47): “And Mary said, ‘My soul doth magnify the Lord, And my spirit hath rejoiced in God my savior.’ ” Careful attention to the verb tenses will disclose that the praise of Mary’s soul was a response to the earlier work of God in her spirit. In the same way, maturing in Christ means bringing the functions of the soul under the control of God’s Spirit. As they care for the flock, elders bathe this process in vigilance and prayer. Spiritual warfare has been described as a battle for the mind.

Here is a question on which elders can ponder: Are we seeking to shepherd the whole person? It is easy to think that if we provide good Bible teaching, the rest is up to the individual. In addition to constantly teaching the people, the Lord Jesus also worked with them on matters of the will (e.g., John 5:6 ) and matters which touched the emotions (e.g., Luke 10:17-20). He also had great compassion for the physical needs of people, as did the early church.

4) What does the “giving account” refer to? Finally, what is the account leaders must give? Not only in a coming day which is certain, but also in the present must they answer to the Lord, for they are stewards (Titus 1:7). John Owen, the Puritan writer, wisely remarks, “Much of the life of the ministry and benefit of the church depends on the continual giving an account unto Christ . . .and the dealings of Christ with the church itself are regulated according unto this account.”

Practical Steps How can all of this be worked out in the life of the church? Each Christian can ask, “Do I contribute joy or sorrow to the work of the elders?” “Are those who lead smiling or sorrowing as they mention my name and spiritual progress before the Lord?”

Elders have some things to think about, as well. Are we discipling the whole person? Is the assembly of God’s people a place of training or just a place where information is available? Are the elders placing sufficient emphasis on pastoral work as shepherds, or have we become primarily administrators? Are we gentle and kind, or domineering? How about our seeking the Lord as a group of elders? Is there time to mention the sheep and their needs to Him? Even the little ones and the elderly?


One of the most prominent words employed to describe elders is “overseer;” one who watches over others. How fitting that this alertness and vigilance be extended to the whole person; a reminder that spiritual growth is much more than just “head knowledge,” but extends to every aspect of the Christian life!




Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

For security, use of Google's reCAPTCHA service is required which is subject to the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Use.

I agree to these terms.