In my continuing study of the role of leaders among followers of Christ, I’ve come to a verse (Hebrews 13:17) that many use to teach that pastors or elders should exercise authority over a church. (For more posts in this series, see “Leadership, Obedience, and Authority…“, “Leaders and Servants…“, “What does a bishop oversee?“, “What does a non-bishop oversee?“, “Exercising Authority…“, and “Ruling or Leading?“)
To summarize what I have found so far, Jesus begins by teaching that those who follow him will not lead in the same way the world leads. In particular, they will not lead by exercising authority. Instead, they will serve others. Believers will know who to follow – the servants, not those who attempt to exercise authority. Those who lead (pastors/elders for example) should concern themselves with the church – people – and not organizations. The Holy Spirit has given them the responsibility of watching over God’s flock, but he has also given this same responsibility to all believers (Heb 12:14-15). However, “leaders” should be examples to others in how to care for other people.
Now, what about Hebrews 13:17 -
Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you. (Hebrews 13:17 ESV)
The structure of this verse is as follows:
Command – (obey… and submit)
Reason (for the command) – (for they are keeping watch…)
Purpose – (Let them do this with joy…)
Reason (for the purpose) – (for that would be of no advantage…)
Let’s begin by examining the two commands: Obey and submit. The Greek verbs translated “obey” and “submit” by the ESV are Ï€Îµá½·Î¸ÎµÏƒÎ¸Îµ (present passive imperative 2nd person plural from Ï€Îµá½·Î¸Ï‰ – peithÅ) and á½‘Ï€Îµá½·ÎºÎµÏ„Îµ (present active imperative 2nd person plural from á½‘Ï€Îµá½·ÎºÏ‰ – hypeikÅ).
In many translations, the verb Ï€Îµá½·Î¸Ï‰ (peithÅ) in Heb 13:17 is translated “obey”. According to BDAG, the standard Greek lexicon, in the present tense and passive voice (as in this verse), Ï€Îµá½·Î¸Ï‰ (peithÅ) means “to be won over as the result of persuasion” with the following possible groups of glosses: 1) be persuaded, believe, 2) obey, follow, 3) take someone’s advice. In English, it is clear that “obey” is the strongest of these glosses. According to BDAG, there are four instances of this usage in the New Testament (excluding Heb 13:17). Let’s look at each occurrence:
…but for those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey urighteousness, there will be wrath and fury. (Romans 2:8 ESV)
O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you that you should not obey the truth, before whose eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed among you as crucified? (Galatians 3:1 NKJ – Majority Text only)
You were running well. Who hindered you from obeying the truth? (Galatians 5:7 ESV)
If we put bits into the mouths of horses so that they obey us, we guide their whole bodies as well. (James 3:3 ESV)
According to BDAG, Ï€Îµá½·Î¸Ï‰ (peithÅ) can be translated “follow” or “obey” in each of these passages, although the ESV and other translations have chosen to use “obey” as the gloss in each passage. In a couple of the verses, it seems that “follow” would be a much better choice. For example, the Galatians were running, but stopped “following” the truth. Also, the use of the verb “guide” in James 3:3 suggests that “follow” may be a better verb than obey. In fact, in each case “follow” would have the same connotation.
However, when we get to Hebrews 13:17, we now have a completely different context. Believers are now no longer “obeying” the truth or the gospel, they are now “obeying” other people. In this situation, and with the previous understanding that believers are never told to exercise authority over other believers, “follow” seems to be the better translation. Thus, believers are commanded to “follow” those who are leading them.
Next, the verb á½‘Ï€Îµá½·ÎºÏ‰ (hypeikÅ) – “yeild, give way, submit” – is found only in Heb 13:17 in the New Testament and in 4 Maccabees 6:35 in the Septuagint. However, it seems to be synonymous with á½‘Ï€Î¿Ï„á½±ÏƒÏƒÏ‰ (hypotassÅ), so we should not be surprised to find that believers are to “submit” to other believers (Eph 5:21). It is interesting to note that in this verse believers are told to submit, but the “leaders” are not instruct to force or make anyone submit. This is very similar to Eph 5:21-33 in relation to husbands and wives. Submission to others believers is shown as something that is offered to another person, not something that is required by another person.
Hebrews 13:17 gives a reason for believers to follow and to submit to those who are leading them: “for they are keeping watch over your souls”. This is synonymous with instruction for leaders to shepherd the flock (people) of God by watching over them (1 Peter 5:2). Of course, this should be a reminder to both leaders and those who are following that leaders should recognize that their primary responsibility is toward people, not toward organizations and structures. Similarly, just as all believers will give an account before God, Christian “leaders” will give an account for the way they lead people toward maturity in Christ. They will not give an account as to whether or not someone follows. Those following will give an account for this.
Next, this verse gives a purpose of following and submitting: in order that they (the leaders) may do this with joy not by groaning. Apparently, leading should be joyful, not hard work. There is then a reason given for this purpose: “for this is of no advantage to you”. There is advantage to us in following and submitting to those who are leading us toward maturity in Christ. There is no advantage to us when we cause them grief.
The last part of this verse reminds us that as the body of Christ, everyone relies on one another, as we all rely on God. Leaders do not stand outside the body. Instead, the health and maturity of the body depends on both the leaders and those following to submit to the work of the Spirit in each other’s lives. This type of mutual submission leads to joy for leaders and also profits those following.
So, it is possible to translate the beginning of Hebrews 13:17 as “Obey those who rule over you”. But, if this is what the author of Hebrews meant, then he is teaching something that is opposed to the teaching of Jesus. If instead, he meant this phrase in a different – but perfectly valid – way (i.e. “Follow those who lead you”) then his teaching falls into place with Jesus’ command that believers will not exercise authority over one another, but will instead follow those who serve.