the weblog of Alan Knox

Obey and Submit? (Hebrews 13:17)

Posted by on Jul 16, 2007 in elders, office, scripture, service | 22 comments

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 πείθεσθε (present passive imperative 2nd person plural from πείθωpeithō) and ὑπείκετε (present active imperative 2nd person plural from ὑπείκωhypeikō).

In many translations, the verb πείθω (peithō) 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), πείθω (peithō) 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, πείθω (peithō) 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 ὑπείκω (hypeikō) – “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 ὑποτάσσω (hypotassō), 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.


22 Comments

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  1. 7-17-2007

    Great study, Alan, thanks!

    Lew

  2. 7-17-2007

    So. . .

    Paul commands us to obey/follow.

    Can a leader issue a command?

  3. 7-17-2007

    I really appreciate this post, Alan, as this topic is one that has been on my mind for several months.

    I have a follow-up question to David’s question. If a leader can issue a command, does that not also mean that the leader has the authority to apply consequences to those who disobey the command? Doesn’t that bring us back to “lording it over” each other?

    OK, that’s two questions. :^)

  4. 7-17-2007

    Lew,

    Thanks. You’ve been a great help in this study.

    David,

    Paul could issue a command, and I would think that we can if we are echoing God’s commands. God is the one with authority, so any believer can issue God’s command, whether a leader or a new believer.

    Mary,

    I think you answered your own question. If “consequences” brings us back to “lording it over”, then I would say that according to Jesus it has gone too far.

    -Alan

  5. 7-20-2007

    Alan,

    Very interesting post. I’m surprised there hasn’t been more dialogue/comments.

    This is a passage and topic I and the men in our fellowship have been trying to understand better.

    I understand that from the greek one could translate the passage as obey your leaders or follow your leaders or let yourself be persuaded by your leaders….. and submit.
    I also follow that Jesus in Matt 20 and Peter in 1 Peter 5 establish that leaders are to be humble servants not lords. Jesus also states that He came to serve not to be served.
    My questions is does this mean a leader in the assembly exercises no authority or does it indicate how they exercise authority. For we know that Jesus exercises authority but He indicates that He came to serve. It also seems that Paul used the imperative quite a bit, especially with the Corinthians. If we witnessed Paul’s behaviour would we constitute that as lording it over?

    I think it would be good to state that I support the translation “follow your leaders” I just want to understand this concept and its implications in full.

    Alan,

    If I may ask, how are decisions made in the assembly you meet with? I assume it is not elder rule, is it my majority vote or consensus? It is in the practical that I would like to know more of this shift from obey to follow.

    Thanks

  6. 7-20-2007

    oops, in the last post it should have read by majority vote Not my majority vote. Major difference.

  7. 7-20-2007

    Jeff,

    It is interesting that you should ask how we make decisions. So far, most of our decisions have been by uninamous vote. However, for some, this leads to decision-making that takes too much time. We’re discussing this even now.

    I’m not sure how someone can make decisions for someone else, or another group of people, without exercising authority over them, that is, without “lording over them”.

    I think many of the problems come about because we are trying to make the church into a corporation or at least into an entity that functions like a corporation. One of the things that I’ve been looking at recently is if there are “corporate responsibilities” in Scripture. If not, then we may be using church organization and “organized activities” to mask our own individual disobedience. I think I’ll probably post a series on this in the next week or two.

    But, to summarize, I think many times we feel the need to “make corporate decisions” for reasons other than obedience to God.

    -Alan

  8. 7-21-2007

    Alan,

    Correction on addressing last post….

    Jason,

  9. 7-21-2007

    Alan,

    You seem to equate any exercising of authority with “lording it over.” That seems to be a problem of your personal definition rather than a biblical problem. In other words, don’t take a 1960’s definition of “the man” and apply it to the church. Paul flat out, no kidding, told people what to do. Truth in love. So did Peter, so did James, so did John. I’m guessing on Timothy and Titus, but a fair amount of reasonable conjecture says that they may have as well.

    By the way, “corporate” = corpus.

  10. 7-21-2007

    Jeff and Jason,

    My apologies… my last comment should have been addressed to Jason, not Jeff.

    David,

    You’re correct about my equating “lording it over” with “exercising authority” (by the way, they are glosses of the same Greek words). Perhaps you can help me understand how they are different? As to Paul, I would appeal to 2 Corinthians 1:24. Exhorting someone to follow Christ is not the same as exercising authority over them.

    -Alan

  11. 7-21-2007

    Alan,

    Could you look at Acts ch 6:1-7. We see a problem arise within the church and we see that the apostles seem to exercise a measure of authority in providing a solution (they told the others what to do). They certainly involved the brethren in part of the solution (finding the men that would serve the widows).

    by the way its not corporation but community that I am interested in. It seems to me that if we are to have true community we are going to have to make decisions.
    As we see from Acts 6 there are times when we don’t take action that others are hurt (hellenist widows in that case).

  12. 7-22-2007

    When we have a potluck, we set up tables.* Someone has a plan for the setting up of the tables. That person communicates the plan by telling others where to set up the tables. That person has the “authority” over those setting up the tables.

    Someone else has made decisions about A-G bringing jello salads, H-Q bringing casseroles, and R-Z bringing pistachio pudding. That person communicates the plan to the gathering through the “bulletin”. That person has the “authority” over those bringing the food.

    It is possible, through prayer and fasting, to have a “Spirit-led” potluck. People could just bring their own chairs. They could set them up however they wanted. They could bring whatever food they wanted.

    But oops. How did we know that there was going to be a potluck today? Oh yeah, the Spirit laid it upon our hearts. Nobody had to tell us. Nobody but God has the “authority” to tell us.

    Something tells me there would be more fasting going on than was originally intended.

    “Lording it over” means that someone is controlling people in an unspiritual manner for their own benefit, or simply to exert power. Belittling people because they set up the chairs wrong. Castigating “G” because they brought a casserole instead of jello.

    Authority in the church is a different matter. But doing it well doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist. It is definitely, unquestionably a matter of service rather than an exalted position. But it is authority nonetheless.

    *Parables used for instructive purposes only. Not intended for exhaustive study of a complete theology. No casseroles were harmed during the construction of this parable.

  13. 7-22-2007

    Jason,

    Thank you for bringing up Acts 6. That is certainly an interesting example. Some people came to the apostles with a problem: the Hellenistic widows were not being provided with food. The apostles offered a solution: pick some people to take them food. The apostles did not tell them how to pick the people, or how they should provide the food, or when they should decide, or etc. I actually love this example! When there is a need, believers should come together to meet that need. It is interesting that those chosen are never mentioned regarding the need of the Hellenistic widows again. Instead, they are mentioned as evangelists. In fact, soon after this account, we can assume from the text that most of those Hellenistic believers left Jerusalem.

    David,

    If this is your idea of authority, then I’m all for it. To me, you’re talking about believers working together. I would assume that there would be people among the group that have done it before, have an idea of how to do it, or have the means to do it. Therefore, the other believers would listen to their suggestions on how to do whatever needs to be done.

    I would not call that “exercising authority”, but if that is your definition, then I can agree that believers should work with one another in that way.

    -Alan

  14. 7-22-2007

    I absolutely think that every denomination, church function, potluck or whatever organized by us needs to have someone in a position of authority controlling it or it will not function properly. It would be chaotic.

    Every ship needs a captain to steer it. Every plane needs a pilot to fly it. Every machine needs someone to run, service, and maintain it. Every play needs a writer and director to produce it. Etc., Etc., Etc..

    Everything we’ve created with our awesome abilities needs us, to a certain extent, to manipulate it or it wont function as it was supposed to. Everything we’ve made needs our direction to organize, control, direct and/or guide it or it wont work. Again, it would be utter chaos.

    In the same vein, everything not man-made could function just fine without our exercising authority and control over it.

    So…what does this say about OUR churches?

  15. 7-23-2007

    Bang! So we’re good then.

    The elders can eld, the deacons can deac, the ushers can ush, the leaders can lead, the shepherds can shep.

    Hence, the problems with e-gathering. What could have been done in a grande, maybe a venti, took three weeks.

    Love ya, man.

  16. 7-23-2007

    Jeff,

    Thank you for this comment. I think this is a good way of looking at leadership and authority.

    David,

    Like I said, I agree, if this is the definition of authority. I have not found this definition of authority anywhere else. For example, here are some definitions that I have found:

    1. the power or right to give orders or make decisions
    2. persons who exercise control over others
    3. an expert whose views are taken as definitive
    4. official permission or approval

    I think many pastors function by operating this type of authority. I think this is the type of authority that Jesus said we are to stay away from.

    -Alan

  17. 9-17-2008

    Alan
    Absolutely love your blog it’s insight and timeliness are a God thing. I’ve never been on a blog before but had to post a comment to this one.

    Since language is constantly changing, and because language has nuance, I prefer to translate hegeomai/leader as guide. The nuance or the emotional background and understanding that the mind evokes with the word leader seems to reinforce the sense of separation between clergy and laity as well as exuding a sense of “independent” decision making rather than “dependent” decision making as in “doing what the Father is doing”. This appears to give the impression that a “leader” can pick any direction and take off.

    On the other hand, a “guide” has to have been somewhere before he can possibly lead anyone else there. My question to those who call themselves leaders is this: “There are 360 degrees on a compass and only one will lead to Christ, on the other hand 359 will lead away from Christ. What kind of a leader are you, a one degree guide or a 359 degree leader?
    Blessings
    Don

  18. 9-17-2008

    David
    Regarding your comments on authority in the “Potluck”, It would seem that the context is not one of who has the authority to rule over the potluck but one of recognizing the gifts of other individuals and mutual submission one to another. Acts 6:3 and Numbers 11:16 put the onus on the body to recognize giftings.
    Blessings
    Don

  19. 9-17-2008

    Don,

    “Guide” seems like a good translation for hegeomai. It has very similar connotations.

    -Alan

  20. 12-12-2008

    what do you think about this:

    “Be persuaded to obedience by those who have the responsibility of leading you, and yield yourselves under them: for they watch for your souls, as they that must give account, that they may do it with joy, and not with grief: for that is unprofitable for you.”

  21. 12-12-2008

    Tony,

    That’s a good translation. I’d make a couple of adjustments:

    “Be persuaded to obedience by those who are leading you, and yield yourselves to them for they care for your souls, as those who will give account, that they may do it with joy, and not with grief: for that is unprofitable for you.”

    -Alan

  22. 8-6-2011

    Outstanding thoughts Alan. In my early years of leading others, I was guilty of misusing this verse. Then there came a time when I understood it differently while God was also changing my character.

    Your study here as filled in some gaps and affirmed the ways in which the Spirit has taught me over the past fifteen years. I love the idea that the example of your leaders persuades you to follow them. The most influential leaders in my life have never asked me to submit to them and they have never exhorted me to do something that was not a clear scriptural command. However, I gladly submit to these men and pay close attention to all their counsel because of their tremendous example.

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