Hebrews 13:17 – A Closer Look

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Contents

Introduction

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This is one of the most often quoted and used verses to put forward the idea that those in christian leadership have authority over those who are not in christian leadership. Let’s look closer at this verse and see if it fully supports this idea. If it does, to what extent?

This verse has to be dissected in several ways to help bring out that it is not nearly as clear cut as it may first appear. Please keep in mind that the translators of the Bible are also christian leaders, so they do not have a strong incentive to put forward something that might further limit their authority. In making this statement, there is no accusation. It is my assumption that Bible translators have worked in good faith to the best of their abilities to translate the Bible. However, some concepts have historical roots that travel across generations. They become implicit and can go unchallenged.  This is true even if everyone’s intentions are the best.  I make the assumption that the intentions of translators are the best.  However, this does not fully account for the Enemy and his schemes and the fallen nature of man.

To emphasize the point about no ill-will, it should be noted that if one held the leadership concepts that many do that are in christian leadership then it would be possible to view this verse as it is translated.  It is difficult for those who have a history of involvement with traditional leadership concepts to address the idea that the Bible could be presenting different notions of leadership than other arenas (work, home, etc) in life.

So, we are going to look at this verse in depth. There are a number of angles we will need to take to understand what is here. In the end, we won’t be able to make a completely clear determination based solely on this verse, but we will certainly be able to place some important doubts in the idea that christian leadership has a strong level of command authority over other believer’s (including those who might be in their care and sphere of influence).

In summary, this verse seems to be pretty heavily skewed in favor of supporting more authority of a christian leader over a layperson than what the Greek really supports. Read on and digest the following analysis to form your own conclusions. It should also be noted that an opposite view (that christian leaders have NO authority over a layperson) is not being proposed. What is being put forward is that a balanced view is needed and the current translations do not appear to present a balanced view. Additionally, the attitude expressed by some in christian leadership who expect laypersons to bow down to their wishes because they (the christian leader) wants them to does not appear to be supported by this verse.  Since there are no other verses that support any kind of command authority of a christian leader over other believers, it is believed that any dictatorial approach to christian leadership seems ill-advised and can be destructive.

Historical Note

There have been other translation errors in the past due to beliefs held by those in church leadership.  A good example is the word “charity” in the King James Version (KJV).  The Greek word is agape (Strong’s 26) which is one of three words in the Bible for “love”.  In the KJV, agape was translated to “charity” about 25% of the time.  In all modern translations “charity” has been changed to “love”.  This means that 100% of the occurrences of agape are translated to “love” in modern translations.  A historical translation error was corrected based on modified concepts of translators/church leadership.

Without providing a complete historical context for this particular example, it is known that this difference in translation kept the concepts of those who were not in leadership pointed in a particular direction (towards giving money to the church), even though this did not match the spirit of what the Bible was presenting.  In this example, it is easier to think that their may have been some intent in these actions, but this author will not ascribe intent.  If someone honestly holds an erroneous belief it is very difficult to say that they have (or had) bad intent.  It is possible to look at the effect of their belief and how it misled or was under deception without ascribing bad intent to them.

I believe we are dealing with a similar type of example here in Hebrews 13:17 with the added note that the issues of church leadership are “grayer”.  The concepts of church leadership according to the spirit of what is in the Bible are not as obvious as the example provided (“charity” instead of “love”) and there is very little likelihood of any bad intent on the part of those doing translation work in this case as well.  This doesn’t change the fact that it could be having a bad effect or keeping the Body of Christ under a deceptive concepts which the enemy of God will always use to his advantage to damage believers.

Hebrews 13:17

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To start, let’s look at the translation of this verse in multiple translations.

  • (ESV) 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.
  • (NASB95) Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they keep watch over your souls as those who will give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with grief, for this would be unprofitable for you.
  • (KJV) Obey them that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves: 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.
  • (ASV) Obey them that have the rule over you, and submit to them: for they watch in behalf of your souls, as they that shall give account; that they may do this with joy, and not with grief for this were unprofitable for you.
  • (NIV) Have confidence in your leaders and submit to their authority, because they keep watch over you as those who must give an account. Do this so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no benefit to you.
  • (Darby 1890) Obey your leaders, and be submissive; for they watch over your souls as those that shall give account; that they may do this with joy, and not groaning, for this would be unprofitable for you.
  • (YLT) Be obedient to those leading you, and be subject, for these do watch for your souls, as about to give account, that with joy they may do this, and not sighing, for this is unprofitable for you.

If we read each of these translations for the general sense that they convey the following conclusions seem obvious

  • You have leaders whom you should submit to and obey.  There doesn’t seem to be any optionality to the need for your obedience and submission and it appears that you owe it to your leaders.
  • They have responsibility for you because they will give account for you, implying they are accountable for you.

We want to focus on several words/clauses in this verse.

  • obey, have confidence
  • leaders, those leading
  • submission
  • account

For each of these words/clauses we want do some pretty in depth word study exercises. Each word study will require us to look at not just the specific words in this verse, but words that have been translated into the same word. We need to compare and contrast similar contextual usages of similar words to see how this might affect our understanding.

Preview of Conclusions

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Since these word studies get somewhat involved, the following preview of what will be concluded in this section is presented in advance. If you disagree with these conclusions, please take extra time to study how they were derived. Additionally, there will be more in depth conclusions drawn at the end. Here is a newly proposed expanded translation of this verse that is believed to more accurately portray its substance.

  • Be persuaded by those who are leading among you. Have a willingness to yield to them and comply with what they have persuaded you about. (You can tell those who are leading because they are serving you and ministering to you, not trying to lord things over you.)  These ones are looking out for the health of your soul and with your best interest in mind as ones who will give an account for the responsibility they bear.  It is better for you if they can do this with joy rather than a heavy heart.
    • This parenthetical (You can tell those who are leading because they are serving you and ministering to you, not trying to lord things over you.), is added based primarily upon Luke 22:25-26 and 1 Peter 5:2-3.  There are other supports for this, but these are clear and clarify how those leading should behave towards other believers.
    • The phrase (will give an account for the responsibility they bear) clarifies that the accountability that those leading have is not full responsibility.  The actual level of responsibility has to be interpreted from other portions of scripture.  See Greek for word ‘will give’ (didomi without prefix) in Romans 14:12 versus Greek for word ‘will give’ (apodidomi with ‘apo-‘ prefix) in Hebrews 13:17″.
      • the prefix of ‘apo-‘ demonstrates that the leader will give a “surface” account which is based upon what can be seen from the behaviors of the person.  The individual will give an account that is not just based on what can be observed.  If considered fully, this seems to make it clear that the greater responsibility is on the individual, not the leader.  Responsibility and authority go hand in hand.  If the individual’s responsibility to give account is greater (not just from what can be observed on the outside), then their authority over themselves before God is also greater than a leading one.

The remainder of the conclusions are presented below.

Introduction to Analysis

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Word Studies

  • We want to analyze two key aspects in reviewing the following words/clauses
    • Analysis Item #1 – Other Greek words that are translated into the same English word/clause and how their contextual use in other verses might inform our understanding of the use of the same English word in this verse.
    • Analysis Item #2 – Whether the same Greek word is consistently translated to the same word/clause as used in this verse. If it is not consistent, then how often is the chosen English word/clause used in other places as compared to this instance. This includes other analysis related to the translation of the Greek word/clause in question.
  • Counts and Percentages are from the Lexham English Bible (LEB)
  • Comparable words were chosen which have the same sense as the words we are reviewing.
    • For example, the word “account” can have the sense of a witness who is giving a statement rather than credit/debit type account.  If the sense of the word in the verse is clearly one particular sense, we will not include the other senses as part of the study.

Sentence Analysis

  • After we have a better understanding of some of these key words/clauses, we want to review the way this verse is constructed to see how this might affect our understanding of this verse.  I am not a professional, so I will be reaching out to others to assist with this portion of the analysis.

Item #1 – obey / have confidence

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ESV NASB 95 KJV ASV NIV Darby 1890 YLT
obey obey obey obey have confidence obey be obedient

Initial Comments on Translations

All translations appear to be consistent in their use of obedient, except the NIV. It sticks out like an apple among oranges, but when you begin to review the other places this Greek word is used and how it is translated, it is not incorrect. The NIV provides another aspect of the sense that is really being communicated by this Greek word. To get the full sense of this word requires the analysis we mentioned above.  See Analysis Section below to review the rest of the analysis for this word/clause.

Greek Word in Dictionary Form

  • (14%) 4 0f 28 – peitho [verb] (Strong’s 3982)

Other Greek words translated to obey

  • (71%) 20 of 28 – hupakouo [verb] (Strong’s 5219)
  • (11%) 3 of 28 – peitharcheo [verb] (Strong’s 3980)
  • (4%) 1 of 28 – eisakouo [verb] (Strong’s 4238)

Item #2 – leaders / those leading / have the rule over

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ESV NASB 95 KJV ASV NIV Darby 1890 YLT
leaders leaders them that have the rule over them that have the rule over leaders leaders those leading

Initial Comments on Translations

There are two directions the translations go, a) to translate into a single noun, “leaders” or b) indirectly point at “them” that “rule”.  In the case of “leaders” it seems to point to specific individuals and most would assume these would be ones that hold some form of title.  In the case of “them” that “rule”, the word rule implies a domain of command authority.  The Greek word used here, hegeomaiis an interesting one that needs quite a bit of comparing and contrasting with other words to get a good sense for how to properly understand it in this context and in the rest of the Bible.  Additionally, it should be noted that this word is a verb, not a noun.  It is preceded by the Greek definite article which is one reason why some translations turn it into an English noun.  In this case, the Young’s Literal Translation (YLT) is probably the most accurate, in saying “those leading”.  This moves us away from a specific title and towards those actually performing the function of leading.  It is very possible for someone holding a title to actually be functioning according to the title, but it is quite common to find that those without a title are actually performing the same function.  Some of the core thoughts of true Biblical leadership need to emerge in order to properly understand this word.  See Analysis Section below to review the rest of the analysis for this word/clause.

Greek Word(s) in Dictionary Form

  • 5 of 36 (14%) – ho [definite article] (Strong’s 3588) hegeomai[verb] (Strong’s 2233) – translated as “the one who leads” and leaders
    • this is a particular construction in the Greek which combines the definite article with this verb, hegeomai. It is counted separately here.
  • 3 of 36 (8%) – hegeomai [verb] (Strong’s 2233) – translated leader, ruler, principal speaker
  • (Not Included in Count) – hegeomai [verb] (Strong’s 2233) – translated consider/considered/considering, regard/regarded and esteem

This particular greek word takes on two distinct forms. One relates to “leading” (leading, ruling) and the other relates to “thinking” (considering, regarding, esteeming). It is a more complex word, so the counts of it’s usages are broken down a bit further.

The instances where it is preceded by the definite article (ho) are of special importance, because three of them are from Hebrews (13:7, 13:17, 13:24) and one of them is from a key passage in Luke 22 (see verse 26).

Other Greek Words translated to lead(er) / rule(r) (Verbs)

We first want to look at verbs here because the word in question is a verb not a noun. Some translations use the word “leaders” which implies that it is a noun while others indirectly point at those who are ruling (verb). This indirect reference appears to be more correct.

The count of verbs is kept separate from the count of nouns.

  • 7 of 36 (19%) – kurieuo [verb] (Strong’s 2961) – rule, lord, master
  • 6 of 36 (17%) – proistemi [verb] (Strong’s 4291) – lead(s), rule over, manage
  • 6 of 36 (17%) – ago [verb] – to lead, take with one; to guide/direct
  • 5 of 36 (14%) – hodegeo[verb] (Strong’s 3594) – to be a guide or teacher, lead on one’s way, to give guidance
  • 2 of 36 (5%) – archo [verb] (Strong’s 756) – rule
  • 2 of 36 (5%) – hegemoneuo [verb] (Strong’s 2230) – to be leader, to rule/command

Other Greek Words translated to lead(er) / rule(r) (Nouns)

  • 37 of 107 (37%) – archon [noun] (Strong’s 758) – ruler
  • 21 of 107 (21%) – chiliarchos [noun] (Strong’s 5506) – military leader
  • 20 of 107 (20) – hegemon [noun] (Strong’s 2232) – governor, ruler
  • 11 of 107 (11%) – arche [noun] (Strong’s 746) – ruler(s)
  • 9 of 107 (9%) – archisunagogos [noun] (Strong’s 752) – leader of the synagogue
  • 5 of 107 (5%) – hodegos [noun] (Strong’s 3595) – a leader of the way, a guide
  • 2 of 107 (2%) dunastes [noun] (Strong’s 1413) – rulers
  • 1 of 107 (1%) kosmokrator [noun] (Strong’s 2888) – world ruler
  • 1 of 107 (1%) hegemonia [noun] (Strong’s 2231) – reign

Item #3 – submit / submission / subject / subjection

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ESV NASB 95 KJV ASV NIV Darby 1890 YLT
submit to them submit to them submit yourselves submit to them submit to their authority be submissive be subject

Initial Comments on Translations

The translations are relatively consistent in their translations on this word using some form of submit or subject.  There is another aspect that is introduced in the translations which consistently comes into the translations through a few extra words which are not directly in the Greek.  The ESV, NASB 95, ASV, NIV connect submission/subjection “to them” or “to their authority” which makes a causal connection to “leaders”.  The KJV connects the submission/subject to “yourselves”.   By adding the clause “to them” or “to their authority” (both of these are acknowledged as insertions that do not come directly from the Greek text) the meaning of the verse is weighted towards personal submission from a believer to a leader.  In not adding any additional clause, but rather just saying “be submissive” or “be subject” it leaves open the possibility that the submission/subjection may be to one of three possibilities:

  1. submit to the person of the leader
  2. submit to what you are persuaded about
  3. submit to a combination of both with the possibility that the submission is primarily for the scope of what you are persuaded about

Keep these possibilities in mind because based on my understanding of the Greek any of these are possible.  The Greek shows that the first part of the verse (“Obey your leaders and submit”) is broken into two distinct primary clauses

  1. “Obey your leaders”
  2. “and submit”

I believe this means the relationship between these two portions of the verse is based on higher level interpretation, not solely on the grammatical constructs.  We will continue this analysis below.  See Analysis Section below to review the rest of the analysis for this word/clause.

Greek Word in Dictionary Form

  • 1 of 44 (2%) – hupeiko [verb] (Strong’s 5226) – yield, submit

Other Greek Words translated to submit, submission, subject, subjection (Verbs)

  • 38 of 44 (86%) – hupotasso [verb] (Strong’s 5293) – subordinate
  • 1 of 44 (2%) – dogmatizo [verb] (Strong’s 1379) – obligate

Other Greek Words translated to submit, submission, subject, subjection (Nouns)

  • 4 of 44 (10%) – hupotage [noun] (Strong’s 5292) – subjection

Analysis

Item #4 – account

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ESV NASB 95 KJV ASV NIV Darby 1890 YLT
an account an account account account an account account account

Initial Comments on Translations

All the translations we are reviewing are consistent.  The only difference is whether the indefinite article “an” is used or not.

The key question about how the translation of this word is whether or not we are to understand “account” as

  1. someone who is “accountable” giving an “account” OR
  2. someone is just giving an “account” which is more like a “statement” where the idea of accountability for the person providing the “account” is much less significant

Greek Word in Dictionary Form

  • 13 of 17 (76%) – logos [noun] (Strong’s 3056) – word

Other Greek Words translated to account (Nouns)

  • 2 of 17 (12%) – ellogeo [verb] (Strong’s 1677) – charge to one’s account
  • 1 of 17 (6%) diegesis [noun] (Strong’s 1335) – narrative
  • 1 of 17 (6%) hupodikos [adjective] (Strong’s 5267) – answerable to

Analysis

Sentence Analysis

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Even without the ability to perform Greek Analysis on my own, I have learned how to sentence analysis features of my Bible software.  Here is a picture view of Hebrews 13:17 with some grammatical breakdown of its construction.

There are five clauses

  • Primary Clause 1 – obey (be persuaded) your leaders (by those leading)
  • Primary Clause 2 – and submit (aka yield)
  • Primary Clause 3 – for they keep watch over (for) your souls as those who will give an account
    • Subordinate Clause 3.1 – so that they can do this with joy
  • Primary Clause 4 – and not groaning
  • Primary Clause 5 – for this would be unprofitable for you

I do not put this forward with conclusions.  I put it forward with questions.  My review of this verse and its construction has left me with one targeted question.

  1. Does “submit” which I believe should be translated as “yield” tie back to the idea of a) yielding to what you were persuaded about b) yielding to whom you were persuaded by, or c) yielding to whom you were persuaded for the scope of what you were persuaded about.  These finer interpretive distinctions between these three possibilities can be significant when we look at the behavioral outcomes produced by adopting each one of these possible views.

Confirmation From Other Sources (Two Witnesses)

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From Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary

The 2nd entry in the section for Obedience, Obedient, Obey

  • peitho (πείθω, 3982), “to persuade, to win over,” in the passive and middle voices, “to be persuaded, to listen to, to obey,” is so used with this meaning, in the middle voice, e.g., in Acts 5:36-37 (in v. 40, passive voice, “they agreed”); Rom. 2:8; Gal. 5:7; Heb. 13:17; Jas. 3:3.  The “obedience” suggested is not by submission to authority, but resulting from persuasion.
  • “Peitho and pisteuo, ‘to trust,’ are closely related etymologically; the difference in meaning is that the former implies the obedience that is produced by the latter, cf. Heb. 3:18-19, where the disobedience of the Israelites is said to be the evidence of their unbelief Faith is of the heart, invisible to men; obedience is of the conduct and may be observed. When a man obeys God he gives the only possible evidence that in his heart he believes God. Of course it is persuasion of the truth that results in faith (we believe because we are persuaded that the thing is true, a thing does not become true because it is believed), but peitho, in NT suggests an actual and outward result of the inward persuasion and consequent faith.”

Vine, W. E., Unger, M. F., & White, W., Jr. (1996). Vol. 2: Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words (438–439). Nashville, TN: T. Nelson.

Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible

Well-known commentator, Matthew Henry, provides confirmation of what is shared here about Hebrews 13:17.  This exposition is the closest I have found to the views which are presented in this section.

Having thus told us the duty Christians owe to their deceased ministers, which principally consists in following their faith and not departing from it, the apostle tells us what is the duty that people owe to their living ministers (v. 17) and the reasons of that duty:

Note:  Matthew Henry’s reference to deceased ministers comes from Hebrews 13:7 which uses the exact same Greek words (ho hegeomai) to refer to “leaders”/”leading ones”.

(1.) The duty-to obey them, and submit themselves to them. It is not an implicit obedience, or absolute submission, that is here required, but only so far as is agreeable to the mind and will of God revealed in his word; and yet it is truly obedience and submission, and that not only to God, but to the authority of the ministerial office, which is of God as certainly, in all things belonging to that office, as the authority of parents or of civil magistrates in the things within their sphere. Christians must submit to be instructed by their ministers, and not think themselves too wise, too good, or too great, to learn from them; and, when they find that ministerial instructions are agreeable to the written word, they must obey them.

(2.) The motives to this duty.

[1.] They have the rule over the people; their office, though not magisterial, yet is truly authoritative. They have no authority to lord it over the people, but to lead them in the ways of God, by informing and instructing them, explaining the word of God to them, and applying it to their several cases. They are not to make laws of their own, but to interpret the laws of God; nor is their interpretation to be immediately received without examination, but the people must search the scriptures, and so far as the instructions of their minister are according to that rule they ought to receive them, not as the word of men, but, as they are indeed, the word of God, that works effectually in those that believe.

[2.] They watch for the souls of the people, not to ensnare them, but to save them; to gain them, not to themselves, but to Christ; to build them up in knowledge, faith, and holiness. They are to watch against every thing that may be hurtful to the souls of men, and to give them warning of dangerous errors, of the devices of Satan, of approaching judgments; they are to watch for all opportunities of helping the souls of men forward in the way to heaven.

[3.] They must give an account how they have discharged their duty, and what has become of the souls committed to their trust, whether any have been lost through their neglect, and whether any of them have been brought in and built up under their ministry.

[4.] They would be glad to give a good account of themselves and their hearers. If they can then give in an account of their own fidelity and success, it will be a joyful day to them; those souls that have been converted and confirmed under their ministry will be their joy, and their crown, in the day of the Lord Jesus.

[5.] If they give up their account with grief, it will be the people’s loss as well as theirs. It is the interest of hearers that the account their ministers give of them may be with joy, and not with grief. If faithful ministers be not successful, the grief will be theirs, but the loss will be the people’s. Faithful ministers have delivered their own souls, but a fruitless and faithless people’s blood and ruin will be upon their own heads.

Henry, M. (1994). Matthew Henry’s commentary on the whole Bible: Complete and unabridged in one volume (Heb 13:1–17). Peabody: Hendrickson.

Comments

“in all things belonging to that office” – we need to become very clear about which things belong to these offices.  This will be studied in another section <TBD>.

“and what has become of the souls committed to their trust” – there are still some valid questions about whether this an appropriate way to think about those who are within the sphere of influence of a leader.  When Jesus challenged Peter three times (John 21:15-17), he is consistent in one particular thing.  Jesus used the word “my” – (feed my lambs, shepherd my sheep, feed my sheep).  Clearly Peter was given some responsibility, but to what extent did Jesus put his sheep under Peter’s care?  It’s not a question of whether Peter had any responsibility to God for God’s sheep in Peter’s sphere of influence.  It’s a question about the boundaries on Peter and what level of responsibility Peter had.

Major Conclusions

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Key Point – “Obey” Here is Different from other “Obey” Words in Human Relationships Defined in Bible

  • The vast majority of the occurrences of “obey” in translations are hupakouo, not peitho
  • All of the other occurrences of “obey” related to the relationships the Bible defines (parents and children, masters and slaves) are hupakouo which is a word that establishes clear command authority of one soul over another soul.
  • The word for “obey” (peitho) in Hebrews 13:17 does not establish command authority of one soul over another soul.  It is more in the realm of being mentally convinced of a truth to the point of believing it as valid.

Key Point – Using “Obey” is Misleading to the Average Reader

  • Given that most other uses of the word “obey” for hupakouo (a word which establishes clear command authority of one soul over another soul), using it in Hebrews 13:17 conveys a misleading sense to the average reader
  • There is no balance in the translation that would allow the average reader to realize that “obey” in Hebrews 13:17 is very different than “obey” in most other places in the Bible.

Key Point – “Leaders” is not a Noun in the Greek

  • “Leaders” implies makes the word sound like a noun and moves the sense towards that of a title.  The word is not a noun.  It is a verb, but it is preceded by the definite article (ho).  This makes is something more like “those leading”.
  •  Translating into a noun is a subtle way to put more emphasis on the person rather than what they are doing.  This and other similar verses (1 Th 5:12) point to those who are actually doing the things that the Bible commends rather than those who bear any form of title.
    • 1 Th 5:12 is a separate study.  It has some translation issues too.  <TBD>

Key Point – The Bible Clearly Stays Away from Numerous Noun Options When Referring to Christian Leaders

  • The analysis for “leaders”/”those leadings”/”them who have the rule over” makes it very clear that there are numerous Greek nouns that could have been selected from to clarify a stronger form of leadership for christian leaders.  None of these were selected.  A much weaker word for leadership was chosen based on human standards which is a verb.
  • Jesus makes his understanding of leadership clearly understood by setting up a clear opposition between leaders in other realms of authority (who are identified in noun form) and christian leadership which is almost always expressed in verb form.  There are a few exceptions and there is no doubt that there are gifts to the Body in the form of those who lead and minister to others.

Key Point – “Them That Have the Rule Over” Invalidly Implies a Domain of Command Authority

  • If someone has rule over something, then you have to establish what the something is.  What is the domain of their “rule”.  The implications of this verse are that these individuals (“those leading”) have rule over believers.  Other verses help to counter this viewpoint and there is a valid translation of this word/clause that does not imply “leaders” ruling over other believers.
  • At the same time, there is a substantial truth regarding “those leading” and that they do have a domain.  This domain is more of a “oversight” rather than a “sphere of rule”.
    • If you study “oversight” in the Word of God thoroughly it becomes clear that it is not the establishment of a domain of rule, but more of a “sphere of influence”.  It is a “weak rule” by human standards, but not by spiritual ones.  It is the realm within which people are led into a right relationship with God by means of appeal ending in love, rather than command ending in subservience (Philemon 8).

Key Point – Word/Clause use for “Submit”/”Subject” Come From Different Greek Word than “Submit”/”Subject” Words in Other Verses

  • The overwhelming majority of the time hupotasso is the Greek word that expresses the idea of submission (or subjection)
  • hupeiko is only seen once in the entire New Testament.  It is in this verse, Hebrews 13:17.  The author of Hebrews knew what hupotasso was (using it several times) and didn’t use it in this verse.
  • Both words are compound constructions.  The sense of hupotasso is stronger than the sense of hupeiko in regards to submission.
    • hupotasso is a compound word from hupo (by, under) and tasso (to put in order, to appoint, ordain).  This more clearly means putting yourself under someone’s authority.
    • hupeiko is a compound word from hupo (by, under) and eiko (to yield, be “weak”).  This expresses more of a personal attitude.  Think of a combatant who has been bested and needs to yield to the superior abilities of their foe.  This is the idea of hupeiko.
  • Let’s close with an example.  Let’s say you begin to discuss something with another person and during the course of the conversation you took up somewhat opposing views, but as you proceed through the conversation you are convinced that the other person is correct.  The best thing to do is to acknowledge their view and credit them with the right view.  This is closer to what I believer hupeiko is saying in this verse.

Key Point – In the Phrase “submit to them”, “to them” is Inserted.  It Does Not Exist in the Greek

  • Logical extrapolation has led translators to add “to them” after the word “submit” or “subject” because peitho is translated as obey.  If peitho is translated to “Be persuaded” it opens two other possibilities.
    • Rather than “submit to them” it could be “submit to what you are persuaded of” OR “submit to them for the things you are persuaded about by them”.
    • If we use the idea of “yielding” as described in the last key point, then we could think of this as “yielding to them and their point of view on the issue you are persuaded about”.

Key Point – If You Know God, It Is Obvious that “Submission” to Leaders in this Verse is Limited in Scope

  • God is unique and has the ability to directly interact with every soul at any time.  This means the normal needs of top-down control through a hierarchy are not required.
  • The Bible is clear we have one Teacher (Christ) and one Father (God).  As disciples we aren’t to call others “teacher” or “father”.  The New Covenant opened direct access between God and man for those who have received Jesus Christ as their Savior.
  • Once you have some experience with God leading you in your life and that he does this Himself with assistance from other believers (leaders and non-leader’s alike), it is obvious that our full submission is to Him.  Any other submission in the church (aka spiritual context) is temporary and/or partial.  In the case of leaders, our submission to them is to the extent that they are convincing us of God’s will for our lives and the truth of God’s Word.
  • Additionally, the Bible is clear that each person will account for himself.  Others may provide witness, but our responsibility before God is individual.  This means that we are ultimately responsible for determining whether someone who is “leading” is really leading us according to God’s will for our lives and the truth of God’s Word.  If they are not, then our reaction may need to be more like Paul’s in Galatians 2:4-5 or some lesser form of resistance to any “leading” which is outside of God’s will for our lives and the truth of God’s Word.  (Note: This kind of resistance can be executed respectfully and with humility)
    • Galatians 2:4-5 – Now this was because of false brothers secretly brought in, who slipped in to spy out our freedom that we have in Christ Jesus, in order that they might enslave us, to whom not even for an hour did we yield in subjection, in order that the truth of the gospel might remain continually with you.

Key Point – Translators Do Not Have the Support of Other Verses to Establish “Command Authority” Over Other Believers.  Hebrews 13:17 doesn’t support it either.

  • It is common when interpreting scripture to look at the “balance” of scripture. This means that you look at the Word of God wholistically and review more than just a single verse in isolation. If this is done there is insufficient support for the current translations of Hebrews 13:17. This is shown through many portions of this writing.
  • Here are a few key verses that can help shift your understanding back towards what this author believes is a more balanced view

Balancing Factors

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Key Point – Those who are Leading are Still Special and Deserving of Higher Regard

  • We don’t want the pendulum of understanding to swing too far the other way.  While those leading do not have “command authority” over other believers vested in their person, they do have the same level of authority as other believers.  They have the authority of God himself when they act in obedience to His will as it may relate to us (See Note on Ephesians 5:21 below).  Assuming these persons are actually leading which is the context of Hebrews 13:17, then these persons deserve our special attention because they are known to be acting on behalf of God more often than others around us.
    • In Ephesians 5:21, we see that hupotasso (the stronger word for submission) is used in the “one another” sense among believers in Christ.  Importantly, the whole verse sets a proper context, “being subject to one another, out of reverence for Christ”.  It is not because of any special position that either believer holds or any giftedness, but because each believer has Christ and can hold the authority of God himself if they are acting or speaking towards us according to God’s will.

Key Point – Not About Practical Matters

  • There are some things that are related to the church context which can be thought about separately from Hebrews 13:17.  For example, let’s say that one those who is leading also holds the key to the door of the location where you assemble as a body of believers.  If this person asks you to leave the building so they can lock the door, then do it.  You don’t have to be “persuaded” about this.  It is not a spiritual matter, but a practical thing and the person who holds they keys needs to fulfill their responsibility to lock the doors.  What are practical matters versus what are spiritual matters isn’t actually black and white.  This is addressed in another portion of this writing <TBD>.

Key Point – Proper Submission is Essential for Every Believer

  • Each realm of our life has different principles of operation when it comes to being in proper submission.  Any reinterpretation of Hebrews 13:17 does not remove the strong responsibility on each believer to be in proper submission to authority as God has defined.  The main point that is being made by a close evaluation of Hebrews 13:17 is that in the realm of authority in the church, it is not like other realms of authority like (government authorities, parents with their children, etc).  Changing our interpretation of Hebrews 13:17, should not change the proper interpretation of the rest of Scripture and the need for being in proper submission to all aspects of authority that God defined and placed in our lives.

Key Point – Authority Exists and Is Extremely Important

  • The information presented about Hebrews 13:17 is not provided as a license for rebellion.  There is nowhere in the Word of God that this is suggested or proposed.  The information provided is intended to set boundaries on authority that should be exercised between believers (especially between “those leading” and “those following”).  The topic of authority and proper submission to all the authorities in our lives is essential to a healthy walk with the Lord.  If you do not properly subject yourselves to parents, to government officials, to employers then you are in rebellion against God’s authority.  Ultimately, the goal is that you be in proper subjection to God’s direct authority over your life and these other areas are your training wheels.  God intentionally structured the church environment NOT to have the same kind of authority structure as other realms of life, but not because he wanted chaos or rebellion.  It is because he wants for each of us to come into a fully obedient walk with Him in proper coordination with all of our brothers and sisters in Christ.

Key Point – There are Instances of Commands

  • There are a few instances of commands between believers by Paul.  These all need to be considered and accounted for in arriving at a balanced view of this subject.  The instances of commanding are the exception, not the rule but they do exist and cannot be ignored.  These instances will be dealt with in greater depth <TBD>

Unresolved Items

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  • Hebrews 13:18 uses peitho just after using peitho in 13:17.  However, it is translated very differently.  First of all, it should be remembered that peitho can mean “persuade” or “be persuaded”.  In this case, it is still “be persuaded”, but it is in 1st person, so the author is talking about himself and those that are with him and saying “we are persuaded”.  In verse 17 peitho is in 2nd person, so it is “you be persuaded”.  In either case, it is very interesting that given the proximity of the using this word and the overwhelming majority of peitho using a sense that is not “obey” that “obey” was selected for verse 17.  It seems to be further support for external concepts (not in this context) playing a stronger role in guiding the translation.
    • Pray for us, for we are convinced (peitho) that we have a good conscience, and want to conduct ourselves commendably in every way.  And I especially urge you to do this, so that I may be restored to you more quickly.
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we are sure we are sure we trust we are persuaded we are sure we persuade ourselves we trust