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Hebrews 13:17

Submitted: 11/4/2004
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Question: Please write an article about this verse especially, but surrounding and related scripture also. I have been taught that if one asks a question that your pastor does not like, it comes from a rebellious heart and does not align a saint with the instruction to 'obey them (this is read 'him') that have (again, the singular, 'has') the rule over you. Isn't that blind obedience, and is that really God's directive? I keep remembering Jim Jones and those who blindly obeyed and drank poisoned KoolAid! If an honest-hearted saint raises questions because of the light shed on this website, is that going against Hebrews 13:17? Thank you!

Answer: Concerning Hebrews 13:17. The King James Bible translates this verse: “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.”

The first important point to note is that the Greek word translated “obey” is not hupakuo, the word typically translated “obey” in the New Testament. It is peitho (middle-passive form), which means “to win over; to agree with; to be assured of; to assent to evidence or authority; to rely by inward certainty; to manifest faith; to yield to persuasion; to display confidence.” Obedience is only suggested by this word, and it is the kind of obedience that results form being fully convinced of a matter. As W. E. Vine explains, “The ‘obedience’ suggested is not by submission to authority, but resulting from persuasion.” What the author of Hebrews is actually saying is, “Allow yourselves to be persuaded....”

To make this point clear, consider how the word pietho is used in the same voice in the verse that follows where the writer says, “Pray for us: for we trust we have a good conscience, in all things willing to live honestly” (Hebrews 13:18). In this verse, pietho is translated “trust.” In this context it obviously means that the writer is persuaded or has confidence.

The next point we would like to make is that the phrase “them that have the rule over you” completely distorts the idea the writer is conveying. The hierarchical language of the King James translators reflects the thinking of the Anglican monarch and bishops who orchestrated this translation. But the writer did not have active hierarchical rule in mind when he wrote these words. We know this by examining the biblical usage of the word hegeomai, which means “to be chief or foremost” and is translated “have the rule over.” If we isolate this word from its context, we might be inclined to think it suggests some form of top-down rule. But Jesus defined the kind of leadership this word implies when He said, “He who is greatest among you, let him be as the younger, and he who governs [hegeomai] as he who serves” (Luke 22:26). Clearly the type of rule Jesus had in mind was humble servant leadership, not authoritarian dominance.

When Hebrews 13:17 is examined closely, we conclude that it is saying, “Allow yourself to be persuade by those who have been appointed to provide leadership (the pastoral elders), and be submissive toward them. The reason this is encouraged is because “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.”

The third important point concerns who it is that believers are admonished to submit themselves to. The verse describes them as those who “watch for your souls.” In other words, it is the leaders of an assembly who are charged with watching over the spiritual lives of God’s people. These are the elders of the assembly, the men whom Paul charged, “Therefore take heed to yourselves and to all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood” (Acts 20:28).

To watch over people is a shepherding function. In the New Testament, this was the work of the elders. Notice the plural language: “them that have the rule,” “they watch,” “they that must give account,” “they may do it with joy.” This vital work was never assigned to a single individual, but always a group of mature, qualified men. Acts 14:23 says that Paul and Barnabas “appointed elders in every church.” And Titus 1:5 says that Paul instructed to “set in order the things that are lacking, and appoint elders in every city....” This is the apostolic model.