Grab your shovel.
We’re about to excavate a much-misunderstood Bible verse.
There is one biblical text above all others which authoritarian leaders cite to compel obedience among their followers: Hebrews 13:17.
Poor Hebrews 13:17.
My former pastor often used this verse. He cited it to support his concept of spiritual authority as a relationship between an authority figure who has positional power and a follower who must obey them. The beginning of this verse is usually translated, “Obey your leaders and submit to their authority…” (as in the NIV). My pastor would quote it to me whenever something bad was about to happen–whenever I was supposed to put my brain on a shelf and simply obey, no questions asked.
But we–he and I–misunderstood the verse. This blog post is to ensure that you avoid the mistake we made.
The problem with the traditional translation is that without additional interpretation or nuance it seems to imply that Christians must submit unquestioningly or blindly to spiritual leaders—pastors, elders, deacons—without critically thinking about the nature of the leadership being exercised.
But Christians must always ask two questions in regard to spiritual authority:
- Is this leader telling the truth?
- Is this leader trustworthy?
Contextually, we see the principles of truth and trustworthiness just ten verses earlier in Hebrews 13:7: “Remember those who led you, who spoke the Word of God to you; and considering the result of their conduct, imitate their faith.” We see the same concepts in Hebrews 13:9, where the author tells the Hebrews to evaluate teaching and not to be carried away by strange teaching, i.e. they should be critically-minded.
Yet in Hebrews 13:17 it suddenly appears that people should uncritically obey spiritual leaders simply because they are in the position of leadership. This interpretation is due to a mistranslation of the text. To accurately understand this passage we need to look at the primary Greek words in the authoritative Greek lexicon by Walter Bauer (cited hereafter as BAGD). Still have your shovel? Great–this is where we get dirty.
[Disclaimer: Sometimes abusive spiritual leaders cite Greek and Hebrew in order to convince their followers of their own intelligence. Their abuse of the biblical languages does not invalidate the usefulness of understanding Greek and Hebrew. My purpose in using Greek here is not to “wow” readers with Greek words, but rather to show how an understanding of the original biblical text can clarify the most abused verse related to spiritual authority. I welcome comments from more knowledgeable students of Greek.]
In the case of Hebrews 13:17, the word translated “obey” is peitho in the middle voice. According to BAGD, this should better be translated as “allow yourselves to be persuaded by,” rather than “obey.” This translation fits the lexical possibility, fits the context of the book of Hebrews, and also fits the biblical theology of the basis for spiritual authority being persuasion based on truth and trust, not position.
What about the word often translated “leaders” in this verse? The Greek word is the present participle ageomai, which means “to be in a supervisory capacity, lead, guide.” The idea is of a person who guides others on a path; a leading person among peers. This is a different nuance than the noun-form of the word, agemon, which means “one who rules, especially in a preeminent position, ruler” as in Mt 2:6, or “head imperial provincial administrator, governor” as in Mt 10:18; 27:2, which refer to secular authorities who wielded undisputed positional power.
Finally, the word for “submit” is not the common word used elsewhere in the New Testament for submission. Instead, it is upeiko, which is hard to define because it occurs only here in the New Testament. BAGD says it should best be translated “to yield to someone’s authority, yield, give way, submit.”
When all of these nuances are taken into account, Hebrews 13:17 could better be nuanced:
“Allow yourselves to be persuaded by your leaders who guide you; they alertly care for your souls as people who must fulfill their responsibilities and give an account; allow yourselves to be persuaded so that their work might be a joy, not a burden; for that would be of no advantage to you.”
This nuanced translation avoids the mistake of oversimplification which can lead to spiritual abuse.
Hebrews 13:17 does not imply blind obedience to spiritual authorities, nor should it ever be invoked by a spiritual leader in order to coerce or compel people to obey them.
Instead, it is a reminder that spiritual leaders in the church who are trustworthy and who proclaim the truth are in a place of persuasive guidance that fellow believers should yield to. If leaders demonstrate these criteria, we should allow ourselves to be persuaded by them for our own good on the rocky path of life.
For a PDF which further details the Greek behind Hebrews 13:17, click Hebrews 13:17 in the Greek.
Case Study of Persuasive Spiritual Authority: The Apostle Paul
The Apostle Paul provides a model for how persuasive spiritual authority should be exercised. Paul, though an apostle, had a keen sense that his authority was based not on position or the power to punish but rather on two things: first, the truth of the message which was revealed to him from God; and secondly, the evidence of his godly character.
Time and time again in his epistles Paul refuses to appeal to his position as an apostle or to the potential power to punish to substantiate his claim to authority. Instead, he uses words like “urge,” “appeal,” and “you know” to persuade his readers to obey him based on the truth and his own trustworthiness.
Paul understood that his authority came first from the truth of his message. Paul commended himself to men via truth (2 Cor. 4:1-2). He defended the truth of his ministry by saying it was based on the revelation of God (Gal 1:11-24). In Ephesians 3:1-3, Paul appealed to the truth of his ministry via revelation. He also set forth the test for the legitimacy of spiritual authority in the book of Titus (cf. Titus 1:1-4).
Paul also understood that his authority rested on the trustworthiness of his own godly character and his willingness to serve and to suffer for Christ. 2 Corinthians provides many instances of Paul defending his authority, and in every case he appeals to his truth and trustworthiness. For example, in 1:12-18 he appeals to his own integrity. In 3:1-6 he says that his competence and commendation come from God. In 4:5 he says that he is a bondservant of the Corinthians for Jesus’ sake. In 6:3-10 he is commended by his character and actions. In 10:1 he says that he was meek and gentle in person with the Corinthians. In 10:8 he boasts about his authority to build up, not to tear down, but even then he doesn’t want to terrify or intimidate the Corinthians with his letters (2 Cor. 10:9).
Paul says also that leaders should not boast in themselves but in the Lord, “For it is not he who commends himself that is approved, but he whom the Lord commends” (2 Cor. 10:18). In 2 Corinthians 11, Paul defends his apostolic ministry through testifying to his suffering. In 2 Corinthians 12, Paul explains openly about his weakness so that Christ might be glorified. In 2 Cor. 12:17-18, Paul testifies that he has taken advantage of no one. Elsewhere, he says that he has not even exercised many of his apostolic rights for support or marriage (1 Cor 9:5). In Galatians 6:17, Paul appeals to his suffering as a mark of character and trustworthiness.
Paul also acknowledges that he owed accountability in his ministry. He says that he had to give primary account to God, “In this case, moreover, it is required of stewards that one be found trustworthy” (1 Cor. 4:2). He says later, “my conscience is clear, but that does not make me innocent; for the one who examines me is the Lord” (1 Cor 4:4). He also acknowledges his peer accountability by saying that he had taken his gospel message to the other apostles in Jerusalem in order to ensure that he was not in error (Galatians 2:1-10).
The one epistle where Paul does refer to his ability to command another person to do something—the book of Philemon—is in fact his most masterful example of persuasive authority. Instead of commanding Philemon to take back his slave Onesimus and to treat him kindly, Paul says: “Though I now have enough confidence in Christ to order you to do what is proper, yet for love’s sake I rather appeal to you… I appeal to you for my child Onesimus… without your consent I did not want to do anything, so that your goodness would not be, in effect, by compulsion but of your own free will.” With such diplomatic persuasion Paul appeals to Philemon to do what is right.
Paul’s example is the perfect model of persuasive leadership based on truth and trustworthiness. Spiritual leaders in the church who wish to avoid spiritually abusing their followers would do well to emulate him.