Hebrews 13:17: Spiritual Authority’s Most Abused Verse

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:

  1. Is this leader telling the truth?
  2. 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.

Related Post: A Biblical Perspective on Spiritual Authority and Critical Thinking

26 comments on “Hebrews 13:17: Spiritual Authority’s Most Abused Verse

  1. 2 Timothy 2:15 Study to understand the Word of God correctly by applying a standard and accurate hermeneutic process. (HGB Paraphrase)

  2. Steve, I’ve been browsing through your posts and want to thank you for what you’ve written.

    Good stuff here!

  3. Good translation, good application of scripture. If I remember correctly, Re-Imagining Church by Frank Viola made some of the same points about Hebrews 13, if anyone is interested in Biblical spiritual authority that’s a good one to check out.

    • Thanks, Jon. I’ll have to check out that book. Always good to get a referral by a reader who has read a great source on a similar topic. Grace and peace to you.

    • Jon, I picked up a copy of Viola’s “Re-Imagining the Church” and it is excellent. His section on leadership matches so well with what I discovered as I researched the topic at Dallas Seminary and wrote my summative paper about it. Of course, it is unimportant if he and I agree, but I’m encouraged that we both studied the scriptures separately and came to many of the same conclusions regarding spiritual authority. I recommend this book to anyone. Thanks again for your suggestion!

  4. Baptists: Please throw your Greek lexicons in the trash!

    Why do Baptist always want to go to the Greek to understand the Bible? It is as if Baptists do not trust their English Bibles: “Sorry, hold on a minute, I need to check the original Greek before we can believe that God really loves the whole world as your English Bible seems to say in John 3:16…we can only know for sure if we understand and read ancient Greek.”

    When God promised to preserve his Word…did he really mean that he would only preserve it on 2,000 year old parchment and papyrus in ancient forms of Greek and Aramaic?? Did God really intend that the only people who could REALLY know what he had to say to mankind…would be ancient Greek-educated Baptist Churchmen?? Is the non-ancient-Greek- speaking layperson sitting in the pew supposed to just shut his English language Bible and sit at the feet of these Baptist Greek scholars to learn what God couldn’t explain himself in plain, simple ENGLISH??

    Do you REALLY believe that God intended for only Baptist, Greek-speaking Churchmen to understand the Gospel? Because that is really what Baptists are saying, because the Greek scholars of the Greek Orthodox Church, the Roman Catholic Church, the Lutheran Church, the Presbyterian Church, and the Methodist Church think that Baptist Greek scholars are all WET on their positions that the Bible does not support infant baptism and that baptism MUST be by immersion!

    Is it really possible that ONLY Baptist Greek scholars truly understand ancient Greek, and that the rest of the world’s Greek scholars completely bungle the translation of the New Testament? How is that possible? It defies common sense. And if I hear another Baptist start talking about how the Greek genitive case proves that the Baptist position is correct, I swear I’m going to puke! Seriously, every time I get into a discussion about Biblical translation with a Baptist he starts in with the genitive case nonsense. If you want to understand the genitive case in a Greek document…I suggest you confer…not with a Baptist…but with a GREEK!

    Instead of all this ancient Greek nonsense, which Baptists seem to have a fixation on, I suggest that every Christian layperson do this:

    1. Obtain a copy of four different English language translations of the Bible. Read each one of these “problem passages”, as Baptists and evangelicals refer to them, in each of these English translations.
    2. God’s true meaning of the passage will be plainly understandable after comparing these four English translations.

    You do NOT need to read the ancient Greek text unless you want to delve into the study of ancient Greek sentence structure or some other nuance. God promised he would preserve his Word, and the English-speaking people of the world have had the Word of God IN ENGLISH since at least William Tyndale (1300″s??). Dear Baptists…PLEASE stop insisting on using the ancient texts to confuse Christian laypeople of God’s simple, plain message of the Gospel!

    Luther, Baptists, and Evangelicals
    an orthodox Lutheran blog

    • Hi Gary,

      Thanks for stopping by the blog and leaving a comment. I think there’s some good points in what you’ve said. We are privileged to have the Bible translated into English, not just once but many times. And God’s Word is preserved and made plain in these translations, for the most part. How fortunate we are!

      Also, there is no doubt that some preachers and teachers misuse Greek (and Hebrew) to spiritually abuse people under their care. This is not limited to Baptists, I think you realize–any person who has studied the original biblical languages can fall into this trap.

      But I’m a little confused on the whole by your comment. I’m guessing that you would classify me as one of the Baptist Greek scholars who believe that only Greek-speaking Baptist Churchmen understand the gospel. Is that right? And I’m also guessing you posted your comment because I refer to the Greek behind Hebrews 13:17. I don’t know this for sure, because you don’t really address the topic of this post or the purpose of this blog or me as the author. Forgive me if your comment strikes me as a drive-by shotgun blast into a crowded street.

      By looking at your blog, I understand that you have been wounded in the past by a fundamentalist Baptist upbringing. I’m so sorry that happened to you, Gary. You are not alone. I have my own scars from a similar background. Knowing that about you helps me to understand the tone of your post and why it comes across so broadly aimed and so bitingly sarcastic. There’s a lot of pain behind it. I’m so sorry. But I am glad that you have found peace in the arms of Lutheranism and liturgical services. It is a noble, heritage-rich tradition with a fantastic emphasis on living out the gospel.

      As someone who writes against spiritual abuse, I try to remain open to feedback from any source and to learn what I can from every comment. I confess that I would be more open to learning from your comment if it didn’t make so many assumptions about who I am and who my readers are.

      See, I’m actually not Baptist. I work at a Lutheran Seminary.

      And at the seminary the students have to learn both Greek and Hebrew. They do so not in order to act superior to other people or to second-guess English translations, but so they can more accurately teach and preach the Word of God.

      Since I also have studied Greek, I know that Hebrews 13:17 is mistranslated, or could at least be better nuanced so that pastors don’t misuse it to abuse people. Did you get that from my post? Did you understand why I wrote what I wrote? Anyone–whether they speak Greek or not–can look up the meaning of peithos in a Greek lexicon and see the clear meaning of this word. Since this verse was used by my pastor to abuse our entire congregation, and since I took it at face value to mean something it didn’t, I have a vested interest in making sure that folks understand that most English translations have gotten this verse wrong. Why did they get it wrong? Who knows. Translators are people, not God. They make mistakes.

      And so do we.

      Gary, I welcome your continued involvement with this blog. But I’d ask you to aim more carefully in the future and avoid shotgun blasts which can injure folks you don’t intend to. Let’s chalk this one up to friendly fire and wipe the slate clean.

      Grace and peace, Steve

  5. I’ve never been a strong advocate of the usage of Greek and Hebrew. The reason being, I don’t trust my skills in using it, and for those who do, sometimes I even question theirs. Not very big on commentaries either. I would say that I am merely a student of the Bible. However, there have been some that are capable of skillfully using it to dig out certain hidden truths.
    Heb. 13:17 has certainly been a tool used, and abused to control many of God’s people.
    I would like to acknowledge the research you have put into this paticular verse of scripture. It has a certain ring of truth to it that sounds more reasonble than the way It has always been explained to me. It certainly identifies with the spirit and character of Christ. In all four gospels, not one time have I ever detected Christ using his authority as many men do today.
    Perhaps some time you would consider addressing Rom.13? of which I’d be most interested!

    • Thanks Ken. I will jot a note to consider writing a post on Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2. I do see a difference in scripture between the manner of submitting to civil authorities and to church authorities. Different qualifications and hence different levels of accountability. Good thought.

  6. […] Hebrews 13:17: Spiritual Authority’s Most Abused Verse […]

  7. Where in the bible,,JESUS or any other follower of JESUS ,use the word bible,,,,,and say it’s the word of God?

    • Nowhere. Bible is a Latin word for “book” which came to be used of the biblical writings some centuries later. Jesus used the term “scriptures” in reference to the canon of the Old Testament used in his day. As far as the New Testament canon, it was generally agreed upon by the third century AD.

  8. […] As I sat through the town hall meeting there is another aspect that caught my attention that troubled me deeply. It was the twisting of Hebrews 13:17 about trusting the elders in the situation with David Platt. Should the elders be trusted blindly? What if any of the elders are doing shady or allegations of criminal activity behind the scene of any church? Should they automatically be trusted? This behavior by MBC is another indicator of a church that is in the process of being hijacked. This is about a battle for power. Machiavelli famously penned 500 years ago that it is better to be feared than loved. And that is what was happening at the town hall meeting. People are being forced to fear. Correct me if I am wrong, but fear is not one of the marks of the fruit of the spirit in Galatians. This abuse by the leaders of MBC is profoundly troubling and disturbing. This behavior also is very cult like and is far from healthy, as it crushes independent thought and questioning. Jesus would have run afoul of that town hall meeting because of how he asked questions in the New Testament. To read more about the abuse of Hebrews 13:17 go to “Hebrews 13:17: Spiritual Authority’s Most Abused Verse.” […]

  9. Steve, I’m so grateful to have discovered your post on what has been a troubling bit of Scripture, used to lord it over people in many different kinds of churches. It’s a delight to read your thoroughly researched, nuanced, consistent-with-the-rest-of-Scripture take on Hebrews 13:17. This one’s a keeper, and one I’ll pass on to others. Thank you.

  10. All Scripture MUST be read in “context”. Some verses are black and white, no debate but some must be read understanding what is being said, to whom it is being said and by whom and for what reason. Very easy to “cut and paste” Scripture to enforce an idea or doctrine.

  11. Thanks Steve. I am in a Hermeneutics course at Southwestern Baptist Theological and this breakdown was useful.

  12. Hebrews 13:17, the word “pethio” was mistranslated to “obey” and “submit” by the KJV translators from the Church of England, so it can keep it’s flock under submission and the church could accomplish it’s goals. It’s little wonder why many totalitarian cults, disguising as Christian, use the KJV only and see the KJV as the only legitimate word of God.

    Unfortunately, this mistranslation of “pethio” to “obey” and “submit” has spread to some new Bible transations such as the NKJV, NASB, and ESV. The 2011 NIV does not translate “pethio” to “obey” but rather to ” Have confidence in your leaders.” The NIV that says “obey” there that you are quoting from Steve, is from the 1984 NIV. When Hebrews 13, and the Bible in whole, especially the Epistles, are taken into context, the Bible actually encourages us to test the spirits, teaching, and qualification of church elders and to question and expose them with gentleness and humility. This can be understood with discernment, even from Bible translations like the 1611 KJV.

  13. Hebrews 13:17, the word “pethio” was mistranslated to “obey” and “submit” by the KJV translators from the Church of England, so it can keep it’s flock under submission and the church could accomplish it’s goals. At that time, in the 17th Century, the Church of England was oppressing it’s flock and shoved their theology down the throats of the laymen. It’s little wonder why many totalitarian cults, disguising as Christian, use the KJV only and see the KJV as the only legitimate word of God.

    Unfortunately, this mistranslation of “pethio” to “obey” and “submit” has spread to some new Bible transations such as the NKJV, NASB, and ESV. The 2011 NIV does not translate “pethio” to “obey” but rather to ” Have confidence in your leaders.” The NIV that says “obey” there that you are quoting from Steve, is from the 1984 NIV. When Hebrews 13, and the Bible in whole, especially the Epistles, are taken into context, the Bible actually encourages us to test the spirits, teaching, and qualification of church elders and to question and expose them with gentleness and humility. This can be understood with discernment, even from Bible translations like the 1611 KJV.

    • I was meeting at a conference over the weekend with folks I’ve fellowshipped with off and on for 30 years, where there are many “KJV is the best” people who are very suspicious of any other translations. They stand in the stream of those meeting outside the institutional church in a more New Testament way, and I wish I could make them see that King James hated their kind of people and ordered that the KJV use ecclesiastical language that supported the Anglo-Catholic church and the monarchy. They took some of the literal way Tyndale had translated things and changed them back to religious terms. I also notice more and more that they started a tradition of translating many things in the harshest possible way, which many other translations continue. Those were harsh days, where a child was hung for stealing bread because he was starving. Where treasonists were still drawn-and-quartered and women hunted for witches. But this KJV thing has become a religion unto itself.

      I’ve hated the NIV since I was a teen because I dislike dynamic translation (and the original NIV had some real howlers!). But I’m getting more and more impressed with the latest NIV for being the only super-popular translation to start translating some of these verses better that have been mistranslated forever. A missionary friend with a doctorate has started the Tru316 Project and The Eden Podcast because mistranslations of Genesis 3:16 have actually led to the death of African women. I was surprised and excited to find that Dr Joy Fleming (his wife) did her doctorate in Hebrew on that verse, and translated it the same way I did in Hebrew class 35 years ago!
      I have more than a dozen books written over the last 40 years written by HIGHLY respected and famous scholars about some of these mistranslations, yet things have been getting worse among conservative Christians, not better. Time for us all to rise up and say enough! We need a letter writing campaign to the publishers or something. News releases about which translations are still destroying particular verses, etc.

  14. […] Here is how Steve Smith described it in his pertinent essay on the subject (which he also made into a blog post on libertyforcaptives.com): […]

  15. Your translation agrees with many who write on this and I appreciate you weighing in. And yes, our spiritual character gives us more “authority” in the same sense that a successful brain surgeon is more of an authority on the brain than others are. It is expertise to help others, not “authority over” anyone. However in the discussion we need to remember that “spiritual authority” is a made-up modern label that doesn’t occur in scripture and inherently promotes misunderstanding. Jesus forbids us from exercising authority over others, and both Peter and Paul talk about and demonstrate mutual submission. The obsession with authority in the church needs to stop and servanthood needs be emphasized as Jesus commanded. Pursuing Power by Eddie Hyatt is a good look at these things, as well as 58 to 0, How Christ Leads Through the One Anothers by Jon Zens.

  16. Wow the hostility to Greek and Hebrew in the comments is incredible. We wouldn’t even have good English translations without our knowledge of those languages, and if God didn’t want us to have Greek manuscripts why would we have them? Because the devil saved them? It wasn’t that long ago that all educated people were required to know Greek and Latin and French. If the Brits could teach every upper class child those things then we could teach every Christian Hebrew and Greek if we cared enough. 1st century Jews probably all knew 3 languages even if they couldn’t read all of them. So do the poorest folks around the world today. How typical for American believers to insist English is enough for anyone. Especially since verses like these are continually mistranslated the same way for 400 years in almost all English versions. Willful ignorance is not spiritual and is part of why so many are deceived by abusive leaders.

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