For anyone who still wants to follow Jesus after having been treated devilishly by those who claim to be His followers (His shepherds, even!), Hebrews 13:17 might stick in the craw.
Here are a few versions you may be familiar with.
KJV: “Obey them that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves. . . .”
NIV: “Have confidence in your leaders and submit to their authority . . .”
Amplified: “Obey your [spiritual] leaders and submit to them [recognizing their authority over you] . . .”
And of course this verse is held over church people’s heads.
You church people. OBEY your “SPIRITUAL AUTHORITIES,” which is US, the church “leaders.” SUBMIT to US without question or challenge. (If you don’t, you will be excommunicated and shunned.)
This verse has been used to get church people to check their brains at the door and obey like happy robots (even if it’s not to the degree of committing mass suicide). Can this possibly be true?
To understand, we have to consider several things.
First, there’s the context of the whole Bible. It’s really amazing how much this is ignored when people choose out “proof texts” to wave in other people’s faces.
What does God say elsewhere in Scripture about “spiritual authorities”?
Oh boy, this is a great question, and I’m glad you asked it, heh.
Here are a few examples of “spiritual authorities” under the Old Covenant.
An appalling and horrible thing has happened in the land: the prophets prophesy falsely, and the priests rule at their direction; my people love to have it so, but what will you do when the end comes? (Jeremiah 5:30-31)
Do you suppose God would have said to the Israelites, “Obey those spiritual leaders, and submit yourselves?” I think not.
And the Lord said to me: “The prophets are prophesying lies in my name. I did not send them, nor did I command them or speak to them. They are prophesying to you a lying vision, worthless divination, and the deceit of their own minds.” (Jeremiah 14:14)
And I’ve mentioned many times the “spiritual authorities” of Ezekiel 34 and how these false shepherds, instead of caring for the sheep, devoured the sheep.
Thus says the Lord concerning the prophets who lead my people astray, who cry “Peace” when they have something to eat, but declare war against him who puts nothing into their mouths. (Micah 3:5)
Do you suppose God would have said to those people, “Obey those spiritual leaders, and submit yourselves?” I think not.
And here are some in the New Testament. Jesus did not mince words about the “spiritual authorities” of His day:
Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? (Matthew 7:15-16)
And you can read here the full passage in Matthew 23 which Jesus cuts these “spiritual authorities” to shreds, calling them hypocrites, blind guides, whitewashed tombs, full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.
You hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy of you, when he said: “This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’’ (Matthew 15:7-9)
Do you suppose He would have told those who wanted to know God to obey those “spiritual authorities” and submit themselves to them? I think not.
So there appear to be plenty of cases where “obey your [so-called] spiritual authorities” doesn’t apply.
Both Jesus and Paul warned about false prophets that would lead many astray. Yes, even in the midst of the conservative Reformed and other fundamentalist and evangelical churches. Even there.
And many false prophets will arise and lead many astray. (Matthew 24:11)
For false christs and false prophets will arise and perform signs and wonders, to lead astray, if possible, the elect. (Mark 13:22)
I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them. (Acts 20:29-30)
Well, what should we think about these passages? Should we think that the “Obey your spiritual authorities and submit to their authority” applies here?
But of course those who follow false teachers never think the teachers are false.
That’s why it’s so easy for the false teachers to secretly bring in destructive heresies.
For such men are false apostles, deceitful workmen, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ. And no wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. So it is no surprise if [Satan’s] servants, also, disguise themselves as servants of righteousness. Their end will correspond to their deeds. (2 Corinthians 11:13-15)
After all, the false teachers, servants of Satan—sometimes directly—do a masterful job disguising themselves as servants of righteousness.
For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths. (2 Timothy 4:3-4)
I think we can safely say that “obey your leaders and submit to them” doesn’t apply to pastors who are actually evil–and we have to refrain from checking our brain at the door in order to ascertain that.
But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing upon themselves swift destruction. And many will follow their sensuality, and because of them the way of truth will be blasphemed. (2 Peter 2:1-3)
So with all those Scriptures for our framework, let’s examine the passage in question, Hebrews 13:17.
Consider each of the 3 key words in the verse
That is, the Greek words for Obey, Leaders, and Submit.
(I love doing this part. It’s always so fascinating. When I did this with the word bitter a few years ago, I discovered things I had no idea I would find.)
a. The word obey
There’s a word for “obey” in the New Testament that means “to listen to attentively in order to follow and do what was said.”
This isn’t that word.
The meaning of this word is basically “to be persuaded” to change one’s beliefs, leading to a change in actions.
Here are a few examples where Paul is doing the persuading:
- Acts 13:43 Paul persuaded the people (to continue in the grace of God)
- Acts 18:4 Paul persuaded the Jews and Greeks (to believe in Jesus)
- Acts 19:8 Paul persuaded his listeners (about the kingdom of God)
- Acts 19:26 Paul persuaded many people (about the Christian way)
- 2 Corinthians 5:11 Paul and friends persuaded the people (about the truth of Christianity)
In each case, the people who heard Paul had their thinking changed, which would lead to a change of action. They trusted Jesus Christ and became true Christians.
And a few more examples of people being persuaded:
- Acts 5:40 the chief priests were persuaded by Gamaliel (not to kill the apostles)
- Acts 17:3-4 Some of the people were persuaded by Paul’s arguments (to believe in Jesus)
- Rom 8:38 Paul was persuaded of truth (that nothing could separate him from God’s love)
- 2 Tim 1:5 Paul was persuaded of Timothy’s faith
- 2 Tim 1:12 Paul was persuaded that Jesus can keep his soul safe
- Heb 6:9 The author was persuaded that the believers he wrote to were true believers
- Heb 11:13 Faithful Hebrews 11 believers were persuaded of the promises
As I am persuaded to believe what someone has told me, that begins to look like trust and confidence. So the word is sometimes translated that way too.
Then as my beliefs change, my actions will change accordingly, and that looks like . . . you guessed it . . . obedience.
But according to the meaning of this word, that behavioral change that looks like “obedience” is actually supposed to be a result of thoughtful consideration of a person’s sound arguments and evidence, rather than unthinking robotic compliance.
This is why we can say that Hebrews 13:17 actually says,
“Be persuaded by your leaders.”
Now, we all know that there are a few ways to “persuade” someone to change his or her beliefs and then take action accordingly.
- Sound arguments and real evidence.
- Upright character.
- Winsomeness, engaging personality.
- False arguments and false evidence.
- “Authority,” intimidation, threats, pain, etc.
- Any combination of 1, 2, and 3.
- Any combination of 3, 4, and 5.
(Ha. Hope that didn’t feel like a multiple choice quiz.)
The Scriptures I cited above were all persuading or being persuaded about something true. So they would fit under #1 and #2 above.
But here are some other examples that would fit under #4 (and possibly #3 and #5):
- Acts 14:19 The Jews persuaded the people to disbelieve the teachings of Paul.
- Acts 5:36 People were persuaded to follow a certain false teacher.
- Acts 5:37 People were persuaded to follow another false teacher.
Obviously the persuasion this word points to can be toward something either positive or negative. But there are three uses of this word in the Scriptures in which “authority” definitely plays a part.
- Matthew 27:20 The chief priests used their authority—and possibly false arguments, false evidence, intimidation, etc—to convince the people to choose Barabbas over Jesus.
- Acts 27:11 The centurion decided to obey the authority of the ship’s pilot (who also owned the ship) to discount Paul’s advice, which turned out to be disastrous.
- James 3:3 We use our authority—combined with the pain of the bit—to get horses to do our bidding.
Here’s the bottom line: People can be persuaded of something either true or false, in different ways, either good or bad. The same word is used in each case.
We can know that God isn’t saying we should “allow ourselves to be persuaded” by bad church leaders to believe and do something bad.
So it’s interesting to find out about that word for “leaders.”
b. “Those who have the rule over you”
I used the King James Version translation there, to give a nod to the huge impact the KJV has had in the life of the Church.
Let’s just be clear. The KJV “those who have the rule over you” in Hebrews 13:17 is a translation designed to implement church hierarchy along the lines of the Roman Catholics that the translators claimed to disdain. It has been used to buttress significant spiritual abuse through the years.
But interestingly, the Greek word translated “those who have the rule over you” (which in later versions was more wisely translated “leader” or “the one leading”) also has a verb meaning: to deem, consider, account, judge, reckon, think, esteem, suppose. There are about 20 Scriptures using this word with that meaning.
It indicates making a decision after considering pertinent information and evidence.
When the word is used of one who leads, then, it means “one who is considered worthy of leading.”
So . . .
What makes a leader worthy of leading? Any leader at all? Of any kind? In any field?
You consider/deem/judge/account a person worthy of leading you in something because he has been doing this longer than you, he understands it better than you, and he can show you the way.
That means someone who’s teaching you how to drive a car or someone who’s teaching an online course about scarf acrobatics. The master chef at the restaurant where you’ve been hired, or the tech on the other end of the phone who’s explaining how to fix your broken website.
You trust the person to know how to do this thing and to be able to explain it to you.
We can picture a guide on a mountainside, leading a group of hikers on a path marked with blazes. The hikers trust the leader because of his demonstrated knowledge and [presumed] good character; and they can see the blazes on the trail as he leads them.
Now, when the subject being led involves character and morals in any way, there’s an added dimension. It’s not just about “show me how to do this thing,” it’s about “let me see your life, all of it, so I can know if you’re truly living what you teach.”
AND when the subject involves Christianity, we have a higher leader than the one at the front of the church building. We have our Lord Jesus Christ, who teaches us through His Scriptures. We have the Holy Spirit, who helps us—yes, us lowly ordinary Christians—interpret those Scriptures too.
So now we can say, “Let me see your life, all of it, so I can know if you’re truly living what you teach and if you’re truly living according to the Christian life as described in our higher authority, the Scriptures.”
Steve Smith goes on to say about that mountain guide:
However, they do not follow him blindly, as though they wore blindfolds. They would not consent to follow him off a cliff. They are persuaded by his truth and trustworthiness, and they engage critically as they walk along, allowing themselves to be persuaded by him.
This means keeping the eyes, mind, and heart engaged the entire time. Considering, reckoning, judging.
(Side note. “They would not consent to follow him off a cliff.” I’ve heard more than one Brother So and So say if their pastor told them to jump off a cliff, they would do it. And they’re proud of their blind obedience. Sheer idiocy.)
Luke 22:25-26 and Acts 15:22 are the only Scriptures outside of Hebrews 13:17 that use this same Greek word to refer to “spiritual leaders.”
Here they are:
But [Jesus] said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them, and those who exercise authority over them are called ‘benefactors.’ But it is not this way with you; but let the greatest among you, let him be as the youngest, and he who leads as he who serves.”
Then it seemed good to the apostles and the elders, with the whole church, to choose men from among them and send them to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas. They sent Judas called Barsabbas, and Silas, leading men among the brothers.
The one who leads is to be as the one who serves. Judas Barsabbas and Silas had shown themselves to be worthy leaders. Was it by bossing others around and demanding unquestioning obedience? No, I believe it’s appropriate to assume that they showed themselves to be worthy leaders by doing what Jesus had said, serving.
In his helpful article on Hebrews 13:17, Ron from scripturerevealed.com said
It is assumed or implied that these are true not false elders. [Yes, it’s clear that there’s such a thing as true elders and such a thing as false elders.] When the Bible mentions things in passing like the subject of elders, it is always assumed that these things are genuine and true. So we know the Bible is not allowing or endorsing false elders.
Hebrews 13:17 is clearly not a license for men to dictate, rule, control, command, dominate, and otherwise exercise authority over others in the church. We know this first and foremost because Jesus and His Apostles told us that such things are forbidden!
Where did Jesus say “such things are forbidden”?
But Jesus called them and said, You know that the rulers of the nations exercise dominion over them, and they who are great exercise authority over them. However, it shall not be so among you. But whoever desires to be great among you, let him be your servant. And whoever desires to be chief among you, let him be your servant; even as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many. (Matthew 20:25-28)
And Peter talked about it too.
I exhort the elders who are among you, I being also an elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, and also a partaker of the glory that shall be revealed. Feed the flock of God among you, taking the oversight, not by compulsion, but willingly; nor for base gain, but readily; nor as lording it over those allotted to you by God, but becoming examples to the flock. (1 Peter 5:1-3)
Years ago, before I even started this blog, I was writing emails to encourage friends. Here’s a part of one from early 2009:
A quotation I read bothered me a little. It said, “God uses people in three ways: to reveal our sin, to help us to take action against our sin, and to walk with us in our struggle against sin.” It bothered me because I want to think that my primary help to my brothers and sisters is not about sin. It’s about the Savior. It’s saying, “Look, friend! There’s Jesus! Let’s follow Him together!”
I said it again as part of last year’s birthday blog post:
I want the record of my life to be that I have been found faithful. I want to continue to have increasing understanding of the truths that our God has proclaimed in His Word and in His world, and proclaim those beautiful truths to others. I want to continue learning and seeking and knowing the true Lord Jesus Christ, in all His power and glory, and point others to Him. “Look—there’s Jesus! Let’s follow Him together.”
On my part, I have fallen into leadership of an unconventional sort. But such as it is, I’ve seen that what I’ve thought a Christian leader ought to be—someone who is farther down the path of the Christian life (a little or a lot), pointing the way to Jesus—is just what Hebrews 13:17 is referring to.
A worthy church leader will give evidence of a life worth following. And not only public evidence, the kind shown in charisma, speaking ability, fund raising ability, marketing ability, photo ops, books written, impressive connections, public relations, and a full calendar on the conference circuit.
But through integrity in his love for Jesus, being the same person in public, in private (with a few select people the leader trusts) and in secret (when the leader is alone).
Do you think God could in any universe want His people to follow church leaders who fail to live wholehearted lives of integrity?
But when they do, we can put the first part of this verse together like this, with confidence that THIS is what the author of Hebrews meant when he wrote about the “leaders” of the Christian churches:
Be persuaded by (or “let yourself be persuaded by”) the ones who have been recognized as being farther along in their lives of faith than you are, who have shown by their whole-hearted integrity that they can point the way to Jesus.
And finally the last word from this Scripture that I’ll talk about in this excruciatingly long blog post is this one:
c. “Submit to them”
There is a Greek word translated submit that means “listen to instructions and follow through.”
This word doesn’t mean that. This is a different word.
There’s something tricky about it, though. Hebrews 13:17 is the only place this word is used in the entire Bible. So the idea of submission needs to be held in light of the previous two words.
Again, Ron at scripturerevealed.com says (emphasis mine):
Since it is already qualified by the requirement to “be persuaded” before you “submit,” this verse cannot be used to advocate blind obedience that is sometimes required by leaders. We are required to “submit” to those things that we can “be persuaded” are true according to the Word of God.
There is a dangerous false teaching that says that even if we do not agree with church leaders we are to “submit” and somehow we will be blessed. This teaching is not backed up by the scriptures.
The obedience and submission required by Hebrews 13:17 is about instruction in the Word of God. It is about having the heart of a humble servant. It is about following a religious leader who is proclaiming truth and holiness.
The submission required by Hebrews 13:17 is not an absolute submission without qualification. It is submission based on the will of God as revealed in His Word. Every Christian is responsible for studying to show themselves approved and to rightly divide the Word of truth.
Seek the “godly” ones
Not those with the appearance of godliness
There’s one more Scripture I want to mention, 2 Timothy 3:1-5. It tells us that there are some who “have the appearance of godliness”—hmm, wonder what that looks like—who are actually lovers of self and money and pleasure, proud and arrogant, abusive, and more.
But they “appear” to be godly.
If they are leaders, should we obey and submit to them, according to Hebrews 13:17?
Some will say—I hear it now—my pastor will show me how to recognize these false prophets. I have faith in him.
And yet I’ve also heard that some of those “pastors” who are most eager to preach against “what to watch out for,” are doing evil themselves in secret, even involved in the trafficking of children. I know this because former children have spoken with me in confidence, and not only one or two. But many.
You need to be following Jesus yourself
You know it’s a problem to let one man, or even a group, interpret the Bible for you. After all, Paul said that the very purpose of having these spiritual leaders was . . .
So that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes, Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ. (Ephesians 4:14-15)
After all, you’re supposed to be following the Word of God on your own. If you’re a believer in Jesus, you also have the Holy Spirit and also can be listening to His voice. And if we blindly allow others to interpret the Bible for us, aren’t we simply falling into the way of the Middle Ages Catholics—the very problem that the Reformation came to . . . reform?
Do not be led away by diverse and strange teachings, for it is good for the heart to be strengthened by grace. (Hebrews 13:9)
Can it really be, in contradiction to ALL those verses above, that Hebrews 13:17 will now tell us to check our brains at the door and slavishly obey our “spiritual authorities” like happy robots?
Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world. (1 John 4:1)
No. According to many other Scriptures, you should never, never check your brain and spirit at the door and simply comply without questioning. Always you should be listening critically and asking the Holy Spirit for confirmation if what you’re hearing is true.
Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. (Ephesians 6:10-13)
You have a responsibility.
The ideal leader-follower relationship
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.
What a delight this will be, when we Christians, all of us, leaders official and unofficial, can turn to those of us a bit behind us on the path of the Christian life and say to each other, “Look! There’s Jesus, the Good, Holy, and True God. Let’s follow Him together!”
Even in a life of sorrow and pain, this can be a Christian experience of joy.
A Cry for Justice also has a post on this topic, here.