Friday, September 11, 2015

Can you explain Hebrews 13:17? Does it mean I have to do whatever a church leader says?

Hebrews 13:17 states,
“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” (NASB). 
This passage is often used to promote the idea of total obedience to church leaders (such as Elders or Bishops). In some religious circles it is used as a proof-text for Pastoral Rule in a church. Is this what the passage is teaching? This post will ask a few questions of this verse in an attempt to better understand and apply its teachings.

Who are the “leaders”?
Scripture is its own best interpreter. Many form the conclusion from this passage that the “leaders” by necessity must be “elders”, but is that conclusion warranted? Previously in this same section of Scripture, the Hebrew writer declares, 
“Remember those who led you, who spoke the word of God to you; and considering the result of their conduct, imitate their faith” (Hebrews 13:7 NASB).
The leaders in 13:17 are the same as those who “led” in verse 7. The leaders in verse 7 are those who “spoke the word of God to you”. The Hebrew Christians needed to go back to what they were taught. They needed to remember these good leaders (whether, elders, apostles, preachers or teachers) and consider the “result of their conduct” and “imitate their faith”.  

These godly leaders had taught the Truth, and were living the Truth. The Hebrew Christians needed to follow what they were taught by them. If they didn’t, they would run the risk of being “carried away by varied and strange teachings”  (13:9 NASB).

These godly leaders cared about these Christians, in fact, the Hebrew writer states in verse 17 that they “keep watch over your souls as those who will give an account”. A person who speaks the Word of God to another is watching out for that person’s soul, and will give an account for what they are teaching and how they are living. This would include elders, but there is nothing in this passage that would exclude other teachers of Scripture such as apostles or preachers.

What does it mean to “obey”?
This term often causes confusion and results in false ideas. The English term “obey” is very strong. When employed, images of kings and dictators often come to mind. No other passage of Scripture paints church leaders as rulers who must always be “obeyed”. Is this what this verse is teaching?

The New Testament was originally written in Greek. The Greek word translated “obey” in verse 17 is peitho. This writer is of the conclusion that “obey” is NOT an accurate translation of peitho in this section of Scripture. Most lexicons give the possible definitions of “persuade”, “convince”, “trust” and even “obey”. The student of God's Word must determine what definition is the most accurate for verse 17? Remember, Scripture is its own best interpreter and usage determines meaning. We must ask, how is the word peitho used in Scripture?

There is an abundance of New Testament passages that contain this term. In the NASB, most of the passages translate the word peitho as “persuaded”. However, different books are written by different authors and one Bible writer may use a term differently from another. 

When trying to determine the definition of a term, it is best to look at its usage in the passage and book under consideration. In the book of Hebrews, the word peitho is used  4 times (2:13, 6:9, 13:17,1 18). To the Bible student, the verse that should stand out immediately is 13:18 because it is in the same passage as the verse under consideration. In our English Bibles it is easy to miss that the same term is being used. In the NASB, Hebrews 13:18 reads,
“Pray for us, for we are sure that we have a good conscience, desiring to conduct ourselves honorably in all things” (Hebrews 13:18).
The word peitho in verse 18 is translated as “sure”. We are wise to assume that if a term is used in back to back verses, that its meaning is not going to change. In verse 18, the Hebrew writer states that they are “sure” that they have a good conscience. If translated as “persuaded”, “convinced”,  or “trust” in verse 18, it would still convey the same idea, but “obey” would not!

To better understand the term peitho in verse 17, we must look at peitho in verse 18. When putting these two verses together, along with the other times this term is used in the book (2:13, 6:9), it is clear that “obey” is NOT the definition the Hebrew writer had in mind.


Hebrews 13:17 is not a verse about blindly obeying elders. Instead it is a passage that exhorts the reader to follow the Word of God as taught by godly leaders. We need to be persuaded by, and trust those who are teaching us the Word of God. When the Word is taught, we need to submit to it and understand that our teachers are watching out for our souls. If we do not follow the teaching of godly leaders (whether by word or example), we run the risk of being carried away by false teaching. 

By Cliff Sabroe