In my last post called 1 Timothy 2, authority and the magical pulpit, I was waiting for someone to bring up Hebrew 13:17. Since no one brought up this verse in the comments, but I did receive an email that asked me to respond to how this scripture fits in with my last post, I thought my response should make a separate post of its own.
Let’s first take a look at Hebrews 13:17 in the NIV, the version which was quoted to me:
Obey your leaders and submit to their authority. They keep watch over you as men who must give an account. Obey them so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no advantage to you.
Does this passage teach that the Christian leaders have authority over the sheep? Let’s have a look at this passage in a more literal translation:
Hebrews 13:17 (LITV) Yield to those taking the lead of you, and submit, for they watch for your souls, giving an account, that they may do this with joy, and not with grieving; for this would be unprofitable to you.
The first thing that we can notice about a literal reading of the passage is that the word “authority” is missing in the Greek. Now let’s go through this passage piece by piece to pull out the intended meaning.
The word that is translated “obey” in some versions and “yield” in others is the Greek word “peitho”. The primary meaning of this word is to persuade or be persuaded. The WordStudy Dictionary says:
To persuade, particularly to move or affect by kind words or motives.
(I) Act. voice, to persuade.
(A) Generally, to persuade another to receive a belief, meaning to convince, and in this sense used mostly with the acc. of person (Act 14:19; Act 18:4, “he…persuaded the Jews,” meaning he sought to convince them;
(II) Mid./pass., meaning to let oneself be persuaded, to be persuaded.
(A) Generally of any truth. Used in an absolute sense, to be convinced, believe.
So in the original Greek wording, we are to allow ourselves to be “persuaded” by our leaders. Why? Because Paul says they “watch over your soul”. The word “watch” means without sleep. Spiritually, they are to be watchful and attentive to spiritual things. These overseers are the ones who are responsible before God to warn us as watchman regarding false teaching and errors in the faith. We are told by Paul to allow ourselves to be “persuaded” or to be “convinced” by the leaders who are watching out as watchman on the wall. If we are submissive to their work to spiritually protect us, they are able to do their work with joy instead of grieving over our falling into error when we do not listen to their warning. While they will not give account to God for us, they will give account to God regarding their place as spiritual overseers or spiritual watchmen, watching out for the enemy. If they fail to warn us, God will hold them accountable. When we submit to their spiritual warning, we will bring them joy because they will see us protected.
It is very important to note that the onus is on us to submit. Why? Because these overseers do not have authority over us. They have no power to force us to obey because Jesus said that the leaders are not to lord it over the sheep. The power is in the hands of those who submit, because there is no authority given to the leaders to force obedience from the sheep.
The entire sense of the Greek words can be easily seen in the Greek interlinear.
Notice how reading it from the actual interlinear without the added words that are not in the text show the meaning that I have explained above.
This Hebrews passage is a wonderful passage showing the importance of submission and the lack of authority of the leaders to force us to do something against our will. The world’s understanding of submission is one of inferiority and weakness while the Lord Jesus turned this completely on its head by making submission a Christian act of power under control. The one who submits does so in order to serve another or else the submission is done in order to be served by others. Hebrews 13:17 is one fine example of submission done in order to be served by the church’s servant watchmen on the wall.