Few passages are more commonly misread, or simply avoided, than Hebrew 13:17:
Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account.
It shouldn’t surprise us that this passage often goes avoided. This is bound to happen in a culture where postmodernism rejects all claims of authority and where examples of abuses of authority are not hard to find in the news.
To make matters worse, a surface reading of this passage seems to sanction some form of authoritarianism, an unqualified obedience and submission to pastors in all matters. But that’s not the message of this passage, as we will see.
What follows are a few important thoughts on this passage, beginning with a closer look at the idea of “obeying.”
Here is how W. E. Vine defines the Greek word “obey” (πείθο):
In Hebrews 13:17, believers are commanded to obey their leaders. The word used is peithō which has the usual meaning of “convince” or “persuade.” The “obedience” suggested is not by submission to authority, but resulting from persuasion. Peithō and pisteuō, “to trust,” are closely related etymologically; the difference in meaning is that the former implies the obedience that is produced by the latter.
Peithō, “to persuade, to win over,” in the passive and middle voices, “to be persuaded, to listen to, to obey,” is so used with this meaning, in the middle voice, e.g., in Acts 5:36-37 (in v. 40, passive voice, “they agreed”); Rom. 2:8; Gal. 5:7; Heb. 13:17; Jas. 3:3.
The “obedience” suggested is not by submission to authority, but resulting from persuasion. Peithō and pisteuo, ‘to trust,’ are closely related etymologically; the difference in meaning is that the former implies the obedience that is produced by the latter.
In other words, when “one allows oneself to be convinced by someone: one follows and obeys him” (EDNT).
Paul Benware applies this point well in an article [“Leadership Authority in the Church,” Conservative Theological Journal 3.8 (1989), pp. 10-12]:
The emphasis here [Heb. 13:17] is on an obedience that comes from being persuaded that something is true. In this case, it would be the truth of the Word of God that is in view. Here they are being called upon to persuade the people that follow them with the truth of the Word of God… The elders are not to say “Do it because I say so”, but rather “Do what I show you from God’s Word.” …
Leadership authority in the church, then, is the power granted to men to lead the flock of God according to the Word of God, guiding, protecting and feeding them for their benefit and God’s glory. This kind of leadership authority will persuade believers from the scriptures resulting in obedience and submission to Christ the one and only head of the church.
John Loftness, the senior pastor of Solid Rock Church [Sovereign Grace Ministries], recently explained this point in a helpful sermon. Here’s a transcribed excerpt from his sermon [“Hebrews 13” (11/20/11)]:
“Obey your leaders and submit to them” (Heb. 13:17a).
This translation is puzzling. The major 20th century English translations all translate this “obey your leaders.” Same with the KJV. But the word “obey” (πείθο) is different from the word that speaks of obedience. In fact if you look back to 5:9, there’s a different word used for obey: “And being made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey (ὑπακούω) him.” This is a different word.
[In 13:17] “obey” means to put confidence in, to trust, and by implication — because you trust someone or are confident in that person — you do what he says. It means to be persuaded. The same word is used in the next verse: “Pray for us, for we are sure (πείθο) that we have a clear conscience” (Heb. 13:18). The word translated “are sure” is the same as the one for “obey” [in 13:17]. So we should listen to our leaders, let them persuade us, let them speak God’s word to us, let them teach us so that we get such confidence in God’s word that we do what they say.
What kind of leaders should you listen to? Who are the kind of leaders you should submit to?
First, submit to those who are “keeping watch over your souls” (Heb. 13:17b). When they’re asking you to submit they are asking you to submit to God. I have no authority in your life apart from the clear teaching of Scripture. I can’t say, “I’m the senior pastor of this church. Ben, the car’s kinda dirty, can you wash it right away?” No, that’s not how it works. You want to follow a teacher whose concern is for your soul, who wants you to see and follow Jesus, and not stray into strange teachings (see Heb. 13:9). So there is an authority that your teachers carry but it’s authority grounded and founded in God’s Word. That’s the kind of teacher — he’s looking out for your soul and trying to make specific application of Scripture so that you will follow Jesus.
Second, you want to obey teachers who are aware that one day they will have to answer to Jesus for what they taught you. That’s what it says: “as those who will have to give an account” (Heb. 13:17c). I am deeply aware — and now that I’ve done this for decades — I’m aware of points where I’ve gotten it wrong, things I’ve missed. Why am I aware of that? Because one day I’m going to stand before Jesus Christ — just like you. But I’m not just going to have to answer for my own life, I will answer for my influence on you. I’m going to have to answer for how I taught you. If that was driven by selfishness and pride or laziness, unwilling to dig into the text to explain it accurately, I will stand before God and his judgment and I will give an account.
That’s the kind of leader you want to follow: someone whose first concern is your prosperity in God. And secondly, he’s aware that he will give an account for what he taught.
So this is not a call to do whatever your pastors tell you to do, it’s a call to submit to the teaching they bring you because it’s grounded in the Bible. A teacher’s function in the church is to bring you the Word of God so you can put your faith in Jesus and obey Him. And they should do this in a persuasive way, they should teach and lead so that you have confidence in the teaching. And then, submission becomes much easier, and it makes much more sense.
John Owen says much the same in his commentary on Hebrews 13:17:
1st. It is not a blind, implicit obedience and subjection, that is here prescribed. A pretence hereof hath been abused to the ruin of the souls of men: but there is nothing more contrary to the whole nature of gospel obedience, which is our “reasonable service;” and in particular, it is that which would frustrate all the rules and directions given unto believers in this epistle itself, as well as elsewhere, about all the duties that are required of them. For to what purpose are they used, if no more be required but that men give up themselves, by an implicit credulity, to obey the dictates of others?
2dly. It hath respect unto them in their office only. If those who suppose themselves in office do teach and enjoin things that belong not unto their office, there is no obedience due unto them by virtue of this command. So is it with the guides of the church of Rome, who, under a pretence of their office, give commands in secular things, no way belonging unto the ministry of the gospel.
3dly. It is their duty so to obey whilst they teach the things which the Lord Christ hath appointed them to teach; for unto them is their commission limited, Matt. 28:20: and to submit unto their rule whilst it is exercised in the name of Christ, according to his institution, and by the rule of the word, and not otherwise. When they depart from these, there is neither obedience nor submission due unto them.
Finally, Matthew Henry, in his old (and under-appreciated) commentary, offers this pointed one-sentence summary:
Christians must submit to be instructed by their ministers, and not think themselves too wise, too good, or too great, to learn from them; and, when they find that ministerial instructions are agreeable to the written word, they must obey them.
Ultimately pastoral ministry centers on Christ and His Message, not on the pastor and his role as messenger. And so to obey and submit to our pastors is a call to esteem and respect and obey the Word of God. This is why it can be said that “an elder with no Bible is an elder with no authority” (Mark Lauterbach).
Hebrews 13:17 is beautifully balanced and stabilizing for Christians who live in a culture suspicious of all authority. It encourages our biblical discernment. It encourages us to find a solid church where the Bible is taught clearly and persuasively. It moves our attention off autonomous human authority. It focuses our attention on the weightiness of Scripture. And it encourages humble submission of our lives to the faithful preaching and counsel we receive from our still-fallible pastors. It is a passage that helps us see the faithfully preached word for what it is — an authoritative message from God to be obeyed.