What Kind of Obedience To What Kind Of Leadership?
By Maurice Fuller
"Obey those who rule over you, and be submissive, for they watch out for your souls, as those who must give account. Let them do so with joy and not with grief, for that would be unprofitable for you." Heb.13:17 (NKJV)
This passage has sometimes been used to require the obedience of church members to pastoral leadership, often for no better reason than he is the Pastor and therefore he should be obeyed. Unfortunately, our English translators were raised in and taught under a heavy clergy-driven church model and felt they had to reflect this in their translation. A closer and perhaps a little less biased look at the Greek text yields quite a different result.
"Obey" is PEITHO and means to convince, persuade, to appeal to, win over, to strive to please, conciliate, pacify, set at ease and, in a certain sense, obey. Here, in this verse, the specific meaning is determined by the context. Hebrews was written to keep Jewish believers from going back under the law. First, the writer teaches about "rest" (Chapters 3 and 4), which is resting or abiding in Christ. Then, he teaches that the law was fulfilled in Jesus Christ. There are the warnings in Chapters 6 and 10 against leaving Christ as our Source and going back to legalism. Then, in Chapter 13, the admonition is given to, "obey those who have rule over you…" Since it was a case of ceasing to abide in Christ and going back to living by law-keeping, that which they were to "obey" was the urging of their leaders to stay in Christ. One doesn't command someone to do this. It must be by loving persuasion.
Therefore, the word "obey" is not a good word to translate PEITHO. A better translation would be "persuade", or "appeal to". Since the form of the verb in vs. 17 is the middle voice, it indicates that the doer of the action participates in or benefits from the action. And since it is also in the imperative mood, we translate, "allow yourselves to be persuaded by your leaders", or" follow the godly counsel of your leaders". Vine says, of the use of PEITHO in this passage, "the obedience suggested is not by submission to authority but resulting from persuasion". There are other words that do have the meaning of obedience to authority which could have been used if this was what the writer wished to convey, but (PEITHO) has a much different thrust altogether.
"Rule" is HEGEOMAI (the participle HEGOUMENOI is used here). Again, had the writer wished to convey the idea that these ones had authority, and must for that reason be obeyed, he could have used several other Greek words which have meaning. But he chose his terms carefully. Because the English translators' mindset was a culturally-conditioned and authoritarian one, they blunted this carefulness and chose English terms that convey authoritarianism. HEGOUMENOI means "those who lead or guide". It is found in Luke 22:25-27 where it is given its strict Christian parameters, "he who governs (HEGOUMENOS) as he who serves (DIAKONOS)". HEGOUMENOS is used for a leader such as a shepherd whose only concern is the welfare of the sheep. So, "serving" the body as a leader must be done by loving persuasion, beseeching (as Paul in Romans 12:1) and by the consistent example of a Christ-filled, Christ-empowered and Christ-led life. To lead by coercion would be to totally misrepresent the way Christ leads us.
"Be submissive" is HUPEIKO. This word occurs only here in the entire New Testament. This tells us that this word also is not the common word for "submit" (HUPOTASSO), but was carefully chosen so that there could be no misunderstanding. HUPEIKO means (1) "to withdraw, retire, depart"(2) "to yield, give way, concede, to yield to admonition, to resist no longer". So there is no trace of a knuckling under, or a servile bowing to the will of a despot. It means, in its context - and according to the entire New Testament teaching on how leadership is to function - to yield to loving persuasion and to godly example.
The rest of Hebrews 13:17, "…they watch for your souls," tells us what kind of leaders these were. Ninety percent of church leadership today (because that's the way they were taught) leans toward misuse of position and sometimes to actual abuse. It imposes attendance at the church's meetings, often for no better reason than that the Pastor's ego should remain unscathed. It requires compliance so that the leaders can boast of their large numbers to other pastors at denominational conferences. When people miss church on the day there is a special speaker, the leaders, who had hoped to make a good impression on the speaker with a large crowd, are embarrassed and humiliated and you can be sure the congregation will hear about it the next Sunday. (I speak from 43 years of church leadership experience.) Very little of this, of course, has anything to do with "watching for your souls".
"Watch" is AGRUPNEO. It means to stay awake, be sleepless, "a watchfulness of those who are intent upon a thing" (Vine). It can mean, in this verse, "to spend nights in prayer (for your souls, your total welfare)". Paul exhibited this attitude in his address to the Elders from Ephesus.
"Therefore watch, and remember that for three years I did not cease to warn everyone night and day with tears". Acts 20:31
This kind of leadership is not dangerous to yield to. They have our welfare uppermost in their hearts and minds and they do not have to "pull rank" to achieve compliance. So, "savage wolves, who do not care for the flock" are not to be listened to but loving shepherds should to be allowed to influence us to a more intimate and more consistent living in the awareness of Christ within. Anyone who stays awake all night and prays with tears for my welfare has my attention and easily persuades me to carefully consider their exhortations. Someone who cares much for his own success in ministry and cares little for those to whom he ministers may not get my cooperation.