Heb 13:17  Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they keep watch over your souls and will give an account for their work. Let them do this with joy and not with complaints, for this would be no advantage for you.

This passage of scripture is the strongest evidence the proponents of covering theology have.  It clearly instructs people to obey leaders and to submit to them.  The author of Hebrews gives three good reasons for doing this.

On the face of things it does appear to be rock solid passage in support of authoritarian theology.  However if we look a little deeper at translation and interpretation we see this verse is much more compatible with the "mutual submission" camp.

Understanding Hebrews 13:17 begins with understanding the whole book

It is really important that we understand this verse in the larger context of the book of Hebrews.  I’ve written a much more extensive study of the book of Hebrews to get a more complete picture of what the author might be getting at in this passage.

The NIV inserts a word here that doesn’t exist in the original Greek text

The NIV renders the passages this way "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. "  The extra word here is authority.  The greek word we translate authority is exousia and it isn’t present in the text.  This is why so many other translations don’t have it.

"Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they keep watch over your souls as those who will give an account." NASB

"Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls and will give an account." NRSV

"Obey your spiritual leaders and do what they say. Their work is to watch over your souls, and they know they are accountable to God." NLT

"Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account." ESV

"Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they keep watch over your souls as those who will give an account, " HCSB

"Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they keep watch over your souls and will give an account for their work." NET

The Greek word translated obey is Peitho which usually means persuade

Peitho is the goddess of persuasion.  That doesn’t necessarily mean the word should be translated persuade.  The way the word is used in the sentence it can be very legitimately translated obey which is why most bibles do.  The TNIV is a notable exception.  However the word still carries the nuance of obedience via persuasion rather that obedience to authority.  Jason Dulle does an indepth examination of how this word is translated.

Ray C. Stedman wrote the following in his commentary on Hebrews:

Several things should be noted about Hebrews 13:17 and 1Thess 5:12.  The word "obey" comes from the Greek peitho, "to persuade."  The present imperative middle form, used here, means "permit oneself to be persuaded," "yield to persuasion."  It definitely does not mean to blindly follow orders.  The phrase those who are over you in the Lord should simply be "your leaders in the Lord."  There is no thought of being "over" anyone, or others being "under" a leader.  The authority of a Christian leader is not command authority but servant leadership.  A servant has authority, as Jesus said he had, because he awakens by his loving service a desire to comply.  Or he is persuasive because of his logic or knowledge.

The reference to leaders (plural) in a letter to Hebrews strongly suggests that the people still follow the traditional Jewish concept of leadership.  In Hebrew culture the leaders were normally elders that met as a council.  While there were likely hierarchies of influence the forms of positional hierarchy that we and the governing Romans employed would have been foreign to them (Ellingworth 723).

Timothy Willis, Ph.D. in Near Eastern Languages offers the following:

Another good indication that Christian elders possess traditional (not legal-rational) authority comes from Heb 13:17. Careful consideration of the author’s reference to "leaders" in this verse, as well as earlier in the chapter (v.7), reveals a mind-set about authority in the church which is patently traditional in nature. Admittedly, the author does not specify the "leaders" as being "elders" in this passage, and they probably are not the only individuals intended here; but elders must have been part of this group called "leaders." Surely we are not to assume that the author intends to include all Christian "leaders" except elders in his remarks.

Willis contrasts the "traditional authority" of the Hebrews with the "legal-rational" authority of the Romans.  He argues that the translators have read a little too much Western Civilization on to the text (Willis 320).  He also argues that Peitho should be rendered "Be persuaded."

The rest of the passage points us to towards persuasion rather than authority.  Respect for authority is not cited as a reason to obey the leaders.  There are only four reasons mentioned:

  • The leaders keep watch over you
  • They must given an account
  • Let them do it with joy
  • There would be no advantage in not yielding to them

Notice there are no warnings of imminent spiritual danger or doom at the hands of the spiritual forces of darkness.  The Hebrews here are not warned that they face shipwreck or disaster if they don’t submit.  If they don’t it is of no advantage.  If we really were in stark spiritual danger wouldn’t the author of Hebrews warned us in this passage.

There is a clear instruction to obey leadership but that obedience stems from persuasion, not authority and the leadership in this context is not a hierarchy.  They key difference between obedience to authority and obedience to persuasion is that the person doing the obeying still has the right and the obligation to be discerning.

Ellingworth, Paul. The Epistle to the Hebrews. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993.

Stedman, Ray C. The IVP New Testament Commentary Series: Hebrews. Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 1992.

Willis, Timothy. Restoration Quarterly.