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.

12 comments on “Heb 13:17

  1. I really appreciate the “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.” Thank you!

  2. I just started to read your article and it challenged me to understand covering and for this I “thank you”
    One questions I have is that you did not refer to the KJV, why?

    Heb 13:17 Obey them that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves: for they watch for your souls, as they that must give account, that they may do it with joy, and not with grief: for that is unprofitable for you.

    Obey is also translated (Strong): to rely (by inward certainty): – agree, assure, believe, have confidence, be (wax) content, make friend, obey, persuade, trust, yield.

    We are to “trust” “yield” ‘believe” and “have confidence” with those who “rule over us”

    Rule: he?geomai
    Thayer Definition:
    to lead, to be a leader, to rule, command, to have authority over, leading as respects influence, overseers or leaders of the churches

    Summit hupeiko?
    to yield to surrender: – submit self.

    We have to summit ourselves to God first and to the Leadership God has placed in the church.

    It is out of balance that some church rule with an iron hand and treat people like they own them, NOT GOD plan.

    Again, thank you for your article, it helped me very much.

  3. I came across this post doing a google search to find info on the greek word for “leader” in Hebrews 13. Your post, although not exactly matching my search, gave the information I desired, as I really was after info on “obey”. Your post was most helpful.

    Mark

  4. This was very helpful thank you.

    Question
    What do you do when you feel like the pride of the leader will affect the whole congregation and u feel like there is no way to approach him about it. There is no elders in the church to talk to and everyone is almost a babe and the mature ones are brand new to the ministry. So when you go to the pastor’s apostle and tell him how you feel and your need for counsil, he freaks out because of the fact your out of order bring accusation against a elder when you were not trying to gossip or Bring accusation. Just bringing your feelings and concerns and asking for wisdom?

    What is the proper way to get counsel on this? Take this as thereticle not as happening as fact thanks

  5. Pretty good article.
    “… the person doing the obeying still has the right and the obligation to be discerning.”
    Absolutely!

  6. I was specifically looking up commentary on Heb 13:17. Your commentary was quite helpful, but seemed to lack appreciation to the period and context in which it (and v. 7; and 1Thes 5:12-13) were written. There was no New Testemant text at that time, and certainly not the compilation we have today. This message would apply to those leaders specifically known by the author(s) and would not universally apply to all leaders in the church for all times, as there were many gnostic, and other perverse teachings.
    Yeilding to the will of God through Jesus Christ is the most important yeilding one should consider. This yeilding to Christ brings with it the Holy Ghost of whom John said, “But ythe annointing which ye have recieved of him abideth in you, and ye need not that any man teach you: but as the same annointing teacheth you of all things, and is truth, and is no lie, and even as it hath taught you, ye shall abide in him.” 1John 2:27
    Paul agreed with this and wrote to the Corinthians, “But as it is written {Isiah 64:4}, Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared tor them that love him. But God hath revealed them unto us by his Spirit: for the Spirit searcheth all things, yea, the deep things of God. For what man knoweth the things of a man, save the spirit of man which is in him? even so the things of God knoweth no man, but the Spirit of God. Which things also we speak not in the words which man’s wisdom teacheth, but which the Holy Ghost teacheth; comparing spiritual things with spiritual. But the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them because they are spiritually descerned. But he that is spiritual judgeth all things, ye he himself is judged of no man. For who hath known the mind of the Lord , that he may in struct him? But we have the mind of Christ.” 1Cor 2:9-16

  7. Hi there… just stumbled over this… well it is excellent!
    for almost 20 years this specific scripture was trotted out so many times in order to ensure the fellowship did exactly as the leadership said and as in the case of JDA above, if you actually dared raise a question, you became the problem and the wrath of God would likely fall on your for daring to question or touch the Lord’s annointed one! hmmm well the “That they will give an account…” bit was delivered as a doctrine that come the day of judgement, the apostle claimed he would be called before God and give an account of the lives of those in his charge. This account would then become the basis of where God placed you in heaven for all eternity. His teaching was that if he were to give God a poor account of how you obeyed and lived your life, it would be bad for you and seriously affect your standing in heaven, but that a good account would place you in pole position. mental i know… i personally thought it would affect his standing far more than mine as i always believed this account would be his being called to account for how he watched out over the souls of those under his care… This scripture is used in such a controlling way and turned into a whipping stick in order to gain and maintain total control over people.

    This piece presented here is excellent.
    Thank you for putting it out there.

    In ref to JDA… my advice to you would be “get out”… I took this stuff for almost 2 decades and it had a very bad effect. It is spiritual abuse and scriptural abuse and no one should yield their will to a man or woman, but to Christ and Him alone. Faith works by love, not by fear and this awful means of controlling people is all based on fear and keeping the sheep from bleeting.
    If it walks like a duck n quacks like a duck, it’s likely to be a duck! Fearfulness and control are not qualities you find listed in the fruits of the spirit.

    Blessings to all who are searching for scriptural truth. x

  8. Great commentary. I co-sign comments posted here.

    I wish pastors were bold and honest enough to teach and practice this.

  9. Hi, great article I can furthEr add to this in the 1927 edition of Pgs Hopwood book on the relIgious experience of the primitive church in which several major plAces he addresses the distortions added over the early body simple formation, thus replacing a spirit led body to an eccleastical hiearchy pretty amazing to see if your interested in what A Spirit led body was like without all the political stuff added in..

    I would love to experience it,,, was like .. a quote from author was “they exchanged the revelatory for the gnosis” based knowledge, 3 rd century, change, so there we have the trip into all the how to books we use today came out of.

    The conenction is perhaps misisng what many are looking for, hopwood book is well worth all your time to know and follow up on… it;s away back to real connection.

    see Strong on the two words for knowledge in philp 1;9 they are nothe same one is divine knowledge, the other is natural, which supports the mind of the christian going far from the mere sense of sight and touch thinking, 1,Corinthian 1,2,3.

    We decided to use non- poltical ecclestical Bibles to stay away from the added words, we;re not comfortable with twisting or adding what is not there.

    Its; perhaps about money in it;s distorted form, and control as it was for constanitne and those who followed, james etc, etc, we have seen, I am sure others have and wonder why?

    Back to real faith and relationships as an alternative to a career path, is somehting far more eternal rewarding than human titles, is divine love, hope and faith and his power, also accountabilty for keeping the truth obscure to the believers,as Hopwood would says they were shot through and through of the Spirit. Be nice today we sure could use a lot more of him than us..

    No books, schools, than, and all the fuzz but his presence, they knew what know is,,, there is nothing greater, “ye shall do greater works” he says? do we really believe and know that ? Just a few thoughts. Glad to see people thinking for themselves it;s time. Love to all.

    Love one another and let faith have her perfect way…. ye shall worship in Truth and Spirit, we;re all the temple he lives in us now not box or building let’s build one another in faith love and truth, what we do… take care..

    NW

  10. Look to Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith. Do not look to man, as “pastor” is not an office that is held in the worldly sense. We’ve been given the Holy Spirit, why would you want a human dressed in a bad suit ruling over your life? Walk away from these wounded individuals and listen to the Holy Spirit; but don’t forget to love people! Even the wounded dude with the bad suit; you just don’t have to like him. : ) Blessings to all.

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