“Obey your leaders….” Hebrews 13:17a
Following up on the post, Follow the Leader, where we looked at Hebrews 13:7, we now arrive at Hebrews 13:17 to examine the closing passage of the inclusio in chapter 13.
In our first passage we saw the commands for the recipients of the letter to remember, consider, and imitate their leaders, defined as those who spoke the word of God to them. Here in this passage it would appear the response has advanced from emulation to subordination. That apparent shift should give us pause to consider our interpretation carefully. The difficulty hinges on the word “obey”.
All major English translations use this same word, but because of the difficulty squaring this with the context that we’ve seen so far, a wise suggestion is to look at the semantic range, or glosses, of the Greek word, peitho, and consider if obey fits the context best.
According to Strong’s concordance, we find the following outline for the range of possible meanings
- to persuade, i.e. to induce one by words to believe
- to make friends of, to win one’s favor, gain one’s good will, or to seek to win one, strive to please one
- to tranquilize
- to persuade unto i.e. move or induce one to persuasion to do something
- be persuaded
- to be persuaded, to suffer one’s self to be persuaded; to be induced to believe: to have faith: in a thing
- to believe
- to be persuaded of a thing concerning a person
- to listen to, obey, yield to, comply with
- to trust, have confidence, be confident
As seen above, obey is certainly an option, though perhaps less frequently used. In fact, of the 55 occurences of this word in the New Testament (KJV Concordance), only 8 times it is translated as obey. By the way, 22 times it is translated as persuade, 8 times as trust, 8 times related to confidence (this is according to the KJV count, as per blueletterbible.org). For comparison, the word (or those related) occurs in the NASB 64 times in 55 verses, translated as obey four times, Romans 2:8, Galatians 5:7, Hebrews 13:17, and James 3:3.
(As a side note: in Greek mythology, which predates the New Testament writing, Peitho was the Greek Goddess of Persuasion. This of course is not authoritative, only provides some cultural context towards a possible meaning)
Given the list of possibilities, why choose obey?
Typically in translation, the context determines which gloss best fits. When we hear or use obey in the English language we immediately think of authority and subordination as in, “Children obey your parents” “Servants obey your masters”, these however use a different Greek word. Interestingly, peitho was used earlier in Hebrews 6:9 and again in verse 18. Below are the ESV translations
9 Though we speak in this way, yet in your case, beloved, we feel sure of better things—things that belong to salvation.
18 Pray for us, for we are sure that we have a clear conscience, desiring to act honorably in all things.
Of all the possible meanings for the word in our verse, peitho – obey – seems to be the weakest in that it carries an idea of subordination that is not supported by the context. Instead, a better fit would be, “be persuaded or believe” your leaders, as it clearly relates to their speaking of the word of God. The authority is God’s Word, not the leader. Even here, the persuasion is not towards the leader, but towards the leader’s speaking of God’s Word.
Obey or be persuaded, that is the interpretive question in this passage. If one assumes ecclesiastical authority and the reads the meaning of the English word obey into the passage, then it is not difficult to arrive at most translations and commentaries. However, if we allow the context and the meaning of the actual words to interpret the passage, we arrive at a different conclusion.
In the next post, we’ll examine the second command from this verse, ‘submit’. For more, see the recent video on Pastoral Authority by John MacArthur