Obey or Follow? Hebrews 13.17

In an effort to rid myself of confrontation on issues which I know others would never be persuaded, I deleted a whole host of friends on Facebook; however, I received an email from some one who I had deleted months ago asking me why I had not only removed her, but seemingly everyone else from our (former) Church organization. I responded that one of the reasons was that I simply did not appreciate the attacks – from questioning my membership in the Organization to questioning my salvation – on my use of Scripture in different translations. I didn’t mention the attacks by my brothers and sisters on my friends who came to my defense.

Yes, that’s right – I was going to hell because I used something other than the KJV-1611 (although, it is rightly said that no one else uses it either). I could not respond then, but my pastor at the time had allowed me to read other translations, etc… I did the organizational thing and asked him first, submitting to what the Organizational beliefs were on pastoral authority.

Moving to the email exchange today – I again was implicitly accused of being under the control of Satan, of refusing to obey my Pastor, and further, of being in danger of the Pastor sending me to hell.

You know where this comes from, right?

NKJ Hebrews 13:17 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.

NLT Hebrews 13:17 Obey your spiritual leaders, and do what they say. Their work is to watch over your souls, and they are accountable to God. Give them reason to do this with joy and not with sorrow. That would certainly not be for your benefit.

RSV  Hebrews 13:17 Obey your leaders and submit to them; for they are keeping watch over your souls, as men who will have to give account. Let them do this joyfully, and not sadly, for that would be of no advantage to you.

BGT Hebrews 13:17 Πείθεσθε τοῖς ἡγουμένοις ὑμῶν καὶ ὑπείκετε, αὐτοὶ γὰρ ἀγρυπνοῦσιν ὑπὲρ τῶν ψυχῶν ὑμῶν ὡς λόγον ἀποδώσοντες, ἵνα μετὰ χαρᾶς τοῦτο ποιῶσιν καὶ μὴ στενάζοντες· ἀλυσιτελὲς γὰρ ὑμῖν τοῦτο.

So, let’s examine this verse, shall we?

The word in question is Πείθεσθε. The Greek Lexicons point out that this word, in the basic form, is the proper name for the Greek goddess of Persuasion, and add that it does mean to yield, persuade, follow, etc… (See Liddle-Scott, Thayer)

The second word, translated variously as submissivly, is ὑπείκετε, or ‘yield to.’

There is another word which the author of Hebrews uses for ‘obey’ (as in obedience).

NKJ Hebrews 5:9 And having been perfected, He became the author of eternal salvation to all who obey Him,

NLT Hebrews 5:9 In this way, God qualified him as a perfect High Priest, and he became the source of eternal salvation for all those who obey him.

BGT Hebrews 5:9 καὶ τελειωθεὶς ἐγένετο πᾶσιν τοῖς ὑπακούουσιν αὐτῷ αἴτιος σωτηρίας αἰωνίου,

I will not bore you with the details here, but the word used here means to listen to, to harken to, to obey. Unlike the root word above, this word takes the stronger sense.

Returning to Hebrews 13.17, the NLT Study Bible’s note reads:

The Greek word translated obey can also mean follow, place confidence in, or be persuaded by.(This section of commentary was written by George Guthrie, NT Prof at Union University.)

While Guthrie’s ‘can also mean’ didn’t make it into the NLT’s translation, it does alter the generally accepted meaning. Plainly, it is not about obeying in a domineering manner those who have the rule over you, but about following their guiding.

Let’s take the next part of this verse, as used against me, the ‘as those who must give account.’ Let’s compare it to James 3.1

NKJ James 3:1 My brethren, let not many of you become teachers, knowing that we shall receive a stricter judgment.

NLT James 3:1 Dear brothers and sisters, not many of you should become teachers in the church, for we who teach will be judged more strictly.

BGT James 3:1 Μὴ πολλοὶ διδάσκαλοι γίνεσθε, ἀδελφοί μου, εἰδότες ὅτι μεῖζον κρίμα λημψόμεθα.

To break it down, the congregation must follow the leaders (note the plurality here), doing what they say, to ease their burden (not as a manner of getting into heaven), because it is beneficial to the Church (the ‘you’ here is plural) that the leaders are not stressed out. Nothing in here puts the salvation of a soul in the hands of a spiritual leader, nor do we follow the leaders set before us in total submission. Remember, men and women are still fallible, and frail beings, capable of mistakes. Remember as well, that the ministry has more to answer for than the congregational members.

Would we obey them in mistakes? In diversions from the Gospel path?

It is common place in Fundamentalist Churches, who purportedly base their doctrines solely on the bible, to find completely and sole authority resting in one person. Why? Because the words which can be translated as ‘follow’ and ‘yield to’  are done so in the American context. The Scriptures, it is true, tells us to obey those who rule over you, and submit yourselves. But this command must not be seen and understood in our present day (warped) context. In our culture, obey, rule, submission, authority and control are strongly associated words but here, in Hebrews 13.17 which was written some 2000 years also, the word obey means to trust, have confidence in your leaders. And again, the word rule refers to a leader or person who has influence over others. Submit means to listen to, to allow yourself to be persuaded. Isn’t this the core of the ministry? We submit to God, but are influenced by the ministry.

When these three terms are together, there’s no sense of subjection (personal or “spiritual”) or of control, as in our cultural context. The sense is more of a shepherd than is implied by an authoritarian mentality. The role of the true, spiritual, leader is never to order or command, but instead to invite, persuade and influence.

Let us not be afraid to disagree with the ministry or hold the idea that somehow they control our heavenly fate, and undue the work of Christ.

This is a rather undetailed look at this issue – so, feel free to contribute. As a quick note, please do not let a referral to context lead you to believe that the Bible is untrustworthy. Nothing in Scripture chances – what was good then is good today. What the author mean then is what God intends today. We just have to make sure we are reading the author instead of ourselves.

Post By Joel Watts (10,109 Posts)

Joel L. Watts holds a Masters of Arts from United Theological Seminary with a focus in literary and rhetorical criticism of the New Testament. He is currently a Ph.D. student at the University of the Free State, analyzing Paul’s model of atonement in Galatians. He is the author of Mimetic Criticism of the Gospel of Mark: Introduction and Commentary (Wipf and Stock, 2013), a co-editor and contributor to From Fear to Faith: Stories of Hitting Spiritual Walls (Energion, 2013), and Praying in God's Theater, Meditations on the Book of Revelation (Wipf and Stock, 2014).

Website: → Unsettled Christianity

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9 thoughts on “Obey or Follow? Hebrews 13.17

  1. Good luck Joel, or really find blessings (as you will) obey and follow your own biblical conscience!  Here in reality, is the one, holy, catholic & apostolic CHURCH, always a confessing body to both Old & New Covenant!
    Fr. R.

  2. Joel,
    Yes, that is a caricature of both!  Ministry is both pastor-teacher, and never making one’s self another person’s conscience!  Only God and His word can do this in reality!  But it is always a spiritual or pneumatological truth, but within the balance of real Christian suffering. We must move beyond triumphalism!
    Fr. R.

  3. Other Translations of Matthew 23:9

    And call no man your father vpon the earth: for one is your father which is in heauen.
    – King James Version (1611)

    “Do not call {anyone} on earth your father; for One is your Father, He who is in heaven.
    – New American Standard Version (1995)

    And call no man your father on the earth: for one is your Father, `even’ he who is in heaven.
    – American Standard Version (1901)

    And give no man the name of father on earth: because one is your Father, who is in heaven.
    – Basic English Bible

    And give no man the name of father on earth: because one is your Father, who is in heaven.
    – Darby Bible

    And call none your father upon earth; for one is your father, who is in heaven.
    – Douay Rheims Bible

    Mt 23:9 Call no [man] your father upon earth. Another honorary title. The scribes delighted to be called “Abba”, “father”. So the priests of the Roman Catholic Church. So do all who welcome such honorary titles as Rev., Right Rev., Lord Bishop, etc. These are all forbidden. No apostle was ever so called.
    – People’s Bible

    And call no man your father upon the earth: for one is your Father who is in heaven.
    – Webster’s Bible

    And call no one on earth your Father, for One alone is your Father–the Heavenly Father.
    – Weymouth Bible

    Call no man on the earth your father, for one is your Father, he who is in heaven.
    – World English Bible

    And nyle ye clepe to you a fadir on erthe, for oon is your fadir, that is in heuenes.
    – Wycliffe Bible

    and ye may not call [any] your father on the earth, for one is your Father, who is in the heavens,
    – Youngs Literal Bible

  4. Fr. Robert, I have no problem in being under the submission to the Church leadership, but people have stated that one goes to hell if we disobey. Does that not make the Pastor the mediator and not Christ?

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