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Tuesday, 8 May 2018

Obey Your Leaders and Defer to Them (Hebrews 13:17)

1. The Meaning of Hebrews 13:17
2. Obedience and Submission in Congregationally Governed Communities
3. The Challenge of Submitting While Disagreeing
 3.1. Domestic Obedience and Submission
 3.2. Obedience to Secular Laws
 3.3. Professional Obedience and Submission
 3.4. Obedience and Submission in the Military
4. Conditions and Exceptions
5. The Compatibility of Servant Leadership and Hierarchy
6. Conclusion

In this article I want to consider the meaning and implications of a command found near the close of the letter to the Hebrews, one that runs contrary to modern Western cultural values, not to mention the practices of many modern Christian communities:
Obey your leaders and defer to them, for they keep watch over you and will have to give an account, that they may fulfill their task with joy and not with sorrow, for that would be of no advantage to you. (Heb. 13:17 NABRE)

First, let us consider the basic lexical and contextual meaning of the first clause. "Your leaders" translates tois hēgoumenois humōn, a participial phrase that might be literally translated, "the ones ruling you." In Matt. 2:6 this participle is used of Jesus' future status as "ruler" of Israel (in a paraphrase of Mic. 5:2). The term ho hēgoumenos is juxtaposed with ho diakonōn, "the servant," in Luke 22:26, where Jesus gives the paradoxical teaching that in his community, the leader is to be as the servant (a principle to which we will return). In Acts 7:10 it describes the office to which Pharaoh appointed Joseph, "ruler over Egypt"—an office that struck fear into the hearts of Joseph's brothers. It is similarly used of political leaders and military commanders in several Septuagint passages (Gen. 49:10; Deut. 5:23; 1 Macc. 9:30; Jer. 28:28; Mal. 1:8). The first-century Christian letter 1 Clement uses the term frequently, usually of secular political and military leaders (1 Clem. 5.7; 32.2; 37.2-3; 51.5; 55.1; 60.4), but also of Christian leaders (1 Clem. 1.3). The underlying verb, hēgeomai, is the etymological source of our English word "hegemony." To summarise, the term has the sense of "rulers," "leaders," i.e. persons in positions of authority (not merely persons who happen to be prominent or respected). In Hebrews 13:17 it obviously refers to church leaders, not secular political leaders. This is evident not only from their designation as "your leaders," but from the following clauses about keeping watch over you, giving an account and fulfilling their task with joy. If that were not enough, "your leaders" are mentioned twice elsewhere in this chapter: "your leaders who spoke the word of God to you" (v. 7) and "Greetings to all your leaders" (v. 24). That the leaders "will have to give an account" of their leadership (i.e. to God; cf. Heb. 4:13) implies that they were appointed to their positions not merely by men but by God (cf. Acts 20:28).

What of the two verbs in the first clause? They are both in the imperative mood: they express commands, not suggestions or proposals. The first verb is peithō. When in the middle voice and followed by a dative of person or thing, it means "obey, follow."1 The same verb is used elsewhere of obeying the Jewish law (4 Macc. 18.1) and of putting bits in horses' mouths "to make them obey us" (James 3:3). The second-century Christian homily 2 Clement depicts unbelievers as lamenting at the Lord's appearing, "Woe to us...we did not obey the elders when they spoke to us about our salvation" (17.5). The second verb, hupeikō, is rarer but more specific. It means "primarily 'withdraw, give way to', then by figurative extension to yield to someone's authority, yield, give way, submit".2 In the whole Bible the word occurs only in Heb. 13:17, though it does occur in 4 Macc. 6.35.3

To summarise, then, the first clause of Heb. 13:17 means just what it appears to mean in most English translations. It presupposes that there are leaders in the church, that is, persons in positions of authority, and it commands believers to obey these leaders and yield or submit to them. The second part of the verse suggests that this is not necessarily an easy, conflict-free process. It reminds the hearers that it is not in their interest to cause their leaders to fulfill their responsibilities with sorrow (i.e., by disobedience and insubordination).4

The meaning of Hebrews 13:17a is straightforward enough. This does not mean it is easy to practice. In modern Western society (including Christian communities), submission to personal authority figures is not a particularly popular idea. Our culture is deeply suspicious of authority and positions of authority, while freedom, defined as personal autonomy, is one of its foremost values. Coming to Christian communities, in congregationally governed Protestant denominations and sects—of which there are many—there are no positions of authority per se. There may be an elected leadership of sorts (clerical or lay), but these "leaders" are compelled to obey and yield to the congregation, rather than the other way around. The direction of accountability is reversed.

Furthermore, any notion of "obedience" of or "submission" to leaders in these congregational settings carries an implicit qualification: I will obey and submit to the pastor, elders, executive committee, etc., provided that their decisions agree with my interpretation of the Bible. If I deem their teachings or instructions theologically incorrect, I may disobey and reject them, even if this means my leaving the congregation and joining another or starting my own. This option, however, takes the teeth out of the commandment in Hebrews 13:17. If I only need to obey leaders when their orders agree with my judgment, I am finally obeying only myself. If I only need to submit to leaders when they are agreeable to me, I am finally submitting only to myself.

By contrast, the commandment of Hebrews 13:17 to obey and yield to leaders is fully realized in the Catholic model. Here, the leaders of the Church—presbyters (priests), bishops, pope—are appointed and ordained in a process believed to be led by the Holy Spirit (cf. again Acts 20:28). There are clear lines of accountability, and the congregation must obey and submit to their leaders. They cannot vote them out of office, nor can they leave and join/start another "church" since to do so would be to abandon the doctrine of one catholic Church.

What the congregational model is missing, I suggest, is the most challenging but most vital aspect of obedience and submission: obeying people and submitting to rules with which you disagree.

It is easy enough to obey rules or submit to persons when we like them and agree with them. When we dislike them and disagree with them, not so much. However, this is precisely when rules and authority figures are most important for maintaining order and discipline. A few secular examples will illustrate the point.

The commandment for wives to submit to husbands, though clearly taught in the Bible (Eph. 5:22-24; Col. 3:18; 1 Pet. 3:1-6), is also strongly counter-cultural in contemporary Western society, and provides a good parallel to ecclesiastical subordination, not least because Paul explicitly equates a wife's submission to her husband to ecclesiastical submission (the Church's submission to Christ). It is not that the husband necessarily knows better than the wife, but that the hierarchy allows for the preservation of order and a way forward in the (hopefully rare) cases of deadlock where consensus cannot be reached. In the same way, it is not necessarily the case that the bishop knows better than the presbyter, or the presbyter than the parishioner (though this usually will be the case, given that God has called these leaders to their positions). Rather, the hierarchical order prevents an acrimonious deadlock in cases where two parties disagree in the Church.

Less controversial, one hopes, is the commandment for children to obey their parents (Eph. 6:1-3; Col. 3:19; cf. Rom. 1:30). Surely all of us, while children, had experiences where our parents made a ruling that we found objectionable. Perhaps they ordered us not to go to that party, not to wear that outfit, to tidy up our bedroom, to turn off the TV and do homework, to go to bed, etc. Many of these rulings seemed unfair or at least unnecessary at the time. However, I think most of us adults would agree, with the benefit of hindsight and maturity, that obeying them was right and wise.

In modern democracies one does not often encounter a requirement to obey or submit to authoritative persons in executive government. We are free to verbally attack heads of state (though, in keeping with passages such as Rom. 13:1-7, Tit. 3:1 and 1 Pet. 2:13-17, Christians should exercise restraint in this respect). However, we must obey secular laws. This entails avoiding criminal acts, but also paying taxes, even when we believe the tax regulations are unfair or that the government is wasteful in its use of the public purse.

Nearly all companies and employers have a hierarchical structure ("organogram"), and subordination of employees to their superiors is a basic requirement of employee codes of conduct. This has an analogy in the biblical requirement that slaves obey their masters as they would Christ (Eph. 6:5-6; Col. 3:22; 1 Tim. 6:1-2; Tit. 2:9; 1 Pet. 2:18). Notably, 1 Peter is explicit that the requirement extends even to bad masters. While the authority of bosses over their employees is of course less extensive than that of masters over slaves, the underlying principle still applies. A company could not operate effectively if employees were free to decline tasks or flout instructions from their superiors or treat them with contempt.

The military is a setting where obedience of orders and subordination to superiors is of paramount importance. If each soldier follows his or her own operational plan contrary to orders received, chaos will ensue. This is why discipline and respect for rank are central to military training. In wartime, gross insubordination could put many lives at risk and can incur serious punishments. It is not without relevance that the Pauline epistles repeatedly use military metaphors for the Christian life (2 Cor. 10:3-6; Eph. 6:10-17; Phil. 2:25; 1 Tim. 1:18; 2 Tim. 2:3-4; Phlm. 2).

All of the above examples illustrate that wherever obedience and subordination are required, they involve yielding one's own opinions and wishes to the dictates of a superior authority—precisely what Hebrews 13:17 requires Christians to do in relation to church leaders. However, do these examples not also illustrate that the requirements of obedience and subordination are not absolute, but tied to certain conditions? I heard recently of a couple who made their child an accomplice in their house burglaries: they would help the child climb through a window, and the child would then unlock the front door for them. Obviously, when parents abuse their authority by ordering their children to do illegal, immoral things, children are not required to obey. Similarly, the Scriptures themselves imply that people are not required to obey governmental authorities when their orders defy God's law (Acts 4:19). Likewise, in professional settings or the military, the requirement of subordination is subject to the policies of the company or military as well as the law of the land.

The important observation here is that these conditions on obedience and subordination, and the consequent existence of exceptions where obedience and subordination are not required, do not mean that obedience and subordination reduce to "obey and submit when you agree". We must distinguish between the dictates of conscience (which Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman called "the aboriginal vicar of Christ") and the shifting currents of private opinion. It would be foolhardy to suggest that, because parents could (and on occasion do) order their children to do immoral things, therefore children need not obey their parents unless their private judgment finds the parental ruling agreeable. Rather, disobedience of authority is justified (indeed, imperative) when and only when the authority is in clear violation of laws and principles to which the authority itself is subject. In the case of the Catholic Church, these laws and principles are the doctrinal and moral teachings of the Church (as laid out, for instance, in the Catechism of the Catholic Church), and Canon Law. Moreover, just as in secular cases one can appeal to the courts for justice when oppressed by an unjust authority, so in the Church one can appeal to ecclesiastical courts.

These conditions and corresponding exceptions to the requirement to obey Church leaders are very important. The clerical sex abuse scandal that has come to light in the past two decades provide a particularly glaring example of their importance in the Catholic Church. However, many instances of insubordination to ecclesiastical authority are due, not to conscientious exposure of exploitation of that authority, but a fundamental attitude of suspicion of authority and lust for power on the part of subordinates. This spirit of insubordination is frequently condemned in the Bible. Notable episodes include Korah's rebellion (Numbers 16), Absalom's insurrection (2 Samuel 15-18), and the rejection of the Messiah by the leaders of Israel; see also the remark of the rebellious citizens in the parable of the minas: "We do not want this man to reign over us" (Luke 19:14).

This article has dealt primarily with subordinates' obligations to leaders in the Church, not with leaders' obligations to their subordinates. On the latter, the teaching and example of Jesus are of paramount importance:
He said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them and those in authority over them are addressed as ‘Benefactors’; 26 but among you it shall not be so. Rather, let the greatest among you be as the youngest, and the leader as the servant. 27 For who is greater: the one seated at table or the one who serves? Is it not the one seated at table? I am among you as the one who serves. (Luke 22:25-27 NABRE)
13 You call me ‘teacher’ and ‘master,’ and rightly so, for indeed I am. 14 If I, therefore, the master and teacher, have washed your feet, you ought to wash one another’s feet. 15 I have given you a model to follow, so that as I have done for you, you should also do. 16 Amen, amen, I say to you, no slave is greater than his master nor any messenger greater than the one who sent him. (John 13:13-16 NABRE)
Jesus emphasises here the paradox of humble servant leadership: that leaders' purpose is fundamentally to serve their people sacrificially, not to exploit them. Of course, Jesus' greatest exemplification of this teaching was not washing the disciples' feet but dying for their sins. No one would claim, however, that by serving his disciples Jesus was abdicating his leadership role, or excusing the disciples from their obligation to follow his commandments. Just as a husband's obligation to love his wife sacrificially is compatible with a wife's obligation to submit to her husband (Eph. 5:24-25), so a Christian shepherd's obligation to love his flock sacrificially is compatible with the flock's obligation to obey the shepherd. I emphasise this final point because of a recent discussion on Facebook in which my interlocutor appeared to view servant leadership and hierarchical order as mutually exclusive options.

The commandment to "Obey your leaders and defer to them" (Heb. 13:17) requires Christians to yield to the Spirit-guided discretion of divinely-appointed church leaders, even when the judgment of the leader runs contrary to one's own opinion. The only exception is when the leader's orders violate God's laws (as interpreted by the Church, rather than privately by one of the parties involved). This is in line with what is expected of subordinates in secular settings (e.g., domestic, professional and military). As in secular settings, obedience and subordination are crucial to maintaining the unity and effective operation of the corporate entity. The abandonment of ecclesiastical hierarchy, and consequently the abandonment of the teaching of Hebrews 13:17, is undoubtedly a contributing factor to the division and fragmentation that has often characterised Christian communities that have adopted a congregational form of government. Ultimately, of course, our obedience and submission is due to the invisible God. However, if we are accustomed to filtering this requirement through our own private judgment, and not accustomed to personal subordination to visible ecclesiastical leaders (whom Scripture says God appoints), it is entirely possible that I am submitting not to God but to a false subjective picture of God. The bottom line, to repeat an earlier point, is that if I obey and submit to ecclesiastical authorities only when their rulings align with my personal opinions, I am not actually obeying or submitting. If we are suspicious of human nature—in agreement with divine testimony about its sinfulness—let us be more suspicious of ourselves than of the leaders of God's Church.


  • 1 so BDAG 792. They note that when the term occurs in the passive or middle voice without an object, it means "be persuaded, believe," and that in some passages "permit either translation, with dative be persuaded by someone, take someone's advice or obey, follow someone". However, they place Heb. 13:17 in the unambiguous category corresponding to "obey, follow."
  • 2 BDAG 1030.
  • 3 "I have shown not only that reason has overcome agonies but also that it overcomes pleasures and in no respect yields to them" (NETS).
  • 4 For examples of such sorrowful leadership, see 2 Cor. 2:1-4; Phil. 3:17-18.

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