Obedience: Hebrews 13:17

by Lois E. Gibson

"Obey them that 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." Hebrews 13:17 (KJV)

Not too long ago, a person wrote me asking my thoughts on Hebrews 13:17 about obeying leadership. This person felt the original language meant exactly how it reads in the King James Version.

When considering any passage in the Bible, it always needs to be compared with similar teachings and with any possible examples shown. This verse is often misused by those in leadership who want to control members of the congregation in matters which are personal or to force their interpretation of what constitutes Christian conduct. There are some in church who feel they must adhere to extra-biblical lists of dos and don'ts simply because the leadership said to follow these, though they themselves do not find them to be biblical.

For instance, I don't know if you are familiar with the ICC (International Churches of Christ), but they have been an extremely controlling church. When a person joins, a discipler is placed over them whether or not they already come from a Christian background. The member has to run decisions by their discipler and are supposed to be obedient to whatever they are told. If they disagree with the discipler's decision, it is made to appear there is something spiritually wrong with the member. Even wanting to eat a meal can be twisted into a sinful act.

I have had the opportunity to speak with a few ex-members of this group and never want to be involved! But leadership twists verses such as Hebrews 13:17 to make people do what they want. Then people are kept in the group through fear and a distorted vision of the Bible and God as well as their relationship with leadership.

Jesus taught that Christians would not be like those who 'lorded' over others. If you wanted to be a great leader, you had to become as a servant to others. That should be the heart and attitude of leadership in the church. They are to lead and guide and help those in the congregation to grow and develop their individual ministries/gifts. They are not to be a dictator, nor are they to demand things which are not biblically mandated, or become involved in all aspects of a believer's life. (There will be another article expanding on the subject of leadership.)

This same word that was translated 'obey' in Hebrews 13:17 was also translated agree, assure, believe, have confidence, be confident, make friend, persuade, trust & yield. It means to convince, by anal. to pacify or conciliate, to assent, or to rely. (Strong's Concordance) I believe it means to be teachable. As leadership teaches things concerning scripture, you should listen and be persuaded to follow, IF what they teach is found in God's Word. Vine's Expository Dictionary of Biblical Words says "to persuade, to win over" or "to be persuaded, to listen to, to obey." It goes on to state, "The 'obedience' suggested is not by submission to authority, but resulting from persuasion."

It is also helpful to look up other words that were translated 'obey' and compare it with Hebrews 13:17.

"And being made perfect, he became the author of eternal salvation unto all them that obey him;" Hebrews 5:9 (KJV)

In Hebrews 5:9, the word translated 'obey' means to hear under, i.e. to listen attentively; by impl. to heed or conform to a command or authority. (Strong's Concordance)Note the difference between this form of the word 'obey' and Hebrews 13:17. This means obedience to Jesus Christ. He said that if we love him, we will keep his commandments. The verse expresses the need to conform to what Jesus commands. In contrast, Hebrews 13:17 means to be persuadable and teachable by the leadership in your church. It is not a call to follow anything and everything someone in leadership might want you to do!

The word 'rule' in Hebrews 13:17 means "to lead" or guide. This can be contrasted with several verses in Revelation with regard to the Lord where it means "to tend as a shepherd," or in Mark where in reference to 'lording' over others it means "to be first (in political rank or power)."(Strong's Concordance)

There is also a false interpretation of the portion of this verse which refers to giving an account. There are those who erroneously teach this to mean that the leaderhip is going to have to go before God and state everything about you, whether you listened or not, whether you did everything they asked. This is not correct! For instance, in church a person could appear to be lining up with everything the leadership required....but where no one else from church sees, they do not. This leader would then appear before God with the good report that so and so was a worthy member of their congregation! It is also preposterous to teach that if someone doesn't obey your every desire that the leadership will have to stand before God and tell the Lord each and every one of these transgressions!

This is not what the Bible teaches! Quite the contrary, it is explained that each of us must give account of ourselves to God. The leadership from your church is not going to be standing next to you when you must appear before the Lord.

"For it is written, As I live, saith the Lord, every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue shall confess to God. So then every one of us shall give account of himself to God." Romans 14:11-12 (KJV)

"But I say unto you, That every idle word that men shall speak, they shall give account thereof in the day of judgment." Matthew 12:36 (KJV)

What this is saying is that anyone in leadership is also going to have to give account to God not only for themselves personally, but also as to how their ministry was conducted. They are accountable to God for how they kept watch over those in their care.

When you consider all this, the scripture is not stating that a believer is to do anything a leader in the church tells him/her to do. None of the apostles, nor Jesus, ever taught this. It means we are to be teachable, to be persuadable concerning the things of God and the truth of his Word. A leader is not a commander, or a 'lord,' but is to be a servant according to Jesus's words.

I believe this verse has a good example in the Bereans, who Luke wrote were more noble than those in Thessalonica. They received the word that Paul taught- they were ready and eager- but then went and searched the scriptures to see if what Paul taught was true. They were teachable- they were persuadable of the things of God.

It is difficult when we attend a church or group that uses Bible verses but gives them a different meaning or slant than what was intended. You hear it over and over so much that you believe it and act accordingly. It is therefore hard to see past what you were taught to the truth of what the scripture is actually teaching. This is like the Pharisees and the Sabbath. They reinterpreted what God set out to do with the Sabbath and added additional rules to 'help' believers follow what God had ordained. That is why they were furious when Jesus would heal on a Sabbath day (Have you ever noticed just how many healings were done on the Sabbath by him?). It broke THEIR interpretation of the Sabbath, but not God's.

I still pick up my Bible and realize that I had been understanding a scripture wrong- because I would only view it in the light of what I had been taught by my former pastor. Because of this, I could not see the real meaning. This is a hard thing from which to break, but the Spirit will lead and guide you.

You may write Lois at the email address displayed in the image. No correspondence that seeks to debate will be answered as I have no desire to debate. Understand that due to the volume of mail, not every email may be acknowledged.
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Copyright 2000

Posted June 3, 2000

In His Image


August 23, 1997
Copyright © 1997-2012 by Lois E. Gibson
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