Scripture Revealed

A Revelation of Jesus Christ – Revelation 1:1

The Hebrews 13:17 Dilemma

Carl Heinrich Bloch's depiction of the Sermon on the Mount
Carl Heinrich Bloch’s depiction of the Sermon on the Mount


This is the second in a series on the subject of “Leadership, Authority and Submission”. The first article was entitled Jesus – The Chief Shepherd.  It discussed the often misapplication of 1 Samuel 15:22-23.

What do the scriptures have to say about the subjects of authority and submission? Well, Jesus had a lot to say about spiritual leadership. He said that leaders in the church should be servants. Christian leaders should not act as gentiles who “lord it over” people. A good example of this principle is found in Matthew chapter 20.



Matthew 20:25-28 (KJV) – “But Jesus called them unto him, and said, Ye know that the princes of the Gentiles exercise dominion over them, and they that are great exercise authority upon them. But it shall not be so among you: but whosoever will be great among you, let him be your minister; And whosoever will be chief among you, let him be your servant: Even as the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many.

Authority and Submission – Misapplied Scriptures

In my experience these are the Bible passages and issues regarding authority and submission that have been misunderstood and misused within the Christian church:

  • 1 Samuel 15:22-23
  • Hebrews 13:17
  • Romans Chapter 13
  • 1 Peter 5:5
  • Psalms 105:15
  • Shepherding Movement
  • Exodus 19:12

These passages are often taken out of context and misused. Misused in that there is no attempt to study the meaning of each scripture. There’s no attempt to look at the whole body of scripture that deals with the subject of authority and submission within the church. Concordances, commentaries and translations other than the King James Version (KJV) are never consulted or studied. Whether done out of ignorance or malice, the word of God is never rightly divided. Let’s take each passage and see what the scriptures reveal. Our first article discussed the true meaning of 1 Samuel 15:22-23.  This article will focus on Hebrews 13:17.

Does “Obey” mean “Obey”?

Hebrews 13:17 (KVJ) – “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.”

Hebrews 13:17 is often quoted as a half verse and incorrectly translated. It has been used by countless authoritarian church leaders in an attempt to put their congregations into subjection to their personal vision for how they feel that the church should operate. This is contrary to the clear teachings of the Scriptures. The dilemma rests in the fact that many Christians refuse to accept the Bible’s teaching against authoritarianism in the Church. Here are just a few of the Bible passages that stand against authoritarianism: Matthew 20:25-28, Mark 10:42-45, 1Peter 5:1-3, Matthew 6:24, Matthew 23:8-12, and 3 John 1:1-3.

How often have we heard this passage? “Obey” means obey, right? Well, let’s take a closer look. The Greek word for obey, as it appears in the text, is peithesthe. It is the second person, plural, imperative, middle voice form of “peitho“. However “peitho” doesn’t mean to “obey,” at least not in the strictest sense.

There are thirteen potential English equivalents for the Greek word “Peitho”. Many translators chose to translate “Peitho” simply as “obey”. This list was taken from both Vines’ and Strong’s concordances:

• Be convinced
• Give assent [agreement]
• To rely on (by inward certainty)
• Agree with
• Believe
• Have confidence in
• Become content with
• Make friends with
• Obey
• Be persuaded by
• Trust
• Yield to
• Be assured by

Now look at all the possibilities on this list. Yet the translators chose to translate “Peitho” into English as just “obey”. In doing so, the central theme and nuances of the true meaning in the Greek are totally lost. The essence of this important Greek word cannot possibly be conveyed in English by the single word “obey”.

When we study the context with the rest of this Scripture and with the other words properly translated, that “Peitho” simply means believing, trusting, obeying and accepting. The question is believing and accepting what? The answer from the context is this: believing, trusting, obeying and accepting God’s Word as accurately or faithfully presented by true elders.

It is assumed or implied that these are true not false elders. When the Bible mentions things in passing like the subject of elders, it is always assumed that these things are genuine and true. So we know the Bible is not allowing or endorsing false elders.

This word “Peitho” here does not in any way suggest or license blind obedience to a self-proclaimed dictator or groups of co-dictators. There is a similar translation problem with the words “rule”, etc. and God willing we will look at that another time.

Hebrews 13:17 is clearly not a license for men to dictate, rule, control, command, dominate, and otherwise exercise authority over others in the church. We know this first and foremost because Jesus and His Apostles told us that such things are forbidden! The obedience suggested in Hebrews 13:17 is not by submission to authority, but resulting from persuasion.  A true Pastor, elder or church leader is a servant-guide protector, not a dictatorial lording leader. A true elder should not model himself after a military commander or corporate executive. Rather a Christian leader is one who feeds and protects the sheep, not for his personal gain or to support his personal agenda.

Submit – To What?

What about the word “submit” in Hebrews 13:17? According to Vine’s and Strong’s concordances the English word “submit” is translated from the Greek word hupeiko. This word occurs only once in the Bible. It is here in Hebrews 13:17. Since it is already qualified by the requirement to “be persuaded” before you “submit”, this verse cannot be used to advocate blind obedience that is sometimes required by leaders. We are required to “submit” to those things that we can “be persuaded” are true according to the Word of God. There is a dangerous false teaching that says that even if we do not agree with church leaders we are to “submit” and somehow we will be blessed. This teaching is not backed up by the scriptures.

The obedience and submission required by Hebrews 13:17 is about instruction in the Word of God. It is about having the heart of a humble servant. It is about following a religious leader who is proclaiming truth and holiness. The submission required by Hebrews 13:17 is not an absolute submission without qualification. It is submission based on the will of God as revealed in His Word. Every Christian is responsible for studying to show themselves approved and to rightly divide the Word of truth.

The true intent of Hebrews 13:17 then is for the Christian to yield to the wisdom of the older, more matured, spiritual leaders. It is not a question of submitting to someone unconditionally who has “authority over you”. It is simply respecting another’s experience and wisdom. When a church leader is weak in the knowledge of the scriptures or has shown himself to be anything but spiritually minded, there will not be the respect for him. Congregations have “made” someone an “elder” or “Pastor” and then expected everyone to “submit” to his “authoritative position.” Hebrews 13:17 in no way supports the authoritative position.

Matthew Henry Commentary brings further light on this verse: “The duty – to obey them, and submit themselves to them. It is not an implicit obedience, or absolute submission, that is here required, but only so far as is agreeable to the mind and will of God revealed in his word; and yet it is truly obedience and submission, and that not only to God, but to the authority of the ministerial office, which is of God as certainly, in all things belonging to that office, as the authority of parents or of civil magistrates in the things within their sphere. Christians must submit to be instructed by their ministers, and not think themselves too wise, too good, or too great, to learn from them; and, when they find that ministerial instructions are agreeable to the written word, they must obey them.

Barnes Notes on the New Testament makes these comments: “They were to show them proper respect, and to submit to their authority in the church, so far as it was administered in accordance with the precepts of the Saviour. The obligation to obedience does not, of course, extend to anything which is wrong in itself, or which would be a violation of conscience.”

Let me also say that for your edification, you might want to do your own word study of Hebrews 13:17. Use a good Greek concordance such as Vine’s or Strong’s and specifically study the words “obey”, “rule”, “submit” and “authority”. Study the scriptures with a mind that is open to God’s truth. Look at the context of each passage keeping in mind that no Scripture conflicts with any other Scripture. Then you will undoubtedly be in for an eye-opening revelation. In this manner will allow the scriptures to be revealed to you.

This is the second in a series of articles on the subject of “Leadership, Authority and Submission” within the Church. The articles focus on the misuse of scriptures that relate to this subject. The first article was entitled Jesus – The Chief Shepherd. The next article will focus on the passages in Romans chapter 13.

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I’ve studied and taught the good news of Jesus Christ and His kingdom since 1985. My goal is to reveal the biblical truths I’ve come to see through prayer and study. I believe that the scriptures are revealed to those that study and rightly divide the "Word of Truth.”

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Cody Thomas
Cody Thomas
10 months ago

Hallelujah and Amen! Like him or no I think you might enjoy John Calvin on this verse. 12. But our Romanists, when, in defending their cause, they see all rational grounds slip from beneath them, betake themselves to a last miserable subterfuge. Although they should be dull in intellect and counsel, and most depraved in heart and will, still the word of the Lord remains, which commands us to obey those who have the rule over us (Heb. 13:17). Is it indeed so? What if I should deny that those who act thus have the rule over us? They ought… Read more »

Reply to  Cody Thomas
9 months ago

Excellent points! I like what you quoted “But if the doctrine of all pastors is to be received without hesitation, why are we so often and so anxiously admonished by the Lord not to give heed to false prophets? “ We are ultimately responsible for our own salvation. We have to study to show ourselves approved. I wrote the articles on this website because I was on the receiving end of spiritual abuse. If any minister speaks we are to carefully weight what is said. We must “be persuaded” – blind obedience is NOT required! God Bless you my friend.

3 years ago

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