Sunday, January 1, 2017

Obey your leaders and submit to them (Hebrews 13:17): Caution!

Beware when someone quotes Hebrews 13:17 and says that it means the eldership should manage everything in the church. Below I will suggest some reasons someone may teach Hebrews 13:17 this way; but first I must present what I believe to be a proper understanding of what this verse really means (as best I can exegete it).
Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls and will give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with sighing—for that would be harmful to you.
In the near context of this verse is Hebrews 13:7 which says, "Remember your leaders, those who spoke the word of God to you; consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith."

The rhetoric says that the leaders in verse 7 are teachers but the leaders in verse 17 are elders. Why? because we are supposed to obey them and submit to them. This rationale usually carries the day because most of us have in our minds that the church elders are church rulers. Surely the Hebrews author does not mean that we are to obey anyone in the church that steps up to the leadership plate! So what humans in the church are we supposed to obey? Well, we suppose, they must be the elders.

Many scholars are on the side of these leaders in verse 17 being elders; so I must confess to feeling a little bit alone out here as I dispute the connection.

But let's look at the train of thought from verses 7 to 17. I believe the flow of thought is smooth.

In verse 7 the ones who originally taught the members of this church (or churches) should be an example for the members.  Their way of life was an example. (I say "was" because it appears from this reading that many in this group of teachers have died). Did the Hebrews author mean that some specific feature of these teachers' faith should be followed? Yes. Skipping verse 8 for a second,
Do not be carried away by all kinds of strange teachings; for it is well for the heart to be strengthened by grace, not by regulations about food, which have not benefited those who observe them. (Hebrews 13:9)
The writer wants his readers to imitate their teachers' steadfastness. They believed what they believed because they had good reason to believe it. They were not easily moved by new teaching. Just because it is new and cool does not make in right (or wrong, for that matter). The preaching must be persuasive and it must be consistent with what they learned directly from the apostles or from teachers who heard the doctrine directly from the apostles. According to verse 9, this particular threatening teaching promoted the observance of the Jewish kosher regulations. If they teach observance of Mosaic regulations at the expense of the grace of Christ, it is a strange teaching in the context of the church. Thus, verse 8:
Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.
If the Mosaic regulations were set aside by grace, there is no reason to restore them.

The next several verses explain retrospectively (because they are discussed in detail earlier in the book of Hebrews) how much superior was the Lord's sacrifice to those that the Levitical priests offered.
10 We have an altar from which those who officiate in the tent have no right to eat. 11 For the bodies of those animals whose blood is brought into the sanctuary by the high priest as a sacrifice for sin are burned outside the camp. 12 Therefore Jesus also suffered outside the city gate in order to sanctify the people by his own blood. 13 Let us then go to him outside the camp and bear the abuse he endured.
There is a lot to be studied in the above several verses. Suffice it here to note that the Hebrews author is worried that the church is following the teaching of preachers who want the church to observe the temple sacrifices at the expense of the grace of Christ, and at the expense of the teaching of the church leaders.

The city of Jerusalem is not core to salvation:
For here we have no lasting city, but we are looking for the city that is to come. (Hebrews 13:14)
Sacrifice is no longer temple-based; but it is praise based.
Through him, then, let us continually offer a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that confess his name. (Hebrews 13:15)
Sharing with others who are in need is a Christian sacrifice.
Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God. (Hebrews 13:16)
That is, we have sacrifices that are no longer Law based. They are Christ based.

Now comes our verse.
Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls and will give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with sighing—for that would be harmful to you. (Hebrews 13:17)
If this verse is suddenly talking about the eldership, it does not follow what came before. Not obeying the elders does not in any obvious way nullify the sacrifice of Christ. It does not put the readers at risk of re-adopting the Law of Moses. If the leaders are teachers who are teaching against the strange doctrines, then the verse makes sense. The leaders may not be the exact people in who are mentioned in verse 7; but they have the same role. They teach. They were very worried about the church because some were swallowing up the strange teachings of preachers who advocated a return to the Law of Moses. Certainly, the temple-centric regulations had more pizazz. I recall a playground discussion I was a part of when I was in third grade. We were talking about our various church homes. One kid said, "My church is the best because we have candles." That kind of misplaced focus seems to be the trouble with the original readers of the book of Hebrews. They were attracted to the ceremonial at the expense of the grace of Christ.

But what about this word "obey?" I am no Greek scholar so I have to rely on the language helps. "Obey" looks like a bad English translation. Here is the Strong's definition:
To convince (by argument, true or false); by analogy, to pacify or conciliate (by other fair means); reflexively or passively, to assent (to evidence or authority), to rely (by inward certainty): ― agree, assure, believe, have confidence, be (wax) conflent [sic?], make friend, obey, persuade, trust, yield. (Strong's Dictionary, OliveTree Bible Software)
Note that "obey" is one way this word can be translated; but it is a kind of obedience that has to do with being persuaded. It appears that the better way to translate the single Greek word is something like, "Permit yourselves to be persuaded." The meaning behind the NRSV's "Obey your leaders and submit them" is "Respect and comply with your leaders." The fact that these people are leaders because they teach lends the meaning, "Listen to your home-boy teachers and follow their teaching." The implication is that their leaders were teaching their hearts out and they were worried sick about the spiritual health of the members of the church.

In summary, the verse does not teach that the leaders are in any way church managers. They teach. The church membership is encouraged to obey and submit to their teaching. The lesson for us is to listen to our leaders and weigh what they teach against the Bible. If it is sound teaching, submit to it.

This "obey" understanding is supported by a few English translations of the Bible. Here is the Common English Bible.
Rely on your leaders and defer to them, because they watch over your whole being as people who are going to be held responsible for you. They need to be able to do this with pleasure and not with complaints about you, because that wouldn’t help you.
Here is the Bible in Basic English.
Give ear to those who are rulers over you, and do as they say: for they keep watch over your souls, ready to give an account of them; let them be able to do this with joy and not with grief, because that would be of no profit to you.
Here is New International Version 2011:
Have confidence in your leaders and submit to their authority, because they keep watch over you as those who must give an account. Do this so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no benefit to you.
So, why do so many translations render the Greek as "obey?" The "obey" translation may result from occasional difficulties translating committees have agreeing with one another. If they argue and argue and come to no agreement, quite often they just go with a traditional reading. In this case, they would be following the King James Version.

There may be another reason that involves economics. Bible translation owners want to sell Bibles. This verse is regularly invoked by preachers who call themselves "pastor" to show that the pastor is a manager. It is not so frequently invoked in the churches of Christ that way. When it is, it is usually by a preacher who wants to show that the elders are church managers. In other words, the managerial authority of the eldership is much more expansive than laboring in teaching and spiritually guiding. What are the actual responsibilities of elders is a topic for another article.

From what I have witnessed in my years of being a member of churches governed by elders, invoking this verse and over-applying the meaning of "obey" is done by preachers. I suggest caution. When a preacher reads Hebrews 13:17 and tells the elders, basically, that they manage everything in the church, the preacher thinks the eldership can be manipulated. It is rarely a good thing that a preacher will tell the elders such a thing. If you are an elder and your preacher misapplies this verse to magnify your authority in the church, it is not a compliment. He is not on your side.

Do you see the little circular rationale with the traditional modern teaching from this verse? It goes like this: Hebrews 13:17 is talking about elders because we are supposed to obey and submit to them. Therefore, we are supposed to obey and submit to the elders in every aspect of church life.

It is not about the body of elders, although there may be some elders in the group of teaching leaders indicated by this verse. It is also not about strict obedience. It is about obedience with respect to the things the leaders teach.

There are many pastors and preachers invested in the "obey" reading of this verse and I think that is why most mainline English translations say "obey" in Hebrews 13:17. It gives pastors and preachers Scriptural authority to exert undue control over the church membership. Bible translation owners want to sell Bibles.

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