Response to the House-Church Movement – Part Six
Written by Keith Throop
What is the proper understanding of Hebrews 13:17?
In a previous post responding to the House-Church Movement (HCM), I addressed the tendency among many of its adherents to either downplay the notion of elder authority or, in some cases, to completely deny it as a Biblical idea. In that post I sought to demonstrate the Scriptural case for elder authority, but many of you may have noticed that I did not treat one particular passage that has often been understood to clearly assert this concept. This passage is Hebrews 13:17 which – at least as it is commonly translated – would appear to give HCM advocates some trouble. Here is the way this verse is rendered in a number of the best translations available:
1) Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB): “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they keep watch over your souls as those who will give an account, so that they can do this with joy and not with grief, for that would be unprofitable for you.”
2) English Standard Version (ESV): “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.”
3) King James Version (KJV): “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.”
4) New American Standard Bible (NASB): “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they keep watch over your souls as those who will give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with grief, for this would be unprofitable for you.”
5) New English Translation (NET): “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they keep watch over your souls and will give an account for their work. Let them do this with joy and not with complaints, for this would be no advantage for you.”
6) New International Version (NIV): “Obey your leaders and submit to their authority. They keep watch over you as men who must give an account. Obey them so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no advantage to you.”
7) New King James Version (NKJV): “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.” (Bold emphasis mine.)
These translations are indicative of the scholarly consensus about the meaning of the Greek words translated obey (peíthō) and submit/be submissive (hupeíkō) in this verse. The scholars responsible for each of these translations clearly think that these words carry these meanings in this particular context, which has to do with the proper response to leaders in the churches. But this is problematic for HCM advocates because words such as obey and submit imply an authority possessed by the one obeyed or submitted to. So how is this verse treated by the HCM advocates to which I have been responding? Let’s take another look at the writings of Steve Atkerson, who seems to be representative of the kind of arguments I have been hearing from HCM advocates. I will cite and respond to portions from two of his articles. Unless otherwise stated, all Scripture references by me are from the New King James Version.
Steve Atkerson’s Treatment of Hebrews 13:17
In an article entitled New Testament Church Leadership, Atkerson says the following:
Based on such texts as Acts 20:25-31, Titus 1:9, Ephesians 4:11-13, 1 Timothy 1:3, 3:4-5, 5:17, 6:20, 2 Timothy 1:13-14, 2:2, 15, 3:16-17, 4:2-4, Titus 1:9, 13, 2:15 and Hebrews 13:17, the function that leaders are to serve in the church becomes clear. Leaders are to guard and protect against false teachers, train other leaders in apostolic tradition, lead by example, guard the truth, beat off wolves, and help achieve consensus. To sum up, church leaders are men of mature character who oversee, teach, protect, equip, and encourage the church. Further, every now and then they will need to call on the obstinate to “submit” (Heb 13:17 ) to their leadership. (Italics mine.)
A similar sentiment to that contained in the last sentence may be found in an article entitled Consensus Governing, in which Atkerson asserts the following:
All elders are senator-servants to the whole senate (church). However, the senate will occasionally find itself in grid-lock, unable to resolve an issue. In such cases, the elders serve as predetermined arbitrators, or tie breakers, and in such unusual instances those in opposition are to “submit” to the elder’s leadership and wisdom (see Hebrews 13:17). (Italics mine.)
Aside from the questionable analogy with the U.S. Senate, several questions immediately come to mind. For example, where does the author of Hebrews say that believers are to submit to their leaders only “now and then”? And where does he say that only the “obstinate” are to submit? And does he really intend that believers submit to their leaders only in “unusual instances”? Such notions are nowhere to be found either in this verse or in the context. As a matter of fact, the author of Hebrews is addressing the entire group in the context, not just those who might be considered “obstinate.” In addition, in the Greek text both the command to obey and the command to submit are in the present tense, indicating an ongoing rather than an occasional submission. So, the author has in mind the way that leaders should consistently be treated by everyone in the body, not just what must be demanded in more extreme circumstances or “unusual instances.” Atkerson has clearly read into the text notions that are not there. However, he does attempt to deal with the meaning of the Greek terms later in the same article:
In Hebrews 13:17, believers are encouraged to “obey” church leaders. Interestingly, the Greek behind “obey” is not the regular Greek word for “obey.” Instead, peitho is used, which literally means “to persuade” or “to convince.” Thus, Hebrews 13:17 should be rendered “let yourselves be persuaded by.” This same verse also instructs believers to “submit” to the authority of their church leaders. As with “obey,” the common Greek word for “submit” is not used. Instead, hupeiko was chosen by the author, a word that still does mean “to give in, to yield”, but after a fight. It was used of combatants. The idea behind hupeiko is seen in Southern General Robert E. Lee’s letter to his troops concerning their surrender at Appomadox: “After four years of arduous service, marked by unsurpassed courage and fortitude, the Army of Northern Virginia has been compelled to yield to overwhelming numbers and resources.”
Although he has not cited any particular lexical source in support of the meanings he gives for either peíthō or hupeíkō, I assume he has consulted some such source. At any rate, it is clear that Atkerson has once again engaged in his habit of being selective and misleading in his use of such information. (For other instances see Part Two and Part Five of this series).
The Meaning of Peíthō
With regard to the meaning of the Greek word peíthō, Atkerson says that it “literally means ‘to persuade’ or ‘to convince,’” and he is correct. The word is often used with such a meaning. But this is not the only meaning the word may have. I have already cited above multiple translations that demonstrate this fact with respect to Hebrews 13:17. But here I would like to include definitions from several of the more notable lexical works. I will cite enough of the lexical definition in each case so that the range of meaning will be apparent:
(1) active (except for second perfect and pluperfect); (a) convince, persuade (AC 18.4); (b) in a bad sense seduce (by persuasion), mislead, coax (MT 27.20); (c) in a milder sense win over, strive to please (possibly with bribes or promises) (AC 12.20); (d) as allaying fears assure, conciliate (MT 28.14; 1J 3.19); (2) second perfect and pluperfect with the present meaning; (a) strictly have become convinced; hence trust (firmly) in, rely on, be confident about (MT 27.43); (b) as an evaluative orienter for indirect statements be convinced or persuaded, be sure or confident that (RO 2.19; 2C 2.3); (3) passive (except perfect); (a) be convinced or persuaded, believe (LU 16.31); (b) as an evaluative orienter believe (that) (HE 13.18); (c) obey, follow, with the dative of person or thing (HE 13.17); (d) perfect passive be convinced or certain of something (LU 20.6). (Analytical Lexicon to the Greek New Testament, by Timothy and Barbara Friberg, BibleWorks #21220)
1. Active; a. to persuade, i. e. to induce one by words to believe…. 2. Passive and middle (cf. Winer’s Grammar, 253 (238)); a. to be persuaded, to suffer oneself to be persuaded; to be induced to believe… b. to listen to, obey, yield to, comply with…. [Heb. 13:17 is listed here.] (Thayer’s Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, by Joseph Thayer, BibleWorks # 4114)
3. pass. and mid., except for the pf.: to be won over as the result of persuasion…. a. be persuaded, believe…. b. obey, follow [Heb. 13:17 is listed here.]… c. Some passages stand betw. a and b and permit either transl., w. dat. be persuaded by someone, take someone’s advice or obey, follow someone. (Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, Third Edition, by Bauer, Arndt, Gingrich, and Danker, BibleWorks #5754)
All three of these lexicons do indeed give the meaning of persuade or convince for peíthō. But if Atkerson made an attempt to consult even the standard lexicons that he has elsewhere cited (such as Thayer and Bauer), he apparently didn’t read them closely enough, because both of these lexicons say that, when used in the passive voice, peíthō can mean obey. In fact, all three of the lexicons I have cited specifically list Hebrew 13:17 as having this meaning.
But why do the various translations and lexicons cited above all understand peíthō this way in the verse under discussion? Why do they use an English word that implies an authority relationship? This is no doubt due to to the fact that, not only is peíthō used in the passive voice here, but the response called for is also in relation to the leaders of the church. The Greek word referring to the church’s leaders is hēgéomai, which is actually a participle here, the plural form of which is employed as a substantive by the author to refer to “those who rule over you.” And, as I pointed out in an earlier post (Part Four of this series), this word clearly carries connotations of authority.
But there is another possible reason why so many translators take obey as the best rendering for peíthō here, namely that it is used in a context where submission to those in authority is called for. And this leads to a discussion of the other Greek word that Atkerson treats, the verb hupeíkō.
The Meaning of Hupeíkō
With regard to the meaning of the Greek word hupeíkō, Atkerson argues:
As with “obey,” the common Greek word for “submit” is not used. Instead, hupeiko was chosen by the author, a word that still does mean “to give in, to yield”, but after a fight. It was used of combatants. The idea behind hupeiko is seen in Southern General Robert E. Lee’s letter to his troops concerning their surrender at Appomadox: “After four years of arduous service, marked by unsurpassed courage and fortitude, the Army of Northern Virginia has been compelled to yield /*to overwhelming numbers and resources.”
Aside from the use of an analogy that has nothing to do with the kind of situation into which the author of Hebrews was speaking, Atkerson once again distorts the meaning of the text through the misuse of lexical information. In order to demonstrate this, I will again cite several of the more reputable lexicons for the meaning of hupeíkō:
Literally yield, retire from, give way; figuratively submit to someone’s authority, resist no longer, do as someone says (HE 13.17). (Analytical Lexicon to the Greek New Testament, by Timothy and Barbara Friberg, BibleWorks #21220)
To resist no longer, but to give way, yield (properly, of combatants); metaphorically, to yield to authority and admonition, to submit: Heb. 13:17. (Thayer’s Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, by Joseph Thayer, BibleWorks # 4114)
Prim. ‘withdraw, give way to’, then by fig. extension to yield to someone’s authority, yield, give way, submit… w. dat. of pers. to whom one submits… Hb. 13:17. (Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, Third Edition, by Bauer, Arndt, Gingrich, and Danker, BibleWorks #5754)
So, not only do the major translations all disagree with Atkerson, but so again do the lexicons. Certainly each of these lexicons does agree that hupeíkō was used in contexts having to do with yielding to someone else and could also refer to yielding “after a fight” as Atkerson suggests. However, each of these lexicons also points out that there is a special, metaphorical or figurative usage in Hebrews 13:17. And the reason for this is obvious from the context, which does not assume that there should be fighting going on between the Hebrew believers and their elders as Atkerson seems to suppose. His treatment gives the impression that believers should yield or submit to their elders only after a fight, as though the elders have to best the members of the congregation in every argument before they can expect submission!
That Atkerson has mistaken the meaning of hupeíkō in this passage is also apparent when one considers the latter part of the verse, where the author further admonishes his readers that they should respond to their leaders in such a way that they may undertake their charge with “joy and not with grief.” Does having a combative attitude toward them really help to make the elders’ work a joy? And even if one agrees with Atkerson that the use of hupeíkō here indicates that the Hebrew Christians had been exhibiting such a combative attitude, it is clear that the author is calling them to stop doing this by yielding and submitting to their leaders. He certainly cannot be encouraging such an attitude!
Why the Author of Hebrews May Have Chosen to Use Peíthō and Hupeíkō
Although Atkerson has not fairly presented the lexical evidence, he is nevertheless correct when he asserts that peíthō is not the common word for obey in the New Testament and that hupeíkō is not the common word for submit. He is also correct in assuming that this may be exegetically significant in helping us to determine the kind of obedience commanded with respect to church leaders.
However, as we have seen in the above citations from Atkerson, he apparently thinks that the author of Hebrews chose to use the terms peíthō and hupeíkō to refer to obedience and submission because he really didn’t mean to say that actual obedience or submission was expected, at least not usually. But I disagree with Atkerson’s apparent conclusion and, although we cannot say for certain why the author of Hebrews chose to use this specific vocabulary with respect to church leaders, an examination of his use of the more typical words for obey (hupakoúō) and submit (hupotássō) may at least provide a likely reason. Here are the instances of the author’s usage of hupakoúō (obey):
NKJ Hebrews 5:9 “And having been perfected, He [Jesus] became the author of eternal salvation to all who obey [hupakoúō] Him….”
NKJ Hebrews 11:8 “By faith Abraham obeyed [hupakoúō] when he was called to go out to the place which he would receive as an inheritance. And he went out, not knowing where he was going.”
Notice that in both instances the author of Hebrews has obedience either to God the Father or to God the Son in mind when he uses hupakoúō. A similar picture develops when examining the author’s usage of hupotássō (sumbit):
NKJ Hebrews 2:5 “For He has not put the world to come, of which we speak, in subjection [hupotássō] to angels.”
NKJ Hebrews 2:8 “’You have put all things in subjection [hupotássō] under his feet.’ For in that He put all in subjection [hupotássō] under him, He left nothing that is not put under him. But now we do not yet see all things put under [hupotássō]
In chapter 2 of Hebrews the author clearly sees Psalm 8 – which he is citing there – as Messianic and employs it to argue that Jesus is greater than the angels because all things have been put under subjection to Him and not to them.
NKJ Hebrews 12:9 “Furthermore, we have had human fathers who
corrected us, and we paid them respect. Shall we not much more readily be in
subjection [hupotássō] to the Father of spirits and live?”
Notice again that in each passage the author of Hebrews has subjection either to God the Father or to God the Son in mind when he uses hupotássō. So, the author of Hebrews apparently restricts his usage of both hupakoúō and hupotássō to instances in which obedience or submission to God are under consideration. Thus it is possible – and perhaps even likely – that he didn’t want to use either of these terms with respect to church leaders because, although he clearly did want to command obedience and submission to the elders, he did not intend the same kind of obedience or submission one owes only to God. And, if this hypothesis is correct, then he is only indicating what we already know from the rest of Scripture, namely that no man possesses an authority over us equal to that of God.
I am certain the Apostle Peter, for example, would say that in cases where there is conflict between what God has told us in His Word and what the elders are saying, “we ought to obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). Of course, Peter also warns elders against lording their authority over the churches:
NKJ 1 Peter 5:1-4 “The elders who are among you I exhort, I who am a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, and also a partaker of the glory that will be revealed: 2 Shepherd the flock of God which is among you, serving as overseers, not by compulsion but willingly, not for dishonest gain but eagerly; 3 nor as being lords over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock; 4 and when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that does not fade away.”
So, although the Bible clearly does teach that elders have authority in the church and that believers should obey them and submit to them, it is also clear that this is not an unqualified authority. There is a higher authority to which we must all submit – the authority of God as revealed in His Word – and this authority must always take priority. This is why Atkerson is right when he says that an elder’s “primary authority is based on his ability to persuade with the truth” (New Testament Church Leadership). Jesus Christ is the Chief Shepherd, and the Word of God is our ultimate authority. As the Baptist Confession of 1689 puts it, “the Holy Scripture is the only sufficient, certain, and infallible rule of all saving knowledge, faith and obedience” (1.1). But as I have demonstrated in this series, the Holy Scripture also clearly teaches the authority of elders in the churches.