Question:

Hebrews 13:17 states "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."

There are two schools of thought that I've heard regarding this verse. It obviously refers to how the members of a congregation are to obey and be submissive to the elders of that congregation. The two schools of thought relate to the account that the elders must give.

  1. The elders are to give an account regarding the faithfulness of the members. The members are to obey and submit to the elders so that the elders can give an account of them with joy and not grief that the elders accounting would be profitable to them.
  2. The elders are to give an account regarding how they have lead and protected the congregation. Members should obey and submit to the elders so the elders can watch for their souls with joy and not grief so that the elders watchfulness would be profitable to them.

What are your thoughts? Thanks.


Answer:

"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" (Hebrews 13:17).

Obey

The Greek word translated as "obey" is peitho, which means to be convinced or persuaded. This is someone who listens to reason and then implements the truth in his life. This not to be confused with the obedience Christians owe God when we are told "And having been perfected, He became the author of eternal salvation to all who obey Him" (Hebrews 5:9). That obedience is the Greek word hupakuou, which means to heed someone in authority.

Those who rule over you

The Greek word translated as "rule" is hegeomia, which means to lead or guide. This is not the word for authoritarian or dictatorial control.

"Significantly, Thayer defines this word, "leading as respects influence, controlling in counsel." Please note that the position is one exerted by influential counsel, not by dogmatic control. Another example given by Thayer where the word is used as defined, is where Judas and Silas are described as "chief" or "leading" (hegeomai) men, chosen to go to Antioch by the apostles, the elders, and the whole church at Jerusalem (Acts 15:22). The term translated "have the rule" then is not something that applies only to elders." [Dale Smelser, The Rule of Elders].

While this verse includes elders, it is not limited to elders. It applies to all people in the church to lead and guide others through their teaching and example.

And be submissive

The Greek word for "submissive" is hupeiko, which means to yield, to listen to, or be persuaded by. As many leaders will admit, it is hard to lead when others refuse to follow. This is especially true in the church where leaders are forbidden to use heavy-handed approaches. "Shepherd the flock of God which is among you, serving as overseers, not by compulsion but willingly, not for dishonest gain but eagerly; nor as being lords over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock" (I Peter 5:2-3). As Vines points out, "The obedience suggested is not by submission to authority, but resulting from persuasion."

For they watch out for your souls

All leaders in the church, but most especially the elders, are not acting for their own personal benefit. They are there to benefit the members of the church. They are trying to get as many as they can to heaven. The reason for submitting to such men is realizing that they are helping you. "And He Himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ, till we all come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ" (Ephesians 4:11-13).

As those who must give account

Those who lead are under authority themselves. This is hinted at by Peter when he told elders, "and when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that does not fade away" (I Peter 5:4). Leaders are responsible for where they lead others; they are taking on an additional burden. "My brethren, let not many of you become teachers, knowing that we shall receive a stricter judgment" (James 3:1). Paul compared his work to that of a builder. "According to the grace of God which was given to me, as a wise master builder I have laid the foundation, and another builds on it. But let each one take heed how he builds on it. For no other foundation can anyone lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ" (I Corinthians 3:10-11). A builder has to follow the plans and a leader doesn't have the authority to do as he pleases.

Let them do so with joy and not with grief

Continuing the idea of a leader being like a builder, it has to be recognized that in the church the builder has to work with what he has available to him and not all building material is the same. "Now if anyone builds on this foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw, each one's work will become clear; for the Day will declare it, because it will be revealed by fire; and the fire will test each one's work, of what sort it is. If anyone's work which he has built on it endures, he will receive a reward. If anyone's work is burned, he will suffer loss; but he himself will be saved, yet so as through fire" (I Corinthians 3:12-15). A building can be well laid, but when tested, some of it might not survive. The fault is not in the builder but in the material. Yet the builder is still going to suffer because the effort he invested was lost.

A leader's goal is to get people to heaven. Come Judgment Day what a joy it will be to see that all the hours of hard work paid off -- to see that those you taught, advised, scolded, and encouraged walk through heaven's gate. "I have no greater joy than to hear that my children walk in truth" (III John 4).

But at the same time, it is a heartache to know some you worked so hard to save didn't make it. "For many walk, of whom I have told you often, and now tell you even weeping, that they are the enemies of the cross of Christ" (Philippians 3:18). "Look to yourselves, that we do not lose those things we worked for, but that we may receive a full reward" (II John 8).

For that would be unprofitable for you

If a leader is filled with grief about losing a soul he has striven to save, what does that say for the soul lost? The conclusion then is for the Christian to take full advantage of the efforts of those trying to save him so that both may enter arm-in-arm into heaven with joy.