Taking A Closer Look At Hebrews 13:17

Rock of Offence Commentary

Hebrews 13:17 is among the most abused and wrongly applied Scriptures in the Bible. For this reason, some clarifications need to be made before we begin.

In no way does the Rock of Offence ministry condone the rejection of spiritual authority. God wants His people to lovingly submit themselves to those who truly represent Him.

Yet, it's important to understand the difference between church leaders, who claim to represent God, but don't -- and those who do. False representatives of God almost always flaunt some special divine mandate and calling that requires your complete obedience. Or, they twist Scripture to make it say what they want, then suggest that you're rebelling against God if you disobey their teaching. True Godly authority avoids such intimidating and deceptive tactics. This kind of discernment and the response it requires becomes clearer in the words of Jesus...

(Jesus is speaking) "But he that entereth in by the door is the shepherd of the sheep. To him the porter openeth; and the sheep hear his voice: and he calleth his own sheep by name, and leadeth them out. And when he putteth forth his own sheep, he goeth before them, and the sheep follow him: for they know his voice. And a stranger will they not follow, but will flee from him: for they know not the voice of strangers." (John 10:2-5 KJV)

(Jesus is speaking) “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves. 16You will know them by their fruits." (Matthew 7:15-16 Note: These are false spiritual leaders disguised as members of God's flock)

(Paul is speaking) "But I fear, lest somehow, as the serpent deceived Eve by his craftiness, so your minds may be corrupted from the simplicity that is in Christ. For if he who comes preaches another Jesus whom we have not preached, or if you receive a different spirit which you have not received, or a different gospel which you have not accepted—you may well put up with it!" (2 Corinthians 11:3-4 Emphasis Added)

Jesus taught that we should avoid false prophets (prophets claim to speak for God, or bring a message from God) by testing their fruit (Matt. 7:15-16). It means that you never blindly obey someone without closely examining their doctrine. Paul wrote to the church in Thessalonica -- "Prove all things; hold fast that which is good." (1 Thes 5:21 KJV) Jesus commended the Church of Ephesus for "testing those who say they are apostles and are not, and have found them to be liars." (Rev. 2:2) Apostles occupy some of the highest levels of authority in the Church. This same warning is repeated throughout the New Testament. There is both illegitimate and legitimate spiritual authority that claims to teach Biblical truth and operates in the instituional church. To the inexperienced Christian believer both appear to be identical. God's people should submit to the right kind of authority -- AND THEN ONLY WHEN THEY CONTINUE IN THE TRUTH. Whenever spiritual authority departs from the truth of Scripture it's time to start asking some hard questions -- and God expects all Christian believers to know when this change occurs. Making the common mistake of failing to properly discern these things can be spiritually hazardous.

In various studies and commentaries on this website, we repeatedly talk about the importance of the Apostle Paul's warning to "rightly divide" God's Word. It involves learning that the Bible has a context and is divided into two major "covenants" (Old Testament Law & The New Covenant of Christ). It's important to respect this division because God's program and the spiritual principles He operates by changes after the cross to the New Covenant, taught in the epistles of Saint Paul. Yet, many well-meaning Christians and their leaders tend to mix these two covenant programs together resulting in an erroneous, yet popular theology along with the tragic spiritual consequences that goes with it. Principles and rules that govern spiritual authority under the New Covenant are radically different from the ones that operated under Old Testament Law before the cross.

It is not only crucial to know the difference between Old and New Testament spiritual authority, but it's also important to weigh other Scriptures from the New Testament that address the same issues. Spiritual authority abuse is at an epidemic stage in today's modern church. An often quoted Scripture to support an abusive position is Hebrews 13:17 which says:

"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."(KJV)

This Scripture should cause us to ask some important questions. Why would the author of Hebrews (thought to be Paul) write something that could be used to subordinate Christians under an oppressive dictatorial religious system when Jesus taught something entirely different to his disciples? It was obvious that the words of our Lord (and now "Head of the Church") should be given the highest level of consideration. In Matthew 20:25-28 Jesus 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."(KJV)

The characteristics Jesus taught in Matthew 20:25-28 is the hallmark of legitimate spiritual authority. It's an authority that leads by example and by servitude -- not through dictatorial power, fear, guilt or manipulation. The Apostle Peter repeats the same theme...

"Feed the flock of God which is among you, taking the oversight thereof, not by constraint, but willingly; not for filthy lucre, but of a ready mind; Neither as being lords over God's heritage, but being ensamples to the flock." (1 Pet 5:2-3 KJV)

One of the keys to understanding Hebrews 13:17 was found in "Wuest's Word Studies for Hebrews in the Greek New Testament". Kenneth S. Wuest, a Greek scholar, comments on the Scriptures from the original root language from which our English Bibles were translated. The New Testament book of Hebrews was originally written in Greek. So, to discover the true intentions of the author, you should examine its Greek roots. I found that the author of Hebrews was not contradicting the teaching of Jesus, but was addressing a unique situation. It's important to understand that the Greek language is more detailed than English. And, for that reason you can easily misinterpret what is actually being said.

One of the "keys" for correct Bible interpretation is to respect its context and to ask yourself questions about the Scripture you're reading, such as: Who is the author? To whom is he speaking? What covenant (Old Covenant Law or Christ's New Covenant) is in force at the time? Is the Scripture stating a universal imperative for all believers, or is it directed toward a specific person or group? Are there other Scriptures on the same topic that give the reader a fuller and more accurate knowledge of the issues being discussed?

One rule to follow when reading and interpreting the Bible is to avoid using only one Scripturual reference to establish a Biblical truth. When discussing how to handle a dispute with a fellow Christian, Jesus said...

"But if he will not hear thee, then take with thee one or two more, that in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established." (Matt 18:16 KJV)

While the subject discussed in Matt. 18:16 is different, we find that the Bible treats its truth with this same principle. Every truth is supported with at least two and usually more Scriptural references in order to clarify its meaning. The "obedience" issue covered by Hebrews 13:17 is no different. Yet, we find many spiritual leaders in the worldwide institutional church use this Scripture as a kind of "indisputable mandate from God", which compels their followers to obey everything they teach without question. After studying all the Scriptural "witnesses" in context you will discover that the New Testament (and therefore God) does not support this extreme, yet popular view of spiritual authority after the cross.

The first truth we learn from the Scriptures used in this commentary is that Jesus never commands His people to give unquestioned obedience to anyone, especially those who "claim" to be His ministers. It obviously pleased the Lord in Revelation 2:2 that the believers in the Church of Ephesus "tested" apostles and found them to be liars. That's pretty strong language that often alarms the average church hierarchy today. Do you know many churches that allow this kind of scrutiny toward those in charge? We certainly don't. By putting all these facts together and taking into account the warning Jesus gave in Matt. 7:15-16 about false prophets and testing their fruits -- you have solid evidence that the command to "Obey those who have the rule over you" is not an imperative or a mandate to give unquestioned obedience to any leader, just because they claim to hold the title of "God's minister". Also, when we consider the instruction Jesus gave his disciples about not using a dominating or dictitorial type of authority (Matt. 20:25-28)....and later, when Peter gave instructions to certain ministers of the Gospel about not "lording it over" God's people but being examples to the flock; all doubt should be laid to rest.

Kenneth Wuest's explanation was the most informative. (some of the main points are paraphrased.) First of all, it is understood that the spiritual authority spoken of in Hebrews 13:17 was legitimate. Yet, for us today, this doesn't necessarily apply to everyone who claims to be a minister of God. The spiritual authority of Hebrews 13:17 taught the truth of God's Word and they practiced authority in the way Jesus instructed. They provided leadership by example. They were mindful of their responsibility to give an account one day to the Lord of the way they cared for his people. If they gave an account that caused them grief (because you failed to apply God's Word to your life) then it was unprofitable for you. Yet, if they gave an account that caused them joy (because you correctly applied God's Word to your life) then it is profitable for you. The author's motivation in Hebrews 13:17 is not an attempt to establish some sort of "mandated obedience" to every minister, who claims they deserve to be obeyed, but to set up a situation for your personal profit under a legimate authority that represents God.

Most importantly, Wuest reveals that the writer is addressing a problem that existed among Hebrew believers, where many had received "strange doctrines" taught by other teachers, who caused them to be "mutinous" or rebellious against the truth of Scripture and those who taught it. Wuest suggested that some of these Hebrew believers were turning away from the faith as a result. This is a most crucial point of context that most Christians ignore. It is a problem that constantly plagued the leadership of the first century church. Jewish, or Hebrew believers were especially vulnerable to false teaching that brought them back under the bondage of Old Testament Law. In this situation the writer of Hebrews (commonly thought to be the apostle Paul) urges them to "Obey those who have the rule over you" so that they could profit from the liberating knowledge of God's Word. It was an admonishment to reject the strange doctrine others had taught and embrace the instruction of Godly authority that practiced the truth. When you see the whole picture it's sound advice. It's a statement I would make under the same circumstances. Yet, in the modern church, the kind of spiritual authority practiced by the leaders in Hebrews 13:17 is rare. Many times, the decision about whether authority is legitimate or illegitimate can be subjective. In this difficult area we need God's Holy Spirit as our teacher. According to Jesus Christ, He (the Holy Spirit) indwells us in order to lead us into all truth...and that includes the knowledge and recognition of Godly New Covenant authority.

You must want to know the truth of Hebrews 13:17 rather than allow a personal bias caused by wrong Bible teaching, such as various expressions of abusive discipleship and shepherding theology, to influence its interpretation. This subject requires some serious prayer and Bible study in order to arrive at a balanced understanding.

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Most recent revision February 2015