The Truth About Hebrews 13:17

By Fred Handschumacher

This commentary examines one of the most abused Scriptures in the Bible. Yet, before I address this subject, I want to make something clear:

Nowhere on this website do I advocate the total rejection of spiritual authority. Rejecting authority is not an idea that the Bible supports. God wants His people to lovingly (and voluntarily) submit themselves to those who truly represent Him.

Yet, it's crucial to understand that God does not require the believer to submit to all authority just because THEY CLAIM to possess some sort of a Divine mandate or calling. This kind of discernment becomes clearer in the words of Jesus...

"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 taught that we should avoid false prophets (prophets speak for God, or bring a message from God) by testing their fruit (Matt. 7:15-16). Paul wrote to the church in Thessalonica -- "Prove all things; hold fast that which is good." (1Thes 5:21 KJV) Jesus commended the Church of Ephesus for "testing those who say they are apostles and are not, and have found them 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 operates in the area of religion. To the inexperienced Christian believer both can look identical. Our message is that God's people should submit to the right kind of authority -- and then only when they CONTINUE IN THE TRUTH. When spiritual authority departs from the truth 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 discern these things properly can be spiritually costly.

In another articles on this website, I repeatedly discuss the importance of the apostle Paul's warning to "rightly divide" God's Word. This involves learning that the Bible has a context and is divided into two main "covenants" (The Old & New Testaments) and that God's principles and requirements radically change from one to the other. We're currently under the New Covenant of Jesus Christ (The New Testament). Yet, many well-meaning Christians tend to mix the two covenants together resulting in a disastrous form of popular theology along with the tragic unintended consequences that result.

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)

As a young believer, I read this Scripture and knew there was something special about its meaing. Why would the author of Hebrews write something that could be used to subordinate Christians under a dictatorial religious system when Jesus taught something entirely different to his disciples? It seemed simple to me that the words of the Lord Jesus Christ and "Head of the Church"...should be given the highest level of recognition. 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)

I didn't rest until I understood what was going on in Hebrews 13:17. The things Jesus taught in Matthew 20:25-28 is an imperative for legitimate spiritual authority. It's an authority that leads by example and by servitude -- not through dictatorial power, fear, guilt or manipulation. Saint 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)

So what's going on with the Scripture in Hebrews? I received part of my answer 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. Also, it's important to know 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 proper Bible interpretation is to respect its correct context and to ask yourself questions about the Scripture you're reading. Who is the author? To whom is he speaking? What 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 discussed?

One rule to follow when reading 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 matter in Matt. 18:16 is different, I've found that the Bible treats the truth found in its own pages 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, you find many spiritual leaders in the modern church use this Scripture as a kind of "indisputable mandate from God" for you to obey everything they teach without question. After studying all the Biblical "witnesses" in context you will discover that the New Testament does not support this extreme view anywhere.

The first thing we learn from the Scriptures quoted in this commentary is that Jesus never intends for his people to give blind obedience to anyone. It obviously pleased the Lord in Revelations 2:2 that the church of Ephesus "tested" apostles and found them to be liars. That's pretty strong language that offends the average church governement today. Do you know of many "churches" that allow this kind of scrutiny toward those in charge? I don't. When you consider this together with the warning Jesus gave in Matt. 7:15-16 about false prophets and testing their fruits -- you have solid evidence that the command "Obey those who have the rule over you" is not an imperative or a mandate to give unquestioned obedience to any leader. Also, considering the instruction Jesus gave his disciples about not using a "dominion over" type of authority (Matt. 20:25-28)....and later Peter's 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.

I found Kenneth Wuest's explanation the most informative. I'll paraphrase some of the main points. It is understood that the spiritual authority spoken of in Hebrews 13:17 is legitimate. Yet, for us today, this doesn't automatically mean that it applies to everyone who claims to speak for God. The spiritual authority of Hebrews 13:17 taught the truth of God's Word and they practiced authority the way Jesus instructed them. 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 obey God's Word) then it was unprofitable for you. Yet, if they gave an account that caused them joy (because you obeyed God's Word) 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", but to set up a situation for your personal profit.

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 that 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 walked in 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 hard to find. 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 authority.

You must want to know the truth of Hebrews 13:17 rather than allow a personal bias to influence its interpretation. This topic requires some digging in order to arrive at a balanced understanding.

General Guidelines For Spiritual Authority

Below, I list some general characteristics of New Testament spiritual authority. The list is not exhaustive. Yet, it can give the reader a place to start on this challenging and often confusing subject.

When considering a church home--look for the following traits in leaders:

  • Teaches that the Bible is God's Word and is to be taken literally.

  • Holds solidly to the belief that Jesus Christ is God in the flesh--and the only Head of the Church.

  • Teaches the whole Gospel...salvation by faith in Jesus Christ alone...and receiving power through the baptism in the Holy Spirit.

  • Encourages those under their care to fellowship with other believers outside their own group.

  • Believes and teaches the correct understanding of the New Testament Church...that it's not a building or an organization, but all those having faith in Christ for salvation.

  • Sees themselves as "brethren" in the Body of Christ -- just like those under their care (leaders are also God's sheep). Does not "flaunt" seminary or educational credentials as authority qualifications. Possesses humility and a "servant's" attitude when viewing their position in Christ's Church. Avoids the clergy/laity error found in religious titles such as Father, Bishop, Reverend, etc.

  • Authority is gained and recognized by experience in the faith and the quality/example of life lived.

  • Leaves meeting attendance as an issue between the believer and the Lord.

  • Does not compel believers to follow the Old Covenant tithing requirements....yet encourages God's people to participate in the freedom of Godly New Testament giving without intimidation or guilt. Trusts the Lord to meet the financial needs of the fellowship or church.

  • Openly rejects and exposes popular legalistic teaching and doctrine common in the Church in order to protect new believers....and embraces God's Grace in a way that generates a sense of liberty and freedom of choice.

  • Can deal firmly (yet lovingly), when necessary, with people who practice a sinful lifestyle, discouraging the practice of living in continual sin while using God's Grace as an excuse.

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Most recent revision March 2011