Within the New Testament the present participle hēgoumenos functions as a noun with the sense of leader, governor, ruler. For example in Matthew 2:6 the Jewish religious leaders quote Micah 5:1 to demonstrate that from Bethlehem “shall come a ruler (hēgoumenos)” referring to the Messiah. Stephen in his rehearsal of Israel’s history notes how Pharaoh “made Joseph ruler (hēgoumenon) over Egypt” (Acts 7:10). The Jerusalem assembly (Acts 15:22) chose Judas and Silas “two men who were leaders (hēgoumenous) among the brothers” to accompany Paul and Barnabas back to Antioch with a letter. Luke does not explain in what sense these two men were leaders in the Jerusalem church, but perhaps it relates to their ability to explain the word of God. It may be that in this context the word is participial in force, i.e. “leading men among the brothers” and Luke is not designating them as “leaders” per se. When Barnabas and Paul go to Lystra the crowd that gathers because of the miracle regarded Paul as the god Hermes “because he was the chief speaker (ho hēgoumenos tou logou)” (14:12), literally, “the leader of the speaking.” This seems to have been an epithet commonly applied to Hermes. And then in Luke 22:26 as the disciples dispute among themselves, Jesus declares that among his followers “the one who rules (ho hēgoumenos) [should be]like the one who serves” with the contrast being made with the kings of the Gentiles (v.25). This usage of hēgoumenos occurs primarily in Luke’s writings. Paul does not use this term when discussing church leadership.
The author of Hebrews (13:7,17,24) used this term in the plural to describe those who provide congregational leadership. In each context the NIV translated it as “leaders.” In earlier versions such as the King James translation this term was rendered as “those who have the rule,” perhaps reflecting its participial form in Greek. This usage in its application to church leadership (apart perhaps from Acts 15:22) is unique in the New Testament. The contextual applications link this term with people “who spoke the word of God to you” (v.7) and whose faith should be imitated; the responsibility to “obey and submit to their authority” (v.17); and their definition as a recognized, distinctive group “among the saints” (v.24). Plurality of spiritual leadership seems to be the case. It may also be that the use of the aorist tense-form in 13:7 refers to a previous group of leaders who may have become martyrs and whose testimony is to be honoured and replicated, as that of the heroes of faith rehearsed in chapter 11. If this is the case, then the leaders mentioned in vv. 17,24 would be the current leaders (note the use of the present imperatives in v.17).
It is the wording of 13:17 that raises most questions with respect to the nature of leadership within a congregation. We probably should not at this early stage be construing these leaders as full-time paid pastors, professionally trained, as is common in many congregations today, but voluntary leaders of house churches. What are the meaning and implications of the commands to “obey your leaders and submit?” For denominations which follow a congregational polity, these injunctions prove difficult to embrace and process. For those who believe that the New Testament teaches “elder rule”such texts provide key support for their perspective.
Let’s consider first the basis for the “authority” of the original leaders in v.7. They are described as ones “who spoke to you the message of God.” Whatever “authority” they possessed seems to arise from their proclamation of God’s message. The description in Heb. 2:3-4 may outline how their ministry proceeded and may imply that some had heard Jesus directly. Regardless, their ability to transmit and expound the biblical revelation, as well as the new Gospel of Jesus, accompanied by miracles, gave them great credibility, as did their personal endurance. Response to their teaching will be the imitation of their faith (cf. 6:12). This Gospel, as v.8 indicates, remains true and trustworthy because Jesus remains the same.
When we come to v.17 the writer has spent considerable time and energy warning the believers about “various strange teachings” (v.9). The good teaching leadership of the original leaders is being threatened by these “strange teachings.” The writer urges these believers to give loyal attention to the teaching of their current leaders who exercise constant and careful vigilance for these believers. This is a call for the believers then to attend to the teaching of their current leaders because they are threatened by false teaching. The call for respectful adherence to the leaders is directly related to the threat created by the “strange teaching” and the accountability of these leaders to God for the spiritual welfare of the believers. If they must give account to God for their spiritual leadership and care for these people, this implies God’s involvement in their leadership. God enables these people to express his word to protect and guide his people.
The initial command in v. 17 is the verb “be persuaded, obey (peithesthe).” Note that in the very next verse the form peithometha describes how sure the writer is that he has a clear conscience. In several New Testament contexts we find the present middle tense-form followed by a dative noun or pronoun with the sense “believe or be persuaded by.” For example, in Acts 5:36 the adherents of the false messiah, Theudas, are described as “all his followers (pantes hosoi epeithonto autōi (dative singular).” At the end of Gamaliel’s speech (Acts 5:39) Luke tells us that “the speech persuaded them (epeisthēsan de autōi (dative singular).” Paul’s nephew reveals to the Roman commander the plot to kill Paul and the nephew urges the commander “don’t give in to them (su oun mē peisthēis autois))” (Acts 23:21). And then in Acts 27:11 the Roman centurion “followed the advice of the pilot (tōi nauklērōi mallon epeitheto)).” In each of these cases we find the same syntactical construction that occurs in Hebrews 13:17 (peithesthe tois hēgoumenois humōn) middle verb form + dative noun with the sense be persuaded by someone, take someone’s advice, follow. So perhaps the writer here is urging the believers to “follow your leaders, take your leader’s advice.” This might make even make more sense given the false teaching that has just been the focus of the discussion in vv. 8-16.
The writer added a second command (hupeikete) and this verb has the sense “yield to someone’s authority, give way, submit.” This is the only time it occurs in the New Testament. Paul uses the simple form of the verb in Galatians 2:5 where he reveals that he “did not yield even for a moment” to those trying to restrict the freedom of non-Jewish believers in Jesus. The compound verb indicates that something is yielding to the force, authority, or direction of someone or something else. For example, Philo claims that each of the natural elements obeyed Moses and “yielded (hupeikon)to his commands” (De Vita Mosis I.156). He claims that speech “deals more gently with those who yield (tous hupeikontas), but more drastically with the rebellious” (Specialibus Legibus I.343). Philo claims that fathers have the right to admonish their children, punishing them “if they do not submit (hupeikousi) to threats” (Specialibus Legibus II.232). He also describes the power that pleasure wields because all creatures “submit (hupeikei) to her orders” (Specialibus Legibus III.8). According to the author of 4 Maccabees 6:35 (a text contemporary with Hebrews) reason overcomes agonies and pleasures and “in no respect yields (hupeikein) to them.”
I would suggest then that the writer of Hebrews is urging believers to “follow their leaders and comply or yield” because of their God-given responsibility to provide spiritual care. Their teaching should be heeded and their advice taken. There is no necessity to read in Hebrews 13:17 the idea that congregants have to “to obey their leaders and submit without question.” In other words congregational leadership in the perspective of this writer is not a matter of dominating authority which has to obeyed regardless of the leaders’ actions or directions. The writer of this letter is more nuanced, I think, affirming the spiritual relationship that exists among believers and how those entrusted with leadership have obligation to care and believers under their care have responsibility to heed their advice and yield to their teaching. The response of believers to congregational leaders is respectful with a disposition to follow because they have entrusted their qualified leaders with these spiritual responsibilities. As the leaders teach God’s truth and demonstrate their personal commitment to it with persevering and obedient faith, believers are motivated to imitate their example and yield to their teaching.
- Much debate swirls around the nature of congregational leadership today. The profile of such leadership in Hebrews 13 emphasizes a type of leadership that is consistent with God’s truth and rich with care for God’s people because of the spiritual deceit that is rampant in the world. How are you measuring up to this challenge?
- Congregational leaders often get frustrated because they think church folk should obey and submit, based upon their reading of Hebrews 13:17. However, if this verse describes heeding advice and following it, then the nature of the leadership being described is not hierarchical or authoritarian, but based upon the careful, patient exposition of God’s truth and its consistent personal expression in the life of the leaders.