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Heb 13:17 and "ecclesiastical authority"

(Garth D. Wiebe, Sep 2012, last edited Nov. 2015, extracted/edited Aug. 2015, paragraph about middle/passive dilemma and video added Aug. 2018)

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There is one single verse in the Bible used by the institutional clergy to claim and enforce "ecclesiastical authority" over the laity. It is Hebrews 13:17, and is usually translated something like this:

"obey your leaders and submit to their authority"

The word almost always (mis-)translated "obey" in Hebrews 13:17 is πειθεσθε (present tense, imperative mood, middle voice, second person, plural number, inflection of Strong's G3982, πειθω, "peitho") which actually means to be convinced by, persuaded by, or have confidence in.

Ironically, it is the same Koine Greek word used both in that verse (Hebrews 13:17 - "Be ye being persuaded by your leaders") and in the next verse (Hebrews 13:18 - "...for we are persuaded that we...")

The 55 instances of πειθω (be persuaded, convinced, have confidence in), in their contexts, are never equated to submission or obedience to authority. You can look up all 55 references and see:

Matt 27:20,43, 28:14, Mark 10:24, Luke 11:22, 16:31, 18:9, 20:6, Acts 5:36,37,40, 12:20, 13:43, 14:19, 17:4, Acts 18:4, 19:8,26, 21:14, 23:21, 26:26,28, 27:11, 28:23,24, Rom 2:8,19, 8:38, 14:14, 15:14, 2 Cor 1:9, 2:3, 5:11, 10:7, Gal 1:10, 3:1, 5:7,10, Phil 1:6,14,21,25 2:24, 3:3,4, 2 Thess, 3:4, 2 Tim 1:5,12, James 3:3, Heb 2:13, 6:9, 11:13, 13:17,18, 1 John 3:19

By contrast, there are words which do mean "obey," which are not used in Hebrews 13. For example, υπακοη (Strong's G5218, "[h]upakoe" = "obedience") and υπακουω (Strong's G5219, "[h]upakouo" = "obey") is such a word, used in "children obey your parents" (Eph 6:1, Col 3:20), "slaves obey your masters" (Eph 6:5, Col 3:22), the winds and waves obeying Jesus (Matt 8:27, Mark 4:41, Luke 8:25), demons obeying Jesus (Mark 1:27), and so on. The writer of Hebrews 13:17 could have used this word, or something like it, but didn't.

There's yet another problem with the translation "obey," and that is one of grammar. The verb, πειθεσθε, is in the middle/passive voice. That's the -εσθε ending, which is middle/passive, second person, plural number. If it was "obey," then it would need to be in the active voice. Active voice would be "obey," whereas passive voice would be "be obeyed." We don't have a middle voice in English, but it would be to obey such as to be obeyed, or to obey yourself, so that wouldn't work either. So, the middle/passive only makes sense if it is to "be persuaded," which would be passive voice, or to "persuade yourself" of something, if it was taken to have the meaning of the middle voice.

A second word in Hebrews 13:17 often mistranslated "submit" is υπεικετε (similar inflection, except active voice, of Strong's G5226, υπεικω) which is a combination of υπ (Strong's G5259, "[h]up"/[h]upo = "under") and εικ_ (Strong's G1500, G1502, G1503, G1504, "eik_" which means simulate or image in likeness, to be like, or resemble, from which we get the English word "icon" (specifically, εικων, Strong's G1504 Greek "eikon").

Even in 21st century usage, if you look at an "icon" on your computer, it is a small image resembling a bigger thing.

The word υπεικω only occurs once in the New Testament, and is a hard word to translate. That's why I broke it down into the two morphemes ("under" and "image/simulate"). The word can mean, in the various classical literature, to retire, withdraw, depart, yield, give way, concede, or defer, and some of those make no sense at all in the context of Heb 11:17. But the sense is that you defer to the leader's leading, so that you are led by him and are conformed to what he is making you into, which is to be like him as he is like Jesus.

Two other similar examples in scripture are:

"Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ." (1 Cor 11:1)

"...for in Christ Jesus I became your father through the gospel. Therefore I exhort you, be imitators of me." (1 Cor 4:15-16)

Both of those actually use the same three words: μιμηται μου γινεσθε ("mimetai mou ginesthe" = "imitators of-me be-becoming")

A third word thrown into Hebrews 13:17 that is often in the translation but is not even there in the original Greek text to begin with is "authority." The Greek word for "authority" is εξουσια ("exousia"). There is no word like that in Hebrews 13:17.

So now, instead of

"obey your leaders and submit to their authority"

we have

"be persuaded by your leaders and emulate them"

Quite a difference!

This fits the context, because just a little way back in verse 7, the scripture says

"Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith" ("imitate" in verse 7 is μιμεισθε, "mimeisthe," from which we get the English word "mimic").

So, verse 7 tells us to mimic the leaders' faith, and verse 17 tells us to be persuaded by and defer to them as a model.

The context of Hebrews 13:17 has the writer exhorting the readership to heed the word of God originally spoken to them by their leaders (verse 7) and not be carried away by strange teachings (verse 9). They were rebuked earlier in Heb 5:11-6:3 (milk vs. solid food, elementary teachings vs. maturity) for needing to be told all these things (i.e. the content of the book of Hebrews) all over again, whereas they should have been teachers by now (Heb 5:12). Hebrews 13:17 tells them to "be being persuaded" by those original leaders and base their faith on that spiritual foundation, for they (the leaders) are being "vigilant" over them "for their souls (the souls of the ones being led)."

If you take that to its logical result, then you will end up being leaders speaking the word of God to others, and those others will be "persuaded" by you and use you as a model, because you were persuaded by and modeled your leaders. That's discipleship.

If you read all of the book of Hebrews, the only theme is sound doctrine concerning who Jesus is, what he did as a fulfillment of the old covenant type, and how we should persevere in faith. There is no mention in the book of Hebrews of how to administrate an institutional "church," nor is there any talk about clergy vs. laity roles, let alone any notion of laity "obeying" clergy.

Again, leaders are there to serve the "church" = "out-calling." The "church" = "out-calling" is not there to serve them. Their role is that of servants, not lords.

To balance all this out, we should still "submit for the Lord's sake to every authority instituted among men" (1 Peter 2:13). If you are part of an institution of men, then you should either submit to the institutional authority or leave the institution; you should not rebel against it from within.

The mistake made is when one tries to equate the institutional "church" with the "church" of scripture. The leaders of the institutions have institutional authority over their institutions, not institutional authority over the "out-called" of the body of Christ, the true "church" that the scriptures speak of, which Jesus has authority over.

No copyrightI grant this work to the public domain.

Attribution required: Matt Malone for church audience photograph (copyright)