In the Letter to the Hebrews, chapter 13, and verse 17, our author adds to what he has already said about leaders about 10 verses back (13:7):
Have confidence in your leaders and submit to their authority, because they keep watch over you as those who must give an account. Do this so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no benefit to you. (NIV Heb 13:17)
Many English translations of the New Testament have been distilled in an atmosphere of an authoritarian, clergy-driven, church model and the result is seen in many of their mis-translations. Here are two examples in the one sentence, one in the King James version (KJV) and the other in the NIV.
First, the word “obey” in the KJV is an unfortunate translation of the Greek verb peitho. A better translation would be “be persuaded by”. The verb form also shows that those persuaded will benefit from the leaders’ counsel. A better rendering would be, “allow yourselves to be persuaded by your leaders”, or ”follow them … ”. Authoritarianism is far from the mind and language of our author! We have already seen this throughout the letter.
The NIV quoted above has a much better rendering have confidence in your leaders. However, the word authority in the NIV is not there in the original! It has been added to fit in with churchy thinking.
The Greek word used for leaders, hegoumenoi, means “those who lead or guide”, not boss around with mere human authority like a ruler or policeman. As Jesus’ said in Luke 22:26-27: The most important one of you should be like the least important, and one who leads (hegoumenos) should be like a servant (diakonos), as Jesus himself demonstrated in his leadership.
Plurality of leaders always in the New Testament – we never read of the leader of a local church. This models and reflects the heavenly community of Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, a community of love, submission, communication and fellowship. We have seen that the community addressed by the author of this letter, looks nothing like your average Western church known today.
Nevertheless, leaders do have authority, a spiritual authority, not imposed by someone higher up—unless that one is Jesus! This authority has been imparted to them by the Lord, not by some chief pastor man or bishop, and that authority is evidenced in their lives, recognised. So they should be listened to and the hearers persuaded by their wisdom and gentle manner of life, their maturity, their holiness.
Leaders together bear extra responsibility—they must give account to God, not to some human official, because they watch over you—they must stay awake, they are to be alert to threats of strange teachings. It is because their accountability is to God and not to a human or some vague idea of ‘church’, they should be listened to with great seriousness.
The original word behind the NIV’s “submit” is hupeiko occurring only here in the entire N.T. But the common Greek word for “submit” was hupotasso. The word used here, hupeiko means “to yield, give way, concede”, that is, to yield to persuasion and to good mentoring as we have already seen.
So, “serving” the body as a leader must be done by loving persuasion (as confirmed by Peter and Paul in their letters) and by the example of a Christ-filled life. Coercive leadership would be totally opposite to that of Jesus. Leaders who remain alert and watchful, whose desire is care for people and pray for their welfare and who live as godly examples will have their respect, their attention and will easily persuade them to listen seriously to their urgings. Further, our author asks,
Pray for us. We are sure that we have a clear conscience and desire to live honourably in every way. I particularly urge you to pray so that I may be restored to you soon. (13:18-19, NIV)
For the first time, the author mentions himself and we get some insight into his character which includes his need and request for their prayers. Here is a leader who is humble enough to need the prayers of the people in this community – like Paul in many of his letters. And also note the word we, again plurality.
Here also is the first mention of the word pray. But of course, he has already spoken at great length about our need to come boldly, with overflowing confidence, to our great high priest who reigns in absolute sovereignty. Does the use of the word prayer bring up a negative vibe in our minds? Then forget the word prayer—use another term like request or appeal and get back to enjoying the presence of God in Christ, our great high priest who welcomes us into the wonderful sanctuary, envisaged so beautifully in the previous passages of this letter. This is critical for us, such a privilege –to think we can speak to the living God! and that he wants us to come to Him with our requests! Think what it means to ask, what good things will come from our seeking and what benefits for ourselves from our persistent knocking!
The subject of requests to the Lord that the apostles put is always interesting. Along with the other apostles, our author asks that his readers appeal to God for us. Such requests again underline the absolute and consistent idea that we need one another, whether apostles or unknown disciples. We cannot be independent or an island in this. The foreign, strange idea of a clergy caste encourages Christian leaders to be self-driven and aloof from the “sheep”. Thus in verse 19 the writer expresses his longing to see his loved brothers and sisters again.
We are to see ourselves as all sheep under one Shepherd, Jesus the Lord.