Biblical Reflections on Leadership: Hebrews 13:17

6 Oct

This morning I have been pondering Hebrews 13:17.  It is quite a revealing passage on leadership.  The focus is on how to follow a person who leads in the church.

The current NIV renders this verse:

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.

and the New King James version has a familiar ring:

Obey those who rule over you, and be submissive, for they watch out for your souls, as those who must give account. Let them do so with joy and not with grief, for that would be unprofitable for you.

The person who wrote Hebrews, mentions ‘leaders’ three times in Chapter 13.  The Greek term used in each case is a participle, a verb used as a noun.  The people themselves who lead are not in focus but the act of leading.  While it is somewhat clumsy, the passages could each be translated – ‘those who have been Allleading you”.   The leadership here is to be ‘out in front, foremost’ particularly in thinking and teaching.  Verse 7 in the same passage has already asked us to be mindful of those who are leading through their teaching and lifestyle.

The recipients of this letter are asked in this verse to do two things in response to those leading; to have confidence / obey and to be submissive.  Neither of these terms are the normal Greek terms for ‘obey’ or ‘submit’, so they need a little unpacking.

‘peithesthe’ refers to being persuaded or convinced of the truth, particularly of words, and in other passages, particularly by God.   It is connected to confidence and trust.  Here it means something like: Be willingly open to be challenged and persuaded by the word of God which comes to you through the words of those who lead you. 

hyperikete’ is to willingly yield or to surrender, not to resist or to fight.  This idea here expands on what has just been said about willingness to learn and also prepares us for what is to come.  The writer is about to challenge us not to make ‘leading’ hard work which causes a ‘groan’, instead make it a joy for those who lead by our responsiveness.

To match the two instructions for followers, a two fold reason is provided.   We should be responsive to leadership, because those who lead us watch over our souls, knowing they must give an account to God.

The idea of ‘watching’ is literally, ‘not sleeping’, staying awake and vigilant.  It has connections to the image of the shepherd, keeping watch over the sheep.  The idea of protection is in mind, the under shepherds need to give an account to the chief shepherd for any loss or distress to the flock that occurs.

What is being watched and protected is our souls.  The ‘psyche’ refers to our hearts, the inner persons that we are, the persons destined for life with God.  By implication here, Christian leadership is about drawing people to God through teaching and living God’s word, and also by shaping a community which invites trust and responsiveness to God.  Followers are encouraged to be responsive to this, learning and embracing the way of God, as taught and modelled by those leading.

Accountability here contains the idea of providing an expected return to the rightful owner for something held in trust.  Leadership is a calling by God.  Leading is to gather, grow and guide those who belong to God on his behalf and for his purposes.  It is a task for which an account is to be given.  What is clearly apparent in this verse is that leadership is a two way street.  Leaders need to be enabled to lead by the willing response, openness and engagement of followers.  Followers need to be enabled to follow by the clear teaching, loving care and lived integrity of leaders.

In a wrap-up note, the author then calls on followers to make the work of leaders a joy not ‘hard work’, through their responsiveness to God.  Groaning here refers to grief, pain, labour in the attempt to move something forward, pushing or pulling.  Childbirth falls into this type of ‘groaning’ work.  We are reminded not to frustrate our leaders through lack of response to God, which is hard work for them and ‘of no value’, ‘a missed benefit’ or ‘unprofitable’ for us.

So for what it is worth, here is my paraphrase;

Be willingly open to the grace of God which comes to you through the words of those who lead you.  Don’t resist leadership, but work with those leading, for they actually loose sleep, thinking about your inner growth.  They know they are accountable because you are God’s loved people and God calls them to guide you on his behalf.  So make their building of the church a joy not a waste of time and effort both for them and for you. 

May those of us called to lead be encouraged to step up and all of us who follow challenged to be open-hearted and responsive.

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