peitho in Hebrews 13:17
Introduction · The Meaning · The Rest of the Verse · Relevance to the Believer · Conclusion
Hebrews 13:17 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.
This exegetical study focuses on the translation of the Greek, peitho, in Hebrews 13:17. The word is most always translated as "obey" in the differing translations. Due to a lack of understanding of the import of meaning behind this word, it has led many to a blind obedience to the ministry, and the ministry to wrongly assert their authority over the saints. The locus of this paper is upon the correct understanding of the Greek word as used here in this verse.
This study is important for theological and practical reasons. This verse is commonly cited in connection with the Biblical view of authority and submission. If one reaches an incorrect theological conclusion concerning this verse, it will have practical effects that can be very damaging to the body of Christ. Many times this verse is taken out of context, allowing many to abuse their authority in the gospel without being questioned. I do not believe that this is always intentional, but it is derived from a misunderstanding of the Greek behind the English word "obey."
The verse as quoted above is from the King James Version. Looking to other translations, peitho is translated in a similar manner. These would include The Amplified Bible, The Berkeley Version in Modern English, The Revised Standard Version, and the New International Version. In all five of these translations, dating from four centuries to just eight years ago, peitho is translated as "obey."
Peitho appears in the second person plural, present middle/passive imperative, as peithesthe, followed directly by the dative plural, tois egoumenois, meaning "the leaders." The author was commanding (imperative mood) the Hebrew readers (plural) to continue to (present tense) "peitho" those who had the rule over them.
As just mentioned, peithesthe is in the middle/passive voice.. Whether it is being used as middle or passive can only be determined by the context, because both voices share the same spelling in the present tense.
What is significant is that peitho is not in the active voice. W.E. Vine helps us see the difference between the meaning of the active and middle/passive voice as it pertains to peitho: "In the active voice, [peitho] signifies to apply persuasion, to prevail upon or win over, to persuade, bringing about a change of mind by the influence of reason or moral considerations...; in the passive voice, to be persuaded, believe...."1 Vine commented further in another place saying "...the Middle and Passive Voices signifies to suffer oneself to be persuaded...."2 To this, Liddel and Scott add that in the middle and passive voice peitho means "to be prevailed on, won over, persuaded."3 The Tragic writers frequently used peitho in the middle/passive imperative to mean "be persuaded."
It is interesting to note that every time peitho is translated in some form of "obey" in the KJV, it is always found in the middle/passive voice. Whether peithesthe is used as the middle or passive voice in Hebrews 13:17 is not of much significance compared to the fact that it does not appear in the active voice. Concerning the voice, however, it is more probable that the author intended the passive voice, seeing that the middle voice had nearly fallen out of use by the time Koine Greek came to be the prominent form of the Greek language.
If peitho was in the active, the author would have been commanding his readers to actively involve themselves in the act of obedience apart from any other agent. Instead of the active, the author used the passive form to convey the idea that the subject was being acted upon in some way. It is the readers who were to be persuaded by the leaders. The readers were not so much being commanded to do the action as they were to participate in the action, or receive the action through persuasion, though this does not negate the resultant obedience.
What exactly does peitho mean? The New Thayers Greek-English Lexicon says concerning this word peitho: "lit. persuasion; to induce one by words to believe; to cause belief in a thing (which one sets forth), win one's favor; to persuade unto; i.e. move or induce someone by persuasion to do something; to suffer one's self to be persuaded; to be induced to believe; to trust."4
The Expanded Vine's Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words says concerning peitho:
to persuade, to win over, in the Passive and Middle Voices, to be persuaded, to listen to, to obey, is so used with the meaning in the Middle Voice, e.g., in Acts 5:36, 37 (in ver. 40, Passive Voice, "they agreed"); Rom. 2:8; Gal. 5:7; Heb. 13:17; Jas. 3:3. The obedience suggested is not by submission to authority, but resulting from persuasion. Peitho and pisteuo, [meaning] 'to trust,' are closely related etymologically; the difference in meaning is that the former implies the obedience that is produced by the latter, c.p. Heb. 3:18, 19, where the disobedience of the Israelites is said to be the evidence of their unbelief. ... Of course it is persuasion of the truth that results in faith (we believe because we are persuaded that the thing is true, a thing does not become true because it is believed), but peitho, in the N.T. suggests an actual and outward 'result of the inward persuasion and consequent faith.' " (emphasis mine)5
Even when peitho denotes obedience, it is referring to an obedience resulting from an inward persuasion and consequent faith. This involves the mental faculties of an individual, and interaction between the persuader and the persuadee.
Vine mentioned how peitho (peiqw) and pisteuo (pistew) are related etymologically. A good demonstration of this connection is Acts 28:24. Here Luke contrasted those who believed (Greek peitho) with those who did not believe (the negative form of pisteuo). Luke was trying to demonstrate how some were persuaded by the teaching of Paul, coming to have an inward persuasion and consequent belief in what he spoke. Others were not persuaded and remained in unbelief.
Peitho is used fifty-two times in the New Testament. It is translated in various forms of the words "persuaded, trusted, agreed, yield, believed, obey, confident, having made...their friend, confident, and assure" (See Matthew 27:43; Luke 18:9; Acts 5:40; 12:20; 13:43; 14:19; 17:4; 18:4; 21:14; 23:21; II Corinthians 1:9; 2:3; Philippians 1:14; 3:3; I John 3:19). Twenty-two times it is translated in some form of "persuade;" nine times as "confidence;" eight times in some form of "trust;" six times as "obey;" three times as "believed;" and once as "assure," "they agreed," "yield," and "having made...their friend." The foremost concept of the word, and the way in which it is most commonly translated, is "persuaded."
An example where peitho is translated as "obey" is in Galatians 3:1 where Paul asked, "Who hath bewitched you, that you should not obey the truth?" Although the English translation uses "obey," the underlying concept, nevertheless, is persuasion. The Judaizers had come to the Galatian churches teaching that they must keep the Law of Moses to be saved. Once the Galatians changed their mind concerning what Paul had taught them and were persuaded by this false belief they were no longer persuaded of the truth. Their actions were consequent to this inward persuasion. They no longer obeyed the truth, because they were no longer persuaded that it was the truth. (See also Romans 2:8; Galatians 5:7)
There are Greek words for "obey" which carry with them the meaning of strict obedience for the sake of obedience, but peitho is not one of them. One such word is hupakouo. The strict obedience which is implied can be seen in its usage in the New Testament. It is used in Ephesians 6:1, 5, and Colossians 3:20, 22 for obedience of children to parents, and slaves to masters. It is used in II Thessalonians 1:8 for those who do not obey the gospel. Hebrews 5:9 used the word in reference to our obedience to Jesus, and Peter used the word to refer to Sarah's obedience to Abraham in I Peter 3:6.
Since the author of Hebrews commanded the church to be persuaded by those who had the rule over them, it would follow that he was also indirectly implying that those who have the rule, or leadership, are to do the persuading. If peitho is passive, indicating that the Hebrews were receiving some aspect of the action, there must be someone who was involved in delivering the action. This being so, it would eliminate the notion of ministerial autonomy. The ministry is not a dictatorship. Instead, they are to possess the attitude of a servant. A servant does not attempt to accomplish his objectives by commanding his master, but by persuading him. The ministry's duty is to persuade the saints from the word of God/wisdom,6 while the saints' job is to allow themselves to be persuaded by the ministry over them, and subsequently obey them.
Genuine persuasion will only come after one has placed his trust in those who have the rule over him. Trust is something gained over time and through experience. Persuasion will never come as a result of mere commands. Persuasion comes with explanation. The main avenue of persuasion is teaching and reasoning, following the apostolic method (See Acts 13:43; 17:2, 17; 18:4, 19; 19:8-9, 26; 20:7, 9; 24:12, 25; 28:23).
The Rest of the Verse
The next phrase, tois egoumenois humon, meaning "your leaders," is in the dative case. The particular use of this dative is the dative of person/thing. When peitho is followed by a dative of person in the Greek, the meaning is to obey or follow.7
The word "rule" comes from the Greek word hegeomai.. It means "to lead, i.e. command (with official authority)."8 Thayers says it means "to go before; to be a leader; to have authority over."9 The author of Hebrews wanted the church to be persuaded of those who were the leaders among them. These men were those who went before others, leading the way.
The Greek word translated "submit" is hupeiko. The word appears only here in the entire New Testament. It is a compound of two Greek words: hupo meaning "under" and eiko meaning "to yield." Its literal meaning is "to yield ones self under." In this case, it means to yield ones self under the leaders of the church.
Relevance to the Believer
Let it not be thought that I am arguing that the idea of obedience is not found in Hebrews 13:17, but rather I am arguing that the obedience suggested comes as a result of persuasion, not dictation. The Hebrews were to allow themselves to be persuaded to obedience. Their obedience was not to be blind obedience, but obedience that came by persuasion from those who have the rule.
This passage has been illegitimately used to set up ministerial dictatorships that take prisoner-of-war anyone who sincerely questions the teachings and practices of the ministry. This is not the point of the verse. In context the author seems to imply that the authority given to those who have the rule is the authority of the Word of God (Hebrews 13:7). If it is the Word of God, and the passage implies that those who have the rule are to do some persuading, then the obedience being spoken of not some uncritically accepted, blind obedience to anything anyone in the ministry says, but the responsibility of the saint to heed to the authority of the Word of God
being spoken by the man of God. Nowhere does the Bible teach that the saints musst obey those who are not teaching God's Word, but rather their own doctrines. Jesus called these the doctrines of men and rebuked those who advocated them and followed them as though they were God's Word (Mark 7:7-8; See also Matthew 15:9; Colossians 2:22). The authority of the ministry is rooted in the Word of God.
Nowhere does the Bible teach that a man's opinion becomes as binding as the Word of God simply because of his position, yet some illegitimately teach from Hebrews 13:17 that if the ministry says "Jump," the response of the congregation should be "How high?". Such a teaching is unbiblical. The ministry is not equal with God so that they can teach and do whatever they like without accountability to someone. They are shepherds over God's flock to lead it and guide it to
Him, not to themselves. They are under-shepherds to the Great Shepherd, and thus cannot simply make up their own rules for all to follow. Their teachings must be rooted in the teachings of the Great Shepherd.
The saints are to be submissive to those who have the rule, following them as they follow Christ, but they are also to be convinced that theye are following the direction and truth of God being expressed through the man of God, and not the man himself.
The literal sense of Hebrews 13:17 is as follows: "Be persuaded to obedience by those who have the responsibility of leading you, and yield yourselves under them: 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."
The obedience to the leaders is real, but what brings about that obedience is the persuasion exerted by the leaders. The job of the church is to heed this persuasion to the point of obedience. This paper is not an attempt to rid the text of its call to obedience, but to demonstrate that this obedience comes about by persuasion, not by a game of Simon-says obedience. I have attempted to demonstrate the process by which one arrives at obedience.
The Syntax, tense, voice, and mood of peitho in Hebrews 13:17 all shed light on the meaning of the author's command to obey the leadership. It gives us a different perspective than is commonly circulating today; being understood that the obedience, although real, is the result of persuasion by the ministry. The obedience of the saints comes as a result of their faith, and their submission comes as a result of persuasion, not fear.
1. W.E. Vine, The Expanded Vine's Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words (Minneapolis: Bethany House Publishers, 1984), 851. <back>
2. Ibid., 108. <back>
3. Henry George Liddel and Robert Scott, Greek-English Lexicon (New York: Oxford University Press, 1843), 1354. <back>
4. J.H. Thayer, The New Thayer's Greek-English Lexicon, vol. 2 (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1981). <back>
5. Vine, 796. <back>
6. I Timothy 3:2; 4:6; II Timothy 2:2, 14, 24-26; 3:14, 16-17; Titus 1:9; 2:1-3:2. <back>
7. Walter Bauer, William F. Arndt, F. Wilbur Gingrich, and Frederick W. Danker, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1979), 639. <back>
8. James Strong, The New Strong's Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1990), 35, #2233. <back>
9. Thayer, 276. <back>
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