As this article continues as part 2 of the 3 part series, it will deal more specifically with the text which is as follows:

Hebrews 13:17 from the New English Bible “Obey your leaders and defer to them; for they are tireless in their concern for you, as men who must render an account.  Let it be a happy task for them, and not pain and grief, for that would bring you no advantage.”

Please note that the word “elder” is not used; but the word is “leader”. In fact “elder” is used only one time in Hebrews 11:2 and only the KJV and ASV use the word “elder”. The RSV, NEB has the correct translation using the words “men of old” and the NIV uses “ancients” as the correct meanings for the reference is to the Old Testament.  So it is doubtful if Hebrews 13:17 is actually addressing elders in our sense of those recognized as such in the church.  This idea is further strengthened by the fact that Hebrews is not addressed to any particular church.  It is a letter sent to a more general group, possibly some well trained Jews preparing to strengthen churches or to plant new churches in other cities.  Obviously this group had their leaders for they are spoken of 3 times in chapter 13.  BUT let me hasten on to say that it is certainly applicable and appropriate to relate the passage to the church situation.

I Thessalonians 5:12 states “But we beseech you, brethren, to know them that labor among you, and are over you in the Lord, and admonish you; and to esteem them exceeding highly in love for their work’s sake.” ASV   This certainly applies to brothers “working so hard” NEB in the church.  It is very doubtful this is referring to elders because the church was so new and the church in general so young that no elders existed there.  It seems Paul purposefully declines to refer these “hard working men” as elders or deacons.  It may well have happened that these “hard working men” may have served the church at Thessalonica as elders in the future for such attributes should certainly characterize elders…men devoted, enthusiastic and active participants in the church.

When spiritual gifts are topics in the New Testament each one is talked about as special and needed.  So it should be those serving the flock most, understanding the Word and able to effectively communicate it to others, by teaching and example, that are recognized as leaders.

The approach to our verse (Heb. 13:17) will be to attempt to understand a few key words in the text and related passages in Scripture to truly understand the shepherd role in the church.  These words are OBEY, RULE, & SUBMIT.

Consider the first word in the verse: OBEY. There are 13 English equivalents.

  1. Be convinced
  2. Give assent (agreement)
  3. To rely on (by inward certainty)
  4. Become content with
  5. Agree with
  6. Be assured by
  7. Believe
  8. Have confidence in
  9. Make friends with
  10. Obey
  11. Be persuaded by
  12. Trust
  13. Yield to

Please take note that most of the equivalents are much less forceful words than the command “Obey”. These terms are also more consistent with the teaching of Jesus.

Looking at the same event in Mark 10:42-45 and in Matt. 23:8-12 it says in Matt. 23:11-12 “But he that is greatest among you shall be your servant. And whosoever shall exalt himself shall be humbled: and whosoever shall humble himself shall be exalted.” Paul Howey suggests this reading for Hebrews 13:17“Heed the warning of those who watch over you and when they tell you to obey the Scriptures, obey the Scriptures.” It is true that the KJV, ASV, RSV and NIV all translate this word as “obey”, but “heed” certainly captures the spirit of shepherding.

“SUBMIT” is a key word that we mostly think of in some authoritarian way.  Consider John 10:7-13 Jesus says He is the “good Shepherd”

ASV Jesus therefore said to them again, Verily, Verily, I say unto you I am the door of the sheep.  All that came before me are thieves and robbers: but the sheep did not hear them.  I am the door; by me if any man enter in, he shall be saved, and shall go in and go out, and shall find pasture.  The thief cometh not, but that he may steal, and kill, and destroy: I came that they may have life, and may have it abundantly, I am the good shepherd: the good shepherd layeth down his life for the sheep.  He that is a hireling, and not a shepherd, whose own the sheep are not, beholdeth the wolf coming and leaveth the sheep, and fleeth, and the wolf snatcheth them, and, scattereth them: he fleeth because he is a hireling and careth not the sheep.”

Sheep folds were used to keep the sheep closely together during the night when they were out in the open fields.  They were fenced enclosures usually made of stones.  Stones are plentiful throughout Israel.  The walls where constructed high enough so the sheep could not climb over them and they were also made to a height to discourage wild animals from coming over the top to attack the sheep.   The opening had no permanent door…it was just an opening.  So in order to be able to sleep during the night, the shepherd would lie down on the ground in the doorway opening.  We can picture this in our mind, the shepherd sleeping across the open door way into the sheep fold so he will know if man or animal tries to enter and harm the sheep in any way; and also if any of the sheep may wander out into any dangers of the night.  Isn’t this the essence of the leader to be especially mindful of any dangers of the night?

This show of courage and strength is toward threats and not toward the sheep.  So the shepherd is always thoughtful, gentle, and caring for the flock, never the bossy demanding CEO type.  Certainly not the General of an army, but is a gentle leader, leading by example and in word to all to follow the Scripture.  The shepherd (elder) protects, saves, feeds and provides all things needed for life, even abundant life.  He is literally laying down his life for the sheep as he sleeps on the ground across the doorway of the sheep fold.

In our day and time we look on this verse as referring to elders in the church as an office of some authority.  Our passage uses the words of “rule” and “obey”. To begin, it must be asked, is this consistent with the rest of Jesus’ teaching?  Jesus taught the disciples they were not to be like the rulers of the world but they were to be servants to others (Mark 10:42-45)NIV…”You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them.  Not so with you.  Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all.  For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many”. Peter in his first letter (5:2-3) also emphasized this by admonishing them to not lord it over the flock; but to be an example.

By the time the scriptures were translated into English the hierarchy of the Catholic Church greatly influenced the translators.  So strong words like “office” in I Timothy could, and   probably should be, translated “if a man desires to bishop” which has the meaning of serve, care about, minister to, etc.

Just think of Jesus example at the last Passover Supper he shared with His disciples by setting the stage for them as their “teacher” he washed their feet.  In that act he gave us the true meaning of what it is to “rule” and the flock is to “obey” or submit which is another much less authoritative meaning for the Greek word translated “obey”.

Recently I heard about the “Butter Fly Effect”.  So I just had to do a little research.  In an oversimplified statement it says:  A butterfly can flap its wings here today and create tiny changes in the atmosphere that may ultimately alter the path of a tornado or delay, accelerate or even prevent the occurrence of a tornado half way around the world.  Coining this title was  Edward Lorenz in a paper in 1961.  He was laughed at for years but has come to be recognized as having stumbled upon something important.  While working with a numerical computer model to rerun weather prediction, he entered a short cut in the number sequence.  He entered the number .506 instead of entering the full .506127.  This resulted in a totally different weather scenario.  How could (.000127) 127 millionth make such a difference in predicting weather outcome.  Hence the 127 millionth compares to the flap of a butterfly’s wings.  There are probably times in your life that you did something or said something that you didn’t remember the next day and later someone comes up to you, maybe even years later, and tells you what a blessing you were at that time.  Even sometimes their lives made a dramatic change due to some insignificance thing attributed to you.

Isn’t it a marvel that Jesus washing the disciple’s feet could have such an impact?  It is never again recorded that the disciples ever ask who was the greatest or who would have privileged places beside Him in His kingdom.  They all exemplified humble service through tough times and even death.  We can do the same and we all notice those men in the church acting in this way…serving, giving, helping, caring, acting like a shepherd protecting, feeding, leading, knowing each by name even holding them in their arms as the shepherd sometimes carries his sheep.

To serve the flock by caring and ministering to them, they must come from the flock, setting the example of Jesus.  It is Jesus that is the “chief Shepherd” (I Pet. 5:4).  Leaders in the church are not given some sort of divine authority…they are recognized for their servant attitude and comprehension of the Word.  They are willingly followed, or recognized much more than in the sense of being appointed.

In PART 3  the article will deal more specifically with the use of some of the Greek words

-Dick Lewis lives  in Johnson city, TN and is an Elder in the Locust Street Church of Christ