Exploring the biblical theology of Christian egalitarianism

Rule Over You? (Hebrews 13)

“Remember them which have the rule over you …” Hebrews 13:7 KJV
“Obey them that have the rule over you …” Hebrews 13:17 KJV
“Salute all them that have the rule over you …” Hebrews 13:24 KJV

It should go without saying that Christian leaders in the church are not, or should not be, rulers. They do not have authority over the lives of capable brothers and sisters in Christ. But these three verses in Hebrews 13 seem to say that church leaders are rulers.

The Greek word hēgeomai used in these verses does not always mean “rule” with the strong sense conveyed in the KJV. And the Greek New Testament never says that Christian leadership is about having rule over, or having authority over, fellow believers. The KJV translators have added the word “over” in the three phrases quoted above.

“Them that have the rule over you” in the King James Version is an overly strong translation of the Greek word hēgeomai that does not reflect Jesus’s or Paul’s teachings on ministry in the church, including the ministry of leaders.

Obey your Leaders? (Hebrews 13:17)

Furthermore, the word traditionally translated as “obey” in Hebrews 13:17, peithō, often means “persuade” (in the active voice) or “be persuaded” (in the passive voice). Peithō can also convey the ideas of “confidence” or “trust,” because if you are persuaded by someone or something, you usually have confidence and trust in that person or thing.

The Greek verb, peithō, is used four times in the book of Hebrews in various conjugations. It occurs in Hebrews 2:13 (KJV: “put my trust”), Heb. 6:9 (KJV: “we are persuaded”), Heb. 13:18 (KJV: “we trust”), as well as the previous verse, Heb. 13:17 where it is translated this one time as “obey”: “Obey them that have the rule over you …”

The verb peithō and the related adjective are sometimes connected with the idea of obedience. For example, on his deathbed, emperor Marcus Aurelius used an analogy of slaves who are obedient after being ‘won over’ (peithous) by their master rather than being obedient from coercion or compulsion. He applied the analogy to his subjects. See The Communings with Himself of Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, edited and translated by C. R. Haines (Loeb Classical Library; London: W. Heinemann; New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1916), 354–355. (Internet Archive)

Other English Translations of Hebrews 13:17

A few recent translations have broken with tradition in their rendering of Hebrews 13:17a. For example, the Common English Bible has, “Rely on your leaders …” (CEB). The recent edition of the New International Version has, “Have confidence in your leaders …” (NIV 2011). The International Standard Version has, “Continue to follow … your leaders (ISV).

In whatever way we understand the word of Hebrews 13:17, as with all instructions in the Bible, this verse should be implemented with wisdom, common sense, and kindness, and not followed mindlessly.

Jesus taught and demonstrated that Christian ministry is not about ruling or exercising authority over others. It’s about humbly serving each other. And we should all submit, that is, cooperate, support, and join with those who are faithfully serving God and his people (cf. 1 Cor. 16:16).

Be confident in your leaders 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 (literally: groaning), for that would be unprofitable for you (cf. Heb. 13:17 KJV).

© Margaret Mowczko 2013
Last edited March 2023
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Excerpt from Jesus Washing Peter’s Feet (1852–56) by Ford Madox Brown. Wikimedia: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Jesus_washing_Peter%27s_feet.jpg

Postscript: April 15, 2023

Here’s a screenshot of how the HCSB translates peitho. The screenshot is taken from the Logos Bible Study App and was shared in an interesting Twitter conversation here. (Note that the HCSB is not an English Bible translation that I favour.)

Explore more

Authority in the Church
Jesus on Leadership and Community
7 Lessons from the Ministry of Stephanas (1 Cor. 16:15–18)
Bible Women with Spiritual Authority
Paul’s Masculine and Feminine Leadership
My articles on submission are here.
My articles on kephalē (“head”) are here.
My articles on Paul’s Theology of Ministry are here.
My articles tagged Equality in Ministry are here.
My articles on apostles in the New Testament are here.
Paul’s Thanks – Philippians 1:3–6 

Wade Burleson (pastor of Emmanuel Baptist Church in Enid, Oklahoma) has taken a brief look at authority in the church, and the history of the word ekklesia (“congregation, church”), in his article entitled Who’s the Boss at Your Church?

In this video, Wade Burleson explains that there is no Greek word for “over” in the verses about church leaders in Hebrews chapter 13. My article Authority in the Church covers some of the same ground as the video.

Only Servants and No Masters (Hebrews 13:7) from Emmanuel Enid on Vimeo.

6 thoughts on “A Note on Hebrews 13:17

  1. Really enjoyed this! Thank you for sharing! Loving your other articles on authority too!

  2. That was mostly quite good. I’m still sorting it out, but for now ISTM he’s doing some cherry-picking in regard to “hegeomai,” and in regard to English derivatives. In regard to the latter, the English “hegemon” is *very* strong in its sense of dominance and authority.

    NT usage seems pretty varied.

    1. Hēgeomai has a range of strengths. At one end of the spectrum, it is the strongest word used in the context of Christian leadership in the Greek New Testament, but the idea of ruling people or having dominance is the exact opposite of what Jesus taught and demonstrated.

      So either 1. the author of Hebrews got it wrong when he used the word hēgeomai for church leaders, or 2. he simply meant leaders, not rulers. I’m going with the second option.

      Needless to say, loan words in the English language from Greek aren’t a reliable indicator of a word’s various senses and forces.

      For example, “despot” is a loan word that conveys a particularly harsh sense, even a brutal sense, in English. We would never call God a “despot,” but he is addressed as despota (Lord, Master) a few times in the Bible without any sense of harshness or despotism.

      1. On the “loan words” thing — Of course. I brought it up because (1) the word was already floating around in my mind because of news reports about President Xi’s ambitions to be a world “hegemon,” and (2) because Pastor Burleson invoked other English derivatives of the word.

        I wonder if it’s possible that different NT churches had different leadership structures.

  3. Hebrews 13:17 is a verse that has been used to justify authoritarian leadership in a church. This is a key verse to ask about when looking for a church as to how they understand it. How I understand it is as follows: Joining a church means some kind of commitment and my commitment to the leader(s) is that I will take seriously whatever they officially teach and investigate further if I have questions and see if they can persuade me about what they are teaching; but if I am not persuaded, so be it (as I am ultimately responsible for my own faith). But that is much too long to put into a translation.

  4. Wade Burleson, who is now retired from pastoring in Enid, also has written a longer study of this topic. The title is “Fraudulent Authority” and it is self-published and sold on Amazon in kindle and paperback versions. I have read it and learned much from it. This was published in 2016.

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