A proper understanding of Hebrews 13:17

Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you. (Hebrews 13:17 ESV)

The Network relies on this verse for its leadership style, in particular the first sentence. The verse is typically used to demand obedience to leaders on all matters. However, this interpretation is wrong and has consequences. Though others have critiqued the Network leadership style in general, this article focuses on this single verse.

We should better understand the thrust of the passage like this: “Put your trust in your leaders who have shown genuine care for the souls under their stewardship, knowing they will be held responsible for the ways they mislead. Trusting them in this way brings them joy.” To explain this, we’ll first look at the book of Hebrews at a high level. This will show how our interpretation fits within its immediate context. Then, we will address objections by adding other Scripture and sources. This article will use the ESV unless otherwise noted.

The context of Hebrews

First, we should consider the verse in the context of the entire book of Hebrews. How does any interpretation of Hebrews 13:17 fit into this book? What did it mean for the original audience, and what does it mean for us today? The book of Hebrews encourages Christians to persevere in their faith. The supremacy of Christ is a key theme. Jesus is:

  • a better prophet (1:2)
  • superior to angels (1:4)
  • “worthy of more glory than Moses” (3:3)
  • “a great high priest” (4:14) “after the order of Melchizedek” (4:10)
  • with a better ministry
    • mediating a better covenant (8:6)
    • ministering in the true temple (8:1)
    • offering a better sacrifice (8:12) made once for all (9:26).

Because of these things, we:

  • “must pay much closer attention to what we have heard” (2:1)
  • must not harden our hearts as in the rebellion in the wilderness (3:8, 15; 4:6)
  • “strive to enter” the Sabbath rest, “For the word of God is living and active…” (4:9–13)
  • “leave the elementary doctrine of Christ and go on to maturity” (6:1)
  • “draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith” (10:19)
  • “consider how to stir up one another to love and good works” (10:24)
  • “lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely” and “run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith” (12:1–2)
  • “offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe” (12:28)

The first twelve chapters could be summed up by the beginning of chapter 12. The recipients are encouraged to persevere in their faith Jesus Christ, who is the founder and perfecter of it, and is, simply put, better. To press forward, we look back.

The final chapter has various entreaties on how Christians are to live out their faith. Here we focus on verses 7–17. It is important not to only consider 7 and 17, but this section as a whole. Note that leaders are “those who spoke to you the word of God.” (v7) They are those whose way of life leads to an outcome that draws us to imitate their faith. What is their faith? It’s “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” (11:1) How can faith have such assurance and conviction? Because “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.” (v8) Thus, we imitate the faith of our leaders by holding to the rock solid promises found in Jesus, rather than “be led away by diverse and strange teachings.” (v9)

Verses 10–14 explain that Christians, like Jesus, should “bear the reproach he endured.” (v13) The original audience is being told to accept rejection from the Jewish faith that they came from. Jesus is better and “we have an altar from which those who serve the tent have no right to eat.” (v10) “Those who serve the tent” refers to Levites who served in the temple and had a portion of the sacrifices to eat. In other words, maintaining the Jewish faith eliminated their right to Jesus’ ministry.

We as Christians have this ministry. So, we “offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that acknowledge his name.” (v15) Faith in Jesus results in us doing good and sharing what we have, “for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.” (v16)

Finally, we reach verse 17. What does it mean to “obey your leaders and submit to them?” With the added context in this section, we can conclude that leaders in Hebrews were people that held fast to the word they received. They were persevering in the faith. Their faith rested on the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus, things that happened in the past, but gave promises for the future. They demonstrated their faith with their lives. They were concerned for their own souls and those under their care, that they also hold fast to the word they received, rather than falling back to their Jewish heritage. Thus, they exhorted the congregation to keep their eyes on the word handed down. The author wrote to encourage the congregation to follow their leaders in perseverance. Obedience outside of the commands of Scripture wasn’t in the picture. It still isn’t today.


Perhaps the previous section is not persuasive for the proposed interpretation. After all, it is hardly as explicit as the “absolute” command to obey. What follows is a set of objections that someone might raise, and answers that bring in other Scripture and sources.

Obey means obey. Turning it into “trust” is twisting the Scriptures, which is what you accuse them of doing!

The Greek word behind “obey” is more like “be persuaded,” or as the NIV puts it, “have confidence in.” Obedience is the natural outcome of trusting your leaders. John Piper in a sermon says this:

What then does “Obey your leaders and submit to them” mean? The word for “obey” (peith) is a very broad word and means “be persuaded by” (Hebrews 6:9), “trust” (Hebrews 2:13), “rely on” (Luke 11:22), and comes to mean “obey” because that is what you do when you trust somebody. So you might say it is a “soft” word for obey. It encourages a good relationship of trust, but still calls for the people to be swayed by leaders.

In a healthy church environment, people should allow their leaders to influence them. In a healthy church environment, leaders are worthy of their influence.

But you just said obedience is the natural outcome of trust, so what’s the difference?

It is in a sense putting the cart before the horse. Trust must be fostered, unlike obedience, which can be demanded. Trust is fostered by the leader’s example by their way of life (Hebrews 13:7).

I trust my leaders! Doesn’t that mean I’m on the hook to obey all of their commands?

Romans 14:23 tells us that “whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.” This is the first problem with the concept of “total obedience.” The second is the reason given behind the obedience: “for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account.” This refines the meaning of what the author means by leaders. You may also note the cross reference for this clause in the ESV to Ezekiel 3:17. Reading from this verse onward, it becomes clear that leaders watch over souls by warning people away from spiritual death through the word of God. Of course we should obey our leaders when they’re warning us from Scripture! This is also why Hebrews 13:7 calls leaders “those who spoke to you the word of God.” This means that obedience to your leader’s mere inclinations is not in the purview of Hebrews 13:17, nor is prophecy. Furthermore, those that ascribe Biblical authority to these things neither teach nor care for souls rightly. Charles Hodge in his Systematic Theology writes this:

The prerogatives of the Church are, first, to teach. Its great commission is to teach all nations. It is to teach what God has revealed in his word as to what men are to believe and what they are to do. Beyond the limits of the revelation contained in the Scriptures the Church has no more authority to teach than any other association among men. (p. 361)

Similarly, John Calvin writes in Institutes of the Christian Religion:

…they [leaders] ought not to claim for themselves more than Joshua had, who was also a prophet of the Lord and an excellent shepherd. But let us hear with what words the Lord appointed him to his office: “This Book of the Law shall not depart out of your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night… You shall not turn from it to the right hand or to the left; then you will direct your path, and understand it”. They, therefore, will be our spiritual rulers who turn aside from the law of the Lord neither this way nor that. (p. 1175, McNeill/Battles ed.)

Putting your trust in and obedience to someone who doesn’t teach and exhort from Scripture with care is not faith, but misplaced trust.

But isn’t prophecy the Holy Spirit speaking to us? Shouldn’t we be expected to obey the demands of a prophecy?

The Network’s own belief is that prophecy is a fallible way of hearing God’s word, and therefore cannot be elevated to the same level as the word of God. Scripture alone is sure to be the word of God, and so Scripture’s commands alone must we obey. This is not to say that prophecy should be ignored, “but test everything; hold fast what is good.” (1 Thessalonians 5:21) This is not a command given only to leaders, but to all.

Won’t my leaders be responsible for my sin if they mislead me? Shouldn’t that make me trust them?

Referring back to Ezekiel, we can see that “giving an account” doesn’t mean a leader will take responsibility for your sin. They will take responsibility for not properly watching over your soul. We are responsible for our own sin. Jesus makes the same point in condemning the Pharisees: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you travel across sea and land to make a single proselyte, and when he becomes a proselyte, you make him twice as much a child of hell as yourselves.” (Matthew 23:15). Thus, it is not fitting to trust a leader simply because he will be called to account. Rather, we trust our leaders because they take Scripture seriously for their own lives and ours.

But I like my leaders. Shouldn’t I obey them to bring them joy?

It is ultimately your decision whether to follow someone’s directives, and that’s the point. We need only obey commands that are “expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture.” (Westminster Confession of Faith 1.6) It is good to seek the joy of others, but is it good for leaders to experience joy from enjoining their sheep to matters outside of Scripture? Arguably, “that would be of no advantage to you” or your leaders, since it encourages them in their style of (mis-)leadership.

But Wayne Grudem says we are to submit to and obey our elders!

Yes, he does explain Hebrews 13:17 this way (p. 915, first ed.). But first, note that he specifically says elders, not leaders in general. Second, read chapter 8 on the sufficiency of Scripture. There are several takeaways here, but we focus on one. If your leaders demand something of you not in Scripture, but with the same force of Scripture, they are sinning. They are violating the principle of the sufficiency of Scripture, and we are not commanded to join our leaders in sin.

End thoughts

What does this mean for us today? We should look to our leaders as we strive to persevere in our faith. To do this, we must have leaders that exhibit their own perseverance. They must hold fast to the word that we have all received. Good leaders will show an earnest desire to help us keep on in the faith and rejoice as we do. Good leaders demand our conscience be captive to the word of God alone.

So, we end now with questions that everyone should ask themselves about their leaders. These aren’t meant to spur you to one action or another. They’re meant to help you honestly consider the leadership of your church. Of course, all leaders make mistakes. That’s not the point. Theology matters. If it is truly believed, it translates to action. If leaders have bad theology, it can have bad consequences. The longer they retain bad beliefs, the worse the consequences.

  • Do your leaders meditate on Scripture day and night? Does it revive their soul, rejoice their heart, enlighten their eyes? (Psalm 19) Do they encourage you to do the same? Or does it feel like more of a checkbox to fill to get around to more important things?
  • Do your leaders declare the whole counsel of God? (Acts 20:27) Or do they focus only on what they think is important, such as sustaining a model of church planting?
  • Are your leaders’ relationships with Jesus primarily based on his Word, found in Scripture? Or direct revelation?
  • Do your leaders limit their authority to what is found in Scripture? Or do they go beyond it, such as in matters of excommunication, who you should talk to or be friends with, date, or marry?
  • Do your leaders take feedback seriously? Or is counsel a one way street?
  • Do your leaders exhort from Scripture? (Ezekiel 3:17–21) Or do they bind you to their prophecies, visions, and inclinations? Do they punish you or treat you differently if you don’t follow their non-Scriptural commands?
  • Do your leaders care for everyone under their charge? Or do they focus all of their energy on the next generation of leaders?
  • Do your leaders do good and share what they have with the church body? (Hebrews 13:16) Or do they only share with the church institution?
  • Do your leaders act like servants? Or do they act like lords? (Matthew 20:25–28)
  • Do your leaders know your spiritual health? Or do they calculate it by how regularly you tithe, serve, and go to church events?
  • If you struggle in your faith, will they magnify the beauty and glory of Jesus Christ to encourage you? Will they remind you of the work he did, what he has done, is doing, and will do in you? Or will they just tell you to keep following your church program and things will get better?