I am in no way a Bible scholar, but when dealing with a verse that teachers lean on heavily I have learned to stop and ask myself whether I understand the meaning of the key words in the verse. Since for awhile now I have been studying and pondering the nature of biblical eldership, I’ve often been confronted with Hebrews 13:17a: “Obey them that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves.” (KJV) As naturally understood in modern English, this is potent stuff in the hands of those who claim that elders can and should exercise control over the behavior of their parishioners. So I have to ask myself: are we all agreed on the meanings of the key words here, namely obey and rule and submit?
For now, let’s just consider the meaning of the Greek word which the KJV translates as obey, namely peithō. Here are how some different translations found at Bible Gateway handle that word:
- Obey them that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves. (KJV)
- Obey your leaders and submit to their authority. (NIV)
- Obey your leaders and submit to them. (NASB, ESV)
- Obey your spiritual leaders, and do what they say. (NLT)
- Obey your leaders and submit to them. (ESV)
- Obey those who rule over you, and be submissive. (NKJV)
- Obey your leaders and act under their authority. (NCV)
- Be obedient to those leading you, and be subject. (YLT)
Well, the standard translations seem to be in agreement that obey is a good way to render this particular use of peithō into English. But there are a couple of oddball dissents:
- Have confidence in your leaders and submit to their authority. (TNIV)
- Be responsive to your pastoral leaders. Listen to their counsel. (The Message)
Are these last two translations twisting the plain meaning of peithō for their own purposes, or is there room for reading the word as something not nearly as strong as obey?
Turning to the Blue Letter Bible, which provides an online version of Strong’s Concordance, we find the following definition for peithō:
a) to persuade, i.e. to induce one by words to believe
b) to make friends of, to win one’s favour, gain one’s good will, or to seek to win one, strive to please one
c) to tranquillise
d) to persuade unto i.e. move or induce one to persuasion to do something
2) be persuaded
a) to be persuaded, to suffer one’s self to be persuaded; to be induced to believe: to have faith: in a thing
1) to believe
2) to be persuaded of a thing concerning a person
b) to listen to, obey, yield to, comply with
3) to trust, have confidence, be confident
There’s a lot in there about persuasion, trust, confidence, and good will, and even the one mention of obey comes wrapped in “listen to, obey, yield to, comply with.” It’s far afield from the understanding of obey I have in its usual English usage, e.g. obedience to a commander or a parent.
So, is peithō always or even commonly translated as obey? Again turning to the Blue Letter Bible entry, we see that the word occurs 63 times in 55 verses of the New Testament, and the distribution is as follows: persuade 22, trust 8, obey 7, have confidence 6, believe 3, be confident 2, misc 7. So about one in eight times it is translated as obey, while seven in eight times the attitude it describes is said to be persuasion, trust, confidence or belief.
It is even more instructive to look at all 55 verses where peithō occurs (something else the Blue Letter Bible entry tells us); a broad unity of meaning does seem to emerge, and to me the meaning is badly described by obedience as it is understood in modern times. But my point here is not to debunk the common interpretation of Hebrews 13:17, but only to demonstrate that it is not enough to trust that a Bible translation has chosen just the right word to convey a concept, and also that it really isn’t much work to gather information that will give us a sounder context for pondering a verse.
(I’ve listed the 55 verses containg peithō after the “Continue Reading”… link.)
But the chief priests and elders persuaded the multitude that they should ask Barabbas , and destroy Jesus.
He trusted in God; let him deliver him no, if he will have him: for he said I am the Son of God.
And if this come to the governor’s ears, we will persuade him, and secure you.
And the disciples were astonished at his word. But Jesus answereth again, and saith unto them, Children, how hard is it for them that trust in riches to enter into the kingdom of God!
And he said unto him, If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded, though one rose from the dead.
And he spake this parable unto certain which trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others:
But and if we say , Of men; all the peopl will stone us: for they be persuaded that John was a prophet.
For before these days rose up Theudas, boasting himself to be somebody; to whom a number of men, about four hundred, joined themselves: who was slain; and all, as many as obeyed him, were scattered, and brought to nought.
After this man rose up Judas of Galilee in the days of the taxing, and drew away much people after him: he also perished; and all, even as many as obeyed him, were dispersed.
And to him they agreed: and when they had called the apostles, and beaten them, they commanded that they should not speak in the name of Jesus, and let them go.
And Herod was highly displeased with them of Tyre and Sidon: but they came with one accord to him, and, having made Blastus the king’s chamberlain their friend, desired peace; because their country was nourished by the king’s country.
Now when the congregation was broken up, many of the Jews and religious proselytes followed Paul and Barnabas: who, speaking to them, persuaded them to continue in the grace of God.
And there came thither certain Jews from Antioch and Iconium, who persuaded the people, and having stoned Paul, drew him out of the city, supposing he had been dead.
And some of them believed, and consorted with Paul and Silas; and of the devout Greeks a great multitude, and of the chief women not a few.
And he reasoned in the synagogue every sabbath, and persuaded the Jews and the Greeks.
And he went into the synagogue, and spake boldly for the space of three months, disputing and persuading the things concerning the kingdom of God.
Moreover ye see and hear, that not alone at Ephesus, but almost throughout all Asia, this Paul hath persuaded and turned away much people, saying that they be no gods, which are made with hands.
And when he would not be persuaded, we ceased, saying, The will of the Lord be done.
But do not thou yield unto them: for there lie in wait for him of them more than forty men, which have bound themselves with an oath, that they will neither eat nor drink till they have killed him: and now are they ready, looking for a promise from thee.
For the king knoweth of these things, before whom also I speak freely: for I am persuaded that none of these things are hidden from him; for this thing was not done in a corner.
Then Agrippa said unto Paul, Almost thou persuadest me to be a Christian.
Nevertheless the centurion believed the master and the owner of the ship, more than those things which were spoken by Paul.
And when they had appointed him a day, there came many to him into his lodging; to whom he expounded and testified the kingdom of God, persuading them concerning Jesus, both out of the law of Moses, and out of the prophets, from morning till evening.
And some believed the things which were spoken, and some believed not.
But unto them that are contentious, and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, indignation and wrath,
And art confident that thou thyself art a guide of the blind, a light of them which are in darkness,
For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come,
I know, and am persuaded by the Lord Jesus, that [there is] nothing unclean of itself: but to him that esteemeth any thing to be unclean, to him [it is] unclean.
And I myself also am persuaded of you, my brethren, that ye also are full of goodness, filled with all knowledge, able also to admonish one another.
But we had the sentence of death in ourselves, that we should not trust in ourselves, but in God which raiseth the dead:
And I wrote this same unto you, lest, when I came, I should have sorrow from them of whom I ought to rejoice; having confidence in you all, that my joy is [the joy] of you all.
Knowing therefore the terror of the Lord, we persuade men; but we are made manifest unto God; and I trust also are made manifest in your consciences.
Do ye look on things after the outward appearance? If any man trust to himself that he is Christ’s, let him of himself think this again, that, as he [is] Christ’s, even so [are] we Christ’s.
For do I now persuade men, or God? or do I seek to please men? for if I yet pleased men, I should not be the servant of Christ.
O foolish Galatians, who hath bewitched you, that ye should not obey the truth, before whose eyes Jesus Christ hath been evidently set forth, crucified among you?
Ye did run well; who did hinder you that ye should not obey the truth?
I have confidence in you through the Lord, that ye will be none otherwise minded: but he that troubleth you shall bear his judgment, whosoever he be.
Being confident of this very thing, that he which hath begun a good work in you will perform [it] until the day of Jesus Christ:
And many of the brethren in the Lord, waxing confident by my bonds, are much more bold to speak the word without fear.
And having this confidence, I know that I shall abide and continue with you all for your furtherance and joy of faith;
But I trust in the Lord that I also myself shall come shortly.
For we are the circumcision, which worship God in the spirit, and rejoice in Christ Jesus, and have no confidence in the flesh.
Though I might also have confidence in the flesh. If any other man thinketh that he hath whereof he might trust in the flesh, I more:
And we have confidence in the Lord touching you, that ye both do and will do the things which we command you.
When I call to remembrance the unfeigned faith that is in thee, which dwelt first in thy grandmother Lois, and thy mother Eunice; and I am persuaded that in thee also.
For the which cause I also suffer these things: nevertheless I am not ashamed: for I know whom I have believed, and am persuaded that he is able to keep that which I have committed unto him against that day.
Having confidence in thy obedience I wrote unto thee, knowing that thou wilt also do more than I say.
And again, I will put my trust in him. And again, Behold I and the children which God hath given me.
But, beloved, we are persuaded better things of you, and things that accompany salvation, though we thus speak.
These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off, and were persuaded of [them], and embraced [them], and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth.
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.
Pray for us: for we trust we have a good conscience, in all things willing to live honestly.
Behold, we put bits in the horses’ mouths, that they may obey us; and we turn about their whole body.
And hereby we know that we are of the truth, and shall assure our hearts before him.