The actual non-word-for-word understanding of this partial verse in context with what the rest of the Bible teaches on the same subject is as follows:
“Heed the warning of those who watch over you and when they tell you to obey the Scriptures, obey the Scriptures.” Some Christians might even quickly summarize the first part of Heb 13:17 as “Obey the Bible as properly taught”. Either view is correct.
The problem is this: the popular incorrect translation of the original Greek as “Obey those who have the rule over you” simply does not square with (reconcile or harmonize) with the rest of the Scriptures and seems to empower certain men to have authoritarian rule in the church. But we know that the Bible forbids the authoritarian rule of men in the Church. Just look at the following four short passages:
42But Jesus called them to him, and said unto them, You know that they which are accounted to rule over the Gentiles exercise lordship over them; and their great ones exercise authority upon them. 43But so shall it not be among you: but whosoever will be great among you, shall be your minister [servant]: 44And whosoever of you will be the chiefest [greatest], shall be servant of all. 45For even the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many.
(Summary: Do not lord over, control or exercise authority over each other as the gentiles do.)
1The elders which are among you I exhort, who am also an elder, and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, and also a partaker of the glory that shall be revealed: 2Feed the flock of God which is among you, taking the oversight thereof, not by constraint, but willingly; not for filthy lucre, but of a ready mind; 3Neither as being lords over God's heritage, but being examples to the flock.
(Summary: Feed the flock of God but do not Lord over or control God's people.)
24No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon.
(Summary: You cannot obey two masters. Although the context here is referring to money, the principle remains the same for anyone or anything that would attempt to master you. Also see Luke 16:13)
8But be you not called Rabbi: for one is your Master, even Christ; and all you are brothers. 9And call no man your father upon the earth: for one is your Father, which is in heaven. 10Neither be you called masters: for one is your Master, even Christ. 11But he that is greatest among you shall be your servant. 12And whosoever shall exalt himself shall be abased [humbled]; and he that shall humble himself shall be exalted.
(Summary: We have One Master Christ and we are all brothers. Do not give or receive titles)
Furthermore the short one-chapter book of 3rd John shows the evil of authoritarianism and the trouble it causes in the church:
9I wrote unto the church: but Diotrephes, who loves to have the preeminence among them, receives us not.10Wherefore, if I come, I will remember his deeds which he doeth, prating against us with malicious words: and not content therewith, neither does he himself receive the brethren, and forbids them that would, and casts them out of the church. 11Beloved, follow not that which is evil, but that which is good. He that doeth good is of God: but he that doeth evil hath not seen God.
Even a child could see that the popular yet totally incorrect rendering of Heb13:17 from the Greek into English cannot in any way be reconciled with the passages above because it teaches the exact opposite. And, these are just a few of the many verses that Hebrews 13:17 and other similarly mistranslated “leadership and authority” verses do not square with.
Thank God that we have the Bible in its perfect infallible form in the original languages. Also, thank God that we have many good translations that are at least about 98.5% accurate with no translation error affecting any major doctrine of salvation.
Often times, when faced with a dozen or more possible definitions of what a particular New Testament Greek word might mean in English, we see translators selecting the worst possible potential English equivalent for a given Greek Word. There are a number of reasons for this. (Please see the Appendix at the end of this article.)
The result is some translators have “read into a verse” that which is simply not there. Some make literal the few things in the Bible that are figurative and make figurative or symbolic the many things in the Bible that are clearly literal.
Not surprisingly, the area of leadership and authority is often where we see the most mistranslated verses in even good translations of the Bible. This is likely because this is the power base by which men gain control over other men by subjugating the teachings of the Scriptures to manmade traditions. Therefore:
Well-meaning translators with the best of intentions, being human, are subject to the temptation of influence by their own denominations, church leaders, church traditions, personal opinions, etc.
False teachings in the area of leadership and authority are nothing new. Further, as we see in Mark 7:10-13, Jesus exposed the common practice among the Pharisees of giving precedence to their own teachings and traditions over the Word of God.
10For Moses said, Honor thy father and thy mother; and, Whoso curses father or mother, let him die the death: 11But you say, If a man shall say to his father or mother, It is Corban, that is to say, a gift, by whatsoever you might have profited by me; he shall be free. 12And you suffer him no more to do ought for his father or his mother; 13Making the word of God of none effect through your tradition, which you have delivered: and many such like things you do.
By “Corban” the Pharisees meant that by giving money to the temple treasury that a man’s financial obligation to his aged parents (who could not take care of themselves) was already paid and their obligation was already fulfilled. Who was the direct beneficiary of this false teaching? You probably guessed it, the Pharisees. Who got robbed? The parents who were in need.
This passage establishes, as an age-old practice, the substituting of the teachings of men for what the Scriptures say.
Now let’s look at a quick case study of just one of the individual mistranslated words within Heb 13:17. As I plan to post an extensive teaching on this in the future, I am not going to spend a whole lot of time on this right now. But just to “wet your whistle”, let’s take a look at the list of thirteen potential English equivalents for the Greek word “peitho” that many translators chose to translate simply as “obey”:
- Be convinced
- Give assent [agreement]
- To rely on (by inward certainty)
- Agree with
- Be assured by
- Have confidence in
- Become content with
- Make friends with
- Be persuaded by
- Yield to
(Isn’t it quite interesting that of all the possibilities on this list, the translators chose to translate “peitho” into English as just “obey”, while the central theme and nuances of the true meaning in the Greek are totally lost? The essence of the meaning of this fragrant Greek word cannot possibly be conveyed in English by the single word “obey”.)
It is clear, when taken in context with the rest of this Scripture and with the other words properly translated, (as well as what the rest of the Bible teaches on the subject), that “peitho” simply means believing, trusting, obeying and accepting. The question is believing…and accepting what? The answer from the context is this: believing, trusting, obeying and accepting God’s Word as accurately or faithfully presented by true elders.
It is assumed or implied that these are true not false elders. When the Bible mentions things in passing like the subject of elders, it is always assumed that these things are genuine and true. So we know the Bible is not allowing or endorsing false elders.
This word “peitho” here does not in any way suggest or license some type of blind obedience to a self-proclaimed dictator or groups of co-dictators. There is a similar translation problem with the words “rule”, etc. and God willing we will look at that another time.
Heb 13:17 is clearly not a license for men to dictate, rule, control, command, dominate, and otherwise exercise authority over others in the church. We know this first and foremost because Jesus and His Apostles told us that such things are forbidden!
A true elder, commonly called pastor is a servant-guide protector not a dictatorial lording leader. A true elders is not a CEO corporate America mover and shaker but rather one who truly feeds and protects the sheep, not for their own personal gain or to support heir own personal agendas
The thing that sparks us to do this study in the first place, in addition to our desire to know and obey God’s will, is recognizing and accepting the truth that nothing in the Bible contradicts. And we see a glaring contradiction here between Heb 13:17 (and 7) compared to what the rest of the Bible teaches on the very same subject.
It is important to mention that some discerning Christians with a sufficient working knowledge of the Bible would not even need to look at the Greek in order to be convinced of the truth here. They would simply read the first part of Heb 13:17 as saying “Obey the rule of Christ as men who watch over you faithfully teach the Word” or “Heed the warning of those who watch over you and when they tell you to obey Christ, obey Christ.”, etc. (Beware however that some false teachers claim that anything they dream up is Christ giving His commands through them. Of course we know that this is not true.) As I mentioned above, some Christians might even quickly summarize the first half of Heb 13:17 correctly as “Obey the Bible as properly taught”. If these more mature Christians look at the Greek at all, it is usually just to be properly armed so that they can prove the true meaning of poorly translated verses like these to those who need convincing.
Let me also say that for your own edification, you might want to do your own word study of Heb 13:17, specifically the words “obey”, “rule”, “submit” and “authority” using a good Greek concordance, lexicon, etc. If you study with a mind that is open to God’s truth and you keep things in proper context believing that no Scripture conflicts with any other Scripture, then you will undoubtedly be in for an eye opening revelation.
Some of the more likely reasons that translators mistranslate the Scriptures are:
- Failure of translators to recognize the true obvious literal context of a verse in close context with other nearby Bible verses and passages.
- Failure of translators to translate some verses in context with the whole Bible, carefully taking into account what the rest of the Bible teaches on the same subject.
- Failure of translators to look for the harmony and agreement of all Scriptures. This is usually a result of some translators not believing in the total inerrancy of the Scriptures in the original languages.
- Failure of translators to resist political pressure and their own personal bias.
- Last but not least, failure of translators to recognize the overall leading of the Holy Spirit who never contradicts the Scriptures.
It is important to include the following statements in any discussion of mistranslated verses:
- The Bible is infallible and without error in the original languages of Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek. We look to the tens of thousands of ancient manuscripts to prove beyond the shadow of any doubt that the Bible is Divinely inspired and totally reliable.
- Translations of the original manuscripts into other languages can and often do contain some (usually very minor) translational errors. Thankfully, in any good translation of the Bible, these errors do not affect any major doctrine of salvation.
- We must be aware that no Scripture conflicts with any other Scripture. Knowing this fact along with an overall knowledge of the Bible, we can quickly detect any mistranslated verse by the leading of the Holy Spirit.
- We must beware that there are many dangerous people today who say that soundly translated verses are mistranslated in order to try and get the Bible to say whatever they want. This is a very common practice today, especially among many cults.
- There are a number of very bad “translations” circulating today that are really no translations at all, such at Eugene Peterson’s personal commentary put to chapter and verse and passed off as a real Bible. It’s called The Message. It is no Bible and is actually quite dangerous for many reasons, not the least of which is the fact that people who own one of these false Bibles actually think that they have the real Scriptures in their hands. Among many other things, Peterson often substitutes things that are sometimes true in the world in place of actual Bible truths.
- Good fairly reliable translations include: NASB, KJV, NKJV, AMP, and others.
More could be added to this list, but I think this is good for now.