“Be obedient to those who are taking the lead among you and be submissive…” (Hebrews 13:17)
In English, when we use the words “obey” and “obedience”, what thoughts come to mind? English words are often broadly nuanced with diverse subtleties of meaning. Is that the case with these two words? For example, would you consider “persuade” and “persuasion” to be synonyms for “obey” and “ob will edience”? What about “trust”, “urge” and “heed”?
Not likely, right? In fact, “obey” and “obedience” have a fairly restrictive usage in modern English. They are forceful words. They imply a master/servant relationship, or at the very least, a temporary position of subservience. In English, the terms do not carry with them any connotation of conditionality. For instance, a mother doesn’t tell a small child, “I want you to listen to me and to obey me, if you don’t mind.”
You wouldn’t stand up in court on a traffic offense and tell the judge, “I thought the speed limit was only a suggestion.”
Therefore, when an English speaker reads Hebrews 13:17, what understanding will he or she take from the verse as translated in the New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures or NWT?
“Be obedient to those who are taking the lead among YOU and be submissive,. . .”
Going to other translations doesn’t give us much more to go on. Most open with “Obey…”
- “Obey them that have the rule over you, and submit…” (King James, American Standard Version)
- “Obey your prelates, and be subject to them.” (Douay-Rheims Bible)
- “Obey your leaders and submit to their authority…” (New International Version)
- “Obey your spiritual leaders, and do what they say…” (New Living Translation)
The list goes on and on with little variance. Check it out for yourself using the Parallel feature at biblehub.com.
From this it seems clear, given the usage of the word “obey” in English, that we should consider those with authority in the congregation as our leaders, and we should obey them unquestioningly. Isn’t that what “obey” means in English?
Can the soldier say without fear of negative consequences that he disobeyed an order because he believed it was wrong? Can a young child get away with telling his mother that he didn’t obey her because he thought she was wrong? “Obey” and “obedience” simply do not allow for that subtlety of meaning.
Given that virtually every translation uses this word when rendering the Greek in this passage, one can’t be blamed for thinking that the English word carries the full meaning of the Greek. Therefore, it may surprise you to learn that such is not the case.
The Greek word rendered as “obedience” in the NWT and “obey” by almost everyone else is peithesthe. It is a verb, conjugated in the 2nd person plural imperative tense. The infinitive is peithó and it means “to persuade, to have confidence”. So in the imperative tense, Paul is commanding the Hebrew Christians to “be persuaded” or “to have confidence” in those taking the lead. So why isn’t it translated that way?
Here is an exhaustive list of every occurrence of the term in the Greek Scriptures.
(Matthew 27:20) But the chief priests and the older men persuaded the crowds to ask for Bar·ab?bas, but to have Jesus destroyed.
(Matthew 27:43) He has put his trust in God; let Him now rescue him if He wants him, for he said, ‘I am God’s Son.’”
(Matthew 28:14) And if this gets to the governor’s ears, we will persuade [him] and will set YOU free from worry.”
(Luke 11:22) But when someone stronger than he is comes against him and conquers him, he takes away his full armament in which he was trusting, and he divides out the things he despoiled him of.
(Luke 16:31) But he said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be persuaded if someone rises from the dead.’”
(Luke 18:9) But he spoke this illustration also to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and who considered the rest as nothing:
(Luke 20:6) But if we say, ‘From men,’ the people one and all will stone us, for they are persuaded that John was a prophet.”
(Acts 5:36) For instance, before these days Theu?das rose, saying he himself was somebody, and a number of men, about four hundred, joined his party. But he was done away with, and all those who were obeying him were dispersed and came to nothing.
(Acts 5:40) At this they gave heed to him, and they summoned the apostles, flogged them, and ordered them to stop speaking upon the basis of Jesus’ name, and let them go.
(Acts 12:20) Now he was in a fighting mood against the people of Tyre and of Si?don. So with one accord they came to him and, after persuading Blastus, who was in charge of the bedchamber of the king, they began suing for peace, because their country was supplied with food from that of the king.
(Acts 13:43) So after the synagogue assembly was dissolved, many of the Jews and of the proselytes who worshiped [God] followed Paul and Bar?na·bas, who in speaking to them began urging them to continue in the undeserved kindness of God.
(Acts 14:19) But Jews arrived from Antioch and I·co?ni·um and persuaded the crowds, and they stoned Paul and dragged him outside the city, imagining he was dead.
(Acts 17:4) As a result some of them became believers and associated themselves with Paul and Silas, and a great multitude of the Greeks who worshiped [God] and not a few of the principal women did so.
(Acts 18:4) However, he would give a talk in the synagogue every sabbath and would persuade Jews and Greeks.
(Acts 19:8) Entering into the synagogue, he spoke with boldness for three months, giving talks and using persuasion concerning the kingdom of God.
(Acts 19:26) Also, YOU behold and hear how not only in Eph?e·sus but in nearly all the [district of] Asia this Paul has persuaded a considerable crowd and turned them to another opinion, saying that the ones that are made by hands are not gods.
(Acts 21:14) When he would not be dissuaded, we acquiesced with the words: “Let the will of Jehovah take place.”
(Acts 23:21) Above all things, do not let them persuade you, for more than forty men of theirs are lying in wait for him, and they have bound themselves with a curse neither to eat nor to drink until they have done away with him; and they are now ready, waiting for the promise from you.”
(Acts 26:26) In reality, the king to whom I am speaking with freeness of speech well knows about these things; for I am persuaded that not one of these things escapes his notice, for this thing has not been done in a corner.
(Acts 26:28) But A·grip?pa said to Paul: “In a short time you would persuade me to become a Christian.”
(Acts 27:11) However, the army officer went heeding the pilot and the shipowner rather than the things said by Paul.
(Acts 28:23, 24) They now arranged for a day with him, and they came in greater numbers to him in his lodging place. And he explained the matter to them by bearing thorough witness concerning the kingdom of God and by using persuasion with them concerning Jesus from both the law of Moses and the Prophets, from morning till evening. 24 And some began to believe the things said; others would not believe.
(Romans 2:8) however, for those who are contentious and who disobey the truth but obey unrighteousness there will be wrath and anger,
(Romans 2:19) and you are persuaded that you are a guide of the blind, a light for those in darkness,
(Romans 8:38) For I am convinced that neither death nor life nor angels nor governments nor things now here nor things to come nor powers
(Romans 14:14) I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is defiled in itself; only where a man considers something to be defiled, to him it is defiled.
(Romans 15:14) Now I myself also am persuaded about YOU, my brothers, that YOU yourselves are also full of goodness, as YOU have been filled with all knowledge, and that YOU can also admonish one another.
(2 Corinthians 1:9) In fact, we felt within ourselves that we had received the sentence of death. This was that we might have our trust, not in ourselves, but in the God who raises up the dead.
(2 Corinthians 2:3) And so I wrote this very thing, that, when I come, I may not get sad because of those over whom I ought to rejoice; because I have confidence in all of YOU that the joy I have is that of all of YOU.
(2 Corinthians 5:11) Knowing, therefore, the fear of the Lord, we keep persuading men, but we have been made manifest to God. However, I hope that we have been made manifest also to YOUR consciences.
(2 Corinthians 10:7) YOU look at things according to their face value. If anyone trusts in himself that he belongs to Christ, let him again take this fact into account for himself, that, just as he belongs to Christ, so do we also.
(Galatians 1:10) Is it, in fact, men I am now trying to persuade or God? Or am I seeking to please men? If I were yet pleasing men, I would not be Christ’s slave.
(Galatians 5:7) YOU were running well. Who hindered YOU from keeping on obeying the truth?
(Galatians 5:10) I am confident about YOU who are in union with [the] Lord that YOU will not come to think otherwise; but the one who is causing YOU trouble will bear [his] judgment, no matter who he may be.
(Philippians 1:6) For I am confident of this very thing, that he who started a good work in YOU will carry it to completion until the day of Jesus Christ.
(Philippians 1:14) and most of the brothers in [the] Lord, feeling confidence by reason of my [prison] bonds, are showing all the more courage to speak the word of God fearlessly.
(Philippians 1:25) So, being confident of this, I know I shall remain and shall abide with all of YOU for YOUR advancement and the joy that belongs to [YOUR] faith,
(Philippians 2:24) Indeed, I am confident in [the] Lord that I myself shall also come shortly.
(Philippians 3:3) For we are those with the real circumcision, who are rendering sacred service by God’s spirit and have our boasting in Christ Jesus and do not have our confidence in the flesh,
(2 Thessalonians 3:4) Moreover, we have confidence in [the] Lord regarding YOU, that YOU are doing and will go on doing the things we order.
(2 Timothy 1:5) For I recollect the faith which is in you without any hypocrisy, and which dwelt first in your grandmother Lo?is and your mother Eu?nice, but which I am confident is also in you.
(2 Timothy 1:12) For this very cause I am also suffering these things, but I am not ashamed. For I know the one whom I have believed, and I am confident he is able to guard what I have laid up in trust with him until that day.
(Philemon 21) Trusting in your compliance, I am writing you, knowing you will even do more than the things I say.
(Hebrews 2:13) And again: “I will have my trust in him.” And again: “Look! I and the young children, whom Jehovah gave me.”
(Hebrews 6:9) However, in YOUR case, beloved ones, we are convinced of better things and things accompanied with salvation, although we are speaking in this way.
(Hebrews 13:17, 18) Be obedient to those who are taking the lead among YOU and be submissive, for they are keeping watch over YOUR souls as those who will render an account; that they may do this with joy and not with sighing, for this would be damaging to YOU. 18 Carry on prayer for us, for we trust we have an honest conscience, as we wish to conduct ourselves honestly in all things.
(James 3:3) If we put bridles in the mouths of horses for them to obey us, we manage also their whole body.
(1 John 3:19) By this we shall know that we originate with the truth, and we shall assure our hearts before him
As you can see, only three of these verses (excluding Heb. 13:17 which is in dispute) render peithó as “obey”. Also of note is that none of those three—again with the exception of our disputed text—uses “obey” in the context of one human commanding another.
The overriding meaning of the Greek term is that of persuasion based on reasoning and confidence or trust in the source. It is not used to convey the idea of blind and unquestioning obedience.
So why do all the Bible translations use an English term that does not convey the meaning of the Greek?
Before we answer that, let us look at another Greek word that more closely approximates the meaning of “obey” in English. The word is peitharcheó, and it means “to obey authority”. It is a concatenation of the previous term, peithó, with the Greek word, arx, meaning “what comes first” or properly, “persuaded of what must come first, i.e. what has priority (the higher authority)”.
This word is only used four times in the Greek Scriptures.
(Acts 5:29) In answer Peter and the [other] apostles said: “We must obey God as ruler rather than men.
(Acts 5:32) And we are witnesses of these matters, and so is the holy spirit, which God has given to those obeying him as ruler.”
(Acts 27:21) And when there had been a long abstinence from food, then Paul stood up in the midst of them and said: “Men, YOU certainly ought to have taken my advice and not have put out to sea from Crete and have sustained this damage and loss.
(Titus 3:1) Continue reminding them to be in subjection and be obedient to governments and authorities as rulers, to be ready for every good work,
In each case, the obedience is expected to be absolute and unquestioning. In Titus, we are told to obey the governments. In Acts 5:29, 32, we are allowed to disobey the governments only because an even higher authority must be obeyed. As for why Paul uses peitharcheó instead of peithó at Acts 27:21, we must look at the context.
The NWT renders it as ‘taking advice’, but the term means obeying a higher authority, which Paul, as a mere man and a prisoner, was not. At Acts 27:10, Paul is quoted as saying, “Men, I perceive that navigation…” Now Paul was no sailor, so this perception is most likely to have come from some divine providence. It is likely that Paul wasn’t guessing at a possible outcome but had been warned by God, for he knew the future and foretold the outcome exactly. In that context, Paul was correct to use peitharcheó, because the higher authority they should have obeyed was not Paul, but the one who was speaking through Paul, Jehovah God. Paul, acting as God’s prophet, was the higher authority.
Therefore, if the elders are a higher authority which must be obeyed as we would worldly governments or even Jehovah God himself, why didn’t the writer of Hebrews use the proper term to convey that? He would have used peitharcheó if that were the point he was trying to make. Instead, he used peithó to convey the idea that we should allow ourselves to be persuaded by the reasoning of those taking the lead, having confidence in their good intentions, trusting that what they are urging us to do is out of love.
Absolute and unquestioning obedience, however, was not what he was saying we owe to these men.
So why would virtually every religion, when commissioning the translation of Scripture for its flock, have opted for a word in English that carries none of the conditional flavor of the Greek? Why would they have opted instead for a word that demands unquestioning obedience to those in charge?
To the discerning mind, I think the question answers itself, don’t you?