Posted by: vicholdsforth | February 15, 2010

The New Testament on Authority (Part 4: Hebrews)

In our last installment, we looked at the writing of Peter and Paul on authority.  We found that both reserved their most authoritative language for when heresy was in view, and that they acknowledged that they were merely conveying a message on behalf of another (God), not that they were wielding authority of their own.  Today we’ll look at Hebrews and argue that the authoritarian tone we find there is the result of insertions in the text on the part of translators.  My friend Brent has provided some interesting historical background on why this is so; look for his comment along the right sidebar.

The book of Hebrews contains some of the most authoritarian language in the entire New Testament insofar as believers are concerned:  “Obey your leaders and submit to their authority”  (13:17).  The King James is even more strident : “Obey them that have the rule over you…”  This verse seems to rather unequivocally endorse hierarchical authority, but a closer examination of the Greek and a comparison with other New Testament texts suggests otherwise.  Let us consider this sentence one phrase at a time:

Obey:  Peithesthe occurs over 50 times in the New Testament and is seldom rendered “obey” (only 4 times in the NASB).  It is much more frequently translated as “to allow oneself be persuaded by, to trust, to have confidence in, to strive to please.”  (Note the writer bypassed hupokuete as in Eph 6:1 & 5, “children obey your parents,” and “slaves obey your masters.”)

your leaders:  In Philippians 2:3, the verb form of  hegoumenos is translated as “esteeming.”  In light of the shepherd metaphor articulated in John 21:16 and 1 Peter 5, and what we have learned about the meaning of “oversight,” it is clear that hegoumenos, “leaders,” are those who go before, or those who are held in esteem, not those who sit above.  Additionally in Heb 13:7, the recipients are invited to a critical evaluation of the example  of the hegoumenos rather than a passive obeisance to their instructions.

and submit: hupeikete means “yield or surrender;” in other words, stop fighting

to their authority:  Astonishingly, the word exousia, “authority,” does not occur at all in this text!  That the translators would take the initiative to insert such authoritarian language where none exists is actually a bit shocking in light of Matthew 23:8-12, “do not call yourselves leaders…”

for they are keeping watch over your souls:  This text tells us in a very straightforward way why the people should heed their hegoumenos.  These are people who are worth listening to because they have their followers’ best interests at heart:  “for (gar) they are keeping watch over your souls…”  Their influence is a result of what they do, not because they occupy “an office” or wield a God-ordained power over people.  It is also noteworthy to point out that while huper is rendered “over” in several English translations, the use of the genitive case clearly indicates that the correct translation is not “over,” but rather, “on behalf of,” as in the American Standard Version.  As with the insertion of “the office of” in Romans and 1 Timothy, and “authority” in verse 17, some translators have opted for language that makes the passage sound more hierarchical and authoritarian than it is in the original text.

Thus, this passage may legitimately be rendered, “Trust your leaders and stop arguing with them, for they are keeping watch on behalf of your souls…”  This rendering closely resembles what Paul wrote in 1 Thess 5:12-13:  “But we appeal to you, brothers and sisters, to respect those who labor among you, and have charge of you in the Lord and admonish you; esteem them very highly in love because of their work.”  Note that believers are instructed to respect & esteem, not compelled to obey and agree; and again, because of the actions of “those who labor among” them, not a title or office.

It is also important to understand the context in which this instruction was given.  Even the softer rendering, “Trust your leaders and stop arguing with them” could be construed to mean that the pastor’s word is law no matter what.  But what were the recipients of the letter to the Hebrews arguing about?  The text tells us over and over again that they were wrestling with issues that imperiled their very salvation (3:7ff, 4:1ff, 6:4ff, 10:29ff, 11:26ff).  The writer of Hebrews devotes a great deal of attention to the superiority of Jesus over the angels, that He is a “priest according to the order of Melchizedek,” and that He is both king and priest.  The lengthy attention devoted to these points suggest that Hebrews was written to believers influenced by or with origins in the Essene community, with the intention of correcting the specific heresies that such persons would have the propensity to introduce or embrace.  As Paul does in his letter to Titus, the writer of Hebrews employs authoritative language when heretical teaching is in view, not as a blanket conferral of power, authority, or “rightness” upon church leaders.

Hebr 13:7 says, “Remember your leaders, those who spoke the word of God to you; consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith.”  There are important word choices here. “Consider” invites the follower of Christ to an active evaluation of the example of the leader, not a passive and uncritical acceptance of an authority figure (cf. 1 Cor 10:15).  “Imitate their faith.”  Not follow their commands, not agree with them on every point…imitate their faith.  In fact, Paul, never bashful about pointing out problems in the churches, refers without condemnation to the decision “of the majority”  (2 Cor 2:6).  Clearly, the Corinthian church was not unanimous in its decision, yet Paul does not condemn them for a lack of unity.  Unity and unanimity are not the same in Paul’s mind.


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