Hebrews 13:17 is quite hard for some preachers to preach on. And even more so hard for the congregation to follow. The reason is that there are abusive leaders and that we don’t want to have someone in authority over us. We live in democracy. We are concerned primarily with our freedom and our profit. Here I will present first a balance view of church leadership and how the congregation should respond to the call for obedience and submission, and second, the motivation behind this, namely Joy.
Obey and Submit
To some, obedience and submission is just the same thing stated in different ways. Because in English, the word obey and submit are almost synonymous. When we submit, we obey, and when we obey, we submit. So one might say that the relationship between 17a and 17b is that of restatement. One is just clarifying the other. Meaning, we obey by submission or put it another way, we submit by obedience. I believe that is not the case. Here’s the reason why. The relationship between the command to obey and to submit in v.17a-b is not that apparent in our English translations. The greek word Πείθεσθε, can also be translated as “keep on being persuaded”, and is to be understood as relative obedience instead of absolute obedience. You obey insofar as you are being persuaded. Not because of their office nor out of intimidation but a glad obedience born out of persuasion. If you put it that way, then the distinction is much clearer. This is not a subordinate restatement relationship nor coordinate series relationship. It is coordinate logical progression relationship. First we are to be persuaded by our leaders, then because of being persuaded we yield or submit to them.
There are two implications from this interpretation:
Members must let themselves become persuaded and therefore yield to their leaders. Now that is an odd command. To be persuaded is passive. It happens to us. We can’t just switch it on and off. We don’t have any control over it. So how can we obey this command? I think what the author is saying is that we should give the benefit of a doubt to our leaders. Be open minded and not too critical. Give them the chance to speak. Listen to them first with a posture of humility and be ready to learn. Don’t dismiss out of hand what your leaders has to say just because you don’t like them or that you are too suspicious about them. And when persuaded, yield wholeheartedly.
Do this for the sake of Joy
Now we turn to the motivation for obeying this text. Both leaders and members must be motivated by Joy.
Now after saying that, immediately some might argue and say just obey. There should be no other motivation other than because it is commanded by God. Obeying for the sake of the reward of Joy is to become a mercenary.
I believe when they say that, they’re not really following what the Scripture commands. We should imitate the apostles and inspired authors as they imitate Christ. In 1 Thessalonians 2:18-20, Paul used Joy and Glory as his motivation. It says: “18 For we wanted to come to you (I, Paul, in fact tried again and again) but Satan thwarted us. 19 For who is our hope or joy or crown to boast of before our Lord Jesus at his coming? Is it not of course you? 20 For you are our glory and joy!” Now this is not just Paul, but to add more weight to it, he just learned it from his master. In Hebrews 12:2 it says: “keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith. For the joy set out for him he endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.” Jesus himself made the joy that was set before him as his motivation. We are no better than the inspired authors, and even so no better than Christ Jesus our Lord.
Our Joy is their Joy
Pursuing joy in ourselves is not what we’re talking about here. It is finding our joy in God in the joy of the beloved.
Godly leaders should find their joy in seeing that the flock is persuaded, yielding gladly, and therefore persevering in faith by means of the leader’s watching over their souls and not through material gain. Leaders, our joy is to see the flock persevere in faith and joy. Paul put it this way in 1 Corinthians 1:24 : “I do not mean that we rule over your faith, but we are workers with you for your joy, because by faith you stand firm.”
For the congregation, we find our joy in God in the joy of our leaders. In our translations the greek word ἵνα in v.17e is not present, but in greek it does. It can be translated as so that, or in that or in order that. So we can paraphrase the text like this “obey and submit, so that the leaders might do their work with Joy.” But how can I find my joy in that? Verse 17f and 17g is the answer. It says there “not with complaints for this would be of no profit to you.” How is it not profitable or advantageous for us to have a begrudging, unhappy leaders? It is not profitable for us to have the one in charge of watching over our soul complaining and is not doing his job properly because of our stubbornness and indifference to the needs of our leaders. It may distract them from watching and warning you of the peril of your sin and hence not gain joy. Notice how he’s using profit as motivation for obedience. Therefore we should pursue our joy in God in the joy of our leaders.