There’s no question that a follower of Jesus Christ must treat people in authority with an attitude of honor and respect. With that said – is it godly to submit to any authority without thinking and without asking any questions? In the New Testament, there’s only passage that on the surface seems to suggest such unquestioning attitude toward ecclesiastical (i.e., church) authorities. That passage is Hebrews 13:17. Here it is in a couple of typical translations:
Hebrews 13:17 New International Version (NIV)
17 Have confidence in your leaders and submit to their authority, because they keep watch over you as those who must give an account. Do this so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no benefit to you.
Hebrews 13:17 New King James Version (NKJV)
17 Obey those who rule over you, and be submissive, for they watch out for your souls, as those who must give account. Let them do so with joy and not with grief, for that would be unprofitable for you.
Here’s the problem: both of these translations are really inaccurate. Here’s Hebrews 13:17 in a much more accurate hyper-literal traslation from ancient Koine Greek:
“Be trusting those who go ahead of you and be impacted by their example (lit., “be alike under them”), for they indeed do not sleep (are continually awake) on account of you as a person, as those who will be giving you word. That with joy they would do that and not with sighing (or groaning), as that would be without benefit (lit., “incohesive”) for you.”
And now you see the problem with the most common (mis-)translations: the words “obey”, “rule”, “authority”, “submission” and their cognates do not appear AT ALL in the original language of this passage.
For those who are more intellectually curious, here’s what you need to know about this verse:
- The verb translated as “obey” is “peitho” – trust, and should be translated as cognates of “trust”, “faith”, or “confidence”. (There are a few other mistranslations of this word in other places in most English texts, to be sure, so that’s not the only place). Of course, that trust would translate into corresponding actions because of trust and confidence, but not simply due to positional authority. The verb “to obey” would be “hupakouo”, and it does not appear at all in this passage.
- The word translated as “rule” is “hegeomai”, which means “to go ahead of”, or “to lead”. No rulership is stated or implied here at all. The verb “to rule” would be either “archo” or “kurieuo”, and it does not appear at all in this passage. It’s about leadership, not rulership – a vast difference.
- The word translated as “submissive” or “submit” is “hupeiko”, or “under-imitate”. “Hupo” means “under”, “eiko” means “likeness” (the word “icon” comes from the same root word). It’s not talking about submission, but of setting an example to follow. The verb “to submit” would be “hupotasso” (lit., “place or rank under”), and it does not appear at all in this passage.
- The noun “authority” would be “exousia”, and it is not present in the original passage text in any shape or form. It’s a translator’s addition.
So, you have four (!!!!) errors in just one verse. That’s very, very erroneous, to put it mildly. You can already tell that this was agenda-driven. These mistranslations sought to install fallible men in the place that rightly belongs solely to the one true living God. God’s idea has always been one global body of Christ, universal and personal priesthood of every believer, and a life of mutual respect and mutual submission between a family of brothers and sisters.
God’s divine program today seeks to employ every single follower of Jesus Christ in the dignity of their God-given calling, regardless of what acronyms follow after their last name. Christ didn’t consider it humiliating to wash his disciples feet, and yet his rank in the kingdom is above all others. Should anyone else think of themselves as being above that?
Now that you know the truth, this shines a direct light on the amazing style of non-authoritarian servant-leadership of the early church, which was characterized by instilling trust, and by setting a personal example. What a amazing freedom have we missed, and instead our ancestors have traded that for 1000+ years of dark ages of corrupt ungodly Medieval “Christianity”. Jesus, Peter, and Paul certainly didn’t seem to mind to directly pose hard questions to church powers that be, even while maintaining an attitude of honor and respect. However, all three chose to honor and respect the living God over human institutions and agendas. A lot of us seem to have lost the intestinal fortitude for this Godly practice. And yet, there it is in our Bibles.
Non-autocratic, non-authoritarian servant-leadership is something that had been lost in Christendom for 1900+ years. It has been uncovered as the most productive leadership style largely in the last few decades, and even that – mostly in the Western world.