Discover more from Once A Week
“Obey & Submit”
An Apologetic Tool for Advocates
“It’s not right to call your elders unchristlike. It’s wrong to question your leaders. The Bible commands us to “obey your leaders and submit to them.”
What do you say next? If you aspire to advocate for the vulnerable and oppressed, you just might find yourself in the middle of this conversation. If you have already entered that space, you know the rhetoric: you elected these leaders, they deliberated and decided, and now your job is to surrender your disagreement, obey and submit.
Once A Week is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
The problem is, translations consistently render the first imperative in Hebrews 13:17 as “obey” even though they consistently translate it differently throughout the New Testament. It is almost always rendered “confidence,” “convince,” and “trust.” The original meaning is “persuade”, and the passive mood in Hebrews 13:17 could be translated “be persuaded by”. As John Owen notes, “the word signifies an obedience on a persuasion; such as doctrine, instruction, or teaching, doth produce.” Obedience comes second. Persuasion comes first. So, what if you’re not persuaded by your leaders? What then? Do we have to submit to leaders when we aren’t persuaded that they are right?
What follows is a (not-so-imaginary) dialogue between a congregant and a church leader. I write this from personal experience and from a desire to equip Christians to better navigate this rocky terrain. Aside from some exegetical/interpretive observations, I will also be using Gregory Koukl’s primary apologetic tool he calls “The Columbo Tactic”. More on that in a minute.
Sheep: I have some real concerns with how the church is handling this [case of abuse, toxic leadership, treatment of women, you name it].
Shepherd: I hear you, thank you for expressing your concern. Please know that the leaders are aware and are doing their very best to handle this in a biblical manner.
Sheep: Ok, but that’s what I have questions about. Are they really being biblical?
Shepherd: I’ve spoken with the pastor and know a little about the situation, I don’t see any cause for concern yet. If they were really going against the Bible I would be the first to join you in raising concerns. For now, even if we disagree, because they are doing their best we just need to obey and submit to their decisions like the Bible calls us to.
Ok, here’s where you become an apologist. They’ve made a claim and referenced Scripture to justify that claim. But remember, Heb. 13:17 doesn’t say “obey” it says, “be persuaded”. If you’re not persuaded, you don’t need to get defensive, nor do you go on the counter attack. As Gregory Koukl advises, “a fundamental rule of engagement [is] never make a frontal assault on a superior force in an entrenched position…The man with the microphone is going to win...It’s foolish to get into a power struggle when you’re outgunned.”1 Granted, the leader in front of you might not have a microphone, but he has power, and he is flexing it. How do you avoid the power struggle? Koukl says our primary, go-to apologetic tool should be the “Columbo tactic” of asking questions. In particular, two questions:
What do you mean by that?
How did you come to that conclusion?
Sheep: What do you mean “we just need to obey and submit to their decisions like the Bible calls us to”?
Shepherd: It’s what Hebrews 13:17 says: “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account.”
Sheep: Ok, I hear you, that’s what Scripture says, but what do you mean by applying it to our conversation? I don’t mean to be rude, I just want to understand you better.
Shepherd: Well, I’m not sure how to say it differently. If the Bible says “obey your leaders and submit to them,” then that’s what we’re supposed to do, right?
Sheep: We’re supposed to obey and submit to them…in anything and everything?
Shepherd: No, obviously not in everything. If they are teaching heresy or instructing us to sin then we should definitely not obey and submit.
Sheep: Ok, so there are exceptions to Hebrews 13:17? Would it be fair to say that the command to “obey and submit” is not absolute and universal?
Shepherd: Sure, I agree with that, but the exceptions are for blatant sin. But if it’s a matter of judgment, of disagreeing on something not straightforward, then we are supposed to submit to our leaders’ decisions.
Sheep: Ok, that is helpful. What you mean by “obey and submit to your leaders” in this situation I brought up is that the leaders haven’t done anything blatantly sinful, it’s still in the realm of exercising wisdom and judgment, and so God calls me to submit to that judgment call. Is that what you mean?
Shepherd: Yes, yes, that’s it, exactly.
Sheep: Well, I appreciate you giving me the chance to clarify and understand you better, but now that leaves me with a quandary. What if I really believe that the leaders’ decisions in this case are blatantly sinful? You and they would obviously disagree. How do we know when we have moved from disagreement/judgment call into the realm of blatant sin? If Hebrews 13:17 doesn’t apply to blatantly sinful leadership, what am I to do when I say the leaders are sinning, but the leaders disagree, and because they claim it as an “agree-to-disagree” situation they get to apply Hebrews 13:17?
This last question is moving into the 2nd Columbo question, “How did you come to that conclusion?” It is a move to shift/keep the burden of proof on the party making the truth claim.
Shepherd: What makes you say the leaders are blatantly sinning?
Don’t fall for this trap! It’s an attempt to push the burden of proof back onto you.
Sheep: I don’t feel comfortable answering that question, not yet at least. I would first like to know more about how you have come to believe that Hebrews 13:17 applies to this situation.
Shepherd: [offers some kind of explanation of leadership position/perspective on the concerns you raised. For the sake of this imaginary dialogue we’ll assume you don’t find the explanation to be convincing. In other words, the leader makes it sound like it’s a wisdom/judgment call situation, but you believe it’s sinful.]
Sheep: Thanks for sharing that with me. I don’t want to get into my actual concerns, but I would like to share something I learned recently about Hebrews 13:17 that might help you understand where I’m coming from. Would you be willing to hear me out?
Shepherd: Sure, of course.
The final section moves from asking questions to making claims. The Columbo questions are relatively easy to remember (what do you mean? Why do you believe that?), and only moderately challenging to practice. As Koukl notes, in apologetic conversations you may not always get to the place where you present your own position. But if given the chance, here’s what you can say:
Sheep: As I’ve studied it, the word translated “obey” (πείθω / peithō) is translated variously by the ESV as “persuade” 13x, “sure” 7x, “confident/confidence” 6x, “convince” 6x, and “trust” 5x. In situations where we have persuasion or are persuaded, we feel sure, confident, convinced. It is only translated “obey” 4x, but aside from Hebrews 13:17 the context never means obeying people.2
What’s more, in Hebrews 13:18 peithō is translated “we are sure”. It seems unlikely that the author meant it in a widely different sense just a few moments before. So maybe a better translation is “be sure of your leaders”, or, “be persuaded/convinced by your leaders”, or “be confident/trust in your leaders”. Understood this way, we can see there is an implied duty of leaders: they are to persuade, convince, earn trust. And in this very case, I am raising concerns and asking questions because I am not persuaded, not convinced, do not believe my trust is warranted. I can say I am willing to be persuaded, and willing to submit to persuasive leadership. But it’s not up to me to convince myself that leaders are acting justly. Respectfully, I am asking my leaders to justify themselves and their decisions and actions. Simply quoting Hebrews 13:17 is not very convincing.
Shepherd: That is a new take on that verse, I’ll have to look into that further.
Or something like that. The point is, next time you hear the command to “obey and submit”, be prepared to obey if you are persuaded. It is not unsubmissive to give that condition.
Rather, a submissive soul says, “Please persuade me. I will gladly submit when you persuade me your decisions are just. But you haven’t persuaded me yet.”
Quote from John Owen
“It is not a blind, implicit obedience and subjection, that is here prescribed. A pretence hereof hath been abused to the ruin of the souls of men: but there is nothing more contrary to the whole nature of gospel obedience, which is our "reasonable service;" and in particular, it is that which would frustrate all the rules and directions given unto believers in this epistle itself, as well as elsewhere, about all the duties that are required of them. For to what purpose are they used, if no more be required but that men give up themselves, by an implicit credulity, to obey the dictates of others?”
Tactics: A Game Plan for Discussing Your Christian Convictions, by Gregory Koukl. I highly recommend this book for those doing what Os Guinness calls “internal apologetics”, defending one’s Christian convictions inside the church.
Apologetics and Church Abuse, by Andrew I. Shepardson at.
Where is the burden of proof? The sheep who are called to be persuaded, or the shepherds who must do the persuading?
Tactics: A Game Plan for Discussing Your Christian Convictions, p. 66.
Romans 2:8 - “do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness”
Galatians 5:7 - “obeying the truth” (In v. 8 it’s translated “persuasion” and in v. 10 “confidence”)
James 3:3 - “If we put bits into the mouths of horses so that they obey us”