It would be foolish…to crash through life without a care
“He that leaveth nothing to chance will do few things ill, but he will do very few things.” – Lord Halifax
I found this quote in a book, ‘Heart of the Comet’. It’s a work of fiction about life on Halley’s Comet which returned in 1986; the book was published in 1986 too, shortly before the comet made its appearance. I remember looking at it through a telescope one evening with my wife and daughters, aged 8 and 11 at the time. It was just a faint smudge of light.
It would be foolish indeed to crash through life without a care, not considering one’s actions. But it is surely equally foolish to spend so much time pondering and planning that nothing is ever actually done. An exciting life demands a certain amount of spontaneity!
We take apart the first section of Hebrews 13:17 and put it together again, examining each word and the range of possible meanings before writing out the sense in English. There are cultural, historical and political reasons for the standard translations of this verse, but the verse is capable of different treatment.
Before beginning a trawl through the New Testament to study church leadership, I’d like to take a look at the verse in Hebrews that Donna and I discussed. Also, to set the scene, there’s a basic point to make first.
As I mentioned in that previous post, any attempt at translation from one language to another will be informed by the translator’s existing understanding of the subject matter.
When the translation is from New Testament Koine Greek to modern English, this understanding must be based on the flavour of the the rest of the New Testament. In particular, translating a verse about leadership will depend in part on how we understand leadership in the life of the church.
My understanding of this is that Jesus is head of the church (Colossians 1:18), that none of us should be called ‘Rabbi’, ‘Master’ or ‘Teacher’ (Matthew 23:8), that few should teach (James 3:1), that we are to edify and encourage one another (2 Corinthians 13:11), and that the church is built by Jesus himself (Matthew 16:18) as every part works together (Ephesians 4:15-16). As I work through the series of articles that will be my default position.
Analysing the verse – So now let’s look at Hebrews 13:17. We’ll take it word by word and then put the words together. I’m going to use the BibleHub parallel versions to see how the verse is usually translated, and the BibleHub Greek interlinear as a starting point for understanding the Greek. These are convenient as you can click through to check them yourselves.
(Notice that there is no word for ‘authority’ in the Greek. This was added to the NIV by the translators. Check other translations, the word is simply not there.)
πείθεσθε – This is the first Greek word in the verse, it’s pronounced ‘peithesthe’ and is usually translated ‘obey’. This is the only time the verb is used in this form in the entire New Testament but including other forms the verb occurs 53 times. The Strong’s number is 3982.
‘Obey’ is by no means the necessary sense, the core meaning is ‘persuade’, ‘urge’ or ‘have confidence in’ and the root is from ‘pistis’ (πίστις) meaning ‘faith’. See, for example, Matthew 27:20 in the sense ‘persuaded’, Galatians 1:10 in the sense ‘seek favour or persuade’, Romans 8:38 ‘persuaded’ or ‘convinced’ and 2 Corinthians 2:3 ‘having confidence’ or ‘trusting’.
When Paul wrote 2 Corinthians 2:3 he did not mean ‘I obey all of you’ but ‘I have confidence in all of you’.
τοῖς – A form of the Greek definite article, meaning ‘the’ and applying to the next word, ‘leaders’.
ἡγουμένοις – This is pronounced ‘hēgoumenois’ and is usually translated ‘leaders’. Once again the word is only found once in this particular form but there are 28 uses of the word including other forms. The Strong’s number is 2233.
The range of possible meanings include someone who leads, thinks, has an opinion, supposes or considers. And we need to be careful here because the English word ‘lead’ has at least two senses. It may mean ‘to be ahead’ (like someone running a race), or it may mean ‘to manage’ or ‘control’ (like a company CEO or a Prime Minister).
Other forms of this word are used to mean ‘regard’, ‘think’ or ‘esteem’ (Philippians 2:6, 2 Corinthians 9:5) and ‘leader’ or ‘chief’ (Luke 22:26). The verse in Luke is telling, because Jesus is saying that if you are going to be a leader you should behave much more like a servant.
ὑμῶν, καὶ – These words are the pronoun ‘your’ (modifying the previous word, so ‘your leaders’) and the connecting word ‘and’.
ὑπείκετε – This word is a Greek verb, it’s pronounced ‘hypeikete’ and the common translation is ‘submit’. This is the only time it appears in the New Testament, the Strong’s number is 5226 and it means ‘retire’, ‘withdraw’ or ‘submit’.
The sense is not necessarily submit as in submitting to the law or surrendering in battle. It is just as likely that it suggests giving way, holding back or making space.
How can we assemble this? – Although we haven’t examined the rest of the verse yet, we have enough to put the first part into everyday English. So here’s my first stab at it.
‘Trust those who lead the way for you and don’t hold them back.’
But any translation must fit its context, so now let’s take a look at that. The writer wants to make some final remarks as he reaches the end of his letter. My friend Sean pointed out that the leaders are also mentioned in Hebrews 13:7 . They spoke Christ (the Word of the Most High) and the writer urges his readers to consider the results of the way they live and also to imitate their faith.
This suggests that these leaders are indeed leading by example, not by command. Just like the cloud of witnesses in chapter 11 and the beginning of chapter 12, these are living witnesses to the right way to live and the right way to believe. ‘Trust those who lead the way for you and don’t hold them back’ Don’t interrupt them, don’t argue with them, hear them out when they speak in a meeting, live the same way they do, believe the same way they do.
Why the normal translation? – All of this leaves a question hanging. Why are these Greek words assigned the meanings ‘obey’, ‘leaders’ and ‘submit’ in most translations? We have seen that they just as naturally suggest ‘trust’, ‘those who lead the way’ and ‘giving way’.
The answer, I believe, is that we are used to the standard translation. Early English Bibles were intended to support the clergy/laity system and also the rule of the king as head of the Church of England. The Wycliffe translation makes this very clear – ‘Obey ye to your sovereigns, and be ye subject to them’ – a strongly political statement! Because we are used to the idea of hierarchical church leadership of one form or another we rarely feel free to translate this passage differently.
But the Holy Spirit is always leading us on into fresh pastures. Perhaps the old way of viewing this verse is not in line with what he is saying to the church today.
‘The Message’ puts it much better, ‘Be responsive to your pastoral leaders. Listen to their counsel.’
That’s it for now, this blog article is already long. Next time we’ll work through the rest of verse 17 and try to put the entire thing together.
Should we translate the Bible according to tradition or according to Holy Spirit guidance?
If we are being shown something new about church life, should we re-examine passages that no longer seem to fit?
What are the dangers in making changes to the standard translations?
What are the dangers in not making such changes?
See also: (Note I added these links after writing my article. My purpose is to uncover the meaning of the verse for myself and then check it later against what others have written.)
A series of articles on leaders and leadership in church life
This is the index to a series of articles on leaders and leadership in church life. The first part is an overview and explains how the idea for the series came about. The second post will examine part of a verse in Hebrews, often quoted to support hierarchical, structural, appointed leaders. Later posts will look at some other relevant New Testament verses.
It felt as though Jesus was dancing with his bride (the church); he was the only leader we needed.
I posted this article in February 2013 and repeat it here, slightly updated. Things have moved on since I wrote this; we’ve moved to a different part of the country and the details of our church life have changed – but the principles remain the same. I’ll post the other parts of the series as time allows.
How should we manage and govern our meetings? How is church to be led? Everything changed in the 1960s and 70s as the Holy Spirit swept into the denominational church. Existing churches were impacted, the house church movement began, and new streams of church sprang up.
My wife and I have a long-standing difference of opinion about church leadership. Let me explain.
The bursting out of the new wine of the Holy Spirit wasn’t easily retained by the old wineskins of denominational church. What was known as the British house church movement began at that time.
New Frontiers and the other streams of the time were based on the view that new organisations were needed. Of course, some Anglican, Catholic and non-conformist churches did embrace the fresh outpouring of spiritual gifts. The pentecostal denominations were already active in that way. But there were many ‘refugees’ from old fashioned denominationalism and also many new believers who had never tasted a particular form of church. The new streams aimed to cater for both groups.
Staying small and open – But there were many others (of whom I am one) who felt that the new streams of church life took on far too much from the old ways. Having a leadership structure and meeting in a large building were the most obvious of these old ways (though there are many others). Used as Judy* and I were to meeting at home without leaders, sharing meals together, and giving the Spirit complete freedom to lead us in praise and worship, we were quite unable to feel comfortable with any kind of organisation. It felt as though Jesus was dancing with his bride (the church); he was the only leader we needed.
And that’s the basis on which Donna and I have different views. She is very much at home in an organisation with a structure, a building, and management. I am at home as part of an organism with very little structure, no building, and managed and directed by the Spirit of Christ alone.
Another kind of small group – We do overlap in one important way. Donna is one of three leaders of an Open Door Small Group that meets every Tuesday evening, and I am glad to be part of that group. The meetings are in some ways rather like organic church. We meet in homes, we usually start with a shared meal, there is plenty of opportunity to chip in with a thought, a prophecy, a tongue, a vision or a prayer.
On the other hand the meetings are structured around three main elements and are managed hierarchically. Meetings normally begin with a meal, then worship led by a member of the group, next questions and a discussion based on the previous Sunday’s ‘preach’, and finally a time of prayer on topics raised by those present. The Small Group leaders report to neighbourhood leaders who in turn are responsible to the elders of Open Door and in particular to the lead elder.
Donna is comfortable with these arrangements, I am less so. But we both enjoy the meetings and are grateful to be able to share in them regularly together.
The role of the Spirit – But it’s not just a matter of how meetings are organised. There is also plenty of evidence that the Holy Spirit fills every available gap that we concede to him. I have a great deal of experience of this going back many years and also in recent times. Meetings that are completely open, not planned or governed by us in any way, are little pockets of time and space that he joyfully, even gleefully inhabits. Many times I have witnessed him working amongst us in amazing and unexpected ways, but always when he is given the freedom to do it.
It takes courage to attempt this. Things can go wrong. People can get in the way. We cannot come to this place without taking risks. But when we are prepared to step aside and let the Spirit of Christ move among us freely, he will fill the place. The more space and time we give him, the more present he becomes.
And I am convinced that out of such a place of blessing we are better equipped to go out and, in our going, to make disciples (Matthew 28:18-20).
Profitless discussion – A couple of days ago Donna and I had a rather profitless discussion about church leadership. (I take full responsibility for my unhelpful attitude.) I’m going to outline it here because it pinpoints the issues, points to a way forward and may be helpful to others thinking these issues through. Here’s how it happened.
We were about to begin reading James together when Donna spotted Hebrews 13:17 on the opposite page. She asked me a direct question, ‘How do you explain this verse if you don’t think the church should have leaders?’
Indeed the church does have leaders. But they are understated and not people who rule or manage. They are recognised by those around them, not appointed by other leaders or by a committee.
But instead of saying this I responded to Donna’s question by digging into the Greek and pointing out that you must translate any passage in sympathy with the general thrust of the entire New Testament. What Jesus did and said and what we read in the other letters must inform and guide us. Translation is not an exact art. The flavour of the English words we select to represent the meaning of the Greek must depend partly on that wider context. So we talked about the text rather than the concept of leadership.
The discussion went pear-shaped and we never did make it as far as reading James that evening. Partly because of this I feel the time has come to study church leadership in more detail and to be clearer in my own mind about the biblical background and the practicalities.
There are other associated issues and I think I need to look at them as a whole, not piecemeal. So I plan to come back to this topic from time to time as I make progress with the study.
Meanwhile, I would be very grateful for any thoughts or feedback you might have on the different approaches to church leadership and church government. Please leave a comment.
*Judy was my first wife, she died in 1995.
Have you had similar or related experiences? Please consider sharing them in a comment.
What are your views on the Holy Spirit’s involvement in your meetings? Is he fully present? Is he fully visible and audible?
If you could change one thing about your meetings, what would it be?
Try this at home. Meet with some close friends with no agenda and no preparation of any kind. Share a meal gratefully remembering Jesus’ presence with you. After the meal sit in a comfortable place together and focus on Jesus. Don’t mind silences, but share together anything the Spirit shows you, including pictures, words, prophecy, Bible passages, persistent thoughts and more. What happened? Report back here with a comment.
Reading Romans 12:20, I was struck by the idea of ‘heaping burning coals’ on your enemies’ heads. On the face of it, this doesn’t sound very loving! But burning coals come from the altar in the Temple; they are pure, holy, cleansing, and consume the sacrifice placed on the altar. Food and drink for a hungry, thirsty enemy are like the fire from the altar. They are pure, holy, cleansing things.
Sin is covered by sacrifice. This is at the heart of what Yahshua did for us, he offered a sacrifice for sin – his own body – while we were still against him and the cause of his grief and suffering. By his love, he bought not only our lives but our love. And by love we must buy our enemy’s love in the same way. We don’t give our enemies the necessities of life in order to hurt them, but because of love and in order to provide an opportunity for them to change. That’s why Paul writes, ‘Don’t be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good’.
If it’s wide and deep vision that you are looking for … then read this book
I don’t often write about books here on JHM. But I just have to tell you about 5Q.
If it’s wide and deep vision that you are looking for, a penetrating gaze into the truth written with passion and humility, then read this book; you will not be disappointed. It’s a book for everyone who is serious in following Jesus. 5Q will challenge you, encourage you, and maybe shock you, but it will also illuminate your thinking and understanding.
5Q is a book by one of my favourite authors, Alan Hirsch. In it, he examines church as commonly understood in the West, and challenges his readers to look at it with fresh and inquisitive eyes. For many years now, Alan has been accumulating knowledge and experience about the way we tend to do church, and sharing his thoughts on what fundamental changes are needed. He has delved deep into both theology and practice, he’s written and taught extensively about the understandings he has developed. And it’s not merely theoretical stuff, much of it is good, practical guidance and advice.
5Q is based on frameworks Alan has described before, namely his ideas around the APEST gifts to the church described by Paul in Ephesians 4. These are the gifts of apostles, prophets, evangelists, shepherds, and teachers. But he has gone much further in the grand synthesis that is 5Q; his excitement and passion shine out on every page.
This time we’re going to take a look at the first verse of Ezekiel 37; the start of the section on the valley of dry bones. Let’s see what Father has for us in this verse.
‘Yahweh’s hand was on me and he brought me out by the Spirit of Yahweh and set me in the middle of a valley. It was full of bones.’ (Ezekiel 37:1)
We can’t tell whether Ezekiel visited a real valley or whether the entire section from verse one to verse fourteen is a vision. Perhaps it’s most likely to have been a vision. But it doesn’t really matter, it’s far from being the most important thing.
‘Yahweh’s hand was on me…’ – That’s what Ezekiel says. And this is always Papa’s heart toward us; unless his hand is on us we cannot move except by our own efforts. This is fundamental to everything the Almighty does. He speaks, he moves, he demonstrates, he heals, he forgives – and in all these ways he touches us.
Have you noticed how often Jesus touched people? He touched their eyes and mouths and ears when he healed. He touched what was ritually unclean – a leper, a dead girl. The most intimate thing we can do is to touch someone. Touch brings us closer than words ever can. What do we do when a child is afraid, or anxious, or hurt? We pick them up or hug them or kiss them better. We need to touch and be touched. So Yahweh’s hand was on Ezekiel.
And notice that this is the first thing that happens, before Ezekiel sees the bones or even goes to the valley, Yahweh’s hand is on him. This is the touch that says, ‘I am going to use you’. The Almighty lays hold of us because we are his instruments and he plans to use us in some way.
Have you felt his hand on you in your life? I hope so! But if not, pray that he will touch you and use you in whatever way he chooses. If he knows you are truly willing he will use you. That’s what he longs to do with all his people. He has chosen to use us to do his work in this world today. We are to go in his name (Matthew 28:18-20); we are his body; we are his hands, his feet, his eyes and ears and mouth (1 Corinthians 12). Isn’t that extraordinary?
‘…and he brought me out by the Spirit of Yahweh…’ – He brings us out and he does it by his own Spirit. Out from what? Out from the place where we currently are! See how he is one with himself in doing this? It’s explicit in the Hebrew, the name is used twice. Yahweh uses the Spirit of Yahweh. He chooses what he wants us to do, and then he uses his own Spirit (the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Christ) to guide us. If necessary he will nudge us.
Sometimes we get stuck in a place. I don’t mean physically, I mean a place in our lives from which we are unable or unwilling to move on. Sometimes we are simply waiting for direction. It might be something we’re doing or a thought pattern we return to or just that he has finished using us in one situation and now wants us in a different one. Whether we are stuck or not – he brings us out, he draws us on, he sends his own Spirit to lead us into the next thing, the next place. For an example read about Roy Godwin. If you want the full story you can buy his book.
And notice this, if Ezekiel had not moved he would not have come to the valley. We have a propensity to cling to what we know and to keep doing what is already familiar. But we need to be ready to allow the Spirit to move us at any time so that we can receive something new, Father’s next thing for you, for me.
‘…and set me in the middle of a valley.’ – And so Yahweh sets Ezekiel in the valley. Now a valley is a low point and must be surrounded by higher ground. Ezekiel is placed ‘in the middle’ of this valley, right at the lowest point. He is as far from the surrounding hills and mountains as it is possible to be.
We know this feeling don’t we? Life is hard and promising to get harder yet. There are low points in our lives and there are also low points in the life of the church. Such valleys are places of defeat where there seems no hope or joy or victory; these are assuredly not ‘mountain-top’ experiences. We’ve all been there. Ezekiel was aware of the state of Israel in captivity under Babylon, but Yahweh’s Spirit brought him here so there must surely be a reason for it. Does it sometimes seem as if church is in a valley? A slough of despond? At times like these we need to remember that Papa has something in mind to show us. Jesus didn’t just come to redeem people, he came to redeem situations too.
‘It was full of bones.’ – What do bones usually signify to you? Are they always just the dusty remnants following final and permanent defeat? Or might they suggest that what was once alive might yet be restored? More on this next time.