Sunday, July 28, 2013

Responding to Steve Hays: Biblically-Based Ecclesial Submission

 Exegesis of Hebrews 13:17

As you know, I have been interacting with Steve Hays over at Triablogue on the question of ecclesial submission. There are a number of texts in the NT that deal with this question, but none of them addresses it as definitively and as directly as Hebrews 13:17. The aim of this post is to provide a simple exegetical approach to understanding Hebrews 13:17 without muddying the waters with contextualization disputes, which is what I think Steve does in his interpretation. By contextualization, I mean the anachronistic method of seeing the text through modern culture. To be clear, this is not an exhaustive treatment of the subject of ecclesial submission. Rather, it is an attempt to provide a very short exegesis of Hebrews 13:17 to understand what this text tells us about ecclesial submission.

The purpose for the Hebrew letter was to urge Jewish Christians to “move on to maturity in the face of looming persecution,” and not to retreat back into the Judaism from which they had been converted. [Kostenberger, Kellum, Quarles] In addition, it has been argued that the purpose was to counteract an early type of heresy within this predominantly Jewish congregation(s). Some think it could have been the Colossian heresy or even a sect of Jewish Gnostics. What is clear is that the Christian faith was under attack as usual. The attack was in the form of persecution and doctrinal controversy. The author set out to defend the faith and to encourage the converts to stay the course.

The immediate paragraph in which the text appears begins at verse 7 of the same chapter. The literary type is mostly in the form of an exhortation. The fact that the writer references the elders of the Church twice in what is essentially the last section of the letter is significant. He begins the paragraph with the exhortation to remember those who led you. He ends the paragraph with the exhortation and command to obey and submit to those leaders. All of this exhortation is given within the context of a Jewish congregation that is under extreme duress externally, via persecution and internally, via heretical theology. It seems that in that setting, the believers are instructed to have confidence in God who keeps watch over them and to have confidence in their leaders for it is through them that God protects the body.

The only variant in the text that appears in NA 28 is ἀποδώσοντες. Rather than the participle, D* contains the infinitive form of the same word with περὶ ὑμῶν. This indicates there are no substantive textual variants with which we should be concerned. At a minimum, this makes the exegetical task much easier and much less time consuming.

The Greek text reads as follows:
Πείθεσθε τοῖς ἡγουμένοις ὑμῶν καὶ ὑπείκετε, αὐτοὶ γὰρ ἀγρυπνοῦσιν ὑπὲρ τῶν ψυχῶν ὑμῶν ὡς λόγον ἀποδώσοντες, ἵνα μετὰ χαρᾶς τοῦτο ποιῶσιν καὶ μὴ στενάζοντες· ἀλυσιτελὲς γὰρ ὑμῖν τοῦτο.

I have combined the phrasing and translation as follows:
Πείθεσθε τοῖς ἡγουμένοις ὑμῶν (Obey the ones who are leading you)
Καὶ ὑπείκετε (and submit to them)
αὐτοὶ γὰρ ἀγρυπνοῦσιν ὑπὲρ τῶν ψυχῶν ὑμῶν (for they are keeping watch on behalf of your souls)
                                ὡς λόγον ἀποδώσοντες (as ones who will give an account)
ἵνα μετὰ χαρᾶς τοῦτο ποιῶσιν (so that with Joy this they might do)
καὶ μὴ στενάζοντες (and not deep stressing)
ἀλυσιτελὲς γὰρ ὑμῖν τοῦτο (for this is unprofitable for you)

The terms that call for syntactical analysis are as follows:
Πείθεσθε (PEITHESTHE); ὑπείκετε (HUPEIKETE); ἀγρυπνοῦσιν (AGRUPNOUSIN); ἀποδώσοντες (APODOSONTES); στενάζοντες (STEVANDZONTES); and ἀλυσιτελὲς (ALUSITELES).

PEITHESTHE is a middle imperative. Hence, the writer is issuing a command that believers are obligated ethically to embrace and to uphold. LN defines the word “to submit to authority or reason by obeying—‘to obey.’” There is likely an iterative sense in the word given it has a continual aspect. The idea is that the Christian Group is to continue to obey and submit to their leaders.

HUPEIKETE is defined by LN as “to submit to the orders or directives of someone—‘to obey, to submit to, obedience, submission.’” This word is also an imperative with the continuous aspect. When someone says that we are not in fact obligated to obey and submit to our elders, we are in direct contradiction with this passage. This does not mean blind submission. In fact, one has to look no further than this verse to see the required condition for continued submission. We shall cover that in due course.

TOIS HEGOUMENOIS are the ones to whom we must submit. Who is this group of people to whom we must submit? First of all, I want to point out that the word is in the plural. A plurality of elders exists for a very specific reason. LN defines this word as “to rule over, with the implication of providing direction and leadership—‘to rule over, to order, to govern, government, rule.’” BDAG says it is to be in a supervisory capacity, lead, guide. These early congregations also had the authority of Scripture as their final authority even if they did not possess a complete canon. It would be utterly absurd for us to consider that a completed canon nullifies or even downgrades the commandments to obey our elders and to submit to one another.

AGRUPNOUSIN is a present active indicative. The continuous aspect tells us that our leaders are continually looking after us, looking out for our souls at all times. They have our best interests at heart. LN says this word means “to take care of or to look after, with the implication of continuous and wakeful concern for—‘to look after, to take care of.’” I am sure these leaders were not perfect. I am sure they were not fully developed in their theological understanding of the New Covenant. Nevertheless, the principle of submission seems foundational to their role and function in the body.

APODOSONTES LN defines the word as “a marker of an agent relation with a numerable event, with the probable implication of some transfer involved—‘to make, to perform, to do, to give.’” The idea is one of great responsibility. These elders watch over us as men who will be held accountable by God for the health of our very souls. Most commentators take this as expressing necessity, hence the translation “must.” However, Lane argued that such an approach misses the subjective-voluntative force of this classical idiom. He suggested the translation “as those who intend to give an account” [David Allen, NAC]. The acceptance of this kind of responsibility in and of itself demands only the highest respect.

STEVANDZONTES is defined by LN as to groan or sigh as the result of deep concern or stress. The word denotes feeling which is internal and unexpressed [Moulton-Milligan]. “The author’s desire is that the leaders may do their pastoral duty with joy and not with sighing or groaning, where the participle in Greek expresses manner. The burden can be taken as what the leaders experience if the readers disobey or in the sense of if the leaders had to give a negative account” [David Allen, NAC]. We should be considerate of our elders, doing our best not to add to the heavy burden they currently bear by nature of their office and function.

ALUSITELES which means, “pertaining to being of no advantage—‘of no advantage, without special benefit.’” To create unpleasantness in the elder relationship by making their job less than joyous is unprofitable for us. We derive no benefit from making it hard on our elders to lead.

One of the first signs of danger in the world of biblical studies is that men, educated men, unnecessarily take the simple and direct and twist it into the complex and convoluted. They seemingly are able to put together a five-thousand-word explanation that does nothing but make the clear, vague. What can we learn about Hebrews 13:17 by studying the historical context and language in which it was inspired?

1. We learn that God has placed spiritual leaders in the church. Since God does nothing without a purpose, it is safe to say God had a good reason for doing what He did.

2. We learn that God has commanded us through the author of the Hebrew letter to obey the authority He has place in the Church and to submit to it.

3. We learn that godly elders are continually looking out for our souls as those who will actually give an account to God for how they lead and for the health of our souls. This applies to ethical as well as doctrinal purity.

4. We learn that we are to submit with joy, making sure that we do not add to the burden of those whom God has placed over us.

5. Finally, we learn that it is unprofitable for us to add to the burden of those who lead us in Christ. We derive no benefit whatever from making their task unnecessarily more difficult than it already is.

6. We learn that obeying and submitting to ecclesial authority is not an option that we can take or leave. It is a commandment. We also learn that this situation in the Church was not temporary. There is no reason for anyone to think that once the canon became complete that those who can read are no longer under any obligation to obey and submit to their elders. Such thinking introduces an unjustifiable pragmatism to the text.
Hays’s argument can be boiled down to two basic thoughts: first, since we have the authoritative revelation and can access it ourselves, the need for submission to local elders is no longer necessary. Second, there are pseudo-elders out there, wolves in sheep’s clothing and therefore to teach ecclesial submission is to place people in harm’s way.

So long as believers walk around with a sin nature, the need for godly oversight and humble submission is necessary. The current state of affairs in many Western and especially American churches is quite frankly pathetic. The Church is filled with self-authoritative individuals from top to bottom. No one takes the sermon seriously because they have decided for themselves that the old man is a buffoon; that his beliefs are antiquated and outdated and that they have the same proficiency in handling the text as the next person. If the Church doesn’t play the right music, or have a strong hedonistic entertainment environment for the self-centered, Jesus-loving youth, we are free to move on without hesitation. Hays’s approach, rather than correct and rebuke the current cafeteria-like, marketing approach that most people take to Church selection, encourages it.

Without a proper understanding of the nature of the Church, and what it means to be part of the body of Christ, a sound view on the subject of ecclesial authority is nearly impossible. As long as Church is viewed through the modern lens of American culture, that is, a place where I decide to go because it meets “x” need or makes me feel like “x” or provides “x” for my family, the NT concept of “the Christian Group” will never be understood, appreciated or realized in modern times. The consequences will continue to be church hopping on a whim, self-appointed apostles, prophets, and leaders who set out to start ministries like most Americans start a business. The thought of elder sanction and submission rarely cross our minds. Hays completely misses the point when says that his view is not anachronistic. It is his pragmatic and modern way of looking at things that leads him to draw the conclusions about the text that he does. Like so many others who handle the text, Hays fails to remove his cultural bias to get to what the writer is saying and more importantly, why he is saying it.

The truth of the matter is that in Steve Hays's understanding of the nature of the authority of the Church, and her elders, it seems that the modern existence of elders would be superfluous at best. I would be interested in understanding Steve's view of what submission to the Church or elders actually looks like. If it isn't any of the things I have pointed out, then what is it? So far, Hays's only positive statement about submission is that we submit to the authority of special revelation. But bound up in THAT authoritative revelation itself is the command to submit to something other than the authoritative revelation. In other words, the one thing Hays admits we must submit to, Scripture, commands us to submit to our leaders. Hence, refusal to submit to one's elders biblically, is ipso facto refusal to submit to the authority of Scripture.

Ecclesial submission was never put in place because the Church lacked the canon. Ecclesial submission was put in place because, “I know that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves men will arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them.  “Therefore be on the alert, remembering that night and day for a period of three years I did not cease to admonish each one with tears. (Acts 20:29-31)

Ecclesial submission was put in place "for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ; until we all attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ. (Eph. 4:12-13)

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