This is often quoted by high churchman to keep the laity in their place. But it’s important to keep in mind that Biblical commands and prohibitions typically have an implied situation. An implicit or explicit situational context.
To be faithful to Biblical commands and prohibitions means we must make allowance for the implied situation, and apply those biblical injunctions to analogous situations. Far from honoring the authority of Scripture, to disregard the implied situation can make a mockery of original intent.
As I discussed recently, there are well-meaning Christians (e.g. John Murray, Wayne Grudem) who say there are no circumstances in which it is right to lie. They treat the Mosaic prohibition against perjury as a moral absolute.
But in so doing, they are decoupling the Mosaic prohibitions from the Mosaic law, of which they are a part, and reassigning them to any law code. But can you simply transfer those prohibitions from a just to an unjust law code? If a human law code substitutes darkness for light (Isa 5:20), if attaching the Mosaic prohibitions to an unjust law code would generate a Kafkaesque travesty of justice, are we really honoring the Bible? Or have we perverted justice?
Likewise, you have well-meaning Anabaptists who apply 1 Peter 2:13-14 to a modern democracy. But that disregards the implied situation of Christians at the time of writing.
Where Heb 13:17 is concerned, we need to take the implied situation into account:i) There were no Christian denominations back then. There were no rival theological traditions in the Apostolic church.
But nowadays, which elders should a Christian submit to? Baptist? Methodist? Amish? Lutheran? Anglican? Presbyterian? Assemblies of God? Roman Catholic? Eastern Orthodox? Oriental Orthodox?
Should a Christian layman submit to Pope Francis, John Spong, James Pike, Gene Robinson, Katharine Schori?
Clearly the situation is more complicated. It’s necessary for a layman to make a preliminary judgment regarding which elders merit submission. A layman must decide for himself which denomination or independent church has a better understanding of the Bible. The alternative is to flip a coin. So a layman has no choice but to exercise some independent theological judgment regarding which elders to submit to. Simply defaulting to an authority-figure isn’t a viable option when there are competing authority-figures vying for our submission.
ii) Does Heb 13:17 enjoin unconditional obedience? This verse qualifies the nature of submission. The laity are accountable to the leaders insofar as the leaders are accountable to God.
By converse logic, if church leaders are derelict, then the laity aren’t accountable to unaccountable leaders.
V17 comes on the heels of vv7,9. The laity are admonished not to be carried away by all kinds of strange teachings. Given the fact that false teachers even infiltrated NT churches when the apostles were away, you could easily have a church, even in NT times, a church planted by an apostle, where the leadership went astray. A church where the elders were heretics.
So surely Heb 13:17 doesn’t enjoin blind submission to church elders. That would give false teachers carte blanche.
iii) Keep in mind, too, that at the time Hebrews was written, the NT wasn’t complete, collected, or disseminated.Most laymen couldn’t read. Even if they could, they couldn’t afford books. That’s why the Scriptures were read aloud in church.Back then, laymen were far more dependent on church leaders for their knowledge of the Christian faith. But nowadays, Christian laymen can go straight to the source. They can read the Bible. They can read Bible commentaries. Biblical theologies. Systematic theologies.
iv) At the time Heb 13:17 was written, elders were either apostolic appointees or ratified by apostles. Witnesses to the life of Christ were still alive (Heb 2:3).
Once again, we’re in a very different situation. Both pastors and laymen depend on the same source of information–the Bible. It isn’t mediated in the same way.
We need to apply biblical prescriptions and proscriptions to situations comparable to what the injunction originally envisioned. To tear a Biblical injunction out by the roots and transplant it to a completely different situation isn’t honoring the authority of Scripture.
I see no positive statement about biblical submission in Hays’s ecclesiology. It simply does not exist.