Listen to Your Leaders
One of the final instructions in the book of Hebrews concerns the relationship of Christians to their leaders. On the surface, it might seem a strange thing to write to a group of Christian facing persecution, marginalization, seizure of property, and being thrown into prison for their faith. But think about it. When you are despondent, confused, or angry, where do you turn? Most people will vent, get advice from, or simply talk to someone they trust. Some will simply tell you what you want to hear. Others will tell you what you need to hear. Some will give you worldly direction. Others will give you godly wisdom. Against this backdrop, the text says this in Heb 13:17:
"Listen to the leaders of you and submit, for they watch on behalf of the souls of you as ones who give a word of account, in order that with joy this they may do and not groaning, for of no advantage to you is this."
As you can see, I translated this text word for word as literally as possible, making for a very wooden translation. Here it is again in better English.
"Listen to your leaders and submit to them, for they watch on behalf of your souls as ones who will give an account; (listen to them) so that they may work with joy and not groaning, for this would not be advantageous to you."
The first word, "listen to" is from peitho, and it means to persuade, convince, win over. In this verse, however, it is a passive verb, which we would render, "be persuaded," or "listen to," or "pay attention to." Here are some other passages the word in the passive form is used: Lk 20:6; Acts 28:24; Rom 8:38; 2 Tim 1:12; Heb 6:9. In each case, it is "convinced of" or "persuaded by," such as the time Agrippa told Paul, "You almost persuade me to become a Christian."
Many translations render peitho as, "obey," which may communicate something of a coercive compliance. Coercive compliance goes against what the New Testament clearly teaches when it tells shepherds not to "lord it" over the flock, but be examples" (1 Pet 5:3), or to be unlike the rulers of the Gentiles who lord it over them, but instead to be a servant (Mk 10:42-43). But peitho does not communicate coercive obedience. It means to listen to, to give deference to your leaders. Your leaders are who you turn to when you need guidance, wisdom and instruction.
Notice what this does to your leaders. The second half of the verse begins with the word, hina, which means, "in order that." It says to listen to them "in order that" their ministry would be a joy, not a hardship. Making their ministry a hardship would not be profitable to us. The NIV best renders the thought of the second half of this verse. The effect of this attitude toward your leaders is similar to the effect a child has on a parent when your child listens to your wisdom and takes it to heart. When you watch your child blossom as a result, what a joy it is. This is the sort of thing this verse is talking about.
The passage uses the general word, "leaders," which means this is not limited to elders, deacons, or preachers. This includes parents, teachers, mentors, and other godly leaders in our lives.