Hebrews Chapter 13 is an interesting chapter. It reminds the reader to look, observe, remember, and apply good proper behavior to ones life. Verses 7-9 and 17-18 are the tied together perhaps book-ending what is in-between, somewhat defining how we approach and apply what we are observing and remembering.
Verse 7 tells us to remember those who lead us in teaching the Scriptures. Remembering has already been admonished in verse 3 as part of letting brotherly love continue, which is closed with verse 5’s admonition to let our conduct by without covetousness. So, remembering has already been tied with observing so as to adjust our own behavior towards godliness.
OK, so the implications are that we are to remember and observe our leaders, but we are not to following their teachings (further defined in verse 9) until we consider the outcome of their conduct. In other words we must observe how they live out their teachings, consider its ramifications before wholeheartedly taking it into our own behavior. This carefulness in following what our leaders teach is emphasized by mentioning that Christ (who is Truth embodied) is the same and does not change, AND that we must not be carried away by strange teachings. Our hearts must be established on grace, we must eat the spiritual foods that profit our soul. One way to see that is by observing how teachings (and we must agree that the body of Christ has many diverse teachings) flesh out in the lives of those who teach and believe them.
Then in verse 17 we have an interesting word that had it been translated better (difficult word though) I believe it would read: “be willing to be persuaded by your leaders and be submissive …..”. The Greek word for “obey” (upakouo) is not there. Instead we have peithomai or a derivative.
The Greek word (3982) "peitho" means:
a) to persuade, that is, to induce one by words to believe
b) to make friends of, to win one's favor, to gain one's good will, or to seek to win one, to strive to please one
c) to tranquilize
d) to persuade unto, that is, to move or induce one to persuasion to do something
2) be persuaded
a) to be persuaded, to suffer oneself to be persuaded; to be induced to believe: to have faith (in a thing)
1) to believe
2) to be persuaded of a thing concerning a person
b) to listen to, to obey, to yield to, to comply with
3) to trust, to have confidence, to be confident
In Classical Greek students were taught that the fundamental meaning of the word pietho was to persuade (in the active voice), or be persuaded (in the passive, or middle voice).This is not claiming that this verb can never be translated obey, but is saying that even in those cases, the word likely has overtones of doing such and such BECAUSE one is persuaded. In the New Testament the idea of persuasion and related ideas are frequently present when the verb is used, as in the very next verse, Hebrews 13:18, with the idea of confidence (because one is persuaded).
Thus, we have this whole section closing with the idea of being willing, allowing for the possibility of, being persuaded of what is being taught by our leaders. And how do we allow them to persuade us, by observing and remembering how they live out their beliefs. This is further drummed in by verse 18 which says that we are to pray for the author(s) of the epistle (implying leaders and teachers perhaps) because they are living honorably in a good conscience.
It is unfortunate that many have helicoptered verse 7 and 17 out of the context of this chapter and used it to demand that the laity give somewhat blind obedience to their clergy rather than properly separating honor and respect from blind obedience. We are to honor and respect those who have dedicated their lives to serve the body of Christ but we are to follow what proves to be truth, both by searching the Scriptures (Acts 17:10-12) and by observing how they live what they teach.
In Conclusion: the implication of verses 7-9 and 17-19 are to test what is being said against real life (the real life of the leaders living out their beliefs) , in order to not be led about by strange doctrines. Sometimes, it’s difficult to tell what our leaders really mean until we see how they apply it in their lives. This of course does not mean we ONLY follow our leaders, and do not read Scripture and through prayer and research figure things out for ourselves. We must keep our hearing tuned like donkeys ears swivel to grab the sound, so that we eagerly take in what is being said by our leaders respecting their sincere devotion to God and Scripture. Observing, how they live out their beliefs is another way to fine tune what they believe. But, it is imperative that we only trust Scripture as the final authority and like the Bereans search the Scriptures to see if what is being said is really in Scripture and as described by our leaders.
I believe that when we do this, when we are diligent to hear, willing to be persuaded, diligent to research the Scriptures for ourselves like the Bereans, we will experience a deeper inner walk with God.