The word “leader” can mean many different things. It can refer to the leader of a country or the leader of a team of employees. One can be a leader in the game, “Follow the Leader” or one can be the leader of a sports team with most points scored.
So what does the Preacher mean in Hebrews 13:7 when he says, “Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith” (all Scripture in ESV)? Who are these leaders?
The word in Greek is a substantival participle. That means it is a verbal noun, functioning as a noun in this sentence. NASB rightly translates it, “those who led you.” The word is used nearly 200x between the LXX (Greek translation of the OT) and the New Testament. It turns out, when used as a noun, the word can refer to a variety of different kinds of leaders.
In Acts 14:12, Paul is called Hermes because he is the “chief speaker.” Acts 7:10 uses the word to refer to Joseph as “governor” over all Egypt. Luke 22:26 contrasts “leaders” with “servants,” using the word generically. Acts 15:22 uses the word to describe the leaders among the missionaries. Matthew 2:6 refers to the “leaders” over Judah, presumably either the religious rulers or king.
When words have such a broad range of potential meaning, context must reign when seeking to determine meaning. Hebrews 13 helpfully uses the word 3x. The first we have already seen in 13:7. Hebrews 13:17 reads, “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.” Then, just a few verses down, the word is used one last time in 13:24a, “Greet all your leaders and all the saints.”
The context of these verses make it clear that the “leaders” in 13:7 refers to the leaders of the church, primarily the elders. First, 13:7 specifies that the leaders are “those who spoke to you the word of God.” Preaching and teaching the word are inseparably linked with the work of the elders (1 Tim 3:2; 5:17; 2 Tim 2:15; Titus 1:9). Second, 13:17 says that these leaders “keep watch over your souls.” Shepherding and oversight are hallmarks of the work of elders/overseers (1 Pet 5:2-3). Third, by pairing “your leaders” with “all the saints” in 13:24a, the Preacher separates leaders from the more common group of Christians. These are clearly leaders within the church.
Bringing these commands together, the readers ought to “remember” their leaders (primarily the church elders) by imitating their faith and deeply considering their way of life. They ought to obey and submit to their leaders, recognizing that such submission benefits both leader and layperson in the long run. Proper relationship between church leaders and their church members has great fruit and reward in the church.