“Honour thy father and thy mother: that thy days may be long upon the land which the Lord they God giveth thee.”
There has been talk as to whether this command belongs to the first table of the law, which deals with our relationship to God, or the second table, which deals with our relationship to each other. Since this command deals with authority, which is sourced in God as the ultimate authority and our Father in heaven, it has one foot in the first table because it deals with our vertical relationship to God, our response to His authority, and what He has set in place. But it is also horizontal because it indeed deals with what He has set in place, namely our earthly parents and other earthly institutions of authority as we will see. Certainly, all of our horizontal relationships (man-to-man) have a vertical (man-to-God) aspect to them since you cannot claim to love God (vertical) and hate your neighbor (horizontal) at the same time (Mark 12:31; 1 John 2:9; 4:20). These expressions and attitudes of love, though going in different directions, are not independent from one another. If you love God, you will love your neighbor and express this love to one another; if you want to love your neighbor rightly, you must start with loving God. So, our concerns are still vertical in this command because our parents’ authority (and our authority as parents) is derived from God. This command, then, is a fitting transition as the Ten Commandments move to deal with our relationships to our fellow human beings.
The narrow scope of this command deals strictly with parental relations. Everyone has a father and mother or has had someone serving in that function at some capacity in the parents’ stead (aunts, uncles, grandparents, teachers, orphanage, babysitters, elders, adults, etc.). Parents are used in this command as the prime example of authority because it is the first place where we are conscious of being under authority. The foundation for the respect of authority, then, is to be laid in the home and practiced by honoring the parents. That being the case, parents are to be examples of an authority that is worthy of being honored and examples of ones who honor other authorities themselves. So, the expanded scope of this command deals with the relationship with all legitimate authority.
The force of this command dictates that we always act in a way that A) respects and esteems those in authority over you, and B) is worthy of the esteem and respect of those under your authority. We are never to act in a way that fails to maintain A and B. We are to honor and be honorable.
But notice that this command says “honor,” and not strictly “obey” as it does in other places. There is a difference here, and the word “honor” carries a significant weight with it in contrast to mere obedience. The Westminster Larger Catechism examines this command in Q&A 127, and one of the duties that it says inferiors are to have to their superiors is a “willing obedience to their lawful commands and counsels.” The Catechism assumes that subjects will obey because what is being commanded by the authorities is lawful; meaning that their commands must needs be in conformity to the moral precepts of God for it to be lawful (see WLC Q&A 93-99, 130). The commands given by legitimate authority are, within a good and necessary consequence deduced by a sanctified logic and wisdom, good and beneficial for an inferior to follow. We are to obey and submit to authority so long as their commands are lawful and do not cause you to do any forward action that is unlawful. Thus, this obedience to authority is not to be a blind, unquestioning obedience as if we no longer have any moral culpability when performing something commanded or have lost all manner of conscience, and obedience is only one action that falls under the umbrella of submission to authority. We can show submission in many ways, like through our frame of attitude toward authority, by listening, or by giving a reverential exhortation to a superior toward an honorable thing. So, honoring ordinarily looks like obeying, but when we are required to obey, it is qualified. We are to obey only insofar as it glorifies God. Honoring, though, is never qualified- it is absolute. Because of this, on rare occasions, the way you can best honor authority is by disobeying them- by taking careful measures so that they remain honorable leaders, make honorable and lawful decisions and commands, and not go down a self-governing path and pattern that may eventually make their authority to become illegitimate.
Think of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. Instead of obeying Nebuchadnezzar’s command to bow to his statue and worship him as a god, which would cause these men to blatantly commit idolatry, they remained standing in reverential disobedience to an unlawful command. These men showed that you can disobey in an honorable way. Here, this disobedience gave more honor to Nebuchadnezzar because part of its intention was to peacefully call to attention and exhort against the grave missteps and abuses of the king’s God-given authority. His authority was used to exalt himself, rather than it being used to exalt the authority-Giver where our ultimate fealty ought to lie. A similar thing can be said for the early martyrs who were executed for not participating in emperor worship. Rather than saying “Caesar is Lord,” which would be affirming the common religious sentiment of the day that the emperor was divine and the supreme authority on earth, these martyrs would say “Jesus is Lord” and face certain death. To refuse to give a public demonstration of worship when ordered was to be viewed as a heretic, a traitor, divisive, and a dissenter.
The church today can take a cue from these examples. Instead of immediately caving to the social and political pressures to do whatever it asks out of a fear for breaking this command, there are provisions to submissively exhort or object to any unlawful command. How else will the government be kept in check to remain an honorable representation of God’s authority and give lawful commands if there is no one that remains standing after everyone else has bowed to its unlawful commands?
Sadly, many there are many within Christianity who conclude upon conflicting ends as to how to deal with abuses of governmental authority. For centuries, this has been a heated debate and it is still today. Some will fall on one extreme end of the spectrum where they are too quick to conclude that an authoritative, governmental institution has become illegitimate, so disrespect and violent rebellion is encouraged. Disobeying parents is a hallmark of depravity (1 Timothy 1:9; 2 Timothy 3:2; Romans 1:28-32; Micah 7:6) and this kind of response to governmental authority falls well within this description and should be strongly discouraged.
Others believe (especially in the West) that any slip up deserves a tirade of beratement. The authority problems that the West has are evident in this area. We do not know what it means to honor authority, just look at how we speak of our politicians. If we compare the West’s way of speaking and dealing with parents, elders, and authority to the East, it is a night and day difference that puts us far to shame. This may be due in part to living in an individualistic society within a democracy, so it is easy to view our rulers as merely hirelings. There are legitimate ways to complain and protest any dishonorable thing that may happen, but activism today has become something that is not honorable. The activism that we have today is anarchistic and designed to bring shame to authority instead of humbly and contritely seeking for it to remain honorable or regain its honor.
Some believe that it is the institutional church’s duty to overreach her bounds and illegitimately usurp many of the duties that are for the civil government. Yet, others will sink into passivity or a retreat and think that submission means that the institutional church ought to roll over and play dead when it comes to political matters and that this governing body is to have no other institution holding it accountable, having free reign when it comes to governing all facets of society, including the church.
But the church is given provision to speak into real, governmental and political matters because these matters are often significant, moral issues that the church is most qualified to address. It needs to be addressed sternly, reverentially, and publicly as an effort to ensure the honorability of their God-given authority. It could be argued that the best way the church can honor and submit to authority is by calling it out, and, in some instances, by disobeying it. But, any disobedience or submissive exhortation that one would endeavor upon must have a good reason, be appropriate, and it must be prayed upon with the utmost humility, reverence, respect, and fear.
So, you can always honor, but not always obey. With God, however, honoring and obeying are one in the same thing because His commands are always right and true, but men’s are not. This exception allows for civil disobedience because we must obey God rather than man. Just like honoring does not always equal obeying, obeying a command does not always mean that you are honoring authority, either. It is possible for you to be completely disgruntled while following an order, but you can’t throw a fit and be honoring at the same time. A child who drags his feet and complains under his breath after being told to clean his room isn’t honoring his parents.
Regarding the duties of those in authority, Q&A 129 and 130 of the Westminster Larger Catechism says:
“What is required of superiors toward their inferiors? It is required of superiors, according to that power they receive from God, and that relation wherein they stand, to love, pray for, and bless their inferiors; to instruct, counsel, and admonish them; countenancing, commending, and rewarding such as do well; and discountenancing, reproving, and chastising such as do ill; protecting, and providing for them all things necessary for soul and body: and by grave, wise, holy, and exemplary carriage, to procure glory to God, honor to themselves, and so to preserve that authority which God hath put upon them?
“What are the sins of superiors? The sins of superiors are, besides the neglect of the duties required of them, an inordinate seeking of themselves, their own glory, ease, profit, or pleasure; commanding things unlawful, or not in the power of inferiors to perform; counseling, encouraging, or favoring them in that which is evil; dissuading, discouraging, or discountenancing them in that which is good; correcting them unduly; careless exposing, or leaving them to wrong, temptation, and danger; proving them to wrath; or any way dishonoring themselves, or lessening their authority, by an unjust, indiscreet, rigorous, or remiss behavior.
God distributes authority widely in human society: parents, police, judges, magistrates, teachers, elders, etc. So, those in authority are to conduct themselves in a way that demands honor and respect, inside and outside of their office. It must be a respect that is earned in a legitimate, godly way- not an authoritarian, threatening, or dictatorial manner of commanding respect. So, those in authority are to gain respect by a respectful way of living and an admirable way of carrying one’s self. It is to be gained by love. Authority is given so that the leader may serve, not so that he may self-serve. Parents want to see their children grow and succeed and will place many opportunities before them to see that happen, and it is to be the same with those under authority in the workplace or wherever this authority is situated.
This also means that those within authority are not to overstep their bounds. You are to know your limits, live within those limits, and never go beyond them. This can apply to many things, but being in seminary, the thing that pops into my mind are the limits of the authority of the church into the lives and society of the people. As a minister of the Word, you can tell the society and government what is moral, but you cannot become a policy maker, to sit over the lawmakers, and micromanage their job. That is detracting from your task as a preacher. Priority and due diligence are to be given to the responsibilities before you. So as a pastor, that is to give yourself to the reading and the expounding the Word of God for the sake of your congregation. But since the minister is there for his congregation, he is to seek the application of the Word of God with greatest urgency to the moral situations they will face within society- and that includes any magistrate, lawyer, doctor, policy maker, teacher, etc. that is under him. The minister is not only to preach general, Biblical truth, but he is to apply it to the times that he is in, to individuals, and to the individuals’ stations, even if they be in a station of authority that is outside of the church’s function. This influence upon other people, even within other realms of authority, is wholly within the minister’s bounds and it is a part of his task.
Disclaimer: The content of this series is drawn from much of my notes of Dr. Bruce Baugus’ lectures. The language and arguments are adjusted to fit an easier reading flow, the content is catered to my writing style, and may not always accurately reflect Dr. Baugus’ sentiments or statements. Other sources are also used to draw in information.