THE SANCTITY OF HUMAN AUTHORITY
by Bob Wheeler
Thomas Jefferson famously stated in the Declaration of Independence that “to secure these rights governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. . .” And most Americans sincerely believe that – they routinely drive over the speed limit when the cops are not watching. The law, in and of itself, means nothing to them. But is Jefferson’s statement really true?
In the limited sense in which Jefferson probably intended it, it undoubtedly is true. Human governments are, after all, institutions created by human beings for the purpose of establishing law and order in society. Society could not function without government of some sort. And so it logically follows that “whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it, and to institute new government, laying its foundations on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to affect their safety and happiness.”
But that does not mean, however, that individuals are free to disobey the government any time they happen to feel like it. A lawfully constituted government must be obeyed except in cases when it is acting immorally. If everyone took the law into his own hands it would defeat the whole purpose of government and chaos would ensue.
Respect for authority begins in the home. And so it is that when the apostle Paul wrote his letter to the church at Ephesus he had a special word of exhortation to the children of the congregation: “Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right” (Eph. 6:1; NKJV). He then goes on to point out that this is, in fact, one of the Ten Commandments: “Honor you father and mother” (v. 2; cf. Ex. 20:12; Dt. 5:16).
Paul says “for this is right” (v. 1). When he says “right” he does not just mean that it is technically correct. The Greek word that he uses (dikaion) is usually translated “righteous,” and means “morally right,” i.e., in accordance with God’s moral law. The idea here is that there is a certain form of behavior expected from us as human beings. We have a moral obligation to Someone outside of ourselves, and our actions must be brought into conformity with His moral law. And part of our moral obligation is respect for duly constituted authority.
We are confronted with the issue at the age of two, when we throw our first temper tantrum. We didn’t get what we wanted and we responded with an outburst of rage. It is total depravity in its rawest form, and if left unchecked it will lead to a lifetime of ruinous, destructive behavior. It is the very opposite of that love for neighbor that God requires from us as His creatures.
Paul points out that this is the first one of the Ten Commandments that has a promise attached to it: “that it may be well with you and you may live long on the earth” (v. 3). In its original context in Deuteronomy, the promise refers specifically to the land of Canaan, a land flowing with milk and honey, which God promised to bless if Israel remained faithful to Him (Dt. 11:8-17). But there is also a broader sense in which human prosperity is tied to the soil, and is ultimately dependent upon God’s blessing on that soil. We are the offspring of our parents, and a harvest is the produce of the land. If we fail to honor our parents who brought us into the world, and upon whom we are dependent during our childhood years, we cannot expect the land to yield its fruit. In this, as in other areas of life, we really do reap what we sow.
Respect for authority does not end at the parent – child relationship; it extends to other areas as well. The apostle Peter could write: “Therefore submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake, whether to the king as supreme, or to governors, as to those who are sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and for the praise of those who do good” (I Pet. 2:13,14). Paul himself could refer to the civil magistrate as “God’s minister to you for good,” and exhorted his readers to “be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God” (Rom. 13:1-7). Individual rulers, of course, are chosen by chosen by men, or at least come to power by human means. But God is ultimately the Lord of history, and controls events through His providence; and thus the authorities can be said in some sense to be “appointed” by Him (NKJV) or “established” (NASV) or “instituted” (ESV) by Him. Politicians may be dishonest, incompetent, or even corrupt, but society needs politicians nonetheless. The alternative is rampant crime and chaos. We are to respect and honor them for the office they hold; not necessarily their personal attributes. When Barack Obama was in office, he was the President of all of us as Americans. Now that Donald Trump holds the office he too is the President of all of us. And both facts are true no matter what we may personally think of the views of either man.
What the Bible offers us, then, is a basically conservative social philosophy. Yes, we are morally obligated to care for the disadvantaged in our society. But we must respect and honor those who are in positions of authority. Human society simply cannot function in the absence of authority structures needed to plan to organize tasks and maintain order. We are ultimately accountable to our Creator for our actions, and He expects us to act responsibly in all our affairs. “Rugged individualism is the essence of human arrogance, and is the opposite of Christian love. It has no place among Christians.