The Fifth Commandment reads, “Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long upon the land which the Lord your God is giving you” (Ex. 20:12; Dt. 5:16; NKJV). So seriously was this commandment taken that the death penalty was attached to it. “If a man has a stubborn and rebellious son who will not obey the voice of his father or the voice of his mother, and who, when they have chastised him, will not heed them, then his father and his mother shall take hold of him and bring him out to the rulers of his city . . .” (Dt. 21:18/,19). The parents would then make a declaration that their son was incorrigible. “Then all the men of his city shall stone him to death with stones; so you shall put away the evil from among you, and all Israel shall hear and fear” (v. 21).
This commandment touches on the root of all man’s difficulties: the rebellious attitude we display to persons in authority. It began with our rebellion against God himself, and that same spirit of rebelliousness aims at every form of human authority as well, and thereby threatens to undermine the whole structure of civilized society.
While the immediate reference is to the parent / child relationship, by implication it extends to other human relationships as well. The apostle Peter could write, “Therefore submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake . . .” (I Peter. 2:13). This includes servants being submissive to their masters (vv. 18-20) and wives submitting to their husbands (3:1-6). This does not mean, however, that persons in positions of authority are free to abuse their subordinates at will. Husbands, for instance, are told to dwell with their wives “with understanding, giving honor to the wife, as to the weaker vessel, and as being heirs together of the grace of life, that your prayers be not hindered” (3:7).
The fact of the matter is that society cannot function without authority structures. We need rulers and managers to plan and organize, guide and direct. Otherwise unproductive chaos would be the result. But the basic moral principle holds throughout: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev. 19:18). That means that those who are in subordinate positions must cooperate with those in authority to the full extent of their ability, so that the leaders can accomplish their tasks with a minimum of interference. But by the same token those in authority are responsible for the wellbeing of those under them. They are fellow human beings, of equal moral worth in the sight of God. To mistreat or abuse them is unconscionable.
Much of this, of course, is just plain commonsense. But what is significant about the biblical view is that it puts a divine sanction on our duty to respect authority. It is a human authority; but it is also much more than that – it is also divine authority as well.
All of this is a little hard for Americans to grasp. We are used to a political ideology that says that governments “derive their just powers from the Consent of the Governed.” But according to the Bible we are to obey the government “for conscience’ sake” (Rom. 13:5).
This might strike a believer as somewhat odd. We do not often think of the government as a particularly godly entity. Governments are formed by men, often with little or no regard for God or morality. Moreover a civil government operates on the basis of coercion, and in that sense does not reflect the Christian principle of “turning the other cheek.” The whole political process can be a tawdry affair. Yet Paul could call the civil magistrate “God’s minister to you for good” (Rom. 13:4). He makes the observation that “there is not authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God” (v. 1). The word translated “appointed” could also be rendered “ordered” or “directed.” The idea is that God in His sovereignty ultimately controls all that happens here on earth. Hence Paul could say that “there is no authority except from God.” The implication, then, is that “whoever resists the authority resists the ordinance of God, and those who resist will bring judgment upon themselves” (v. 2), and thus we “must be subject, not only because of wrath but also for conscience’ sake” (v. 5).
Significantly Paul said all of this when the pagan Roman government was in power. In fact the emperor at the time was none other than Nero, although this was before the Great Fire of Rome in A.D. 64 and the persecution of the Christians which followed it. Nero himself was known for being personally profligate throughout his reign. Such was the kind of person Paul calls “God’s minister to you for good.”
Thus government derives its moral authority from God, not the people. We are to be subject to it because God wants us to – it is part of our duty toward Him. This does not mean, however, that the government is free to do anything it pleases. While the authority of the state has been established by God, it is limited by Him as well. God is the final Judge, and He is a God of justice. He has promised to punish injustice and oppression. No government has the power to command anything that directly contradicts God’s will.
Moreover there is a danger to the government itself when it tries to detach itself from God and morality. If fails to gain the respect of its citizens, if it can command obedience only at the point of a sword, it will either become tyrannical or be swept away in revolution. In a functioning democracy people obey the government voluntarily – and they do that only t the extent that they believe that it is their moral obligation to do so. Let us ever remain “one nation under God.