The second table of the Law begins with the fifth commandment – honour your father and your mother. This is more than about children obeying their parents but refers to submitting to all in authority over us. Thus it really speaks about a person’s position in society; it deals directly with inter-personal relationships.
In this commandment we do not hear a rallying cry about ‘liberty, equality and fraternity’, but are told about inequality of place and position; and about obedience, submissiveness and reverence.
That distinction between people, by which the one person has authority over the other, does not originate in man himself. No, the Holy Scriptures teach that all authority is from sovereign God. For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God (Romans 13:1). Only God has authority in and from Himself, and He exercises His authority through the service of man. Not that God transfers His authority to man, but He instructs people to exercise His authority on earth.
We should know therefore that in the government, in father and mother, in the office-bearer of the church, in our schoolteacher – in all of them we have to do with God.
When the authorities punish an evildoer, God punishes. When the office-bearer admonishes a sinner, God admonishes. When father and mother warn their children, God warns. When the teacher at school says ‘pay attention’, God says, ‘pay attention’.
All authority is from God.
It is for that reason that we shall show all honour, love, and faithfulness to those who are in authority over us. It is for that reason that we submit ourselves with due obedience to their good instruction and discipline.
Due obedience means: the obedience we owe. We shall obey because it is God’s will; because God is pleased to govern us by their hand.
Both the exercise of authority in accordance with God’s official call and the recognition of and respect for that authority are religious matters. They are part of the fear of the Lord.
In today’s society we notice a rapid decline in the execution and recognition of authority. The consequence is that obedience to the fifth commandment of God’s law will push us more and more into isolation.
We have to make a conscious choice also at this point. And that choice, too, will reveal who do and do not fear the Lord. It’s a matter of being obedient to the Lord.
This is something we confess in Lord’s Day 39 of the Heidelberg Catechism. It says that when the fifth commandment speaks about showing honour to “your father and your mother” it is referring to “all those in authority”.
Our Catechism is well-founded on scriptural grounds. All we need do is look at the many places mentioned in its reference texts.
So let’s rummage through the Bible. How does it apply the fifth commandment?
We read there not only that children must obey their parents but also that wives must submit to their husbands as to the Lord, and bond-servants must obey their master according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in sincerity of heart.
We read further such general commands as: Fear God, honour the king; Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities; and Obey those who rule over you, and be submissive, for they watch out for your souls, as those who must give account.
Titus is told to exhort bondservants to be obedient to their own masters, to be well pleasing in all things, not answering back, not pilfering, but showing all good fidelity, that they may adorn the doctrine of God our Saviour in all things. (Titus 2:9, 10)
We read the same admonition directed to slaves in 1 Timothy 6:1, 2 so that the name of God and His doctrine may not be blasphemed.
The position of slaves was generally speaking not good. Christian slaves in particular were often living in difficult circumstances. But they are exhorted to be submissive to their masters in all things, not only to the good and gentle but also to the harsh (1 Peter 2:18).
This admonition is frequently repeated, for the temptation to ignore it was great. If the master was a fellow Christian, did that not mean equality and fellowship in Christ? And if he was a heathen, surely the Christian slave was not obliged to obey him, was he?
The work of slaves was not always pleasant. They did not have rights. They could not even inherit anything. They did not get paid. They were fed in order to be able to work. They simply had to be useful.
And yet … they were told in Scripture to serve, to be submissive, to show fidelity.
This Scriptural attitude toward the fifth commandment is a far cry from the vulgar banner slogans in street demonstrations and the protest of the clenched fist.
Instead of being swept along by the thinking of today in regards to equal rights and disrespect for authority let us remember that all legitimate authority is from God and the authorities that exist are appointed by God (Romans 13:1). There is only one exception to our obedience: when those in authority over us command us to disobey the highest authority—God.
by H W Ophoff (translated and slightly amended from Dutch) in Joh. Francke, De Unieke Troost, Boersma, Enschede, 1971.