Why must children honour and obey their parents and teachers, and why must everyone honour and obey all those in authority? “… because it pleases God…” (LD 39). That’s it. Period. Therefore we may say to the authorities: rule us; you do so by the grace of God. Rule us so that we may live as free citizens of this earthy fatherland because we are, in the first-place, citizens of the heavenly fatherland.
To be sure, since Christ is sovereign, we have a right to disobey any authority that withstands God and would coerce us to disobey Him. Daniel exercised that right when he refused to stop praying to God despite the king’s edict (Dan. 6). His three friends exercised that right when they refused to bow before the golden statue (Dan. 3). The apostles exercised that right when they refused to heed the Sanhedrin’s command to stop preaching Christ (Acts 4).
But when the command of those in legitimately-established authority does not clearly override God’s command, we are to submit. Rev. K Schilder, in a sermon on the 5th commandment[i] (on which this article draws heavily), emphasised that this applies whether the authority is a dictatorial paganistic government which sees itself as having God-like ultimate control in this world, or whether it is an Islamic regime which tolerates no views but those that submit to its teachings, or a Christian regime that governs for the benefit of the people in accordance with the will and law of God. Whatever the type of authority, we on our part must, as we confess in LD 39, “show all honour, love and faithfulness” because “it is God’s will to govern us by their hand”.
That sort of answer doesn’t gel with today’s mentality which tends to focus on the people rather than their God-given office. Children are disrespectful to parents, news media make disparaging comments about politicians and governments, and church members demean office bearers. Such a mentality doesn’t see God as having placed the authorities over us and it submits only to the extent that it is forced or coerced to do so.
But the Bible says: submit, even if the authority is a hard taskmaster. Indeed, our Lord says there is no reward in serving a mild taskmaster. Submit to the yoke, fear God, fear the authority, the ruler, and give to each their due. The fact they misuse their authority does not detract from their office. God has entrusted the authorities with the task to rule particular people. They are clothed with authority because it pleases God to rule people by their hand. It pleases God. That means: this is the way God wants it.
The fifth commandment is about honouring father and mother. But, says Schilder, because father and mother must rule over me, not by blood bond but by the will of the Lord, therefore the fifth commandment includes every other authority: in the workshop, in school, in the state. In every sphere there is order: one above another, not because one person is more excellent but because all together are included in the one order of God which He maintains in each year of ongoing history.
O God, why must someone, a mere person, rule over another? Are they more outstanding? And the answer is: No, their personality does not account for their authority. Nor are they there merely to maintain order. No; it’s because it pleases God to use some people to rule over others, and since it pleases Him, therefore the recognition of authority is based on a strong foundation, and therefore we shall praise the Lord that He has so ordained it.
God said to Pharaoh—and He says today to the Queen, to every prime minister, president and ruler—this is why you were born and placed where you are: that you should glorify My name, and that I may reveal My name through your deeds. And if Pharaoh says: I won’t, then God will come with His authority and will demonstrate His glory. And if later David skips for joy before the ark with those who happily thank God, then also through him God’s name will be glorified, and His glory will be maintained; but not to his destruction as with Pharaoh, but to his own freedom in Christ Jesus. But whether right or left, tyrant or king by the grace of God, it pleases God to govern people by their hand. I know that from the written Word and from the course of history.
Yes, also from history, says Schilder, because everything that has happened, whenever or wherever, is revelation of what was up till that moment the hidden will of God. And every moment, whether things go well or badly, I from my side must say: Lord, whatever happens, You have made it or allowed it; now I will never deny the facts and never pretend they did not occur. I must acknowledge them, for everything reveals your hidden will for the world. Lord give me grace to stand firm in this crooked world. And whatever happens, I must do my duty in accordance with God’s written Word.
That is, along with all those under authority, I must show love, honour, loyalty. And those in authority must give good direction and punishment. And therefore both rulers and subjects are to be subservient to God, who commands both, and says to the one: command, dispense punishments and rewards according to the norms of God’s Word; and says to the other: arrange your life daily according to that command. Don’t obey in order to get what you want: a better lifestyle or a utopia here on earth but because it pleases Me that you obey those whom I have placed over you in the given circumstances.
Love and honour
And therefore, in submission to God, I show love and honour to those in authority. Not only honour, but also love. Honour, says Schilder, can mean to give the required greetings, to pay the necessary taxes, to run an errand, and then say: The work is done, I am a Pharisee, I have done my duty. But my answer must be: love plus reverence, affection and then deep inclination, a wholehearted willingness, even if needed with a grim face. For there is a grimness when Augustus crucifies Peter and has Paul imprisoned; it comes when the wicked are free and the righteous are in prison. Then comes the grim face, hand over mouth or wringing hands behind one’s back in impotent terror.
But the powerlessness that wrings hands, says Schilder, does not become impotent rage. Love and honour; love, also toward those who daily flout God’s commandment, because in their exercise of authority they stand there as set by God. Love that makes Paul say, I will not insult the priest of God. Love which Jesus Christ shows to Caiaphas when He comes to meet him, not to lightning-strike him down with contempt, but to show to that man the place where lost shepherds may become sheep under Christ Jesus.
That love is not infatuation, adds Schilder. Just as father and mother must subject their blood ties to the spiritual ties and otherwise things go wrong, so too as a subject of the government my love must be spiritual. I can’t love the government because it can feather my nest. But love, which recognizes that God has given the offices of authority, will stop us from insulting and slandering the government.
It reminds me, says Schilder, of the Archangel Michael (his name means: Who is like God? He is sovereign alone). That angel, who is without any sin, stands over against the devil, who is all sin. And when a dispute arises over Moses’ body, that angel does not venture to hurl an ill-tempered word at the devil, but says, “The Lord rebuke you!” For the devil, though unfaithful, had first received the office of servant, of angel. That is love: it does not delight in the creature itself, but binds all that is creaturely to the Lord’s Word and Law.
Eyes open to their weaknesses
Of course, this love doesn’t ignore reality. It’s conscious of the shortcomings of those in authority. Every day acknowledge their shortcomings, says Schilder. Know every day: I am clay, so are they. Let us see by the light of Scripture that the Lord causes the wolves on the throne to devour the sheep of Christ’s flock today, and also that the wolves will soon be cast out by Him into outer darkness and that the torn sheep of Christ Jesus will be clothed in gold and fine linen in heavenly glory. And if the ruler is a member of the church, then if necessary censor the ruler in the church but pay taxes on Monday and on Sunday, when you meet him outside church, greet him respectfully. That’s what it is to serve with open eyes: to accept authorities, conscious of their sins and shortcomings.
Poor, declares Schilder, is that multitude who say: We see and we are free—and who fill the cities with processions and exalt their leaders as heroes. For God, the Lord, removes the glories of human leaders at his own discretion, as when He caused Herod to be consumed by worms in the sight of the watchful multitude, and as when one day He gives the great ones of the earth to the birds for supper, and as when John says, the kings and all the rulers of the world shall stand afar off and weep when Babylon falls. For the Bible says that all these ungodly principalities are vessels of wrath.
Yes, out there they stand: the proud cedars that perish, and the scorners of God. But while the Bible opens the eyes of Christians to the sin of the authorities of that time, He also says: obey the rulers, and acknowledge their authority when you are seated, not only on the velvet cushions of the congregation but also on the hard seats in the roman dungeon; recognize there that neither blood nor moral quality gives authority to that man who rules over you, but let God’s will do it, His office, and His world order, which is as yet half known.
And then, adds Schilder, wait for the Day of days, when David shall reign again, David in Christ; wait for the great day of the new theocracy, in which the King calls them all sheep and lambs, the Day in which He hands over the whole kingdom to the Father, that God may be all things in all. Right through our desires and our submission to our Queen, our song of longing sounds for another heavenly state to come, in which the kings are gone and our King reigns without spot and wrinkle and we His subjects rule with Him without spot and wrinkle. The longing for that other day, for that state of supreme liberty, is something we confess in Art. 37 of our Belgic Confession—the day which we and God await with great longing.
Schilder cautions us meanwhile to be careful, to stay in line: never let the longing for the coming state of salvation behind the clouds and for Jesus’ return make you dissatisfied with today’s state. There are two fatherlands, one above and one below. From the homeland above I am a subject here (settler, colonist), for the throne is in heaven and I am here, far from there. But in this earthly homeland I am not a settler; whilst I do not feel at home here, my service and loyalty as a settler of the heavenly homeland must be shown in how I live as a citizen of the earthly homeland, in how I fight and pray and acknowledge the rulers. And not through some fantasy that makes the magistrates the heroes of my imagination, but with the full awareness that they can be people who morally oppose me in every respect. Nevertheless, I honour them for God’s sake. That is seeing God, not just in the prayer room or in the church, but seeing God in the procession in the street, in the tax office, in the courtroom. That is seeing God in the concrete, filthy, messed up life here below. And whoever sees Him thus says: Well, I will never be a slave here if I have thus seen my Father in Christ Jesus.
The limits of human authority
Of course, there are limits to human authority and freedom. I show proper obedience but I know that every government may not say the last word to me; the last word is spoken by the heavenly Father. We have a right, indeed a duty, to rebel if the authority would compel us to forsake the Lord, because God binds us to Himself.
Whoever has believed that, and lives by it, can also today face the Day of days with peace of mind, says Schilder. For the day is drawing near when the antichrist will be the supreme ruler, and in those days the Christians will have a hard time. In those days the antichrist will be the ultimate historical incarnation of the evil one. He blasphemes Christ, denies the only Shepherd, and sharpens the weapon that shall kill the Christians. He will kill the prophets to decorate the false prophets with his own new order signs. In those days the church’s aversion to the antichrist as a person should be as strong as possible; but as long as possible she should still be obedient, until the limit is reached and his commandment personally obliges her to kiss Babylon’s image. Then God’s people will say, standing, not before the communion table—it is, after all, broken—but standing in the streets of the world: We will not do it, in the name of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. We refuse obedience to your person, Antichrist, because we remain conscripted to the living God, our great Shepherd and only King. The result in those days will be captivity; no, worse—death penalty; no, worse—the corpses of murdered Christians on the streets of the great city.
And then I will say, Father, into your hands I commit my spirit. And opening my eyes on the other side, I am then in the better fatherland where I shall rule forever with Christ, my Shepherd and King and Saviour, who bought me with His blood.
[i] K Schilder in a (Dutch) sermon on LD 39, Preken III, Oosterbaan & Le Cointre, Goes, 1955.