What is authority? We spent the last article in this series answering that foundational question. Authority is the right to rule. We explained that God has all authority, has conferred authority upon Jesus Christ according to His human nature, and through Christ has bestowed upon certain people the right to rule. Those people on earth to whom God has given authority include parents in the home, and the husband as head of his wife; teachers who stand in the place of parents; officebearers in the church; government officials on the national, state, and local level; employers in the workplace; and the gray head.

Now that we have laid the foundation, where do we go from here?

If we wanted, we could explore Scripture’s teaching on the responsibilities of those who have the right to rule. We could say something about parents and the carefulness they must exercise. We could address the dealings of employers toward their employees. We could write about officebearers in the church and the conduct to which Christ calls them in their office. Scripture certainly speaks to those in authority and exhorts them to proper governing in the sphere in which God has placed them. Those bestowed with the right to rule may not conduct themselves cruelly, selfishly, or in any way that crushes and harms those below them. The parents, officebearers, employers, teachers, and others in authority must exercise their duties with a proper trembling before God’s face and according to His Word alone.

As important as that is, we intend to go a different direction: what the Bible says to those under authority. This is appropriate, because you young readers find yourselves in that stage right now: you are under many more people than you are over! To that end, we intend to answer two questions—the first in this article, the second in the next, and both connected to the fifth commandment (see Ex. 20:12, and the Heidelberg Catechism’s explanation in Lord’s Day 39). What sin does God forbid for those who are under the rule of others (negative prohibition)? What attitude and behavior does God require for those who are under the rule of others (positive requirement)?

Sin against authority, that is, sin forbidden by the fifth commandment, has a vocabulary. The vocabulary is varied, but three words that well describe such sin are dishonor, rebellion, and disobedience. Dishonor is esteeming the God-appointed position of those in authority as a very light thing. Rebellion is revolting against and consciously elevating oneself over those who rule. Disobedience is refusing to do what one is told.

This sin reaches back to the beginning.

Sometime between the creation of the angels and the fall of man into sin, part of the angelic realm proudly revolted against God. Some of the angels, Lucifer among them, attempted to dethrone God and to be God in His place. Lucifer and the other angels showed themselves rebellious against the sovereign God who has all authority.

It comes as no surprise, then, that Satan, the rebel, approached Eve in the garden and tempted her to disobey God’s clear command, “of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it” (Gen. 2:17). Already the devil had defiantly risen up against God in the angelic world, and now he wanted the first woman to do the same on earth.

But Eve fell into the sin of rebellion even before she partook of the forbidden tree. How? She rebelled against her husband and head, Adam. The serpent made his approach to Eve at a time when she was away from her husband. Satan intended to get at Adam through his wife Eve. The devil began to talk with Eve and Eve responded (Gen. 3:1-5). When the devil began to converse with Eve, she should have immediately directed him to Adam. But she took matters into her own hands, demonstrating self-assertion and showing that she was not in submission to Adam. Such was sin against the God-appointed authority of her husband.

Eve continued on this path of sin with what she did next. She (and her husband) caved to Satan’s temptation and partook of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. That was the sin of disobedience to God. That word “disobedience” contains real horror. When our first parents ate of the forbidden tree, they said “yes” to the devil and “no” to God. To God’s good command, “Thou shalt not,” Adam and Eve said, “We shall.” We may never frame this event as a mere eating of some fruit, as if to say, “What is the big deal?” Rather, the Fall consisted in eating fruit contrary to the command of God—nothing less than revolt against the Most High.

Indeed: sin against authority is very old.

Violations of the fifth commandment have spanned history and continue into the present day. Rebellion covers the wicked world like a raging flood, leaving so much damage behind. Current at least to the writing of this article, sports venues are erupting with a derogatory chant about the current president of the United States. This chant reflects attitudes in America toward the government: being a Republican entitles someone to trash Democratic leaders, and being a Democrat gives someone the right to mock Republican politicians. Or, what about the police? The images of weapon-bearing mobs, crunched police cruisers, and shattered glass on sidewalks remain fresh in our minds. Some movements openly display their contempt for most, if not all, who wear the badge. Where does this toxic, anti-authority mindset come from? Usually, if not always, from homes where structure is broken, roles are reversed, and where parents esteem authority a light thing and teach their children to do the same.

But enough about the world. This flood of rebellion seeps under the church doors, too, influencing God’s people. And the sad reality is, this sin in the world of dishonoring authority finds a ready friend in our sinful nature—that old Adam nature, that rebel nature. Let’s look at three areas where authority is challenged among us.

We begin in the home. Conflict usually arises when dad or mom make a decision disagreeable to us or that is deemed unreasonable. The resistance comes, the words of objection spill out, and the grumpy mood follows. The lawyer, whose name is ‘teenager,’ begins arguing his case, answering each parental point and finding every possible loophole. Tension rises in the home, too, when the weaknesses and infirmities of our parents begin grating on us: “Dad has plenty to say about how I should be talking and behaving, but he doesn’t always model it in his own life—how does he expect me to take him seriously?” says Johnny. “Mom can be so overbearing, and it’s really hard to take all her little demands. I’m tired of it!” exclaims Suzie.

The same could be said about students’ attitudes and behaviors in school toward the teachers. The homework is too much, the classroom procedure does not fit our tastes, the course is boring, the teacher’s personality is opposite from ours. We bring our frustrations sometimes to the teacher’s face, in a show of defiance, but more often we voice our complaints to the friend in the hallway or vent on social media. In any case, it is a wrong attitude and behavior toward the teacher.

In addition to home and school, already now and continuing through your life you are under authority in the church. When you stand up and confess your faith before the congregation, you say a weighty “yes” to this question: “Will you submit to church government, and in case you should become delinquent (which may God graciously forbid), to church discipline?” The importance of that question, young people, cannot be overstated. More and more today, church members who disagree with decisions of a consistory or church assembly do not avail themselves of the church orderly avenue of protest and appeal (elders and assemblies are not infallible, after all—if you judge upon solid grounds that a decision is in error, protest it). But instead, families air out their objections at Sunday coffees, individuals post their problems online, and narthexes become gossip rooms. This spreading of one’s dissatisfaction dishonors the office in the church.

The Word of God brings out the gravity of sin against God-appointed rule. Deuteronomy 21:18-21 indicates how seriously God takes it:

If a man have a stubborn and rebellious son, which will not obey the voice of his father, or the voice of his mother, and that, when they have chastened him, will not hearken unto them: then shall his father and his mother lay hold on him, and bring him out unto the elders of his city, and unto the gate of his place; and they shall say unto the elders of his city, this our son is stubborn and rebellious, he will not obey our voice; he is a glutton, and a drunkard. And all the men of his city shall stone him with stones, that he die: so shalt thou put evil away from among you; and all Israel shall hear, and fear.

By application in the New Testament, such a one is subject to discipline by the church and, should he remain impenitent, excommunication. And even where the Scripture does not include an explicit warning against the sin, it is implied (Ex. 20:12; Eph. 6:1-3; Col. 3:20). The point? God takes the sin seriously, and so should we.

Let’s remind ourselves why this sin is so odious to God. And here we return to the ABCs of authority: God has all authority, has conferred authority upon Jesus Christ according to His human nature, and through Christ has bestowed the right to rule upon certain people. When we dishonor those appointed to their position by God, we dishonor God. When we strike out in rebellion at men and women above us in rule, we strike out in rebellion at God. Young people, look beyond the face of your parent, your teacher, your elder, your boss, your president. Look beyond them and see the almighty God on His throne, high and lifted up—He has put them above you! What you do to them, you do to Him.

How often we fail in our attitude and behavior toward authority. Ours is a mountain of sin.

This is why we are so thankful for the perfection of Another. Christ Jesus was always perfectly obedient to the will of His Father. And being obedient to the will of His Father partly involved submitting to the authorities especially at the end of His life, though they were wicked authorities. But He submitted to them and was obedient to the will of His Father. He fulfilled the fifth commandment. Consider this, too. He submitted to these authorities knowing that it must be thus, that He might go to the cross. Go to the cross for such unworthy, dishonoring, rebellious, disobedient people like us! Many are our sins, but those sins are forgiven for the sake of Christ’s sacrifice.

By the power of Christ’s indwelling Spirit, turn from this sin! By the grace of God, hate this sin! In the strength of Christ, fight against this sin! In great gratitude for the bloody cross and the empty tomb, go forth, living according to what God commands positively of us under authority. To this requirement we turn next time.