We have seen that the underlying truth of the Fifth Commandment is God’s sovereignty. God is the one Who has all power and authority in heaven and earth, and He is the one Who gives power and authority in the different spheres of life, so that not only kings and governments, but also parents, husbands, employers, and church officebearers rule at His command.
Our confession of God’s sovereignty, therefore, is no mere lip service, but something that is woven into the very fabric of our lives. We confess God’s sovereignty by bowing to or exercising God-appointed authority in every sphere of life. A man who speaks of God’s sovereignty and professes an admiration for that truth, but refuses to submit to those whom a sovereign God has appointed to rule his life, is revealed as a liar and a hypocrite by his rebellious and disobedient conduct. The same is true of the man who, in the exercise of authority, either in domestic or civil relationships, is a tyrant and a bully. He too, by his own actions, denies any lip-service he pays to a sovereign God, by refusing to use his authority as a gift from God.
When the Fifth Commandment speaks only of the relationship of parents and children, we are not to think that it has nothing to say about these other relationships of authority and submission. That the Fifth Commandment governs all these relationships is evident from the fact that Scripture often speaks of rulers, masters, and others in authority as “fathers” (Gen. 4:20, 21, II Kings 5:13, I Cor. 4:15, I Tim. 5:1, 2). The Fifth Commandment speaks only of parents and children because it is a summary, but as a summary it points to the very heart of the whole issue of authority and submission to authority.
The Fifth Commandment reminds us, then, that the family is the basic unit of human society. All other relationships are only a development of that most basic family relationship. That development was necessary as human life became more diverse and complicated and as men multiplied and spread over the earth. The example of Abraham shows, however, that all the other relationships governed by the Fifth Commandment have their source in the relationship of parents and children and are dependent upon that relationship. Abraham was not only the father, but the religious authority, the priest, in his household (Gen. 12:7, 8), and the highest civil authority (Gen. 13:8, 14:14 ff), and thus the authority in every area of life for his family.
All this means that the breakdown of authority in society, in the church, and in the schools must be traced to the home, that is, to the breakup of the family, and the refusal both of parents and children to recognize the authority that God Himself gives to parents in the home. We cannot expect things to go well in the churches and schools when parents do not take upon themselves their God-given authority, either because they are too busy or too lazy, and when neglected children do not learn to submit to authority in their own homes. The refusal of parents to exercise their authority, and the subsequent disobedience of children is the grossest form of sin against the Fifth Commandment, not only because it strikes directly at the sovereignty of God, but because it strikes at the very foundations of human society, and produces hellish chaos and lawlessness in all of life. The best thing that we can do to bring order and decency in the life of the church, to insure peace and harmony in our Christian schools, and to prepare our children to live in all godliness and honesty in society is to set our homes in order according to the teaching of the Fifth Commandment.
As we have already indicated, the calling of children to submit to their parents implies the calling of parents to exercise their God-given authority over their children. It is sad that so many parents today are not even home often enough to have any real authority over their families. In refusing to fulfill their responsibilities they are the cause of their children’s lawlessness. And this is true in every area of life. The cause of rebellion is not only to be found in the wicked hearts of those who rebel, but in the wickedness of those who will not fulfill their responsibilities in the positions of authority that they have received.
Parents, and others in authority, therefore, confess God’s sovereignty by faithfully and diligently undertaking their duties. And just as God’s authority means that He has the sovereign right to determine right and wrong, to demand obedience and submission to His determination, and to punish and reward rebellion and submission, so it is with those whom God has placed over us. They must uphold and reward the good and condemn and punish the evil (Rom. 13:3, 4). In doing this, however, they must also confess God’s sovereignty by determining right and wrong, and punishing and rewarding according to the perfect standard of God’s law, and not according to some standard of their own. In other words, it must be God’s authority that they uphold. Those who are in authority do this by dealing justly, honestly, and in love with those who are under them (Eph. 5:25, 6:4, 9, Col. 3:19, 21, 4:1). Authority without love and justice is not the authority which God has given, but petty tyranny which provokes disobedience and discourages obedience.
What must be emphasized, though, is that the failure of those who hold positions of authority are never an excuse for insubordination and rebellion. The submission which God demands is unconditional, and there are no circumstances at all where God permits rebellion against authority in the home or in society. It is for this reason that the Commandment speaks of “honoring” authority rather than “obeying” it. In speaking this way God recognizes that those who hold authority are sinful, even if they are children of God, and that their demands may conflict with God’s Word. There may be times, then, when God’s people must refuse obedience to the demands of a husband, of parents, of government, or of employers. But even then we may not cease to recognize their authority or make any attempt to overthrow it either in word or deed, or fail to obey in other things.
Clear conflict with God’s command is the only reason for not obeying, and there is no reason or excuse for rebellion. Unfairness, oppression, cruelty, and dishonorable deeds are never an excuse for rebellion, not even for disobedience. Acts 5:29 teaches us to obey God even if it means disobeying men, but I Peter 2:18-20teaches that we must submit always. There Peter commands servants to be subject to their masters, not only when they are treated well, but even when they are mistreated. Peter gives us the example of Jesus to emphasize this for us in I Peter 2:21-25. In His trial, Jesus submitted both to the religious and the civil authorities of that time, though both were corrupt and wicked. He was reviled, treated most unjustly, threatened, persecuted, and finally murdered by those whom God had placed in positions of authority. Yet He never refused submission, not even when Caiaphas put Him under that hypocritical oath that He tell them whether He was the Christ. By His own example He teaches us what our submission must be in every area of life, even when we must for God’s sake refuse obedience. Never may we revile those whom God has placed over us, never may we threaten them, never may we sin against them, or deal evilly with them, even when they do so to us. Our only recourse in such cases is that which Jesus Himself took—the way of committing Himself to Him that judges righteously. For this the Christian must need suffer much, injustice and oppression, but he does so confidently, knowing the example of Christ, and his part in Christ’s reward.
The application of these principles is very far reaching. It condemns, for example, the rebellious origin of our own government—rebellion not only against an oppressive government in England but also against God, as reflected in the teaching of our Constitution that government has its origin in the consent of the governed and not in God. The fruition of this godless principle is seen in the lawlessness of our society today.
The unrighteous origins of our government do not mean, though, that we may add our own disobedience and rebellion to the chaotic condition of our society. By whatever means the authority of our government has been established, it is from God and we must submit for His sake, even to the extent of paying our taxes (Matt. 17:24-27, Rom. 13:6, 7). Nor may we have any sympathy for the oppressed citizens of communist countries or of our own country when they rebel against the government, nor may we support them in any way. The Roman government of Jesus’ day was no better than many governments today, but Jesus and the Apostles never advocated any form of “liberation theology” but rather by word and example taught the theology of submission, that is, the theology of God’s sovereignty and its application as Paul sums it up in Romans 13:1, 2.
It is this commandment also which condemns membership in labor unions. The purpose of such organizations is always, in one way or another, to force employers to live up to their responsibilities. Again, there is no question that employers often treat their employees unfairly and wickedly, but it is no excuse for rebellion. For his faith in a sovereign God the Christian will have to suffer much, being unable to accept the better-paying jobs, but also in these things he remembers the reward that a righteous judge has promised him and commits himself to the keeping of that great Judge.
In the home, in the church, and in society, in the exercise of authority and in submission to authority, the Christian is known by his fruits as one who believes in and honors a sovereign God.
In his obedience he lays hold on the sure promise of a sovereign God, for this Fifth Commandment has great promise for those who love God and keep His law. Paul even calls it in Ephesians 6:2 “the first commandment with promise,” not because the first four have no promise, but because this is the first which makes the promise known, founding that promise in the glory of a sovereign God. Submitting to all authority, therefore, we have the proof and assurance that we shall live long in the land which God gives—not the earthly land any more, but the heavenly Canaan of which the earthly land was but a shadow. There we shall have life forever under the sovereign rule of God and of His Christ and have authority and power and dominion over all God’s works, through Christ Jesus our Savior, who submitted even to death for us.