The fifth commandment, therefore, concerns principally the question of authority and obedience. And with that question we meet in every relationship of life in the world. This is the reason why the Catechism and all Reformed thinkers explain the fifth commandment as applying to every department of life. As the Catechism explains, “I shall show all proper love, fidelity, and obedience to all that are in authority over me.”
The question now arises: what is authority? Negatively, we may say, in the first place, that authority is not the same as power in the sense of might or strength or ability to do something. Authority is not the same as force. Indeed, authority is also strength or power, but it is a power of a purely spiritual nature. It is a power that is vested in or conferred upon someone, although in himself he has no power whatever. A very small and physically weak policeman may exercise such power or authority by arresting a powerful giant. But authority has nothing to do with might. Might is not right. In the sinful world it is indeed very proper and expedient that authority is connected with power or might, so that authority has the power to maintain itself. But the fact remains that authority is not might. In fact, to understand the true nature of authority, we must abstract it from any natural superiority. A person may be very superior in knowledge and wisdom, but this does not put him in authority over others. Again we say that it is indeed very expedient and proper that those that are in authority are also characterized by superiority of wisdom. But the fact remains that the authority of the fool is just as much authority as that of a wise man. Because a man is wiser than I, he has no authority over me. He may advise me, and probably I will take his advice under consideration. But he has no authority to demand that I take and follow his advice. Nor does authority follow from any position of advantage in society. A man may be rich in worldly possessions, and another may be in poor circumstances. But riches does not confer upon anyone the power or authority to lord it over others. A man may be dependent for his subsistence upon another man, as a slave was in olden times upon his master, or an employee upon his employer in modern times, or even as a little child is absolutely dependent upon his parents; but even this is not a basis of authority on the part of the master, the employer, or the parent. All these relationships may indeed be the means whereby God bestows authority upon some, and demands obedience of others; but they are not the basis or origin of authority.
Authority is a spiritual, invisible power that is vested in someone or conferred upon him. It is the right which anyone has over others to declare for those others what shall be considered right and just. Moreover, authority is the right to demand of those others that they shall conduct themselves in conformity with the laws and rules imposed upon them by him that is in authority. And thirdly, authority is the right or power vested in someone or conferred upon him to judge others according to the laws and rules laid down by him, and to maintain, those laws and rules by punishing the evildoers. In other words, he that has authority has the right to impose his mind and will upon others, and to expect that they shall submit their mind and their will to his, and that too, without any force or might or physical power whatsoever. Hence, authority is always an office. It is always a spiritual power that is conferred upon someone or vested in someone. No individual man can have authority over others in himself.
This implies that ultimately all authority is from God. God is the Lord. He is Lord over all. His dominion is an everlasting dominion. He rules over all creation, over the sun and the moon and the stars, over light and darkness, over night and day, over winter and summer, over the oceans and seas and rivers, over the fish of the sea, the beasts of the field, the fowls of the air. They all are subject to His laws and ordinances. These creatures belong to the brute creation. And the Lord, creator of heaven and earth, reigns over them without their will. But the same Lord also is sovereign over all His moral creatures, angels and men. But here we must make a distinction between the good angels and the evil, between the righteous and the wicked. God also is absolute Lord over the devil and his host and over all wicked men. But He rules over them against their will. They stand in enmity over against the Lord of heaven and earth. They set their will against the will of the Lord. Nevertheless, the Lord is sovereign, and fulfills all His will and counsel in spite of all the plots and attempts of wicked men and of the devil and his host. But He also rules over the good angels, as well as over the righteous among men. But over them He rules with their will. By grace in Christ they are redeemed and delivered from the power of sin, and principally love the Lord their God with all their heart and mind and soul and strength, so that they love His precepts and delight in doing His will. But whether over the brute creation, or over devils and wicked men, or over the good angels and the people of God that have been redeemed and delivered by grace, God is the Lord. He is not a lord, but the only Lord of heaven and earth. And His dominion is absolutely over all. He has all authority in Himself, and there is no authority outside of Him. Hence, no man or group of men can possibly have authority apart from God. Authority does not rest in the mere fact that the parents have generated their children, or in the accidental circumstance that an employer gives work to his employees, or in the fact that a teacher confronts a class of children to instruct them. Authority does not rest in the will of the people that elect the magistrates that must govern over them. All these facts and circumstances may serve as a means whereby God the Lord points out who shall be in a position of authority and who shall be in a position to obey; but they are never the source of authority. Authority must be conferred. And it can be conferred only by the Lord God, Who alone has dominion over all His creatures. “The Lord hath prepared His throne in the heavens, and His kingdom ruleth over all!”. Strictly speaking, all authority is His, even the authority that is manifested among men. And again, strictly speaking, no man and no creature has any authority. Though the Lord God may exercise His authority through the creature, in the real and ultimate sense it always remains His.
The question must be asked: upon whom does God confer authority? And the Scriptural answer is, first of all, centrally God confers authority upon Christ, the servant of the Lord, Who came in the flesh, sojourned among men and revealed the Father, died on the accursed tree, rose again on the third day, and is now exalted in the highest heaven, where He sitteth at the right hand of the throne of the majesty on high. For when He ascended up on high, He left His disciples and His church with the assurance: “All power is given unto me in heaven and in earth.”. All things He hath put under the feet of Christ. . In Christ God has revealed His exceeding great power: “According to the working of his mighty power Which he wrought in Christ, when he raised him from the dead, and set him at his own right hand in the heavenly places, Far above all principality, and power and might, and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this world, but also in that which is to come: and hath put all things under his feet.” . For God “also hath highly exalted him, and given him a name which is above every name: that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth: And that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” . This truth, that God has conferred all authority and power upon Christ, is also strongly emphasized in the Epistle to the Hebrews: “Being made so much better than the angels, as he hath by inheritance obtained a more excellent name than they. For unto which of the angels said he at any time, Thou art my Son, this day have I begotten thee? And again, I will be to him a Father, and he shall be to me a Son? And again, when he bringeth in the firstborn into the world, he saith, And let all the angels of God worship him. And of the angels he saith, Who maketh his angels spirits, and his ministers a flame of fire. But unto the Son he saith, Thy throne, O God, is for ever and ever: a scepter of righteousness is the scepter of thy kingdom. Thou hast loved righteousness and hated iniquity; therefore God, even thy God, hath anointed thee with oil of gladness above thy fellows.” . And again, verse 13 of the same chapter: “But to which of the angels said. he at any time, Sit on my right hand, until I make thine enemies thy footstool?” And again, in the second chapter of the same epistle, the author, quoting from , writes: “But one in a certain place testified, saying, What is man, that thou art mindful of him? or the Son of man, that thou visitest him? Thou madest him a little lower than the angels; thou crownedst him with glory and honor, and didst set him over the works of thy hands: Thou hast put all things in subjection under his feet. For in that he put all in subjection under him, he left nothing that is not put under him. But now we see not yet all things put under him. But we see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels for the suffering of death, crowned with glory and honor; that he by the power of God should taste death for every man.”
This truth, that Christ should have dominion over all things, was even the hope of the Old Testament church. Of it they sang in the Second Psalm, in the midst of the raging of the heathen, and over against the vain counsel of the rulers of the earth. They sang of it, that the Lord had them in derision, and that he spoke unto them in His wrath as follows: “Yet have I set my king upon my holy hill of Zion. I will declare the decree: the Lord hath said unto me, Thou art my Son; this day have I begotten thee. Ask of me, and I shall give thee the heathen, for thine inheritance, and the uttermost parts of the earth for thy possession. Thou shalt break them with a rod of iron; thou shalt dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel. Be wise now therefore, O ye kings: be instructed, ye judges of the earth. Serve the Lord with fear, and rejoice with trembling. Kiss the Son, lest he be angry, and ye perish from the way, when his wrath is kindled but a little. Blessed are all they that put their trust in him.” It is evident from this passage that Christ in His typical manifestation in David had dominion over the kings of the earth. The same is evident from: “He shall have dominion also from sea to sea, and from the river unto the ends of the earth. They that dwell in the wilderness shall bow before him; and his enemies shall lick the dust. The kings of Tarshish and of the isles shall bring presents: the kings of Sheba and Seba shall offer gifts. Yea, all kings shall fall down before him: all nations shall serve him.” vss. 8-11. And in , the psalm that sings of the sure mercies of David, the church sings of Him as follows: “Then thou spakest in vision to thy holy one, and saidst,
I have laid help upon one that is mighty; I have exalted one chosen out of the people. I have found David my servant; with my holy oil have I anointed him: With whom my hand shall be established: mine arm also shall strengthen him. The enemy shall not exact upon him; nor the son of wickedness afflict him. And I will beat down his foes before his face, and plague them that hate him. But my faithfulness and my mercy shall be with him: and in my name shall his horn be exalted. I will set his hand also in the sea, and his right hand in the rivers. He shall cry unto me, Thou art my Father, my God, and the rock of my salvation. Also I will make him my firstborn, higher than the kings of the earth …. Once have I sworn by my holiness that I will not lie unto David. His seed shall endure forever, and his throne as the sun before me. It shall be established forever as the moon, and as a faithful witness in heaven.” vss. 19-27, 35-37. In, the chapter that speaks of the Christ as the eternal Wisdom, we read: “By me kings reign, and princes decree justice. By me princes rule, and nobles, even all the judges of the earth.” vss. 15, 16. And to quote no more, in , we read of one like unto the Son of Man, who approaches the Ancient of days to receive his kingdom: “I saw in the night visions, and, behold, one like the Son of man came with the clouds of heaven, and came to the ancient of days, and they brought him before him. And there was given him dominion, and glory, and a kingdom, that all people, nations, and languages, should serve him: his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom that which shall not be destroyed.”
It is evident, therefore, from Scripture that all authority is conferred upon Christ. When, therefore, in the Heidelberg Catechism we read that “it pleases God to govern us by their hand,” it means not that God bestows or confers authority directly and immediately upon those that govern in the earth, but that all government is first and centrally bestowed upon Christ, and that through Him it is conferred on or exercised by them that have authority in the world. All power and authority is vested in Him. He has both the sword power and the key power. It is by Him that parents have the right to rule over their children. Hence, the apostle Paul admonishes the church of Ephesus las follows: “Children, obey your parents in the Lord (i.e., in Christ) : for this is right. Honor thy father and mother; which is the first commandment with promise: That it may be well with thee, and thou mayest live long on the earth. And, ye fathers, provoke not your children to wrath: but bring them up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord.”. The same is true with respect to the authority of masters over their servants. For in we read: “Servants, be obedient to them that are your masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in singleness of your heart, as unto Christ: not with eyeservice, as menpleasers; but as the servants of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart; With good will doing service as to the Lord, and not to men: Knowing that whatsoever good thing any man doeth, the same shall he receive of the Lord, whether he be bond or free.
And, ye masters, do the same things unto them, forbearing threatening: knowing that your master also is in heaven; neither is there respect of persons with him.”
In this light we must also understand what is said of the government and its sword power in: “Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God. Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that desist shall receive to themselves damnation. For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil. Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power? do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise of the same: For he is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil. Wherefore ye must needs be subject, not only for wrath, but also for conscience sake. For for this cause ye pay tribute also: for they are God’s ministers, attending continually upon this very thing.” That authority is bestowed upon the government by God, not directly, but mediately, through Christ, is plain from all Scripture, as we have abundantly shown above. But it is also evident directly from , where the term “Lord” undoubtedly refers to Christ: “Submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake: whether it be to the king, as supreme; Or unto governors, as unto them that are sent by him for the punishment of evildoers, and for the praise of them that do well.”
In parentheses we may add here that government as such is not instituted for sin’s sake, or on account of sin’s entering into the world, as is the contention of those that maintain the theory of common grace. Nor is government instituted as a blessing of common grace for the restraint of sin at the time of the covenant with Noah. It is true, of course, that the government bears the sword, and that the sword is given to the magistrates for the punishment of evildoers. But the fact that on account of sin the government bears the sword does not imply that therefore government itself is instituted on account of sin. On the contrary, as the Heidelberg Catechism plainly teaches in this Thirty-ninth Lord’s Day in its exposition of the fifth commandment, government is not a special institution, instituted in a world of sin, but is developed directly from the family. Even, therefore, as in the world of angels there are different powers and principalities, and even as in the kingdom of glory there will no doubt be those that have authority and those that obey, under Christ as King supreme, so, if the world had developed from the beginning without the entrance of sin into it (which, by the way, is pure philosophy), government would still have developed from the family, with its parental authority. From the simple unit of the single family it would have developed into the broader patriarchal family. From that it would have developed into the tribe, and from the tribe into the nation. In that case (if I may philosophize just a little farther) Adam would have been king over the entire human race. However this may be, government is not a special institution ordained by God in His common grace for the restraint of sin, but is also in our present world organically developed from the family.
From this principle it follows that all that are occupying places of authority in the world, whether the magistrates in the government, or employers in relation to their employees, or teachers in the classroom, or elders in the church, or parents in the family, must rule according to the ordinances and precepts of the Lord Jesus Christ, in His Name, and for His sake. They must serve the Lord Christ.
This must be emphasized, when in the church the fifth commandment is preached.
Then it will also be evident that not in the world, by common grace, but only in the church, by believers in Christ Jesus, the fifth commandment can in principle be observed.
All that are in authority do indeed receive their authority from Christ, or rather, through Christ from God. But all that are in authority do not stand in that position by the grace of God in Christ. All are indeed responsible in their position, and answerable to Christ, and through Him to God, for the way they exercise their authority. The parent is answerable to Christ for the nurture of His children in the fear of the Lord. But only when he does so according to the Word of God from the heart, for Christ’s sake, does he obey the fifth commandment. If he fails to do this, and occupies his position as parent merely from the motive of natural love, brings up his children in the world and for the world, he violates this fifth commandment, and certainly does not serve the Lord Christ. The same is true of the magistrate in the government. The magistrate rules by the grace of God only when he serves the Lord Christ from the heart, and occupies his position of authority before His face and for His sake. Only when he employs his sword power to protect the good and to punish the evildoers, and exercises his authority according to the ordinances of Christ, does he occupy his position in harmony with the fifth commandment. If he fails in this respect, plays politics, uses his authority against the good and in favor of the evildoers, he violates this fifth precept of the Decalogue. Stalin certainly did not rule by the grace of God, although he stood in the position of authority that was conferred upon him by God through Christ. Grace is never common, although positions of authority are common to the wicked and the righteous.
This, therefore, is the conclusion of the matter. All authority is from God. There is no authority in man whatsoever, whether it be in superiority of wisdom, or of power or of numbers. It is in God alone, Who has all power and dominion in Himself. It pleases God centrally to rule over all things as a revelation of His own sovereignty through Jesus Christ, the servant of the Lord, exalted in the highest heavens. And Christ, in the name of God, and as the representative of His sovereignty, rules through men, who by Him are placed in positions of authority, whether in the family, in society in general, or in the governments of the world, or even by those that exercise the key power in the church. All are responsible to Christ, and through Him to God. And only then they rule by the grace of God through Christ and keep the fifth commandment, when, from the heart, they serve the Lord Christ and rule according to His ordinances.
We must not overlook the fact that the fifth commandment does not address those that are in authority, although this is naturally implied in the commandment, but those that stand in a position of obedience. It does not address the parents, but the children. Hence, the Catechism explains “that I show all honor, love and fidelity, to my father and mother, and all in authority over me, and submit myself to their good instruction and correction, with due obedience; and also patiently bear with their weaknesses and infirmities, since it pleases God to govern us by their hand.” Besides, the form of this commandment is positive, not negative. It approaches us with an injunction, rather than with a prohibition. Why this commandment is addressed to those in positions of obedience rather than to those in authority, cannot be determined with certainty. Perhaps, however, we may surmise that the reason lies in the fact that it is more difficult in a sinful world, and even for the sinful nature of the Christian, to practice the virtue of obedience than to exercise authority over others. However this may be, the commandment enjoins the children and all those that stand in a position of obedience in relation to others, that they shall honor them. Children must honor their father and their mother: not only their father, but also their mother. In relation to their children both of them stand in a position of authority. And, that the children are enjoined to honor their father and their mother implies that they respect them in their position for God’s sake and motivated by the love of God, that therefore they submit themselves to their instruction and correction, and that they obey their precepts. This applies, according to all Scripture, not only to the good and gentle, but also to the evil and froward. There is only one limitation to this position of obedience, and that is that according to Scripture we must honor and obey God rather than men. Of this we will say more presently.
Obedience, therefore, must be practiced and inculcated, first of all, in the home. And from the home this spiritual virtue must be extended in its manifestation to all other departments of life, in the school, in society, in the church, and in the state.