Three words. Synonyms. In fact, so much so, that to define any one of them is difficult to do so without using the other two. And yet, though they overlap in meaning, each has a different connotation.

As my term as an editor draws to a close, we will use these words to reflect on important issues that face us as believers in our present lawless society, and then along with that, what must be true of ourselves as members of the Protestant Reformed Churches looking forward. That is, if we are to remain in unity of heart and mind as a denomination and community.

As the words listed above apply to our assessment and treatment of others, there is a certain order to what they designate.

Chief of these attitudes towards others, as referred to in Scripture, is the word “esteem” and what it designates. To esteem another means to have a high regard for one. It includes what is signified by the other two— honor and respect—and then adds additional elements, such as valuing the judgments and advice of certain others, viewing them as exemplary, as patterns of behavior to be followed, and, in some instances, even having an affection for them.

The biblical passage that comes to mind when speaking of esteem for others is I Thessalonians 5:13a, where the apostle Paul instructs the Thessalonians how they are to view God-ordained officebearers: “And to esteem them highly in love for their work’s sake.” What is most significant in this verse is the very next phrase out of the apostle’s pen, “And be at peace among yourselves.”

If one does not see the inseparable connection between the two statements, he is willfully blind.

We will come back to this.

The words “respect for” and “showing honor towards” another (as Scripture often uses that latter word and phrase) have different connotations and are less comprehensive. To respect another does not necessarily mean one esteems that other. Whereas esteem applies to those whom one knows and, in its fullest expression, is reserved for those whose character and behavior one finds exemplary, respect may be shown to those whom one scarcely knows, if at all.

For instance, we want our children to be respectful of others. This is especially true of those with whom they have to deal in school or church. But we expect our children to respect even other adults whom they may not know, whom they may run into in public. One can hardly esteem another whom he does not know. But for all that, we require our children to respect these others. We will not have them speak disrespectfully of those having authority over them, but neither are they to speak with sass to other adults or refuse to acknowledge them. They are to be polite and defer to those who are their superiors, whether they know them well or not.

And then there is the matter of having to honor certain individuals. The question arises, what about those whom one not only does not esteem, but also cannot respect as a person due to his or her immoralities and abuses? Government authorities come to mind, men and women holding office whom we not only do not esteem, but for whom, due to their behavior and godless policies, we have no personal respect.

And yet, as God’s Word makes plain, even such are to be treated with a certain honor, and spoken of and to respectfully. Romans 13:1-7 comes to mind: “Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers [authorities]. For there is no power [authority] but of God: the powers that be are of God” (v. 1). These words, mind you, were addressed first to a body of believers in Rome who were living under the shadow of an ungodly Caesar and his godless senators, rulers who were becoming increasingly anti-Christian and subjecting believers to unrighteous judgments. The apostle goes on to declare, “Wherefore ye must needs be [!] subject…. Render therefore to all their dues: tribute to whom tribute is due…honour to whom honour.”

You can add to this I Peter 2:17, where the apostle, who himself would be executed by the Roman authorities for Christ’s sake, declares, “Fear God. Honour the king.”

Again, note the two phrases, the one command following hard upon the other. It is plain, we must not claim the one if we are devoid of the other. If one refuses to honor the king (our magistrates), one does not properly fear the God who placed them there. And honoring magistrates applies not only to submitting to them if hauled into their presence, but it applies to our speech as well, how we speak of them to each other day by day.

I don’t know about you, but I find the latter (curbing my speech when it comes to our “wonderful” governors and federal politicians) difficult, to say the least. Yes, I realize what I just wrote was sarcasm and not very ‘honoring,’ but I did so to underscore a point, namely, how difficult it is to refrain from dishonoring our present rulers, how easy it is to transgress in this regard.

As believers we bridle against their blatant unrighteousness. And yet, we are called to refrain from dishonoring them. And it is only as we do so and insist our children do likewise that we distinguish ourselves from the world, that is, as followers of Christ Jesus, who made Himself subject to wicked authorities, submitting Himself to unrighteous rulers of church and state.

Worldings consider it their “God-given right” to speak with contempt of magistrates, of all those “lousy” politicians whom they despise. Mocking, deriding words for rulers, for these unrighteous, hypocritical civil authorities.

Humanly speaking, understandable. But God-forbidden.

It has become common place amongst ourselves as well, I fear. But derision of rulers it is not a “God-given right.” Rather it is transgression of a God-ordained ordinance, “honour to whom honour,” meaning, honor displayed towards wicked persons who due to their office yet have a God-ordained authority. Failure to do so means we do not “fear God” as we ought.

We are raising children in a society that despises those placed in authority. There is an escalating spirit of lawlessness. Witness the “defund the police” movement, and the ensuing anarchy with its news-media justification. And if we imagine this lawless despising of authority so prevalent today is not affecting ourselves and our children, we are mistaken.

Such a spirit loose in a society brings judgments of God upon that society. And if not curbed in our own homes and families, it will bear bitter fruit for us in our generations as well, generations that will be required to suffer who knows what abuses by unrighteous civil authorities in the days ahead, maybe sooner than we think.

We must be preparing our youth to suffer these things with a proper Christian spirit of submission. But if they have been taught to dishonor and disparage the magistrates as “worthless rulers,” how will they properly subject themselves to such later? We must not be failing in our educating and preparing our youth in this regard by our own rash, deriding, dishonorable speech and example. There is too much at stake for the future, and also for our own present witness of the difference that biblical Christianity makes (at least it should!) in this regard.

But, as much as refraining from dishonoring those who hold civil office ought to concern us these days, what ought to be of even greater concern is how those who hold office in Christ’s church are regarded and spoken (and written!) about. This command to likewise honor those who hold church office, which is to say, to refrain from speaking rashly about officebearers, even those whom one may judge to be apostatizing or unworthy of esteem, is also clearly scriptural.

We do well to pay heed to the passage in Acts where Paul, having been brought before the apostate Jewish officebearers, spoke vehemently against Ananias the High Priest, likening Ananias to a white-walled sepulcher [a hypocrite]. And then this, “And they that stood by said [to Paul], Revilest thou God’s high priest? Then said Paul, I wist not, brethren, that he was the high priest; for it is written, Thou shalt not speak evil of the ruler of thy people” (Acts 23:4, 5).

We (and others) better understand that to do so, to speak with contempt in a derogatory and rash manner of officebearers, whatever one may think of these officebearers, is contrary to the apostolic word and not of Christ’s Spirit.

We call to mind Jude 3 where Jude wrote, “Likewise also these…despise dominion, speak evil of dignities. Yet Michael the archangel, when contending with the devil he disputed about the body of Moses, durst not bring against him a railing accusation, but said, The Lord rebuke thee” (vv. 8, 9). Note, a warning against bringing railing accusations even against the Devil.

These warnings against speaking rashly about God-ordained officebearers, and we think of preachers in particular as the most common targets, does not hinge on whether or not one judges them worthy of respect or whether one has any esteem for them. Such license of tongue and pen is of another spirit, namely, one that is reproved and condemned by God. It is that in which the Evil One delights. To persist in this derogatory, critical, and abusive speech concerning God-ordained officebearers, whatever one’s estimation of their character, abilities, or faithfulness, is not going to carry with it the blessing of God. Rather, it will bring His judgment upon oneself and one’s generations. Especially this is true if it is an assault on the character and labors of officebearers of one’s own churches.

The Spirit of Christ in His Word is clear.

I was raised in the home by a father who for some forty years regularly served in the office of elder. The older I become, the greater my esteem for him. Not that he was without weaknesses. But one of those weaknesses was not speaking in demeaning, critical fashion about officebearers, especially about preachers. And he served with a good number of them. With the others he was familiar.

What my siblings can attest to is that in our home we did not hear derogatory, critically demeaning speech about ministers, or for that matter, of our school teachers. Not that our father was oblivious to weaknesses and faults, nor to variation in gifts and abilities granted. More than once, when hearing complaints that this or that one whose preaching some claimed did not measure up to certain others, I recall him saying, “They all cannot be a Calvin or a Hoeksema. They all have their own strengths and weaknesses and abilities. I served with Rev. So & So. He was good pastor. When he left, the congregation was spiritually healthy and living in godliness. He was sincere and diligent. He served the congregation well. The sick and dying never lacked a visit and good pastoral words. There is far too much comparing this man with that these days. No good will come of it.”

What he was getting at was that when open, regular criticism of officebearers and teachers becomes commonplace in homes, families begin to unravel with the children growing up and leaving the Reformed community. Why remain? Having heard the qualifications and spirituality of so many openly criticized and judged, they lose all respect for a great many. Why submit oneself to such? According to constant parental assessment, few in places of authority are qualified or trustworthy anyway. Having heard this all their lives, when of age, the children take their leave, turning their backs on all they have been taught. And not for doctrinal reasons.

We ought not be surprised.

What loomed large in my father’s biblical vocabulary was the word “forbearance.” It is striking how often when Scripture calls believers to love one another in the interests of unity and peace, it inserts a qualifying phrase. And that qualify phrase is “forbearing one another.”

Why do you suppose the apostles time and again found it expedient to add that word forbearing?

For good reason. The community of believers is made up of sinners, and if they (we) know little of forbearance for weaknesses and variations of character and abilities, we can kiss unity and goodwill good-bye.

Forbearing one another in love.” Without it, so-called ‘love,’ be it even in the name of ‘the truth,’ turns into judging others in harsh, unbrotherly, rash terms. And one will dare even to “speak evil of dignities,” that is, of those holding God-ordained office, and at last, even of those ordained in Christ’s own church.

It can happen too easily, as I think, we by this time, are well aware.

Brothers and sisters in Christ, these things ought not so to be.

In conclusion, we return to the apostolic admonition, “[E]steem them highly in love for their works’ sake.”

When I entered the ministry some forty years ago, I was a minister in Classis West. What remains with me as I served in that Classis was the esteem the elders and ministers had for each other. We did not agree on every issue. Deliberations were vigorous at times. But this was apparent: We were confident that we all had the same goal in mind, namely, the well-being of the souls entrusted to our care, and the maintenance of the truth of the gospel committed to Christ’s church we represented.

I found the same to be true in Classis East and our synods as I was privileged to serve in them. And for that reason, even when decisions were made that were not unanimous, some voicing their dissent, peace and unity was preserved in the churches. As officebearers, we did not doubt the sincerity and integrity of those with whom we served, even when we voted differently on some significant issues. There was a mutual esteem.

It was apparent, men were not serving or voting to push their own agenda, but rather, were concerned with what was in accordance with the Word of God and the will of Christ, and what was in line with the wisdom of the church of all ages.

Where this Spirit rules, and not only in our broader assemblies, but also in our congregations and their families towards God-ordained officebearers and teachers, there, in the end, unity will prevail.

And we will be at peace among ourselves.

May God so grant.