With the fifth commandment, we are definitely into the realm of our relationships with other people.
“Honour your father and mother, so that you may live long in the land the LORD your God is giving you.”
The relationship between parents and children is of course a reflection of God’s relationship with His people (Malachi 1:6). God disciplines us in exactly the same way as human parents – and for the same reasons (Proverbs 3:11,12; Hebrews 12:5-11). It is perhaps not surprising that those who have had difficult relationships with their parents very often have similar difficulties in relating to God. And a society that does not value respect for authority very highly will have difficulty coming to terms with a God who demands submission to His authority. On the other hand, the Roman centurion who asked Jesus to heal his slave (Luke 7:1-10) not only had a very clear concept of both military and civil authority but was able to deduce, from that starting point, the nature of Jesus’ authority.
In Ephesians, Paul teaches that Christian submission is an aspect of being ‘filled with the Spirit’ (Ephesians 5:18-21). “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.” (verse 21) What follows shows that what he has in mind is not ‘reciprocal’ submission (everyone submitting to everyone else: “after you” – “no, after you”) but an orderly deference within the family circle (wives submitting to husbands, children to parents), within the church, and in the wider society (slaves submitting to masters).
In each area of life, submission is balanced by responsibility. The wife should submit to her husband; but the husband must love his wife (Ephesians 5:22-33). Children should obey their parents; but parents must encourage their children (Ephesians 6:1-4). Slaves should obey their master; but the master must treat his slaves fairly (Ephesians 6:5-9). There is no licence here for domestic violence, bullying or petty tyranny. Rather, our relationships should be allowed to fall into the pattern dictated by our relationship with Christ: we submit to His loving authority, just as He submits to His Father’s loving authority. Thus the chain of submission goes right back to God – and He will take action against those who abuse a position of power (Ephesians 6:9)!
The family is the place to start: it has always been the core unit of society, and it is where small children first learn how to relate to other people. Mistakes made at this stage will have long-term effects far beyond the boundaries of family life; on the other hand, a good upbringing gives them a firm foundation for their future role in society. Unsurprisingly, the book of Proverbs has a lot to say about the instillation of respect for parental authority from an early age (e.g. Proverbs 13:24; 19:18; 29:17).
These days, however, discipline is ‘out of fashion’ – at least in the UK – and parental authority has been seriously undermined. The idea that a wife should submit to her husband is anathema, and deference towards the elderly has become an anachronism. The pendulum has swung from authoritarianism towards anarchy – and not just in the home, but also elsewhere. Teachers, for example, no longer enjoy the automatic respect of their pupils, making a power struggle within the classroom inevitable and undermining their ability to teach effectively. Youth is now worshipped, and old age dreaded or despised. No longer can parents expect to be cared for by their children in their old age. This is partly due to social factors like increased geographical mobility: the different generations are likely to be living hundreds, if not thousands, of miles apart, which causes huge practical difficulties. But there has also been an enormous shift in attitude. The increase in life expectancy (not always accompanied by an equal increase in years of good health and independence) makes caring for the older generation a greater burden – and one that is not always accepted gladly.
But for Christians there is no avoiding our family responsibilities (I Timothy 5:4).Charity really does begin at home; our obligation towards our elderly relatives takes precedence over all other obligations (Matthew 15:4-7). But it is in our own best interests (Ephesians 6:1,2), because our children are likely to follow our example and treat us as we treated our own parents. “Those who build a society in which old age has an honoured place may with confidence expect to enjoy that place themselves one day.” (R A Cole)
The ‘nuclear’ family cannot exist in isolation from the rest of society. So respect for one’s parents within the home leads naturally to a more generalised respect for the older generation (who in many societies are the ones ‘in charge’). “Rise in the presence of the aged, show respect for the elderly and revere your God. I am the LORD.” (Leviticus 19:32) We can see that respect for those in authority and respect for God are closely linked here.
So it is perfectly logical for Paul to equate respect for secular government with obedience to God. “Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established… consequently, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted.” (Romans 13:1,2) All societies need organisation, and without a framework of authority and discipline, chaos would rapidly ensue. Scripture does not prescribe any particular form of government (“democracy” as we know it had not yet been invented); both good government and tyranny can take many forms. Whatever kind of government we have to live under, we are encouraged to pray for our rulers as well as to obey them (I Timothy 2:1,2).
We are not being asked for unthinking allegiance or cringing servitude, but voluntary Christian submission. Just because a government is established by God, it doesn’t follow that everything it does has divine approval! In a modern democracy, although the citizens are subject to their government, the government is also elected by (and therefore accountable to) its citizens. Christians therefore need to be politically aware in order to play our own role in this process.
The “governing authorities” are not only the governments of nations. All organisations and institutions (armies, businesses, schools, hospitals) need to be led, and leaders cannot lead effectively without the respect and obedience of those under them. (I Peter 2:13,14)
The Church – the family of God – also needs some kind of organisation and structure, with leaders and followers. Paul appointed leaders in all the churches that he founded (e.g. Acts 14:23), and instructed others to do the same (Titus 1:5). In selecting suitable candidates, their family life was to be taken into account (I Timothy 3:4,5; Titus 1:6): successful parenthood was considered a good indicator of leadership ability. Once appointed, they were entitled to expect the respect of the ordinary church members so that they could do their job properly (Hebrews 13:17). In return, church leaders must not abuse their power and influence (I Peter 5:1-4). In a well-run church (or denomination), there should be a clear system of accountability.
David was a most loyal servant of Saul, even though he knew that Saul was no longer fit to be king and that he was destined to supplant him (e.g. I Samuel 26:8-11). Christ, despite “being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped.” (Philippians 2:6) Yet many of His followers seem to think nothing of manipulating their marriage partners or work colleagues, sabotaging church meetings and obstructing their appointed leaders in order to get their own way. The results can be very ugly.
This is the recipe for a harmonious church: “Do nothing out of selfish ambition” (Philippians 2:3), “do not think of yourselves more highly than you ought” (Romans 12:3), and “clothe yourselves with humility towards one another” (I Peter 5:5). These instructions apply to the leadership as well as to the church membership! For “the greatest among you will be your servant.” (Matthew 23:11)