One of the most characteristically Western values, specifically in the United States, is our distrust for authority in general. To some extent, this is an understandable distrust. After all, we live in a sinful world. In their natural state, each person is born in sin and prone to selfishness and pride. Because of our history, we are skeptical, if not outright hostile, toward the concept of rule. This is true even in the church, where people have tried to get around the concept of authority and rule with the concept of servant leadership. More on this later. But when we come to scripture, the concept of authority is unavoidable. Not just leadership and not servant leadership, but rulers, lords, and kings. Authority and rule are central themes throughout the bible, to the point that people like John M. Frame frame their entire systematic theology texts around the idea. First and foremost, God is Lord. In fact, this is his name in scripture. When Moses asks God who he should tell the Israelites sent him, God answers with, “Say this to the people of Israel: ‘The LORD, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you.’ This is my name forever, and thus I am to be remembered throughout all generations." (Exodus 3:15). The idea of authority is central to scripture and specifically to the God of scripture, but it does not stop there. God has granted authority to different people in different circumstances, one of the most prevalent being parents.
As we have been going through the Ten Commandments, the presupposition of the Lord's authority in all things is present. He is the one giving the commands because he is the one with all authority in heaven and on earth. We see this in places like the great commission, where Christ says, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me." So when we look at individual commands, it should not surprise us that authority is present. The fifth commandment, in particular, deals with the idea of parental authority. So what is required of us by the Lord in the fifth commandment?
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; (a) and also patiently bear with their weaknesses and infirmities,(b) since it pleases God to govern us by their hand. (c)
This is the first commandment that comes in the second table of the law. The second table of the law is summed up in the second great commandment, to love your neighbor as yourself. But this command to honor your parents comes first in the second part because it is foundational for all the other commands in the table. This is because obedience to all the other commands will follow when obedience is maintained and enforced in subjection to superiors. This is where we start to go beyond the typical understanding of the commandment. At this point in our study, it should not be surprising to see that the typical understanding of the commandments is not the full understanding. Honor and obedience shown to parents is inherently honor shown to those placed in authority over us. We are to submit to their authority while it is over us.
The Extent of granted authority
When we are talking about authority, we inevitably have to talk about the extent of given authority. At no point in scripture is a person granted absolute authority. That remains with God alone. But God has granted specific authority to specific roles. The one in particular here is parents, but the idea covers all types of authority. Parents have authority over their children, under God, and are to exercise that authority in subject to God's authority. So whatever the parent says goes, unless it is in violation of what God has commanded. Other places this is true are husbands and wives. Wives are under the authority of their husbands. This is starkly portrayed in places like Genesis 18:12 and 1 Peter 3:6, where Sarah calls Abraham Lord. Citizens are to obey and submit to the government, and churches are to submit to the rule of the elders. Each one of these spheres of authority has its limits though. There is the general understanding that any granted authority can not go against what God has commanded, but each sphere has specific limits. For example, wives are to submit to their own husbands, not men in general. Children are to submit to their parents, but when a man takes a wife, he is to leave his father and mother. And elders have authority in the church to teach sound doctrine, train, exhort, and rebuke with all righteousness.
What about Servant Leaders?
Here we need to talk about a common rebuttal to the idea of authority, the idea of the servant leader. One might say that Christ gave us the example of how someone is to lead in the gospel accounts. This is true. The issue comes when we pick out parts we like and disregard the other parts. The most commonly mentioned example is when Jesus washes the disciple's feet. Is not Christ demonstrating servant leadership there? Yes and no. Yes, Jesus is demonstrating that those in authority are not above giving of themselves and serving those around them. But we cannot forget that Jesus does this as the one in authority. He is not submitting to his disciples, and this cannot be taken in a way that is set in opposition to all the other times when he simply commands obedience. But that is Christ, someone might say. He is God and has the authority to command all he wishes. This is true. And part of what he has commanded is that children submit to parents, wives submit to husbands, citizens submit to governments, and everyone submits to the Lord. The issue with servant leadership is it makes the leadership subject to the ones they are serving, and this is not how Scripture portrays things.
Authority is difficult for us for several reasons. For us that have grown up in the United States, part of it is cultural. We are inherently distrustful of authority. Part of it is our sinful nature that wants to put ourselves first, to say that I am the only one who can choose for me. We recognize that everyone else is a sinner and that they have failings, so why should they be any better at deciding than I am? But this all comes back to the first commandment. Will we put God and his ways first? Will we submit to God and those he has placed in authority over us? This does not mean that the person or persons in authority have a free ticket to do whatever they please. Their authority is a granted authority and comes from and is subject to God. So sometimes we need to disobey the government or parents when what they command is in contradiction to God's commands. But this is because they have overstepped the authority granted to them, not because they have no authority. God has set these authorities in place and rules through them.
Soli Deo Gloria
a) Eph. 5:22; Eph. 6:1–5; Col. 3:18, 20–24; Prov. 1:8; Prov. 4:1; Prov. 15:20; Prov. 20:20; Exod. 21:17; Rom. 13:1–7. b) Prov. 23:22; Gen. 9:24, 25; 1 Pet. 2:18. c) Eph. 6:4, 9; Col. 3:19–21; Rom. 13:2, 3; Matt. 22:21.