In the fall Adam chose to exercise autonomy, to rebel against God. Since the fall humans have carried on Adam’s ignominious tradition. Cain rebelled against worshiping God truly and, in a jealous rage, murdered his brother who did worship God truly. We, the world that then was (2 Pet 3:6), became so rebellious against God that he wiped clean the slate and, as it were, started over.
In our radically egalitarian (i.e., not recognizing hierarchy or distinction) age we bristle against the assertion of even the most basic and lawful authority. When a cop pulls us over we think (and too often say), “Who are you…?” As unfair as it may seem (“What about that guy over there?”) and as irritating as it may be (“I’m late for my appointment”) it is his job to pull us over when we are not driving safely and legally. When he acts according to justice, he is God’s minister (Romans 13). We owe submission to him.
The Fifth commandment says:
Honor your father and your mother that your days may be long upon the land which the Lord your God gives you (Ex 20:12).
In Heidelberg 104 we interpret this commandment to require:
That I show all honor, love and faithfulness to my father and mother, and to all in authority over me; submit myself with due obedience to all their good instruction and correction, and also bear patiently with their infirmities, since it is God’s will to govern us by their hand.
As with the other Commandments, in the fifth commandment there are two parts: duties and prohibitions. Our duty to divinely-instituted authorities is to submit and honor or to honor and submit. The prohibition is implied in the conditional promise,” that your days maybe long…” we are prohibited from dishonoring and disobeying those whom God has placed in authority over us.
Who are they? There are two kinds of superiors, most basically, our parents but the list of authorities to which we must submit does not end with our parents. In scripture we see the the Fifth Commandment reflected in the Old Testament civil laws, e.g. Deuteronomy 21:
If a man has a stubborn and rebellious son who will not obey the voice of his father or the voice of his mother, and, though they discipline him, will not listen to them, then his father and his mother shall take hold of him and bring him out to the elders of his city at the gate of the place where he lives, and they shall say to the elders of his city, ‘This our son is stubborn and rebellious; he will not obey our voice; he is a glutton and a drunkard.’ Then all the men of the city shall stone him to death with stones. So you shall purge the evil from your midst, and all Israel shall hear, and fear (Deut 21:18–21; ESV).
That civil legislation and such civil punishments however, expired with the death of Christ. This is how the civil punishments are interpreted in Reformed theology. See Westminster confession 19.4, which says:
To them also, as a body politic, He gave sundry judicial laws, which expired together with the state of that people; not obliging any other now, further than the general equity thereof may require.
Hence, theonomy, or the teaching that the Mosaic civil laws have a biding validity in exhaustive detail is contrary to the Reformed faith.
Nevertheless Deuteronomy 21 illustrates the Lord’s attitude toward disobedience certainly to parents. That same principle is expressed in the New Testament.
Parents and Family
Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands (Eph 5:22–24; ESV).
These are difficult verses, of course in a post feminist world. When we hear those words some might be tempted to interpret them as teaching some sort of patriarchy. They do not. They do, however, reflect divinely intended order, not inherent (ontological) superiority or inferiority. The following verses, 25 and following, this very clear. We know this is not some Pauline idiosyncrasy or misogyny. Peter teaches the same principle of complementary relations between husbands and wives.
Likewise, wives, be subject to your own husbands, so that even if some do not obey the word, they may be won without a word by the conduct of their wives, when they see your respectful and pure conduct. Do not let your adorning be external—the braiding of hair and the putting on of gold jewelry, or the clothing you wear— but let your adorning be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God’s sight is very precious. For this is how the holy women who hoped in God used to adorn themselves, by submitting to their own husbands, 6 as Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him lord. And you are her children, if you do good and do not fear anything that is frightening (1 Pet 3:3–6).
This is an area where Christians have an opportunity to be distinct from the prevailing culture both both by respecting the creation order and by showing hey godly, biblical mutual support and love. This is what Paul says in Ephesians 5:25 and following:
Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body. “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church. However, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband (Eph 5:25–33; ESV).
Again Peter teaches the very same thing in first Peter three:
Likewise, husbands, live with your wives in an understanding way, showing honor to the woman as the weaker vessel, since they are heirs with you of the grace of life, so that your prayers may not be hindered (1 Pet 3:1–7).
In Ephesians 6:6 Paul speaks directly to the 5th commandment: “Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right.”
We have a direct, divinely-inspired interpretation of the 5th commandment in Ephesians 6:2–4
Honor your father and mother” (this is the first commandment with a promise), “that it may go well with you and that you may live long in the land.” Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord (ESV).
Note how Paul interprets the fifth commandment by paraphrasing it. He quotes it but then he changes the promise. This is a clear indication of the nature of the movement from the old covenant, that is the application of this commandment under Moses, And the new covenant that is the application of this commandment under Christ. There is now no national people of God and there are no more national promises. There is no earthly promised land and therefore the nature of the promise has changed. Believers are the Israel of God but we have no land promise since Christ is the land, The rest, and the dividing wall between Jew and Gentile has been broken down (Eph 2:14).
Paul turns what was a temporary promise to national Israel into a general principle for Christians. We obey those in authority over us in order that it may go generally well with us, namely, that we will be able to live quiet godly lives without interference from the authorities (1 Tim 2:2).
This is not patriarchy nor the ontological (i.e., as a matter of being) subordination of females to males because Paul warns fathers not to be abusive and instructs them to be gracious and kind and patient with their children just as God has been gracious kind and gentle with us.
As Christians seek to re-assert creational and biblical patterns of living in our late-modern age, it is imperative that we do not over-react as some have done. I have heard and read discussions of “federal headship” of males over females in the new covenant. For example, some have inferred that, e.g., females may not or should not vote in a congregational election. Such an inference requires a series of assumptions that must be questioned. Most of the argument seems to rely on a degree of continuity with the Mosaic (old) covenant that is not exegetically or theologically defensible. Some of the arguments (e.g., that females are inherently inferior) that I have seen and read over the years are not worthy of Christians. These sorts of over-reactions to aspects of modern and and late-modern feminism do us no credit as we seek properly to insist that:
- There is a creational, natural order
- Creational order can be determined by looking carefully at creation
- There are two sexes (male and female)
- The two sexes are distinct and complementary
In an age when “gender neutral” restrooms and speech codes penalize any recognition of any biological differences between males and females we are better served to be careful about how we assert the differences between males and females. By this I mean to say that there was a time when Christians could assume a broader social sympathy with the idea of creational order. It is no longer possible, at least in the late-modern west, to make that assumption. Further, the assumptions of the Victorian era lingered well into the 1950s and 60s. We live now after the death of most of those assumptions. I have had to defend the propriety of opening a door for a lady, as if by doing so I was insinuating inherent inferiority of females when, in fact, I was simply seeking to be kind and to be a gentleman.
Of course a full discussion Paul’s complex teaching about males and females is beyond the scope of this essay but he nowhere implies that females may not vote in a congregational election. He does, however, appeal to creational differences and to redemptive history to justify an order in the church and a distinction in roles in the church. It is true that Paul says “the women should keep silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be in submission, as the Law also says” (1 Cor 14:34; ESV) but if we keep reading we see the context and thus the end to which this injunction was given: “If there is anything they desire to learn, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church.” The problem was speaking up inappropriately. The problem was disorder in the worship service. The solution was order. Paul did not invoke the “federal headship” principle nor did he invoke a male Patriarchy in order to justify his teaching. Christ is the only federal head of believers. A husband is just that, a caretaker. A father may be said to be the head of the house but only as a matter of administration not as a matter of being. As we saw above, for Paul, the father’s role in the house to be like Christ, to lead gently and self-sacrificially not abusively and most certainly not high-handedly.
Against some feminists readers of Paul, we must acknowledge that he did appeal to creational order and pattern and to redemptive history to justify his church order:
I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor (1 Tim 2:12–14).
Paul was not a sexist nor was he “hopelessly patriarchal” as one polemicist said in the 1990s. Nevertheless, we should not confuse Victorian prejudices with biblical teaching. Paul does not argue that men are inherently smarter or more rational than females. Peter recognized differences and similarities between men and women (1 Pet 3:7). We are both the heirs of the “grace of life.” Against the radical egalitarianism of our age, however, Paul, like Peter, does teach a creational order. We are not free to disregard his instruction because it puts us at odds with the Zeitgeist (spirit of the age) or widely held assumptions. Christians were called to be counter-cultural in the 1st century, in the 19th century, and today. In the 1st century to assert that there is, in Christ, no Jew or Greek, male or female (Gal 3:28; Col 3:11) was radically counter-cultural. It is so in our age. We may not pick the parts of God’s Word that we like (e.g., Gal 3:28), that seem more in harmony with the spirit of our age, and discard the bits that we do not like (e.g., 1 Tim 2).
Submitting To Business and Civil Authorities
Above we considered the most basic teaching of the fifth commandment. There are, however, several implications of this commandment on which the New Testament reflects explicitly. For example, the Apostle Paul spoke directly to the relationship between employers and employees.
Bondservants, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, with a sincere heart, as you would Christ, not by the way of eye-service, as people-pleasers, but as bondservants of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart, rendering service with a good will as to the Lord and not to man, knowing that whatever good anyone does, this he will receive back from the Lord, whether he is a bondservant or is free. Masters, do the same to them, and stop your threatening, knowing that he who is both their Master and yours is in heaven, and that there is no partiality with him (Eph 6:5–9; ESV).
We may not be slaves in quite the same sense in which the first-century Christians were, to whom Paul wrote in Ephesus, but those of us who work for other people are not utterly free either. It does not take much imagination to see the parallels. Should one refuse to do what his supervisor tells him to do, he will not likely be employed very long with that company. Even those who are self-employed will testify that they have plenty of masters to whom they must give account. Bosses and masters too are not without accountability since they too, according to Paul, shall have to give account to their heavenly Master. The Apostle Peter wrote similar instruction, in virtually identical language, to the churches in Asia Minor (1 Pet 2:18–25).
The third sphere in which we must submit is in civil life. Again, the Apostle Paul gave us an explicit application of the fifth commandment:
Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience. For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed (Rom 13:1–7; ESV).
and again in Titus 3:
Remind them to be submissive to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good work, to speak evil of no one, to avoid quarreling, to be gentle, and to show perfect courtesy toward all people. For we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, hated by others and hating one another (Titus 3:1–3; ESV)
The Apostle Peter was also very clear about our obligation as Christians to the civil magistrate:
Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people. Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God. Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor (1 Pet 2:13–17; ESV).
When most of this instruction was written Nero or under one of his successors, e.g., Vespasian. Nero was a particularly venal and cruel ruler. He was very young he became Caesar. When Paul wrote to the Romans to submit to Caesar as God’s minister, he was instructing believers to submit to a fool whom even the pagan Romans found disgusting. Nevertheless, God, in his sovereign providence, placed Nero and the other Caesars in power and they treated the Christians very badly.
The fifth commandment requires us to regard an office, not a person. This is not an easy thing for sinners and perhaps it is particularly difficult for Americans. In American history and culture that rebellious impulse is particularly strong. This nation exists because of a Revolution in the 18th century against authority. Whether the American revolution was justified is a complicated question. On the one hand, it is not easy to infer from Romans 13 or from first Timothy or from first Peter that the apostles and imagined that Christians would be involved in a rebellion against the civil magistrate. The experience of the first century Christians was not that of rebellion but of martyrdom at the hands of wicked rulers.
In the Middle Ages, however, a theory of resistance to tyrannical or corrupt popes was developed. In the 16th century Protestants developed a theory of resistance to civil tyrants. Calvin argued a conservative position, that lesser magistrates have a divinely given right or authority to keep tyrants in check. In the face of war of the French crown against the Reformed, Beza and others argued that tyrants disqualify themselves from submission. Arguably, when the American colonies rebelled against the British crown those elected representatives who led the rebellion against the British crown and parliament were lesser magistrates. However beneficial a certain rebelliousness may have been or may be in civil life–since in a democratic republic one of the offices of the people is to act as a check against the unbridled exercise of authority—in the church rebellion is very destructive.
Rebellion against authorities who are operating within their charter, however, is one thing and rebellion in our private and family lives, at work, or in church is another. Christians are to be marked by a certain reverence for divinely ordained authorities. Paul submitted to wicked Nero. The Apostle John was exiled by a wicked Caesar (Domitian). The early Christians were pursued and martyred by evil rulers. Our major defense was that we are no threat to the existing civil order but rather we only seek to be left alone to worship and live quietly. Of course, we do not live in a monarchy but in a Republic and we have duties as citizens of that republic.
Submitting to Authorities In the Church
Another sphere in which Christians must apply the fifth commandment, by God’s grace alone, through faith alone, in union and communion with Christ is in the church. Since the fall, all humans are naturally suspicious of and rebellious toward authority. Americans particularly tend to be rebellious and that spirit appears in the life of the church as often as in any other sphere of human life. Indeed, because the church does not have the power to tax or to incarcerate, because Americans are free to walk away from a congregation with few earthly consequences, many American evangelicals (and others) have done just that: walked away from the church. Pollsters tell us that Americans are still very religious, i.e., they have religious feelings about God. Some still read their Bibles. Many Americans define themselves vaguely as “spiritual” but it is a commonplace that one may be “spiritual” or even Christian without having any formal relationship to the visible, institutional church. Indeed, critics of the visible church deride “churchianity” or revel in slogans about how they love Jesus but they hate his church. The church, of course, is an easy target. it is full of sinners. All believers profess faith in Christ but they all sin and to the degree sin is hypocrisy, then we are all hypocrites too. Each time a notable pastor or television evangelist is caught in immorality it adds another log to the fire of public indignation toward the visible church.
Nevertheless, despite all our natural resistance to authority and despite our suspicion of the church the fact is that our Lord Jesus, whom we profess to love and whose Word we profess to believe, instituted the very visible church against which we so easily rebel. There is not space here to trace out the doctrine of the church but the evidence from Scripture is clear and strong.
Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” Then he strictly charged the disciples to tell no one that he was the Christ (Matt 16:16–20).
When Peter confessed Jesus as the Christ he was the rock. When he denied him, he was the devil (Matt 16:23). To the apostles and the visible church Christ gave the keys of the kingdom. Just two chapters later our Lord explained in detail how he intended for those keys to be used.
If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them” (Matt 18:17–20).
Some entity is doing the binding and loosing. Some visible gathering of people is agreeing on earth. That entity, according to v. 17 is “the church.” Our Lord is speaking in terms borrowed from the Old Testament. The word for “church” (ἐκκλησίᾳ) is the very word the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures uses to translate the Hebrew word (Qahal) for “covenant assembly.” All this has been laid out elsewhere (see the link above). In other words, it does not refer to every believer, in all times and places or the church universal (or the holy catholic church). It was certainly not possible to “tell it” to every believer in the world in the first half of the 1st century AD. It is still not possible even with the internet. In other words, it is not possible to wipe out the visible church by substituting “church invisible” or “church universal” in this passage.
Further, the evidence in the New Testament for the reality and even centrality of the visible church to the Christian life is overwhelming. Everyone of Paul’s epistles was written to a visible assembly, a congregation, to be shared with other congregations. The Apostle Peter’s letters were written to congregations in Asia Minor. The Revelation mentions specific congregations. The book of Acts is, in part, the story of the founding of visible congregations and the appointment of officers (ministers, elders, and deacons).
It is against this background that we best interpret the exhortation by the writer to the Hebrews (most likely a pastor writing to a congregation) when he says:
Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you (Heb 13:17; ESV).
In context, there is no indication that he is thinking or civil leadership. Following the flow of his argument and the burden of the sermon turned epistle we are led to conclude that he is speaking of authorities in the church. When he wrote of “keeping watch over your souls” he was certainly not thinking of Nero or his successors nor of some regional civil governor in the empire. He was thinking of pastors and elders, whom Christ has charged to shepherd the souls and lives of the Christ-confessing covenant community. This is why Paul wrote to the Thessalonian congregation, “If anyone does not obey what we say in this letter, take note of that person, and have nothing to do with him, that he may be ashamed” (2 Thess 3:14; ESV). Paul exercised a real, divinely-given authority. Christ’s apostles delegated that authority. When Hebrews enjoins us to submit to authorities in the visible church that is a clear signal of this delegated authority.
Nevertheless, there are limits on ecclesiastical authority. This visible church is bound first of all to God’s word (Sola scriptura). The church is a servant of or minister of God’s Word. Therefore, it has no authority to command or act contrary to that Word. Further, in Reformed and Presbyterian churches, there are church orders or constitutions that limit the authority of the visible church and its officers. When, however, the church, in its officers, is acting and teaching according to the Word of God, within its ordained authority, believers have a duty before God to submit to them even when it is unpleasant.
To further complicate matters, not every assembly that claims to be a church is one. That is why, in Belgic Confession art. 29, we list three marks of the true church: the pure preaching of the gospel, the pure administration of the sacraments, and the use of church discipline. Where any of these is absent then, whatever an organization may claim for itself, it is not a part of the true church. In this way the claims to authority in congregations are further limited. No organization that does not bear the marks of the true church can ask submission by its members. When a congregation that bears the marks, however, exercises authority legitimately, it must be obeyed.
Still, because the church is populated and governed by sinners not every act by the visible church is necessarily legitimate. When church authorities act contrary to God’s Word as confessed by the churches, or when they act contrary to the church order then believers have a responsibility to seek the peace and purity of the church by taking the matter to the assemblies or courts of the church for resolution. Just as we must follow Matthew 18 with each other as individuals, so we should follow it with the church as an organization also. In that way the church is also our neighbor and our brother. We (especially Americans) must resist the temptation simply to walk away when we become frustrated with it. Perhaps we are right about our concerns and can love the church by helping to correct her? Perhaps we are wrong and need to be corrected ourselves? That is why we have a deliberative process whereby we may come to the truth of a matter.
The root of our struggle with submission in church, at work, and at home, is resentment. That’s why the catechism is so helpful. We are to bear with the infirmities of those who rule over us in the home, in civil government, at work, and even in the visible church. Those who rule over us are sinners. They are not perfect and we cannot expect them to be. In this sense we have to learn to see them as Christ’s servants. The more we look at them as Christ’s servants and the less we look at them, the easier it will be for us to submit to them.
©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved
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