Heidelberg 104: Authority And Submission (2)

In the first part 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.

Next time: submitting to authorities in the church.

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    Post authored by:

  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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