The Fifth Commandment is short and simple: “Honor your father and your mother” (Exodus 20:12). It has to do with institutions ordained by God for the benefit of His human creatures. Once again, Peter is quite clear. “Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human institution” (1 Peter 2:13). These “human institutions” include government authority (1 Peter 2:13-17), the business environment (1 Peter 2:18-19), and the institution of marriage (1 Peter 3:1-7). God requires submission to and within these authority structures.
The apostle Paul reinforces the point. “Be subject to one another in the fear of Christ (Ephesians 5:21). This subjection includes authority structures within families (Ephesians 5:22-6:4) and in the business environment (Ephesians 6:5-6:9). In Romans 13:1, Paul adds, “Every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God.” We can also include church authority in the list (Hebrews 13:17).
God ordains all these governing authorities. We, therefore, owe proper obedience and deference to them and within them. But we live in a fallen world. Men and women abuse their God-given and God-ordained authority. They overstep God-ordained boundaries in government, business, families, and the church. When this occurs, what should we do? The words of Acts 5:29 ring in our ears: “We must obey God rather than men.”
Let’s zero in on government. Legislative bodies at the local, state and national levels pass ordinances and laws. The executive branches at the local, state and national levels should enforce these various laws and ordinances. The courts should interpret these laws and adjudicate differences. In each case, the authority government officials exercise comes from God (Romans 13:4). God may use appointments or elections as His means for putting people into office. However this may be, legislators, judges, mayors, governors, and presidents need to recognize that their authority ultimately comes from God. They are, therefore, responsible to God to carry out their duties according to His righteous commandments (Romans 7:12). They should acknowledge Christ as King and govern accordingly (Daniel 4:37).
Government officials overstep their God-ordained boundaries when they order and enforce laws contrary to God’s Law and God’s Word. When King Darius forbid prayer upon penalty of death, Daniel refused to comply (Daniel 6). When the Jewish Council forbid the disciples to preach the Gospel facing them with imprisonment, they refused to comply (Acts 5). When foreign nations forbid Christian worship and evangelism, the church rightly supports underground activities in these countries in obedience to Christ’s commission (Matthew 28:19-20, Acts 5:29).
Yes, Scripture requires respect for earthly rulers: “Honor the king” (1 Peter 2:17). But Christians must “praise, exalt and honor the King of heaven” (Daniel 4:37). The latter command covers every area of life. As government becomes more and more intrusive, points of conflict arise between “subjection to governing authorities” and confessing “Jesus is Lord.”
When Christ confessed His Kingship before Pilate (John 18:37), he asked the Jews, “Shall I crucify your King?” The chief priests gave this astonishing answer, “We have no king but Caesar” (John 19:15). They displayed their true allegiance. Scripture declares, “The LORD is King” (Psalm 10:16). We must not confess Caesar as Lord. We must confess Christ as Lord (Romans 10:9). When government claims absolute authority and forces a choice between Christ and Caesar, “We must obey God rather than men.” The Fifth Commandment requires this submission.