Honoring & Exercising Authority
God is ultimate authority. He has established people and institutions on earth to reflect His rule over the world (cf. Rom. 13). Of these institutions, the family is primary. The family is the foundational authority on which other earthly authority rests. So honoring authority begins in the family.
It is impossible to discuss authority without mentioning its complement, obedience or submission. From the outset, we will discuss two types of submission: (1) The submission that a wife properly exercises to her husband (a wife is not a slave!), and (2) the submission that subjects owe to those who by law are in authority over them (though we may resist tyrants and usurpers as well as the laws of men that conflict with the laws of God).
We have many forms of authority in our lives. These include parents, church leaders, employers, police officers, and government officials. But what is crucial here is not saying they are our authorities as much as submitting to them. Our culture regards submission as a bad thing. As a result, free choice and self assertion have permeated our relationships. Many of us are fine with government authority, as long as we agree with the politics and programs of the people or party in charge. But when authorities tell us to do something we do not want to do, our hearts rebel. Rebellion can be subtle. It does not necessarily mean armed revolt against the state or forsaking the church as an apostate. We can rebel in our hearts. We rebel every time we grumble about those in authority; we rebel when we do not obey promptly, cheerfully, and willingly.
Parents should be mindful as they teach their children to honor authority that if they make light of various authorities in their life, their children will view their teaching as hypocrisy. If you badmouth your boss, yet tell your children to obey those in authority, your children will hear a conflicting message. Husbands, if you take church or state authority lightly, your children will be encouraged to take your authority lightly. Wives, if you don’t cheerfully and willingly submit to your husbands, your children won’t believe you are sincere when you ask them to obey you.
It is important that our children know what lawful authority is and how to submit to it. And it is important for parents to know how to exercise authority over their children. These lessons will have life-long consequences for you and your children at home, in church, and in the world at large.
What is lawful authority?
Authority is the God-given right to declare to others what is just and right, combined with the God-given power to command obedience and to punish disobedience (e.g., the centurion in Matt. 8:8-9). Parents have the authority to chasten disobedient children (Heb. 12:9). Church elders have authority in the church to bind or loosen (announce the guilt or innocence of) its members (Matt. 16:19; 18:18). Rulers have the authority to be a terror to evildoers, executing wrath upon them in the name of God (Rom. 13:3-4), as well as collecting taxes from citizens (vv. 6-7).
Regardless of who is in authority, all people must view authority as a God-given right. Authority is not a privilege that you earn. Authority is not a self-appointed position, either. Whether you are a parent, grandparent, employer, teacher, elder, governor, police officer, or even President, you have been appointed by God to this position. The foundation of all lawful authority is that God is sovereign over everything. He has instituted laws in this world that reflect His order and character. A person may be a good authority or a bad one, but Jesus says all power comes from above (cf. John 19:11). That is why He did not pass judgment on Pilate’s authority, for he was the civil magistrate appointed by God.
Because authority is a God-given right that rests on God’s authority, people in authority are not free to govern any way they see fit. Authority must be lawfully exercised according to God’s standard of righteousness and justice. It is wrong for judges to accept bribes because God does not take bribes. It is wrong for presidents to rule like despots because God is the absolute ruler, or autocrat, whose word is law. That is why we speak of God’s sovereignty.1Authorities are appointed by God to uphold God’s principles and to discipline or punish those who do not live in accordance with those principles.
Furthermore, it is important to see that God exercises His rule through Christ as shown in the Scriptures (Pss. 2, 45, 72, 110; Matt. 28:18). Christ shows us what it means to exercise authority in subjection to God and the demands of His justice. Those who are called to exercise authority in the home, in the church, at school, in the workplace, or in government should look to the Christ of Scripture for guidance and direction.
Our Lord Jesus Christ teaches us that to be in authority we must be under authority, and all authority is from God. When we disobey earthly authorities, we are disobeying God. When we dishonor our parents, we are dishonoring God. When we talk back to our teachers or employers, or despise them in our hearts, we are despising God. When we refuse to heed the counsel and correction of pastors and elders, we are resisting God. When we speak disrespectfully of officials in our church or state, we are withholding from God the glory due to His name (Ps. 29:2).
How children are to honor their parents
Honoring authority is not natural for us. By nature, we are rebellious, for our hearts are corrupted by sin (Gen. 5:6; Jer. 17:9). Ever since Adam and Eve disobeyed God in the Garden of Eden, humans have lived in constant rebellion against God. The history of Israel reveals cycle after cycle of unbelief, murmuring, and disobedience, followed by severe chastening from God to bring the nation to repentance. Our story as parents and children isn’t much different.
No one needs to teach his children to disobey. You didn’t have to teach your two-year-old how to elbow his little sister in the face. You didn’t have to teach your child to be stubborn. We all remember times when our children looked at us and said an emphatic “No!” This resistance to authority did not have to be taught, for our children were conceived and born in sin (Ps. 51:5). God is not shocked by our natural inclination to sin, and parents should not be shocked either. When our children confess some sin, we shouldn’t be surprised, as though our children are above such things. At the same time, we shouldn’t use natural depravity to excuse their sinful behavior. I’ve known parents who said after their boys misbehaved, “Boys will be boys,” or “What can you expect? They’re only teenagers!” We should never offer excuses for our children’s misbehavior. We do not discount their sinful natures, and we should not make light of their sin, either. We should teach our children how and why to honor authority, and why it is wrong for them to dishonor those in authority over them.
In Exodus 20:12, God gives us the fifth commandment: “Honour thy father and thy mother: that thy days may be long upon the land which the LORD thy God giveth thee.” According to the Heidelberg Catechism, this commandment requires “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; and also patiently bear with their weaknesses and infirmities, since it pleases God to govern us by their hand” (Q. 104).
According to the Catechism, there are six things required in honoring fathers and mothers. First, children are to show honor to their parents. This word for honor includes the qualities of “heaviness” or “weightiness.” We think of heaviness in paying honor to a king or President. These authorities carry a heavy weight of responsibility and thus should be accorded an equally heavy weight of honor. Children should thus recognize the weightiness of their parent’s authority. Mothers and fathers have been given authority over their children by God and thus are accountable to Him for the way they exercise it. Children should have the highest respect for their parents, showing that respect in various ways, beginning with how they speak to their parents and how they answer when spoken to. They should remember that they are not equals with Dad and Mom but are under their God-given authority.
Second, they are to love their parents, highly esteeming their parents for bringing them into the world and keeping a roof over their heads. They should do this even when they don’t feel like it! One thing we must all learn early in life is to do the right thing even when we don’t feel like it.
Third, children must be faithful to their parents. To be faithful is “to keep truth.” There must be a bond of trust based on truth between parents and their children. Children must be able to trust their parents and strive to be worthy of their trust. How this is done changes over the course of life, but the requirement remains the same. Children, no matter what age, are to listen and obey their parent’s wishes. They should be taught to speak the truth, to keep their promises, and to promote the welfare of their family. A child’s fidelity to parents does not end when he or she becomes an adult. Children must care for their parents when their parents can no longer care for themselves. They must continue to be faithful to their parents until they die (see Gen. 47:12; John 19:26).
Fourth, children must submit to their parents’ instruction and correction. Children should listen to their parents. They should recognize that their parents have been given the primary task of teaching and correcting them. This is a great burden of responsibility for any parent. For better or worse, we teach our children many things. Note that children are required to submit only to our “good instruction.” They should prove or test all things by Scripture. That means they should submit to the instruction of their parents unless they are being told to do something that is explicitly forbidden in the Scriptures.
Fifth, God requires “due obedience.” It is often said that “delayed obedience is disobedience.” When a child is asked to do something, he or she should promptly do it. Many children attempt to control situations by postponing obedience, just as sinners try to postpone repentance. When asked to do something, their response is, “In a minute!” This is delayed obedience, or just plain disobedience. Children should obey promptly. Likewise, they should obey willingly and cheerfully, without murmuring or quibbling.
Sixth, God requires patience. He knows that parents sometimes fail. He is not surprised by our weaknesses and infirmities (see Heb. 2:17, 4:15). He therefore requires children to be patient in bearing with their parents’ shortcomings. Parental faults are no excuse for a child’s disobedience. Children may not wait until their parents are perfect, or make better decisions, or ask the right things before submitting to their parents. Rather, children are to bear with and forgive the weaknesses and infirmities of their parents, “since it pleases God to govern us by their hand.” God is still pleased to use weak vessels to administer His rule in the world, so children should not expect their parents to be perfect and without fault. This priceless lesson should be taught and learned early in life, since on this side of the Second Coming, weak and infirm human beings will rule over us in the home, in church, and in the state.
How to exercise authority
We have seen a shift today regarding authority and how it should be exercised and honored. Philosophers say we live in the postmodern era, in which rules, boundaries, and authorities are decried as attempts of the strong to oppress the weak. We are told we may deliver ourselves from the hell of external authority by becoming self-indulgent. The more we live unto ourselves, the more enlightenment we have received.
The media today idolizes the individual who rebels against authority. They often depict teenagers as mature, independent, and self-sufficient beings who are totally unlike the insincere, brain-dead, and incompetent adults around them. This teaches our children that it is okay to be a law unto themselves. The only things that matter are their feelings, thoughts, wants, and personal boundaries. Culture changes the answer to the Westminster Shorter Catechism’s first question as follows: What is the chief end of man? To be a god unto myself and to put my needs first. Also, to seek happiness by throwing off all external controls or limitations.
Our children’s sinful nature and the culture around us show us how important it is for Christian parents to teach their children how to honor authority. As we said earlier, honoring authority begins in the family. Here are some ways your children can honor authority.
First, parents should remember that children learn much about honoring authority by watching you. No one expects parents to be perfect. However, if our actions consistently fail to reflect our words, children (especially teenagers) will recognize the disparity and try to exploit it.
Husbands, teach your children how to honor authority by honoring the authorities that have been placed over you. While we believe in the headship of men over their families, that doesn’t mean husbands and fathers are a law to themselves. They must honor many people and institutions in authority over them. They must honor their employers. They must obey government officials. They must submit to laws and rules. But more than that, they must submit to the leadership of the church. Husbands, your children need to see you living a life of submission. They need to see a man who not only knows how to lead but also how to submit to those set over him in the Lord.
Second, husbands should show their children that they understand their role as head of their family and take it seriously. If you neglect your responsibilities as head over your family, what will your children think of Christ’s lordship over His church? The apostle Paul says you must be like Christ in leading your wives (Eph. 5:23). The way you lead reflects your idea of Christ’s leadership. Your children need to see you prayerfully, diligently, and joyfully fulfill your role as the leader of your family.
Wives, teach your children how to honor authority by showing them that you honor the authorities above you. You too must submit to your church’s leadership. Next, demonstrate how to honor authority by submitting to your husband. If your children see you as a strong-headed, stubborn, and rebellious woman, they may be inclined to follow in your footsteps. So submit to your husband as unto the Lord, or as the church submits to Christ (Eph. 5:22-23). If you fail to exercise submission, your children might view your rebellion as a breakdown in God’s order of authority (see also 1 Peter 3:6).
Together, both fathers and mothers should show their children how to honor authority by doing what Paul commands in Ephesians 5:21: to submit one to another. The husband honors his authority by serving his wife in humility. A wife honors her role of submission by being a helpmeet for her husband. Your marriage relationship will teach your children volumes about what it means to submit to lawful authority.
It is also important that husbands and wives have mutual respect for each other. Husbands must respect the influence that wives have over their children. They should never belittle her authority or undercut her discipline. Likewise, wives, never show disrespect to your husband in front of your children. Stand together as parents and present a united front. The fifth commandment says, “Honour thy father and thy mother” (Ex. 20:12). The wife’s duty to submit to her husband does not diminish her authority over her children. Sons and daughters must honor the authority of their mothers as well as fathers.
Second, because all authority exists as a reflection of God’s authority over His creation, authorities are subject to God’s laws and rules. Rulers are not free to follow their whims, nor are parents free to rule their families any which way. This may seem trivial. But many people who are in authority follow their own inclinations or interests, making up the rules as they go along. Many parents also try to rule their families this way. This should not be. God has established the rules and the penalties for breaking those rules. So parents, in teaching your children to honor authority, teach them to first obey God. Likewise, when you discipline them for breaking God’s rules, instruct them that you are acting in God’s place to discipline them.
Parents, you have the responsibility to lead your families under the authority of God. You must also exercise discipline in a way that honors God and shows His love. Remember the words of Hebrews 12:5-8:
Ye have forgotten the exhortation which speaketh unto you as unto children, My son, despise not thou the chastening of the Lord, nor faint when thou art rebuked of him: for whom the Lord loveth he chasteneth, and scourgeth every son whom he receiveth. If ye endure chastening, God dealeth with you as with sons; for what son is he whom the father chasteneth not? But if ye be without chastisement, whereof all are partakers, then are ye bastards, and not sons.
Parents, rule as God has commanded. When your children break rules, discipline them because they have sinned against God. Do not discipline your children merely because they have offended you or broken your rules. And do not discipline them out of spite or anger. Discipline them for breaking God’s rules and for rebelling against His authority. Discipline them because you love them. God has commanded us to discipline the children we love so that they will be brought to repentance before God. In disciplining our children, we must show them that we also are subject to God’s laws.
Third, in view of the many messages that culture sends to our children, know what your children are watching and listening to. Children and teenagers have instant access to the worldwide web via their cell phones. The world is just a keystroke or mouse click away. Songs, music videos, television shows, radio broadcasts, blogs, webcasts, movies, video games, and websites of all kinds are available. So are social networking sites like Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, and You-Tube. All of this is changing the way our children view the world they live in. Sadly, many parents have little idea what their children are involved in and what they are learning. How does this teach your children to honor authority?
Parents, you must know what is shaping the attitudes and actions of your children. Monitor what your children do on the computer. What music do they listen to? What movies do they watch? Where do they go for information about sex? Who are their friends? Who is teaching them in cyberspace? What are they posting on Facebook? What they are tweeting to their friends? I have observed that many children of all ages are living lives of duplicity. They may go to church and Christian schools, but their online histories reveal they are watching TV shows and movies with little understanding of the messages they are absorbing about rebellion, anti-authoritarianism, and contempt for God and His law.
Parents, a war of worldliness is waging today for the minds and hearts of your children. What or who will they honor? Will they honor the world and its wisdom, or God and His Word? Will they honor their friends more than their parents? Will they follow their own impulses and feelings, or will they pray for the Holy Spirit’s guidance in their lives? Will they honor themselves or the God who made them? As parents with God-given authority, it is imperative that you understand that so many things shape the worldview of our children. It is critical for you to understand the barrage of messages that culture is sending, and teach your children how to sort through these, especially if they conflict with what the Bible teaches (cf. Deut. 6:1-11). You are your child’s authority. You have been given this weighty role by God. Your children need your wisdom about these things. They need to know that you do not support a worldview that is at war with God’s Word.
Fourth, all of this advice will be useless if you don’t know how to talk to your children. We do not mean that you should chat with them about the weather or what they did that day. These are mere starting points. You must probe much further and deeper. The best time to talk to your children is when they are young. Tell them from an early age how much they mean to you. Talk to them about the sins you see in their lives. Affirm, encourage, and shepherd your children (cf. Col. 3:21). They will not want to submit to you if you merely demand obedience. Honoring parents is easier if it is done within a strong relationship of love and trust. Don’t hesitate to talk to your children about some of the challenges they will face as they grow up. Offer them some ways to resist peer pressure. Warn them of the dangers of impure or immodest behavior. Be passionate about their need to personally believe the gospel and embrace Christ by faith.
These talks should not be reserved for times when your child has sinned. Be preemptive. Work daily issues and challenges into your family worship. Discuss different matters around the dinner table. Set aside nights for family time, and don’t squander it by always going boating, playing games, or watching movies. Make the most of the opportunity you have to spend time with your children. Talk to them.
Some of you may be thinking, “I haven’t ever had a serious conversation with my children. I can’t start now.” Or perhaps you might say, “My child thinks I’m weird and old-fashioned. Whenever I talk to her, it goes in one ear and out the other.” Don’t let such excuses get in your way. If you haven’t talked with your children before, start now. This may be awkward at first. Your children may not be receptive. But this is a fight worth engaging in. You are your children’s authorities, and they are your responsibility. The sooner you begin, the sooner you will show your children that honoring parents honors God. You will show them that you do this because you care for them. You will teach your children that you exercise your authority as part of your loving, joyful submission to God.
The commandment to honor our fathers and mothers implies distinctive roles for each family member. Children are to honor the authority of their parents. They are to honor, love, be faithful, obey, and bear with the infirmities of their parents. But parents cannot just command their children to honor them. They must also graciously and lovingly come alongside their children and teach them what it means to honor authority. By nature, our children do not want to honor authority. They will fight you. They will try to usurp your power. And culture will support such rebelliousness.
So admonish your children to fear the Lord today. Teach them by example, teach them by appropriately disciplining them, teach them by discussing with them the challenges of culture, and teach them by talking with them. In such ways we may fulfill our God-given roles to honor His authority over us by teaching our children to honor the authority of everyone whom God has set over them in this life.