“Honor the Authorities” (Exodus 20:12)

“Honor the Authorities” (Exodus 20:12)

The Fifth Commandment: Honor the Authorities

Several values have shaped American culture since our founding. Those who crossed the Atlantic on the Mayflower were mostly Puritans with an appreciation for Reformed theology. They sought freedom of religion and took extreme measures in order to find that freedom. Half of the pilgrims died during their first winter in Plymouth. November 11, this year marks the 400th anniversary of the Mayflower landing at Cape Cod.

Although there was a strong Christian influence from that first Plymouth Colony, many of the founding fathers among later generations were heavily guided by the French Enlightenment ideals of Locke, Voltaire, and Rousseau who encouraged revolution and rebellion against corrupt monarchs. The more that our founding fathers adopted Enlightenment views, the more uncertain their Biblical worldview became. A rebellious individualism, much of which was unbiblical, became the moral norm.

However, it is important to note that history is a bit more complicated than that. The concept of lesser magistrates overthrowing evil kings began to develop as early as the twelfth century. During the Protestant Reformation, John Calvin elaborated on the view, and later theologians such as John Knox, Samuel Rutherford, and Theodore Beza “argued that inferior magistrates must resistunjust rulers and even permitted or required citizens to do so” (Mark David Hall). All of these Reformed theologians wrote before John Locke and their theological views were held among many of the early colonists, especially the elite class (some 55-75% of which were Calvinists).

Not all authorities are worthy of the same degree of respect. Maybe they have earned a level of scrutiny because they repeatedly exemplify wicked leadership values. Some are easier for us to despise than others. However, the doctrine of the lesser magistrates was not a core belief of the reformers, nor do we really know how much of a consensus there was for the view. We need to be on guard about latching onto a somewhat obscure doctrine in order to support our political presupposition. Let’s allow God’s Word to reform our politics.

We should take care that we do not become so dogmatic in our criticism of politicians that we find ourselves at odds with Scripture. Just because you do not like the politics of a particular authority, does not mean that God grants you permission to disrespect or defy them. We need to keep our words, thoughts, and actions in check with regard to this commandment as we do the other nine.

Read Exodus 20:12

This morning we will consider the other authorities that God has placed over us.

Who We Must Honor 

Two weeks ago we focused solely upon the relationship between parents and children. It is the language of the commandment, but it follows that all relationships between superiors, inferiors, and equals are in view. The Westminster Larger Catechism uses the categories of family, church, and commonwealth. We will focus on the church and civil authorities this morning.

God claims authority over the civil realm. He utilizes civil authorities for his purposes. We should recognize their God-given role and respect them for the office they hold. In fact, the preacher argues that we should not curse the king even in our thoughts (Ecclesiastes 10:20). 

As governor of Judea, Pilate was not the ultimate authority. He reported to the Roman Emperor Tiberius. But Jesus still recognized his authority over him (John 19:11). The Apostle Paul agreed with this telling the Romans “there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God” (Romans 13:1). 

Scripture does not have particular government systems in mind when it commands us to honor our authorities. Various civil authorities in America would include the legislative, executive, and judicial branches of our government. We are to honor all individuals whom God has placed in particular spheres of power over us, even those at the lowest levels of authority. They do have certain spheres within which they primarily operate, but there are numerous examples where authorities overlaps.

We should also recognize the importance of religious authorities. In the Old Testament there were prophets, priests, and kings who ruled the people and provided them with ecclesial instruction. In the New Testament, the apostles established a presbyterian form of government. A plurality of elders, each with equal authority, provide oversight to the church. Elders are responsible and must give account for how they watched over the souls of their flock (Hebrews 13:17). And all elders are given warnings about how they are to govern, which allows church members to appeal and correct elders who have overstepped their boundaries (1 Peter 5:1-3). 

John Calvin argued that the fifth commandment speaks of our parents because they are the least likely to be the recipients of our defiance. We are more naturally inclined to recognize their importance for our wellbeing. But, in learning how we are to honor our parents, we are building a habit of submitting to every other authority that God has appointed. Calvin acknowledges that it does not make “any difference whether they are worthy of this honor or not”. They have come to their office by way of “Divine providence” and therefore God commands us to show them honor.

If honoring your parents is honoring to the Lord, then dishonoring other authorities dishonors the Lord.

Let us move on the practical teaching of…

How We Must Honor

The Westminster Larger Catechism includes eleven questions on the fifth commandment (123-133). I want to encourage you to read through those questions and answers with your family this week, but allow me to briefly summarize some of the answers now. 

  • Authorities ought to love and care for their inferiors like natural parents, and inferiors ought to have a willingness to obey their superiors as to their parents (WLC 125). 
  • Honor involves the offer of due reverence, prayer, thanksgiving, obedience to lawful commands and counsels (WLC 127a). Inferiors are to submit to and show fidelity to superiors while also bearing in patience with their infirmities (WLC 127b).
  • Inferiors sin against their superiors by their neglect of duties required, envy and contempt of their person, and rebellion against their lawful counsels, commands, and corrections (WLC 128).
  • At the same time, our authorities should show love and compassion for their subjects (WLC 129). They should instruct them in doing well and offer appropriate reproof and chastisement to those who do evil. They ought to provide protection with wisdom and respect the gravity of their office. 
  • Authorities who fail in their duties, serve themselves, seek their own glory, command what is unlawful, support evil, or discourage good, should be rebuked and in some cases defied (WLC 130). 

Determining what is lawful and unlawful always has reference to Scripture as our final authority. Believers must patiently endure with their authorities even when we feel like we are being treated unfairly (1 Peter 2:21-23). We can show honor and patience while we make our respectful appeal regarding their perceived injustice. 

We find no better example of offering obedience than in the life and death of Jesus Christ. He perfectly obeyed his Heavenly Father which included honoring his parents and the civil authorities he encountered throughout His ministry. He submitted to the will of His Father in the garden of Gethsemane (Matthew 26:39) and was obedient to the point of death (Philippians 2:8). 

In His obedience to death on the cross, Christ redeemed us from the sin and death that our disobedience deserved. Since we have been redeemed, we are now being renewed into the image of Jesus (Romans 8:29). We can now love Him because He first loved us (1 John 4:19). The humble obedience of Christ not only becomes our model, but His Spirit enables us to follow.

We honor our authorities because the Spirit of Christ is making us into the image of Christ, who perfectly honored His authorities. In light of this truth, we can show honor even to those authorities who are unworthy or will never reward our obedience. In that case it is our Heavenly Father who will see our good deeds and reward us (Ephesians 6:5-8). When our good, honest effort is met with indignity, instead of being frustrated we look forward to God’s appreciation. On the flip side, any defiance against the lawful commands of our earthly authorities will result in the loss of rewards.

Now, let’s briefly conclude with the rare occasions…

When We Must Dishonor

We are not required to honor all of our authorities in the same manner. There are checks and balances upon the powers that provide accountability. Most importantly, even the highest earthly authority remains under the authority of God. Therefore, no one can command anyone to do something that Scripture deems sinful. When the apostles were told they could no longer preach the gospel they responded, “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29).

Peter provides the basic instruction for believers to “Fear God, honor the emperor” (1 Peter 2:17). And, just prior to that he acknowledges that God has appointed those in lower levels of authority as well. However, it is right and proper to rebuke our governing authorities when they have acted wickedly. John the Baptist rebuked Herod for marrying his brother’s wife Herodias (Matthew 14:1-12). After Herod had John beheaded, Jesus referred to him as “that fox” (Luke 13:32).

The Session has spent some considerable amount of time thinking about these things over the last few months. The principle seems simple enough, but the application is oftentimes challenging. When our civil authorities leave their sphere and enter into the ecclesiastical sphere, we may rightly give them pushback. However, even then, we should take care to honor them with our obedience as long as their command does not violate Scripture. The general principle is this: civil disobedience is called for when an authority commands what God forbids, or forbids what God commands.

In WCF 23 “Of the Civil Magistrate”, we learn of the separation of spheres of civil and church authorities. Civil authorities may not “in the least, interfere in matters of faith” and “all ecclesiastical persons whatever shall enjoy the full, free, and unquestioned liberty of discharging every part of their sacred functions, without violence or danger.” And most relevant to our current situation, “It is the duty of civil magistrates…to take order, that all religious and ecclesiastical assemblies be held without molestation or disturbance” (WCF 23.3).

Apart from a significant and imminent threat, we need protect our God-given duty to gather for worship. In America, that means we need to stand up for our first amendment rights. However, if I can fully discharge my duties without hindrance, then I should honor the governor, even if that means I have to endure some additional inconveniences in moving our service outdoors. To rebel against the Governor’s lawful commands is to sin against God.

In his commentary on these sections of the WCF, AA Hodge warns:

The limit of this obligation to obedience will be found only when we are commanded to do something contrary to the superior authority of God (Acts 4:19, 29); or when the civil government has become so radically and incurably corrupt that it has ceased to accomplish the ends for which it was established. When that point has unquestionably been reached, when all means of redress have been exhausted without avail, when there appears no prospect of securing reform in the government itself, and some good prospect of securing it by revolution, then it is the privilege and duty of a Christian people to change their government-peacefully if they may, forcibly if they must.”


None of us have a perfect track record on obedience to authorities. All of us have defied our parents, we have dishonored church authorities, and we have likely all disobeyed our civil authorities. What do we do when we dishonor the authorities that God has placed over us? We repent and turn to Christ, the only human who perfectly honored His Father. Because of Christ’s perfect righteousness we have been filled with the Holy Spirit, and enabled to endeavor after new obedience, trusting that we have been forgiven and restored.