Most children have happy plans for their future. Kids dream of a good life and expect it to happen. And that desire is right. Sadly, many children are not taught how to truly live well. The fifth commandment—“Honor your father and your mother” (Ex. 20:12)—promises a good life (Eph. 6:2). The law’s second table starts with a practical code “that leads us to the right perspective on values, responsibility, respect, and honor in all kinds of relationships.”[i] Put negatively, rebellious children can expect lifelong power struggles, ultimately against God himself.
And this code isn’t just for children; no matter our age we must respect “all those in authority” over us. Our relation to authorities matters because God establishes authorities (Rom. 13:1, 2), empowers authorities (John 19:11), rules over authorities (Eph. 6:9), and rules through authorities (Is. 44:28). How we relate to leadership reveals our relationship to God (Col. 3:22). This is why God’s stance against rebels is so stern (Ex. 21:17; Num. 12:1–9; Rom. 13:4). God applies this commandment to children so that they would start young in learning to submit to every kind of legitimate oversight.[ii] But it is never too late to begin enjoying a blessed life through obedience to God and his structure of authority.
We Must Honor Authorities
The precise wording of the commandment is important; honor is a recognition of significance, a sense of glory, well-placed respect. So honor gets to our attitude toward superiors. This is the right place to start because attitude always drives actions. God isn’t looking for mere external obedience. In both Testaments he chastens people for saying the right things and performing the right actions with the wrong attitudes (Is. 29:13; Matt. 15:7–9). David’s enemies “bless with their mouths, but inwardly they curse” (Ps. 62:4). God doesn’t want that. External actions alone do not constitute obedience. Human authorities will often accept unfeeling compliance. Your boss might not care about your heart attitude. He just wants your performance. But God will not accept cold-hearted, disinterested conformity to his rule. To truly obey we must “show honor, love, and faithfulness to … all those in authority” over us. Those we love will feel the warmth of our hearts. Faithfulness is dependability; but it isn’t perfunctory. It is heartfelt.
Good leaders are easy to honor; they do nothing to exasperate their inferiors (Eph. 6:4). A godly authority helps those under his charge to say, “We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19). Honor should not be merely commanded but also invited, assisted, and rewarded. But even when leaders make honor hard, our regard for God and his gracious authority can help us do what is right. Paul once apologized for accurately calling the high priest a “whitewashed wall.” “I did not know, brothers, that he was the high priest, for it is written, ‘You shall not speak evil of a ruler of your people’” (Acts 23:5). The way to honor dishonorable authorities starts by recognizing God’s pervasive authority.
How must children obey authorities as a pattern for the proper obedience of everyone?
Children must heed their parents’ “good teaching” (Prov. 1:8).
Parents are wiser and more experienced than children. They can see deeper and farther. They have witnessed and personally committed youthful mistakes. Parents know sin’s consequences. Even when parents misjudge in their leadership, God will honor children’s “proper obedience.” Children must obey their parents—as though God spoke through them—without complaining, arguing, deceiving, or delaying.
Children must submit to their parents’ correction.
Parents must discipline; failure to do so is evidence of hatred, even if subconscious (Prov. 13:24). The best kind of discipline is painful, swift, brief, and loving. It should prove that sin hurts but that it is also forgivable (Heb. 12:9–11). And children must willingly receive parental correction: not throwing fits when disciplined, not grumbling when forced to work or pay restitution, not secretly bad-mouthing their folks. Parents will answer to God for how they discipline (Col. 3:21). Children will answer to God for how they receive discipline.
Children must not obey their parents sinfully.
Human authorities are also under authority; their commands cannot exceed their God-given mandate. When Paul commands children to obey their parents “in all things, for this is well pleasing to the Lord” (Col. 3:20), he is writing to Christian parents who are bound to instruct their children in God’s will. If parents ignore God’s rule, they are behaving “not as parents, but as strangers who are trying to lead us away from obedience to our true Father.”[iii] Children must submit to the “good teaching and discipline” of parents and render “proper obedience.” But no authority trumps God’s authority (Acts. 4:19, 20; 5:29).
Leaders have shortcomings. Parents and other pace-setters should imitate the “holy men of God” who wrote the Bible (2 Peter 1:21 KJV) and be honest about their failings; Peter helped Mark write about his denial of Christ (Mark 14:66–72). One of the worst things we could do is try to mask over our faults. Only spiritually honest parents can teach their children to put no confidence in the flesh, and help them take their failings to Jesus.
But the failures of authorities do not excuse rebellion. Paul exhorts servants to be submissive to their masters, “not only to the good and gentle, but also to the harsh” (1 Pet. 2:18). Why is this God’s will for children? A child’s submission to even deeply-flawed parents can preserve harmony in the family. If children always push back against parental weaknesses, home life would be unbearable. And the quiet patience of children can have a life-changing influence on their folks (cf. 1 Peter 3:1). When we are patient toward imperfect leaders, we please God and experience growth in godliness. All of us are tested by the shortcomings of our authorities. In our frustration over their failures, we are led to pray for their weaknesses and our own (1 Tim. 2:2).
The fifth commandment promises blessings for obedience and curses for disobedience. In this way it is not only a code of conduct, but also a conduit to Christ. None of us completely kills our rebellious spirit; the end of the law is not our obedience but is instead Jesus, who kept the fifth commandment perfectly. He submitted himself to the correction of the cross—even though he had done nothing wrong, and had always shown “honor, love, and faithfulness” to God. Through the cross he gained for penitent believers their eternal life in a good land. In light of God’s mercy, he calls us to honor authority. Those who do will not be disappointed.