The Heidelberg Catechism includes just one question regarding what is involved in obeying the 5th commandment, but it says a lot in just a brief space:
“Q.104. What does God require in the fifth commandment? A. 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.”
Notice that the basic gist of this commandment is that God requires of us that we show the proper honor, respect, submission, and obedience to the earthly authorities whom He has placed over us in His most wise and good providence.
That obviously starts with our parents, who are the first authority figures we normally encounter in our lives. In many ways it is in the home where we first learn (or fail to learn) respect for and submission to authority.
Clearly the Heidelberg rightly teaches that this honor, respect, and submission extend well beyond our earthly parents to all of the other earthly authority figures in our lives as well (i.e. “all in authority over me”). As Paul says in Romans 13:1, “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.” (ESV)
The sovereign wisdom and providence of God are to be kept in mind when dealing with those who are in authority over us. We are to remember that “there is no authority except from God,” and that includes those in authority whom we may not particularly agree with or appreciate. As Q/A 104 puts it, we are to submit to them “since it pleases God to govern us by their hand.”
That is why Paul goes on to say, “Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.” (Romans 13:2, ESV)
Notice also that the catechism anticipates the most common objection to godly submission in every context, in that it tells us that we must “also patiently bear with their weaknesses and infirmities, since it pleases God to govern us by their hand.” Perfect wisdom and decision making on the part of those who are over us in this life are not the prerequisites for our submission. Otherwise no one would ever be worthy of submission.
Even the very best earthly fathers are just doing the best that they can. (See Hebrews 12:.10.) And their imperfections in no way render our honoring and obeying them to be optional.
We are to bear with the weaknesses and infirmities of the authorities whom God has placed over us in His infinite wisdom. That includes parents, husbands, officers in the church, and civil authorities, among others. And the reason, as always, is that “it pleases God to govern us by their hand.”
Ask yourself this, how do you think and speak of the earthly authorities whom God has placed over you? Disagreeing with them, even criticizing them (depending on the way that it is done, of course) may even be necessary at times. But do you show them the respect and honor that is due to them for the sake of their God-given office?
As believers in Christ, we must submit to those whom God has been pleased to place over us, and we must do so in such a way that we “also patiently bear with their weaknesses and infirmities,” and even pray for them (1 Timothy 2:1-4).
In his book on the Heidelberg Catechism entitled, The Good News We Almost Forgot, Kevin DeYoung writes,
“I doubt many of us regularly feel convicted by the Fifth Commandment, but we probably should. How are we really doing? Do we joyfully submit to parents, husbands, and the rule of law? Are we patient with pastors and senators and middle managers? Do we give glad respect to denominational executives, committee chairpersons, and department heads? Do we take care of our aging parents without grumbling and complaining? Do we ever consider their feelings and desires above our own when making plans for the holidays? Would we be happy if our young children treated us like we, now grown, treat our parents?” (p.187)
We may not give the 5th commandment much thought, but we should. And if we were to do so, no doubt most of us would find plenty of room for confession, repentance, and improvement. May God work in us what is pleasing in His sight, by His grace and Holy Spirit, to the glory of the name of Jesus Christ.