Dr. Ray E. Heiple, Jr.
Honoring All Authorities as Fathers and Mothers
Village life ceased, it ceased in Israel, until I,
Deborah, arose, arose a mother in Israel.
Question 125 of the Larger Catechism asks, “Why are superiors stiled Father and Mother?” It gives the answer, “Superiors are stiled Father and Mother, both to teach them in all duties towards their inferiors, like natural parents, to express love and tenderness to them, according to their several relations; and to work inferiors to a greater willingness and cheerfulness in performing their duties to their superiors, as to their parents.” Last time we noticed how God’s commandments require sincere obedience: that which is from the heart and not just outward conformity in behavior. In today’s devotion we consider how God encourages such obedience: He uses words that are most conducive to stir up our natural affections.
One of the things I love most about the Larger Catechism is how well it sets forth God’s goodness to us in His Law. God’s Law is good! It is perfectly good, for it is nothing less than the communication of God’s holy character to man in imperative form. God’s Law is the blueprint of human existence. Thus, the more we obey God’s ordinances the better things will go for us, for God delights in the obedience of His creatures. Therefore, we should not be surprised to see how God frames His Commandments in the way that is most effectual to excite man to obey them. And so here in the Fifth Commandment, God requires man to honor, from the heart, all legitimate authorities, by including them under the names “father” and “mother.”
Perhaps there are no terms in human language more affectionate than “father” and “mother.” One or both of these words are among the first that nearly every human being learns to say. Even people who claim to have had awful parents cannot help but express these words with deep emotion. In fact, it is often those who have had traumatic experiences with abusive or immoral parents who speak these words with the most passion and longing. Thus, our good and gracious God, when calling upon His image-bearing creatures to obey what are ultimately His divinely ordained authority structures, does so under these most affectionate and treasured categories of “father” and “mother.” He does so precisely to encourage us to submit to authorities from the heart, which if we do, will cause blessing to come to us. Moreover, as the Catechism points out, this language is geared not only to stir up inferiors to obey authorities with the affection that we would naturally show to our mothers and fathers, but it is also intended to motivate authorities to deal with their inferiors in a sacrificial and caring way, as fathers and mothers would with their own children.
As the Scripture at the head of this article illustrates, the act of referring to authorities under familial terms is a common human practice. Deborah, a judge and prophetess, calls herself a “mother” in Israel. Not too many years ago it was common to hear Englishmen refer to their country as the “Motherland” or even “Mother England.” Likewise, Germany is often called the “Fatherland” by native Germans. Again, in Scripture, at the end of their lives, both Elijah and Elisha were lamented with the cry “My father, my father!” by men who were not their blood relatives (2 Kin. 2:12; 13:14). So also, the apostle Paul reminded the Corinthians that they were his spiritual children and that he was their spiritual father (1 Cor. 4:14-15). In fact, Paul repeatedly calls both Timothy and Titus his sons in the faith, and both John and Peter refer to their audiences as their children. In every case the affection described by the Westminster Divines in today’s question is communicated or elicited by the inspired writers of Scripture to their audiences in a relationship of superior to inferiors and vice versa.
As Romans 13 reminds us, every human authority is ultimately from God and is raised up for the glory of God and the good of man. Therefore, whether we find ourselves in a superior position of authority, or in an inferior position of servant, let us remember two things: that how we use or respect authority is a reflection of who God is; and that the purpose of authority is to do good to others. May God grant that we would wield or submit to authority in a way that is loving to Him and loving to our fellow man!