Dr. Ray E. Heiple, Jr.
Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God.
Question 127 of the Larger Catechism asks, “What is the honour that inferiors owe to their superiors? It gives the answer, “The honour which inferiors owe to their superiors is, all due reverence in heart, word, and behaviour; prayer and thanksgiving for them; imitation of their virtues and graces; willing obedience to their lawful commands and counsels, due submission to their corrections; fidelity to, defence, and maintenance of their persons and authority according to their several ranks, and the nature of their places; bearing with their infirmities, and covering them in love, that so they may be an honour to them and to their government.” Last time we saw how all people are obligated to show love to one another according to the nature of their relationship. Today we consider that particular obligation owed by subjects to those in authority over them.
“Government even in its best state is but a necessary evil.” So wrote Thomas Paine in Common Sense, 1776. Thomas Paine may have been an important American patriot, but his view of human government is unbiblical, and therefore, wrong. Government is not the invention of man but it is the ordinance of God. As such, government is not evil but good. Where governments have become evil is due to the sin of man against the ordinance of God. As the Scripture at the head of this article states, God is the ultimate governor over mankind. In His governing of the human race, God has appointed lesser human rulers to carry out His will. He does so for the purpose of punishing evil and praising good (Rom. 13:3-4). Therefore, we must honor those whom God, in His goodness, has placed over us to do us good. Since they are God’s appointees, to honor them is to honor God, and to dishonor them is to dishonor God.
Accordingly, the honor we render to authorities must be sincere. It must be from the heart. Thus, the Catechism begins to delineate our duty by enjoining an inner attitude of reverence, which is then to be displayed in our outward words and actions. Since the authority figure is from God, for our good, we must give thanks to the Lord for him and pray for him. Moreover, by definition the authority figure is in a position of being a role model. Thus, where his or her behavior is in accord with the Word of God, we should imitate it, and when it is not we should bear with it and cover it. Our rulers are sinners and at times we will see their sins. When we do, we should treat them as we would if they were someone in our own family: bearing with them and covering them in love. If they break the law they must be held accountable and brought to justice. But when they show themselves to be weak sinners they must be given the same love and compassion we owe to all mankind. When we cover the infirmities of rulers, we minimize sin’s detrimental effect of undermining their good, God-given authority.
Here it is important to understand that the Catechism is not allowing for above-the-law totalitarianism, but it is addressing “infirmities.” Human rulers have all of their authority from God. Accordingly, they have no authority to do evil, and thus they cannot be a law unto themselves. Consequently, the Catechism mandates our obedience to their “lawful” commands. That is, we owe obedience to their authority; not merely outward conformity but willing from-the-heart obedience; just so long as their laws are “lawful.” This lawfulness is determined by the Law of God. Authorities are from God. They exist and are appointed to carry out His authority. Therefore, they are to be given all our support and help in so doing, and great deference in how they choose to do it. But human rulers have no authority to do evil or to violate God’s commands. And if and when they do, we must be like the midwives who “feared God and did not do as the King of Egypt commanded them” (Exo. 1:17). May God grant that we sincerely honor every legitimate authority that He has placed over us, and may He mercifully give us authorities who seek to honor Him.