Dr. Ray E. Heiple, Jr.
The Sins of Children
And Joshua the son of Nun, the assistant of Moses from his youth, said,
“Moses, my lord, forbid them.” But Moses said to him, “Are you jealous for my sake?” Numbers 11:28-29a
Question 128 of the Larger Catechism asks, “What are the sins of inferiors against their superiors?” It gives the answer, “The sins of inferiors against their superiors are, all neglect of the duties required toward them; envying at, contempt of, and rebellion against, their persons and places, in their lawful counsels, commands, and corrections; cursing, mocking, and all such refractory and scandalous carriage, as proves a shame and dishonour to them and their government.” Last time we saw how with the right to vote comes the responsibility to exercise that small amount of ruling authority in the way that is most in accord with the revealed will of God. Today we consider the particular ways sinners’ rebel against God-given authorities.
Because God has ordained human society to be conducted through numerous relationships where one person or persons is in authority over another, to not properly submit to that authority is to sin against God. Accordingly, the Catechism notes the first sin of inferiors as neglecting their duties toward their superiors. Here we can include all examples of childish disobedience we typically think of when talking about the commandment to honor your father and your mother. When I don’t keep Mom and Dad’s rules to clean my room, do my homework, put away my dishes, go to bed on time, be nice to my siblings, help out with the dog, or neglect to do anything else I know to be my duty, I have sinned not merely against Mom and Dad, but against the God who has placed them over me for my good.
So also arguing with them, whispering after they leave the room in my funny “Mom” voice, sticking out my tongue, or even thinking disrespectful or angry thoughts about them is sinning against God’s good government in my life. Moreover, as we rightly extend the principle to other relationships, we easily recognize how many of the behaviors listed by the Catechism transgress the command of God to honor all in the place of legitimate authority over us; for I can hardly obey from the heart someone I hold in contempt or whom I mock, curse, or make fun of, disrespect, or disregard in my thoughts, attitudes, words, and actions. By definition such scandalous activity undermines the authority and dishonors the persons to whom it is directed, but ultimately it disregards the God who has established all legitimate authority.
Contrarily, when even legitimate authorities over us require us to sin or merely go beyond their authority to violate our rights, we can disobey them. Thus, the Catechism limits our duty to those “lawful” commands, counsels, and corrections. Here lawfulness refers to both the unchanging and perfect law of God—to which all creatures owe their unqualified, unceasing, and unfeigned obedience—and also with a view to the limited authority their position legitimately gives them. Regarding their sinful commands, I not only may rebel against them, I must! Where they go beyond their authority and violate my rights, I can comply with them, but I must not do so in a way that would affirm an authority to them that they do not legally have. In all cases I must be careful that I am not sinfully distorting things in order to find an excuse to not obey a regulation that I simply do not like. And wherever God’s law would be transgressed, I must always obey God rather than men.
One final form of sinning against legitimate authorities is somewhat unusual, in that we typically do not think of it as a sin but even as a virtue! This sin is especially tempting to people who have great love to some person, country, group, or often their family. It is the sin of idolatry committed by “envying at” certain human authorities. The verse at the head of this article is cited by the Westminster divines as an example of this kind of sin. Joshua loved and respected Moses, but in this instance, he allowed his loyalty to Moses to cause him to want to stop God’s outpouring of His Spirit on other men. In other words, he wanted Moses to have more authority than God had given him. His honoring of Moses caused him to rebel against the supernaturally displayed will of God. This is a subtle sin we can embrace that can lead to party spirit and division: “I am of Paul,” “I am of Apollos;” or to blind prejudice and monstrous acts of injustice: “He teaches against the people, the law, and the temple… away with him, crucify him!” May it never be that in our zeal for men we resist the will of God! May He rather grant that we truly honor all authorities as they should be honored: under God.