The way we Lutherans number the Ten Commandments, the Fourth is the beginning of the Second Table of the Law. God’s Law is conceptually divided into two tables, the first requiring love and reverence toward our Creator, and the second, love toward our fellow human beings. The Fourth Commandment is often summarized, “Honor your father and your mother.”
Dr. Martin Luther included in the Small Catechism the insight that this commandment requires honor not only toward parents, but toward all God-given authority. In fact, all authority derives from that of parents, which is evident in the biblical account of mankind’s creation, in Genesis chapter 2, as well as the subsequent generations described in chapters 4 and 5.
Since the Ten Commandments provide us a concise summary of morality, and since morality is generally under attack in Western society, it’s reasonable to consider the war against morality as a war against God’s commandments. After all, morality has scant foundation in atheism, which ends up following the dictum, “might makes right,” another iteration of Darwin’s “survival of the fittest.” That there are atheists who nevertheless affirm transcendent moral precepts does not mean that their morality is founded upon atheism. It may instead be strong evidence that their atheism runs against their own God-given intuition. Therefore, I think anyone can reasonably consider the degradation of social morality within the framework of a war upon the Ten Commandments.
It’s worth considering each commandment, and how the morality of our time works against it. I prefer to start with the Second Table of the Law, not because it’s more important, but because its transgressions are generally more concrete. However, any transgression against the Second Table may also be considered a transgression against the First.
So, consider the Fourth Commandment. This is the first moral commandment in which God orders human life on earth. Its basic form says, “Honor your father and your mother.” Let’s notice a few things about this. Feel free to add more.
Both father and mother are included. Hence, children are meant to have both a father and a mother. Do I need to point out that they are of opposite genders, the father being male and the mother female? Only for those who have abandoned sense, but there are more like that all the time. The titles “father” and “mother” denote particular roles in the childbearing and child-rearing process. They are distinct from one another, and therefore not interchangeable.
Though the mother is closer to her child at first, the father is mentioned before her. This does not subtract from the honor due to the mother, but recognizes that the father is also honored when the mother is honored. It also recognizes the chain of accountability before God for responsibilities due to the children.
The word “honor” includes many things, if the commandment is to be kept in thought, word, and deed. It includes obedience, service, love, and respect for the father’s or mother’s office (which is easy), and for the person, too (which is often hard).
This commandment is not conditioned upon the performance of fathers or mothers. It demands honor, regardless of whether or not fathers and mothers deserve it by keeping this or any other commandment, and regardless of what they believe.
The only commandments that can trump this one are the ones that come before it in the Ten Commandments: (1) having and worshipping only the true God, (2) using God’s name properly, but not in vain, and (3) keeping holy the day of rest (i.e., the ways that God provides us His spiritual blessings) in our lives. This means that we are bound before God to honor and obey our parents in every way, except where it would cause us to disobey God according to the first table of the Law. Yet recall that transgressions against the Second Table are not only against our fellow human beings, but also against God. Therefore, even commandments 5 through 10 are a higher authority than our parents. Only when obedience to father and mother would cause us to break one of God’s moral commandments may we disobey our parents. In that case, the Law says that we must disobey our parents.
Because this commandment is part of God’s will for us, we are required to obey God-given authority. There have been questions and discussions about who or what, exactly, is our authority. The reformers distinguished between three realms of authority: the home, the civil economy, and the church. God rules in each realm in certain ways, and we live in each realm under the authorities He has provided.
In the home, the authority is father and mother, as the commandment says. Where there is no father, the authority is the mother. Where there is no mother, it is the father. God’s design includes both, but the circumstances of our depravity and tragic consequences of sinfulness conspire to work against God’s design. It’s no wonder, then, that many households operate like a car with a flat tire. Cars are designed to drive with four fully-inflated tires, and though they can be driven with a flat, it’s neither efficient nor pleasant. To extend the analogy, driving with a flat in the front produces one kind of instability, while a flat in the back produced another kind. Families without fathers suffer one way, while families without mothers suffer another way. Both are part of God’s design, and He also designed males and females to perform the different roles He has given us in the home. When we work together as He intended, then the household will be more efficient, and more pleasant. It’s also noteworthy that parents (particularly fathers – Eph. 6:4) have been given the responsibility to teach their children both God’s law and gospel, in addition to anything else they need to learn for life on earth.
What I’m calling the civil economy includes government, employment, and our general neighborly relationships. There is a God-given governing authority, but there are also more limited authorities in the workplace. Though there are different arrangements of government or employment, we should regard the authorities themselves to be established over us by God. Yet like parents, they might also require something that would transgress God’s own commandments. In that case, “We must obey God rather than men.” Government is a special kind of authority, because it is responsible for defending its citizens, while maintaining peace against criminals and the freedom we need to make a living according to God’s will. Because of these God-given responsibilities, the representatives of government have the authority to impose taxes (which would otherwise violate the commandment prohibiting stealing) and to harm certain individuals (which would otherwise violate the commandment against murder). When government does these things within the limits of its responsibility, it does so with the authority and blessing of God.
Some arrangements of government fit better with God’s commandments than others. For many years now, the most successful governments have been constitutional in nature, where the rulers are themselves governed by higher laws within the nation. It was on that basis that the United States was founded in the 1770’s, because the ruler of England, together with its parliament, not only broke those higher laws, but also made it impossible for American grievances to be settled. It’s likely that some of the American revolutionaries participated in transgression of the 4th commandment, but it’s also possible that some of them undertook the separation from England as a necessary step, in obedience to an authority greater than the King.
In the church, the ruling authority is Jesus Christ. He exercises His authority through the preaching and teaching of the gospel, and the administration of the sacraments. For that reason, He sends men to do these things according to His will. Though they are placed in office through the calling of congregations of believers, these ministers are in fact called by Jesus to perform His ministry on His behalf. Christians may conceive of ministerial responsibilities separately from the ministers who perform them, recognizing that Jesus wants those responsibilities to be fulfilled when the church calls men to do so. However, the activities by themselves are an abstraction. Jesus governs His Church through the actual service of individuals He calls to perform the responsibilities of their office: preaching and teaching the gospel, and administering the sacraments. The church of Christ has no other authority than this.