Heidelberg Catechism Lesson 39

Q. 104. What doth God require in the fifth commandment?
That I show all honour, 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;[1] and also patiently bear with their weaknesses and infirmities,[2] since it pleases God to govern us by their hand.[3]
[1] Ephesians 6:1–2, &c., Colossians 3:18, 20; Ephesians 5:22; Romans 1:31;  [2] Proverbs 23:22;   [3] Ephesians 6:5–6; Colossians 3:19, 21; Romans 13:1–8; Matthew 22:21.


The Fifth Commandment is really a bridge between the first table and the second table of the Ten Commandments. Most of us understand the Fifth Commandment to belong to the second table, but when we look at the commands in the second table, we realise that there is an immediately apparent order of weightiness to the commandments. It is more severe to break the Sixth Commandment, “Thou shalt not kill,” than to break the Seventh Commandment, “Thou shalt not commit adultery”; and it is more severe to break the Seventh Commandment than the Eighth, “Thou shalt not steal”; etc.
Why then is the Fifth Commandment placed where it is placed? I would suggest that, firstly, it is because the Fifth Commandment is the first commandment pertaining to man’s relationship with fellow men, that every child must learn. If a child fails to submit to his parents, he will not learn the meaning of law and authority; and all other laws would consequently have little weight for him. But secondly and more importantly, I believe the Fifth Commandment is where it is because parents and all other persons who have ruling power over us are placed in positions of authority by God Himself (Rom 13:1). Yes, parental authority must be understood as being God-given rather than being natural and circumstantial. In the animal kingdom, parental authority in the case of social animals is natural and circumstantial, but that also means that once a male animal grows stronger than its parents, it would normally assume authority and may even kill or expel its father. It is sad that in the modern humanistic and evolutionistic (or, should we say, animalistic) society, there are many children with no moral regards to parental authority, and would submit to their parents only as long as their parents are stronger or richer than them. This is both unnatural (for we are men created in the image of God, rather than mere animals, as some reckon), and sinful because it is contrary to God’s Law.
Because our parents and all in authority over us are set in their place of authority by God, to rebel against them is to rebel against God unless what they require of us is rebellion against God in the first place (cf. Acts 4:19; 5:29). Therefore, children, as long as they remain unmarried, must submit themselves to the instruction and corrections of their parents even if they be harsh, unloving and inconsiderate. Therefore wives must submit to their husbands in the Lord. Therefore an employee must serve his employer faithfully as long as what he is tasked to do is not unlawful. Therefore students must be obedient to their teachers and so do all their assignments diligently. Therefore, citizens in a nation must obey their civil government as long as it is in power even if they think that it is not ruling justly and honestly. Therefore, members of a church must submit to such as have rule over them in the church (as long as they have not been lawfully deposed) even if they should discover that they do not after all bear the qualifications necessary to be officers in the church. Moreover, disobedience for the Lord’s sake on one matter, because an instruction or rule given is contrary to God’s Word, does not automatically invalidate the power of the authority. Conscientious disobedience must be on a case-by-case basis.
When we are under a tyrannical or unkind authority, there will always be a tendency to want to rebel or to shake off as it were the yoke of bondage unlawfully. However, in view of the fact that all authorities over us are set over us by God’s decree, we ought never to do so. We ought rather to pray for these authorities, and whenever possible to admonish them in the Lord. Similarly, we should attempt to help and strengthen, rather than discourage, those whom God has set over us but are fraught with shortfalls and weaknesses.