There’s an important distinction to be made in life between power and authority. Power is the ability to act; authority is the right to act. There are literally billions of people in the world who have the power to use a knife to cut open another human being, but that doesn’t mean they have the authority. Rather, licensed surgeons have the authority to cut open another human being while performing surgery. The difference between surgery and assault is one of authority. The same could be said of police officers or soldiers and their weapons. The power or ability to do something is not the same thing as the authority or right to do something.
The fourth commandment deals with authority. It addresses how God’s children are to treat those in authority over us in this life and how God’s children are to treat others over whom they have authority. There is a popular tendency to distrust authority, reject authority, or act as if I am the only authority in my own life. While such attitudes are the understandable result of the many ways that sinful people have abused authority over time, they display a lack of appreciation for godly authority. The Law of God shows us how we work best, how humanity works best, and how families and relationships work best. Therefore, the baptized children of God rejoice in the gift of authority, recognizing that God himself is the one who put authority into this creation for our good.
The most basic authority God has established in creation is that of the family. The authority of governments, teachers, doctors, etc. is derived from the authority of the family. When God first created people he put them in families. Every person is born into a family. When families live in communities they organize themselves into governments, appoint educators to share the parents’ teaching responsibility, raise up doctors to share the parents’ responsibility to keep their children healthy, etc. But we should not forget that when God places a new life into this creation, he gives the care of that life first into the hands of the child’s mother and father. Those individuals whom parents enlist to help care for their child ultimately draw their authority from the home.
The fourth commandment teaches God’s children to receive this authority as a gift. We do this first by honoring the authority that the father and mother have over their children. Children honor their parents and obey them, for God has placed the wellbeing of that child into their hands. Likewise, even as adults the baptized children of God obey the authorities in our lives: the government with its tax laws and traffic laws, bosses and managers who require that a coversheet be placed on all TPS Reports, or whatever other authority we find over ourselves. This authority is a necessary part of people living together in community.
The baptized children of God also honor the gift of authority by not abusing it when we find ourselves in a position of authority over someone else. Parents use their God-given authority to care for the physical needs of their children by providing food, clothing, shelter, medicine, and the like. Parents also have authority to care for the spiritual needs of their children by remembering them in their prayers, bringing them to the services of God’s house, teaching them God’s Word, and the like. Rather than lazily allowing someone else to care for their children or selfishly giving in to the desire to have their children “like” them or consider them “cool” parents, God’s people are called to honor their authority and take their responsibility for the wellbeing of their children seriously.
Likewise, bosses or managers or police officers or politicians are not to use their authority as a means to abuse those in their care. Instead, the authority is used for the protection and wellbeing of those entrusted to them. Authority is never given for the sake of the ones with authority, but always for the best interests of the one who has been entrusted to their care. God has established a hierarchy in his creation: some govern, some are governed; some lead, some are led. This hierarchy and the authority entrusted to certain people in it are intended to ensure that all people can live in peace and without fear of having their property or their person harmed. The baptized children of God honor his gift of authority when they take seriously any authority that has been given to them, using it as it was designed and for the betterment of the people under them.