Many of the scriptures of the Bible that are viewed most harshly in the present day relate to the thorny subject of authority. Honoring imperfect fathers and mothers, refraining from viewing authorities with contempt, and giving honor to leaders whom we do not like, agree with, nor respect does not come easily to us. It is little surprise that authority should be an issue that so exercises our age, and a great many people cannot figure out why they should be commanded to respect authorities whom they have little or no regard for whatsoever. In an age where duty has few claims on our behavior and where our behavior is viewed as being justifiable not from a moral but rather from an emotional point of view, it can be very difficult for people to justify to themselves, to say nothing of others, the need to honor and respect authorities.
It is fortunate that the commandments of God do not depend on our morality to be worth defending. Regardless of our motives, there are motives that can be found for respecting even those authorities we have little regard for. The most obvious motive for respecting and regarding authority is that it is in our own best interests to do so. And this is true, as might be expected, for several reasons. One of the more unfortunate realizations one comes to in life, hopefully when one is still somewhat young, is that one’s hostility to authority does not come from a principled place but instead tends to come from a please of envy and jealousy. We fancy ourselves to be authorities and tend to resent others being in authority over us, not recognizing that seeking to justify and defend our own authority is easiest when we are able to get along with authorities in general. It is easy for one’s authority to be granted legitimacy when it is no longer threatening and hostile to other authorities. That this does not come easily, because we are proud and hypocritical beings who seldom know and act in our best interests, is lamentable but no less profitable for those who are able to act counter to the general trend of human beings.
A couple of days ago as I write this, our local pastor gave a discussion about some of the kings of Judah, and one of those rulers ended up being the relatively obscure Uzziah, who is perhaps best known for his leprosy in seeking to usurp the power and prerogative of the priests in offering up incense before God. Civil authorities, in history and today, are rather prone to exceed their proper bounds of authorities, whether they seek to usurp authorities with regards to moral and religious matters, or seek to reduce the span for subordinate authorities to operate freely. We live in a day and age where the proper separation of authorities in all kinds of ways has fallen into disrepair and, worse, into disrepute, so that people do not often even long for a return to days of restraint by those who hold various offices, to celebrate the ways that division and separation of powers forces people to seek to build a larger consensus than those who automatically agree with everything they suggest. Even rubber stamp legislatures are too much restraint upon the authorities of our age, and in such an atmosphere as this it can be hard to respect authorities because we so dearly hate and resent how that authority is used and abused by those who hold it, even if we could hardly do a better job ourselves.
When authority is properly defined and, more importantly, limited, it is easy for people to feel secure in authority because there is a widespread recognition of the authority that is enjoyed by people. To the extent that fathers and mothers are respected as authorities within the home, it is easy for them to cheer on and support authorities in other spheres. It is indeed within the interests of everyone that this should be so. Most of us aspire to authority in some aspect of our lives, at the very least with regards to our own live sand our own behavior, and in so doing, it is puzzling that we often conspire to hide this fact from ourselves. After all, if we recognized our desires for autonomy, it would make us feel some sense of obligation for respecting others, and this we are often unwilling to do. It is for this reason that most of the worst means of ruling over others seek to hide from adherents the fact that authority is both necessary and inevitable, so it is that people speak of the eventual withering away of the state and find themselves surprised to be under the rule of dictators and corrupt elites. It is a shame that we do not often recognize that it is envy and not insight that lies behind so much of our criticism of authorities, and that we undercut our own desires to be respected and legitimate authorities when we hack at the foundation of respect and regard for other authorities.
The core of the matter, which you illustrate so well, is that we view it in a subjective way. However, the inspired scriptures command Christians to “honor all people. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the king” (I Peter 2:17). The “king” that Peter was referring to was Nero, the one who hated them and was vigorously persecuting them to the point of death. Respecting all authority is not an option. God allows–and sometimes even places–every person in the position he or she holds, sometimes for the expressed purpose of teaching us humility and submission. God is our ultimate Authority figure and rendering respect for those over us in ALL areas, secular and spiritual, reflects our total submission to Him. We disqualify ourselves from rulership in His Kingdom by doing otherwise.
That is entirely true. It is distressing to see how the societal attitudes that are hostile to authority affect those of us who have every interest in encouraging authority and in practicing godly authority in our own lives.
Even when one takes it below the level and deals with people who have no interest at present in the Kingdom of God there are still reasons why it is foolish to undercut the basis of the respect that others would have for our claims of authority.