Obey! The very word makes us cringe. It represents the assertion of authority by one person over another. We object to it because it is a threat to our personal autonomy, a form of abject slavery.
We would like to think that we are free to do as we please and that we are accountable to no one for our actions. We live in a free country. It is even a part of our national creed to believe that "governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed." Presumably we obey the government only because we created it and elected its officials. They are no so much our masters as our servants.
The statement in the Declaration of Independence, however, is patently false. Governments do not derive their just powers from the consent of the governed; they derive them from God.
The sanctity of all legitimate human authority rests on the Fifth Commandment: "Honor your father and your mother." So serious was this social obligation that the death penalty was prescribed for those who broke it. The parents of an incorrigible son were to bring him before the elders of the city and denounce him in open court. The juvenile delinquent was then to be stoned to death. ". . . so will you put away the evil from among you, and all Israel shall hear and fear" (Dt. 21:18-21; NKJV).
It is clear from the teachings of Scripture elsewhere that this principle of respect for one's parents extends to human authority in general, in particular to the civil magistrates. In Romans chapter 13 the apostle Paul enjoins Christians to "be subject to the governing authorities." In particular we are to obey the law, pay our taxes and give those in authority our personal respect. "Render therefore to all their due: taxes to whom taxes are due, customs to whom customs, fear to whom fear, honor to whom honor" (v. 7).
What is remarkable about this passage is that it was written when the Roman Empire controlled the Mediterranean world, and most of its subject peoples were not Romans. The Jews in particular chafed under Roman rule. The Roman Empire was not a democracy and most of its officials could hardly be called "Christian." Yet Paul could say that the civil magistrate "is God's minister to you for good"(v.4).
How could he say such a thing? The reason is given in verse 1: "For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God." In other words, civil government per se has been ordained by God in order to maintain order in society, and God rules over political developments through His providence. Therefore we are to obey the government, not just from a fear of punishment, "but also for conscience' sake" (v. 5). Submission to the government is our moral duty, and it should be discharged conscientiously.
If we are always looking for ways to skirt the law, to cheat when we think no one is looking, then we make the government official's job that much more difficult. Moreover, this is not a duty we owe just to individual officials; we owe it to society as a whole. Anarchy adversely affects everyone, and it is in the interest of us all to maintain the rule of law. General lawlessness in society eventually leads to increasingly harsh and repressive measures by the government. Civil liberty cannot exist in the midst of a depraved population.
This does not mean, however, that the power of the government is unlimited. If human authority is established by God it is also limited by God. Rulers are expected to rule justly. The government cannot usurp the place of God Himself – that is tantamount to idolatry. When the apostles were ordered to stop preaching, their answer was "We ought to obey God rather than men" (Acts 5:29; cf. 4:19,20). The will of God is always supreme; human government is always a subordinate authority.
Regrettably those of us who grew up in the '60's scarcely have any concept of authority at all. We have sown the wind and reaped the whirlwind. First the children rebelled against their parents, and then the wives rebelled against their husbands. The divorce rate soared, the family structure collapsed, and now the specter of social chaos is staring us in the face. Even common courtesy and respect have largely gone by the wayside.
"But know this, that in the last days perilous times will come; For men will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boasters, proud, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, unholy, unloving, unforgiving, slanderers, without self-control, brutal, despisers of good, traitors, headstrong, haughty, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God" (II Tim. 3:1-4)