Some Thoughts on the Fifth Commandment

Sarah Vowell’s affection for the Puritans (see previous essay) is no love fest. They exasperate her every bit as much as they inspire her. But she reminds her readers that from history’s perspective, even though they’re in the “New World,” the Puritans have far more in common with the Middle Ages than Modern Era. It is therefore unfair to merely judge them by modern standards, because our modern sensibilities would be far more foreign to them than the medieval sensibilities they were in the process of casting aside.

On the positive side, John Winthrop (governor of the colony) was a remarkably charitable man. He was willing to go hungry (which in the New World of that period could easily have been fatal) in order to help someone else in need. He quietly broke many of the laws he was supposed to enforce because a strict reading of the law would have been inhumane. (The leadership of Massachusetts Bay Colony, for instance, banished Roger Williams in the middle of a severe winter. His banishment would almost certainly led to his death. But don’t feel too sorry for Williams, he was given many warnings but was unable to keep his subversive mouth shut. He sort of had it coming. But in spite of all that, Governor Winthrop gave Williams a heads-up about the fact that in a few days time he was going to banish him from Massachusetts, allowing him to make a more sensible and well-planned escape.)

But Winthrop and the Massachusetts Bay Colony were also very authoritarian. They considered democracy the absolute worst form of government. They believed in the divine right of kings. And they ruled their own colony with a ruthless and heavy-handed extremism that we would associate with various religious and political radicals of today.

So, how did the Puritans fit these two seemingly contradictory ideas together? Vowell figured out that if you understood the theology that drove these various sensibilities, they weren’t contradictory at all.

(Of course, this is no news to Evangelical scholars, but for a potty-mouthed, east coast, agnostic, feminist, liberal to figure this out is quite remarkable. Liberals have never been known for their open-mindedness, after all. But having lived in both worlds, Vowell is able to put her finger on the central issue and explain the seemingly contradictory behavior of the Puritans.)

Vowell explains this in her discussion of limiting dissent. Winthrop allowed no one to disagree with him. Public disagreement with the leadership of Massachusetts Bay Colony would lead inevitably to banishment or worse (as Roger Williams discovered to his dismay). Her question is, how can an otherwise fair minded guy like John Winthrop be so vehemently opposed to dissent? The short answer is that public dissent is an act of dishonoring public officials who make the policies. In her own words,

He does this acting as a patriarch … Winthrop is opposed to democracy and believes that a mixed aristocracy is what is warranted in scripture. Winthrop calls democracy “the meanest and worst of all forms of government; a breach of the fifth commandment.” (2:12:15) (ie “Honor your father and mother.”)

Okay, let’s take a break at this point. Just what does dissent and democracy have to do with the Fifth Commandment? It turns out that Sarah Vowell knows her Martin Luther, where this whole line of argument comes from. (In case you’re confused when a potty-mouthed, east coast, agnostic, feminist, liberal and Martin Luther are put in the same sentence, allow me to clarify: this is not Martin Luther King, the sixties Civil Rights leader; this is Martin Luther, of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, who nailed the 95 Theses on the Wittenberg Castle Door and began the Protestant Reformation.)

[Quoting Luther:] In this commandment belongs a further statement regarding all kinds of obedience to persons in authority who have to command and govern. For all authority flows and is propagated from the authority of parents. They are all called fathers in the scriptures as those who in their government perform a function of a father, and should have a paternal heart towards their subordinates.

Somehow I missed this bit of Luther in both Bible College and seminary, so I did a bit of research. It turns out that for the Reformers, Lutheran, Presbyterian, and Radical alike, this was the standard interpretation of the Fifth Commandment: “Honor your father and mother …” The Radical Reformation was quite a bit less willing to apply the commandment to kings than Luther himself, and the Scottish Presbyterians reframed the argument as well during the time they were living under a Roman Catholic monarch, but in spite of a bit of wiggling, the principle held firm: The early Protestants considered their leaders (parents, church, and civil) to be their fathers.

In short, the signers of the Declaration of Independence “our Founding Fathers” is not a lot different than calling one’s pastor “father.” It’s rooted in the same principle of reflecting the reality of God as Father, and as embodied primarily in the family unit, according to early Lutheran and Reformed interpretation.

It also needs to be said that Protestants steadfastly refused to use the title “father” with their pastor. That smacked of popery and a sixteenth or seventeenth century Protestant wouldn’t be caught dead smacking of popery. So the first wave of Protestants (Lutherans, Presbyterians, Methodists, etc.) tended to call their pastors “the Rev. Jones,” while the Protestants of the Radical Reformation (Mennonites, Baptists, Moravians, etc.) tended to call their pastors “Brother Jones.”

But in spite of the peccadillo against using the actual title “father” (Which Jesus seemed to specifically condemn – more about that in the next essay.), the idea of the fatherhood of leaders was deeply entrenched among all Christians, Protestant and Roman alike, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and even into the eighteenth century. It was simply how the created order and the Fifth Commandment were understood.

At this point I’m tempted to go off on a theological rabbit track about the Fifth Commandment, but I suspect this essay is long enough already. If you’re interested, you can read Martin Luther or John Calvin yourself. I’ll just stop and be satisfied with the humiliation that a potty-mouthed, east coast, agnostic, feminist, liberal who has never been to theological school taught me something I didn’t know about the Protestant Reformers’ interpretation of the Ten Commandments.


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  1. Pingback: Just Another Jim » Call No Man Father

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