It’s not unusual to hear that “respect is something that’s earned.” The idea is that respect is not automatically afforded to anyone. A person must live in a respectable manner before they deserve to be treated with respect and highly regarded.
I’ve often heard this from people about authority figures that they don’t respect. This is a pertinent topic given the content of the message on Sunday. We’re commanded to submit to authority in the Scriptures. As we saw in both Paul and Peter, we’re taught to obey authority in any context in our lives – in the community, the home, and the church. But does that entail respect? Is it appropriate for Christians to adopt the common notion that “respect must be earned” – especially as it pertains to authority figures?
The short answer is that according to the Bible, when it comes to authority figures, respect is not something that is earned…it’s something that is commanded. In fact, in every New Testament text we referenced on Sunday regarding the command to submit to authority, there is an accompanying command to respect that authority.
In Rom 13, Paul calls believers to be subject to governmental authority. In v7, he concludes the teaching with, Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed. The previous verses indicate that taxes are owed by virtue of the fact that those authorities are in power. By extension, we should understand Paul to be saying the same thing about respect or honor.
But some might argue that what Paul really means is that we “owe” respect to those who have earned it. I think that requires us to read something into the text that isn’t there. However, a more significant rebuttal is the cross-reference in 1 Peter 2:17, where the apostle Peter calls us to honor governmental authorities without reference to their having earned it. It appears from both Paul and Peter’s writings that we are to respect all governmental authority. Remember that both Paul and Peter wrote these things under Nero, an evil tyrant. If they required believers to respect governmental leaders in that context, what excuse do we have to do otherwise?
What about authority in the workplace? Servants, be subject to your masters with all respect, not only to the good and gentle but also to the unjust (1Pet 2:18). Here we could say that Peter explicitly commands respect for those who have not “earned” it in that he includes the phrase “but also to the unjust.” Even the unjust, unreasonable boss or master should be obeyed, not just with a modicum of respect, but as Peter writes, “with all respect.”
And in the home? Let the wife see that she respects her husband (Eph 5:33). That’s Paul’s command, but Peter agrees and adds specifically that it should be done in the case of an ungodly husband, that is, one who has not “earned” respect: Likewise, wives, be subject to your own husbands, so that even if some do not obey the word, they may be won without a word by the conduct of their wives, when they see your respectful and pure conduct (1Pet 3:1-2). As you know, Paul tells children to honor their mother and father in Ephesians 6:1-3.
That would seem to cover every kind of authority. If we could think of another kind of authority not explicitly mentioned in such passages – perhaps the leadership of a homeschool co-op or the leadership of a homeowners association, some authority that we might not be able to easily fit into governmental, workplace, church, or home authority – is it likely that the character of God would be different in those situations? Remember why God holds earthly authorities to be so important – they are extensions of His authority. All authority is from Him (Rom 13:1-4). So His desire that we respect any authority should apply to all authority.
We are required not only to obey, but to treat authority figures with respect. Rightly understood, submission assumes a respectful attitude toward authority. If we understand that submission is a matter of the heart and our hearts are on board with that, treating an authority with respect will be a relatively easy task. It’s only those who hold to a merely outward submission – with hearts inwardly twisting against that authority – who would find it difficult to be respectful in obedience. True submission will be respectful submission.
Perhaps, admiration is earned. But respect is not. It’s commanded.