The Ten Commandments Are Not The Standard of Christian Morality

by Rev. Kevin Daugherty

The Ten Commandments are in the news again. A monument of the Decalogue was destroyed at the Arkansas State Capitol, less than 24 hours after it was erected. Considering this news, I figured it would be a wonderful time to write a bit about the Ten Commandments.

Now, when politicians insist upon erecting monuments to the Ten Commandments in public spaces, they are wrong on two accounts. First, they are clearly violating the first amendment to the Constitution, which states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”. Our government is not able to endorse any one religion, and holding up the Ten Commandments in a public space is clearly endorsing Judaism and/or Christianity. Second, the Ten Commandments are not the standard of Christian morality. That may surprise many who read this, but let me explain. 

For much of Christian history, the Ten Commandments have been the standard of Christian morality. I remember being taught these commandments by teachers at Vacation Bible School as a small child in the Presbyterian church. The Book of Common Prayer says the Ten Commandments teach us “our duty to God, and our duty to our neighbors”. Martin Luther devoted much of his Small Catechism to the Ten Commandments as the basic moral instruction fathers and husbands should teach their households. Luther says that Christians should “pray the commandments” and “God threatens to punish all that transgress these [ten] commandments”.

The Lutheran Book of Worship (which is based upon the Book of Common Prayer) asks those who are presenting an infant for baptism to teach the child “the Lord’s Prayer, the [Apostles’] Creed, and the Ten Commandments” (just as we see in Luther’s Small Catechism). In addition, the Westminster Larger Catechism states:

Q. 98. Where is the moral law summarily comprehended?
A. The moral law is summarily comprehended in the Ten Commandments, which were delivered by the voice of God upon mount Sinai, and written by him in two tables of stone; and are recorded in the twentieth chapter of Exodus; the four first commandments containing our duty to God, and the other six our duty to man.

What if I told you all these towering examples of Christianity were wrong in their use of the Ten Commandments? Now, I am not suggesting that the Ten Commandments are completely irrelevant or that they are of no use to the Christian Church. After all, Paul states:

Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet”; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law. (Romans 13:8-10 NRSV)

Obviously, we cannot just completely discard the Decalogue. Paul clearly quoted it as a guide for Christian morality. However, there are a number of problems when we set up these commandments the standard.

First, there are actually several interpretations of the commandments. Jews, Catholics, and various Protestant groups each have different ways of specifying which commandments actually make up the Ten Commandments. This chart illustrates that:

Source: hebrew4christians.com

You could make the case that these differences are not so much in content but in organization, but I simply share this to make the point that we don’t exactly have an exact the Ten Commandments. Rather, we have several related lists. Even in the Bible, there are two lists — one in Exodus 20:1–17 and one in Deuteronomy 5:4–21 — and they are not exactly the same.

There are other interpretative issues too when it comes to following the Ten Commandments. If you look at that chart, there is an issue when it comes to the commandment, “You shall not murder”. In the Catholic list, it reads “kill” instead of “murder”. This drastically changes what this commandment is actually saying. If you look at the relevant Biblical texts, the scholarship is largely in agreement that the Hebrew and Greek terms being used mean “murder”. So, why is there a difference? It comes from the church fathers and later tradition. Even though the Biblical text seems pretty clear in the original languages, the early church interpreted “you shall not murder” to mean “you shall not kill”. They came to this interpretation based upon the teachings of nonviolent love found in the New Testament. When explaining why Christians do not serve in the military, Tertullian states:

God puts his prohibition on every sort of man-killing by that one inclusive commandment: “You shall not kill”.

Church tradition (through the teachings of Jesus) interpreted the commandment as condemning all killing. As a result, traditional Bible translations such as the King James Version say “thou shalt not kill” rather than the more accurate “thou shalt not murder”.

Another commandment where we Christians don’t really follow what the text teaches is commandment number four — honor the Sabbath day and keep it holy. Jews worship on the Sabbath, which roughly corresponds to Saturday (really, Friday evening to Saturday evening). In the early church, Christians would often worship with Jews on the Sabbath, and then also celebrate the Lord’s Day (i.e. Sunday). As the Christian Church became almost entirely Gentile, the Jewish half of Christian worship fell away, and now we are only left with Sunday worship. Even though I have heard many Sunday school teachers and pastors say that Sunday is the “Christian Sabbath”, this is simply not true. For Christians, the Sabbath has always corresponded roughly with Saturday.

You can still see this in our liturgical calendar. Take a look at the Book of Common Prayer’s liturgy for Holy Saturday (the day before Easter Sunday). The BCP says:

O God, Creator of heaven and earth: Grant that, as the crucified body of your dear Son was laid in the tomb and rested on this holy Sabbath, so we may await with him the coming of the third day, and rise with him to newness of life; who now lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen. (Emphasis mine)

We also see this in the Latin name for the holy day, Sabbatum Sanctum. For Christians, the Sabbath is technically still on Saturday. It always has been. We just moved our focus away from the Sabbath towards the Lord’s Day (Sunday). The only Christians today that honor the Sabbath are Sabbatarians (e.g. Seventh-Day Adventists, Seventh-Day Baptists).

We saw in the commandment on murder that the Church has often reinterpreted them. In addition to that, we also have an instance of the Church expanding upon them, making the original commandment obsolete. The original Ten Commandments state, “Honor your father and your mother.” There are issues with following this commandment when we come to the New Testament. Jesus says:

For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household. Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. (Matthew 10:35-38 NRSV)

As we can see, this commandment is not necessarily universal. If it comes between honoring God and honoring your parents, you should chose God.

In addition, Paul expands upon the commandment:

Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. “Honor your father and mother”—this is the first commandment with a promise: “so that it may be well with you and you may live long on the earth.” And, fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord. (Ephesians 6:1-4 NRSV)

Notice how it is no longer simply “honor your father and mother”. Now, fathers (and by extension all parents) have a responsibility to respect their children and lovingly raise then.

In conclusion, I think the Ten Commandments are an okay example to look to for moral instruction, but they cannot be the standard. There are too many interpretations and versions of the commandments, and the Christian Church has never truly followed them. They sound right to us, but we never take the time to actually think about the commandments. We never take the time to think if we are actually following them or not, and what that even means.

In addition, the Ten Commandments don’t even begin to teach us about the morals Jesus preached for us to follow. As an alternative to the Decalogue, I suggest the Church revisit other passages of Scripture:

  1. The Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7). This is a summary of Jesus’ teachings. It was seen as a new Torah by the the author of Matthew. Notice how Jesus teaches on a mount just as Moses received the Torah on Mt. Sinai. We can also see the importance of such teachings in ancient church documents such as the Didache, which appears to be the earliest catechism.
  2. Romans 12-13. In those chapters, Paul gives a summary of Christian morality that is very similar to the Sermon on the Mount. It is an excellent source for Christians to turn to rather than the Ten Commandments.
  3. The Book of Sirach (Ecclesiasticus). For the vast majority of Christians, this book is part of the Bible, but Protestants exclude it. In the early church, it was used as a catechism to teach Christian morality. Athanasius of Alexandria states about this book as “having been appointed by our fathers to be read to those just approaching and wishing to be instructed in the word of godliness”. The Latin name, Ecclesiasticus, means “the church book”.

This article reflects the opinions of the author, and not an official opinion of Unfailing Love or the United Christian Church in America.