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May/June 2005

Discover more articles from this issue.

The Ten Commandments

Download the High Resolution Graphic of the Ten Comandments

Thou Shalt Not Be A Hypocrite

One of the most famous scenes in American cinematic history unfurls near the end of Casablanca, when the police inspector declares to Rick Blaine...

Finding Sinai

According to the narrative in Exodus, Moses came down from Mount Sinai with two tablets of stone engraved by the finger of God Himself. The words on the stone were a visualization of the words that God had previously thundered out to the multitude gathere

The Two Tables of the Law

For centuries Protestants have found a convenient division between the first and second tables of the ten-commandment law. Roger Williams, the founder of Rhode Island, was the first American to associate two concepts: the separation of church and state an

The Bill of Freedoms A Christian looks at the meaning of God’s ten rules. . .

The legal conflict over the public display of the Ten Commandments provides a wonderful opportunity to examine the content of the commandments. Although...

The Ten Commandments in the Courts

Twenty-five years ago the Supreme Court held that public schools could not post the Ten Commandments in classrooms for the asserted purpose of demonstrating the origins of American law.

Government Displays Problematic

Whenever the government becomes involved in religion, it is problematic, and the posting of the Ten Commandments is no exception.

Showing Proper Respect

Efforts by government officials to display the Ten Commandments on public property is one of the most divisive church-state issues experienced in the United States for the past 25 years. Perhaps second only to state-sponsored prayer in the public schools,

Church-State Relations in America What’s at Stake and What’s Not

It seems religious freedom has become an object of perpetual litigation. As a consequence, the struggle over church-state relations is vulnerable to a high level of crisis-mongering-especially in those ubiquitous fund-raising appeals. It is difficult to s

Magazine Archive »

Published in the May/June 2005 Magazine
by James D. Standish

Whenever the government becomes involved in religion, it is problematic, and the posting of the Ten Commandments is no exception.

Which version? There are three widely recognized versions of the Ten Commandments: the Protestant, the Catholic, and the Jewish. If the government decides to display the commandments written out, it must choose whose version to endorse. In recent years edited versions of the Ten Commandments have been displayed. These edits exclude, for example, any reference to the Sabbath being the seventh day. This exclusion has profound theological ramifications.

What does the setting communicate? God directed that the tables of stone on which He wrote the Ten Commandments be placed in the ark of the covenant under the mercy seat, on which blood representing the atoning sacrifice of Christ was sprinkled. This setting communicated the grace of God, in providing mercy and forgiveness with judgment. The secular courthouse is a completely different context. Here, if a person is guilty, he or she must pay the price. There is no blood of Christ, sprinkled as an atonement for the wrongdoing, that sets him or her free. Placing the Ten Commandments in the courthouse setting takes the heart out of the gospel message.

Are the arguments accurate? At the heart of the arguments in favor of government Ten Commandments monuments is the claim that America's laws are based on the Ten Commandments. But is this true? If we look at the Ten Commandments, only four are commonly found in the legal code, and three of those are found in virtually all legal codes throughout history. These three are: prohibition on killing, prohibition on stealing, and prohibition on lying (American law forbids this last one in very specific circumstances). The only laws that are specifically referenced to the Ten Commandments are prohibitions on engaging in certain kinds of work on Sunday-but these are mistaken attempts to enforce the fourth commandment, which actually proscribes working on the seventh day of the week. There is nothing in our laws about coveting, making graven images, having other gods before God, forcing children to honor their parents, and blaspheming (Western nations used to enforce blasphemy laws), and little if anything left regarding adultery.

In truth, the laws of the United States developed out of a long, complex legal tradition that reaches back to the dawn of history, and includes a broad array of influences, and covers a broad range of issues not even hinted at in the Ten Commandments (e.g., everything from parking regulations to federal communications law).

*Is this the right emphasis? There can be no doubt that society has drifted away from God's law. Ironically, much of this drift has been encouraged by churches who have taught that the Ten Commandments were "nailed to the cross" and therefore are not binding on Christians today, and further, have actually taught that it is impossible for those living under God's grace to keep them. Before soliciting the state to erect monuments of the Ten Commandments, churches need to begin lifting up the law of God as fulfilled in the life of Christ and imparted to His followers by His grace.

James Standish, an attorney, is executive director of the North American Religious Liberty Association. He writes from Washington, D.C.

Author: James D. Standish

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