Thou Shalt Have No Other Gods

Kevin A. Thompson July/August 2023

Illustration by Michael Glenwood

The battle to defend the Ten Commandments in America is real. We may be on the wrong battlefield.

Some years ago I took a survey of my congregation. By a response of applause, I asked how much they agreed with the following statements:

Our children should learn and live by the Ten Commandments (loud applause).

The Ten Commandments should be taught by churches (loud applause).

The Ten Commandments should be hung on the walls of public places including public schools (applause by everyone in the room but me).

I can personally name the Ten Command­ments in order (I was the only one applauding).

The contrast was stunning. The point was clear.

It’s hypocritical to say the Ten Command­ments are so vitally important that they should hang on the wall of every public building when they aren’t important enough for us to memorize them.

For several decades, there has been an on­going public battle regarding the placement of a Ten Commandments plaque in courtrooms, public buildings, and schools. A decade ago this battle was taking place in what was then my own backyard. Students at an Arkansas high school were protesting the removal of a Ten Commandments plaque at their school. While the students were well intended, I did not believe that defending a plaque on a wall was truly a “fight for faith.” The sign of a Christian is not what hangs on a wall but what is placed in our heart.

The irony of the Ten Commandments fight is that if we aren’t careful, we can turn the plaque of the Commandments into a graven image which is worshiped over the one true God. We can ignore life-transforming faith for the sake of an outward hypocrisy. We can exchange the gospel that says we can’t save ourselves for a religion which seeks salvation in outward appearances.

None of these are biblical Christianity.

While I have a deep affection for how the Ten Command­ments have influenced our country, I get nervous when the focus of our faith is about outward gestures and the placement of icons in prominent places.

If the Commandments are removed, has anything been lost? Will their removal strip them from the memory of Christians? Will it prevent Christians from being a living example of the Ten Commandments? Will it prevent conversation and discussion about them?

If the Commandments remain, has anything been gained? Do words on a wall transform a heart? Apart from God’s grace, can the Com­mand­ments give life?

Biblical Christianity is not about an outward sign but an inward transformation. Whether the Commandments hang on the wall or not doesn’t matter, since they have been written on our hearts.

I appreciated the desire of the local students to defend their faith, which they felt was under attack. We live in a country where the freedom to exercise religion is in real danger. I don’t blame them for this fight. I just wish they would pick a different battle.

If these students had belonged to the church where I pastored, my encouragement to them would have been:

Memorize the Ten Commandments and find ways to live by them every day in school.

  • Love, in word and deed, those with whom you disagree.
  • Use the conversation to share the gospel with friends and relatives.
  • Pray for your nation, community, and neighbors.
  • Study with all diligence so you can love God with your whole mind.
  • Seek ways to express grace to every person in your community.
  • Allow the inward to transform the outward.
  • Try to help the powerless more than trying to change the powerful.
  • Be more concerned with people’s hearts than what is written on walls.

Christianity is not an “outward first” religion. Signs and icons are not central to our faith. The Ten Commandments written on a wall serve little purpose compared to the Commandments being lived through people whose hearts have been changed by God’s grace.

I appreciate the history of our country and the prominent placement the Commandments have received in many public buildings in the past. While I wish they weren’t being removed, it doesn’t greatly worry me about the direction of our country.

Our lives are not determined by what is written on our walls. It is determined by what is written on our hearts.

If we are worried about our children or the next generation, our challenge is not to get the Commandments displayed in prominent places. Our challenge is to learn them, live by them, and teach them to every person we know.

Article Author: Kevin A. Thompson

Kevin A. Thompson is Married Life Pastor at Bayside Church in the Greater Sacramento region of California. He is the author of numerous books, including Friends, Partners & Lovers (Grand Rapids, MI: Revell, 2017) and Fearless Families (Colorado Springs, CO: David C. Cook, 2021). His most recent book, released April 2023, is Stay in Your Lane: Worry Less, Love More, and Get Things Done (Allentown, PA: Thrive Media, 2023). Follow him on Twitter: @kevinathompson.