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Wednesday, July 27

Do People Follow the Ten Commandments? Behavior and Beliefs Often Don't Match

Do People Follow the Ten Commandments?
Behavior and Beliefs Often Don't Match

By Austin Cline, Guide

There are lots of debates over the cultural and political status of the Ten Commandments, but in all of those debates there is a common assumption that devout religious people are already following them and everyone else should start. Is it true, however, that religious people currently follow the Ten Commandments with any degree of consistency?

Jews presumably do a fair job at trying to follow their Decalogue, but it’s Christians — and conservative evangelicals in particular — who do the most to promote these laws in civil society, so perhaps we should focus on them. When we do, we find something interesting: not only do they not consistently follow the commandments, but in fact a couple are broken so regularly and casually that it doesn’t even appear as though anyone really tries.

The second commandment, at least according to Protestants, is a prohibition against “any graven image, or any likeness of any thing.“ The more literally one reads this, the more that would have to be forbidden: crosses, crucifixes, statues of Jesus, status of saints, icons of any sort, even photographs and realistic paintings. Muslims adhere to such a rule strictly, and as a consequence, artistic decoration consists of abstract design rather than the human figures that one typically sees in many churches.

Most Christians today, if they accept this commandment at all (it’s not included on Catholic lists), don’t interpret it literally. At most they read it to mean that one shouldn’t make any idols designed to represent God (although statues of Jesus, who is also God, are somehow exempt from even this most mildest of readings). Once we allow this commandment to be interpreted mildly or metaphorically, however, what’s to stop us from doing the same with the others? Should the commands not to kill or steal be read metaphorically?

Even more significant is the breaking of the Sabbath. The Ten Commandments require that people work for six days and then rest on the seventh, which is Saturday. This is what Jews and some small Christian groups do. Almost all contemporary Christian denominations have placed their sabbath on a Sunday, however, which is the first day of the week.

This might not seem like such a huge issue — after all, Christians are still working six days and resting one, which is one of the points of this commandment. Another point of the commandment, however, is to commemorate God who worked six days and rested on the seventh; Christians who don’t rest on the final day of the week are quite simply getting things backwards. God certainly didn’t start off the grand task of creating the universe by taking a coffee break.

Furthermore, Christians today don’t adhere to the prohibition on working as strictly as orthodox Jews. Christian may go to church services and they may not go to the office, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t work. On the contrary, most do quite a bit of work on their sabbath: yard work, house work, school work, etc. Very few Christians actually refrain from any work whatsoever, and I doubt that you will find many who go to the same lengths as orthodox Jews who refuse to drive, turn on lights, light stoves, etc.

Suggested Reading

* Ten Commandments: Introduction
* Ten Commandments: Analysis
* Ten Commandments: Different Versions
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