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Should the United States Government (or any earthly government) enforce the 10 Commandments?

This is an important question that deserves a thoughtful and biblical answer, especially in light of the recent emphasis on the 10 Commandments from those in political positions.  Fortunately, the answer to this question is neither difficult nor complicated, as we shall see.

It is widely recognized that the 10 Commandments (found in Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5) form a single, indissoluble whole that broadly are divided into two parts: duty to God and duty to one’s fellow man.  Jesus put it this way:

Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind.  This is the first and great commandment.  And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.  On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.  Matthew 22:37-40

The two complimentary, yet distinct, parts of the 10 Commandments are here seen.  Jesus emphasizes love for God, first, followed by love for man.  It should be noted at the outset that one of the very best ways to love God is to love His children!  Consider, for example, this remarkable verse from the epistle of 1 John 5:2. “By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God, and keep his commandments.”

Now that we have noted this significant element of the 10 Commandments, we are better prepared to answer the question at hand about their enforcement by an earthly government.  Broadly, the first four commandments are religious in nature, that is, they deal with a person’s relationship to God.  The last six commandments are civil in nature, that is, they address a person’s relationship to their fellow human beings.

This can be diagramed this way:

Commandments 1-4


Commandments 5-10

1. Have no other Gods       5. Honor thy father and thy mother
2. Do not worship idols       6. Do not kill
3. Do not take God’s name in vain       7. Do not commit adultery
4. Remember the Sabbath, to keep it holy   8. Do not steal
    9. Do not lie (bear false witness)
    10. Do not covet

It is easy to imagine how quickly civil society and civil relationships would breakdown if civil government did not enforce the last six commandments!  Who, for example, would be comfortable living in a society where there was no punitive recourse for murder?  Where stealing was legal?  Or, where perjury was acceptable?

Because the happiness and civility of citizens of a given society are dependent upon a set of civil norms and consistency, it is altogether appropriate and right for earthly governments to enforce the last six commandments. They are the standard of conduct among civil societies and in civil relationships. 

The first four commandments, however, are different in this regard, very different.  They are not to be enforced by an earthly government or power.  These commandments address one’s personal relationship with God.  Obedience to these commandments must be voluntary.  Jesus said, “If you love me, keep my commandments” John 14:15.  Love, by definition, cannot be forced.  Forced love is called rape, and God is not a divine rapist!  God invites us, asks us, pleads with us, encourages us, and hopes for us to love him and fulfill our duties to Him, but he does not force us to do these things.

One of the greatest freedoms that any earthy government can offer its citizens is the right to relate to Deity in a way of their own choosing.  George Washington, the first president of the United States, famously said, “Everyman must be able to worship God according to the dictates of his own conscience.”

The Apostle Paul clearly supported this line of thinking when he wrote the following words to the church at Rome:

Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God.  Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation.  For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil. Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power? do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise of the same: For he is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil.  Wherefore ye must needs be subject, not only for wrath, but also for conscience sake.  For for this cause pay ye tribute also: for they are God's ministers, attending continually upon this very thing.  Render therefore to all their dues: tribute to whom tribute is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honour to whom honour.  Owe no man any thing, but to love one another: for he that loveth another hath fulfilled the law.  For this, Thou shalt not commit adultery, Thou shalt not kill, Thou shalt not steal, Thou shalt not bear false witness, Thou shalt not covet; and if there be any other commandment, it is briefly comprehended in this saying, namely, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.  Love worketh no ill to his neighbour: therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.  Romans 13:1-10

Paul’s line of logic is not difficult to follow.  He says earthly governments are appointed by God to carry out civil order on the earth.  This does not mean, however, that all earthly governments are necessarily civil.  Some, most decidedly are not!  But Paul’s point stands: God uses civil government as his “minister” to facilitate civil, lawful, and happy relationships between its citizens.

But notice something very important at the end of the passage: when Paul quotes several (five) of the 10 Commandments he quotes only from the second part, that is, the last six commandments.  Paul understood, as we have concluded above, that the domain of civil government is the second part of the 10 Commandments, not the first.  His language and logic are easily understood and even unmistakable.

So our question has been answered in a common sense and biblical manner.  Our question was: Should the United States Government (or any earthly government) enforce the 10 Commandments?  The answer is both yes and no. 

Yes, earthly governments should enforce the last six commandments, as these pertain to civil society and the happiness of a given government’s citizens; and No, earthly governments have no right, nor divine prerogative, to enforce the first four commandments, as these pertain to one’s personal relationship to God.

The recent emphasis by certain governmental and political figures on the 10 Commandments is a good thing.  We could wish that all of our governmental leaders were committed to the 10 Commandments, and especially to the God of the 10 Commandments!  However, there is cause for concern, and that concern is that some of these leaders in their zeal for a moral and civil society will cross the boundaries of the responsibilities and rights of civil government and seek to enforce the first four commandments as well.  This unhappy experiment would not result in a civil and moral utopia, but a forced, artificial, and ultimately godless mockery of a “religious” society.

God, give us moral leaders, but please save us from politically-motivated, religious zealots. 




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