The Ten Commandments and the Role of Government, Part 2

In part one of this series, we noted that the last six Commandments regulate human interaction with other human beings, and that the principles articulated in those Commandments are, and should be, translated into the civil and criminal statutes enforced by government.  But what of the first four Commandments?  Should government attempt to enforce those precepts?

Let us examine the first four Commandments and see what and whom they regulate. 


A.   The First Commandment

“Thou shalt have no other gods before me.” 

This is the first commandment because it is the most important.  God alone is to be worshiped.  No human being is to be worshiped as a god, nor are we to worship any created being, animal, or thing.  No idol is to be worshiped, nor are we to worship material things, nor the sun, the moon, or the stars, nor the sky, nor women, nor men, nor sex, nor gold, nor silver, nor diamonds, nor precious stones. 


B.     The 2nd Commandment

“Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.  Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them.”

Worshipping or venerating physical objects—whether representations of humans, animals, or other things, and especially if intended as stand-ins for God—causes us to lose the concept of an almighty, omniscient, transcendent, invisible God.  The dividing line between the Creator and created things becomes blurry and indistinct. Our concept of God as an omnipotent, righteous Creator shrinks, and eventually disappears.  Demoted and miniaturized in this way, God’s power to inspire righteous behavior shrivels away, and base sins soon follow.  (See, e.g., Rom. 1:22-27)


C.    The 3rd Commandment

“Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain; for the Lord will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain.”

We think of this as an injunction against cursing, oaths and bad language invoking the name of the deity, and that is a valid application of the commandment.  Such language should never pass the lips of a Christian.

But this commandment is also a warning against hypocrisy.  “Take” can also be translated as bear or carry, as in, “thou shalt not carry the name of the Lord thy God in vain.”  This means that we should not claim, outwardly and publicly, that we are followers of God, and yet do what God forbids us to do and fail to do what He asks us to do.  To put it more directly, do not call yourself a Christian and act like the Devil. 


D.    The 4th Commandment

“Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy.  Six days shalt thou labor, and do all thy work, but the seventh day is the sabbath of the Lord thy God: in it thou shalt not do any work, thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, thy manservant, nor thy maidservant, nor thy cattle, nor thy stranger that is within thy gates.  For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is, and rested the seventh day: wherefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day, and hallowed it.”

This commandment reminds us that we were created by God.  We are not self-created or self-made.  We are creatures, God is our Creator.  We tend to forget this, exalt ourselves, and ultimately worship ourselves.  The Fourth Commandment reminds us, on a weekly basis, that God created us, and not the other way around.


The Common Thread in the First Four Commandments

The first four Commandments all regulate a person’s relationship with God, particularly with how we worship God.  We are not to worship other gods, or idols, or to pretend to worship God without really meaning it, and we are to remember our Creator’s sacred day by resting on it, not working. 

These first four commandments do not regulate a person’s interactions with other human beings.  These commandments are between the believer and his God, and it is not the state’s role to enforce them. 

In Jesus’ command that we should “render unto Caesar that which Caesar’s and unto God that which is God’s,” these first four Commandments are “that which is God’s.  These are duties that a man owes to God alone—they belong to God—and it is not Caesar’s place to enforce them.


How Christians Went Wrong in Relation to Government

Although governments enforce morality, government may not enforce belief in, or worship of, God. But the Christian church historically has struggled with this principle.

Christianity was born within the Roman Empire. By the time Christianity appeared, Rome had begun vesting its emperors with both civil and religious authority.  The Roman Emperor was given titles both civil (princeps senatus, consul) and religious (pontifex maximus). The office of emperor was a fusion of religious and civil authority.

At about the same time Christianity was growing and spreading within the empire, Rome developed a cult of the emperor, in which every living emperor was considered partly divine, to become fully divine upon his death. But Christians could never worship another god—“thou shalt have no other gods before me”—or even admit that there were any real deities other than God, and hence could never offer sacrifice to the cult of the emperor.  One of the worst persecutions of the pagan period took place in 112 A.D. under Emperor Trajan because, Pliny tells us, of the Christians’ refusal to sacrifice to the cult of the Emperor.  This was an example of persecution arising because the state’s attempt to enforce worship.

Little time elapsed between the cessation of pagan persecution and the recognition of Christianity as an official state religion, after which, instead of persecuting the Church, the emperors began to intrude into matters of Christian theology.  For example, Constantine I convened the Council of Nicaea in 325 to resolve the Christological dispute between Arian and orthodox in favor of the orthodox.  A few decades later, Emperor Valens, an Arian by baptism and belief, tolerated the Arians, but his son, Theodosius I, sided with the orthodox and persecuted both Arians and pagans.

The early church accepted and often even invited these imperial interventions into questions of worship and belief.  Christianity went straight from being a persecuted sect to being the theological and political project of Roman emperors.  The idea that correct theology and worship should be a concern of the church—but not of the government, with its power of force and compulsion—was never given the time and space to develop. 

After the empire's fall, the Roman Catholic Church adopted the Roman imperial model, and the popes became ecclesiastical emperors who exercised both civil and religious authority.  The dragon of Rome gave the Papacy, “his power, his seat, and great authority.”  Rev. 13:2. The apostate church that then developed did not honor freedom of conscience.  Even as late as 1854, Pope Pius IX, in an encyclical letter, wrote, “The absurd and erroneous doctrines or ravings in defense of liberty of conscience are a most pestilential error—a pest, of all others, most to be dreaded in a state.” 

The Roman Church was usually successful, by threats of ban and excommunication that held sway over the superstitious, in making kings and princes enforce its decrees on worship and theology.  This led to ferocious persecution, as the church tried to impose its brand of worship on all who fell under the jurisdiction of the kingdoms of Christendom.  Millions perished at the hands of the persecuting church during its inquisitions, pogroms, and genocidal crusades. 


Post-Reformation, A Principle of Freedom of Worship is Accepted

Achieving freedom of conscience was a long process that began long after the start of the Reformation. The early Reformers, having thrown off the papal superstructure, looked to sympathetic princes and kings to provide government for the reformed churches, after the pattern of the 4th and 5th Centuries.  During the 16th and early 17th Centuries, the principle of freedom of conscience was largely limited to the Radical Reformation, and groups such as the Anabaptists.  For most of Christendom, religion continued to be tied to the civil government—if the prince was a Protestant, his realm was Protestant; if he was Catholic, it was Catholic. 

Many began to realize that this arrangement was defective during the Thirty Years War (1618-1648), a Protestant vs. Catholic religious war that killed an estimated 8 million souls and was the most destructive Europe-centered conflict until 1914.  After the Thirty Years’ War, the idea that church and state should occupy separate spheres of authority moved out of the Radical Reformation and into mainstream Lutheranism and Calvinism. 

We see this idea expressed in the Westminster Confession (1646), which states that, while that Christians have a duty to obey (Rom. 13; 1 Peter 2:13-17) and pray for (1 Tim. 2:1-2) the civil authorities, those authorities must not interfere with religion, nor pick one denominational “winner” above others:

“Civil magistrates may not assume to themselves the administration of the Word and Sacraments; or the power of the keys of the kingdom of heaven; or, in the least, interfere in matters of faith. Yet . . . it is the duty of civil magistrates to protect the Church . . . without giving the preference to any denomination of Christians above the rest, in such a manner that all ecclesiastical persons whatever shall enjoy the full, free, and unquestioned liberty of discharging every part of their sacred functions, without violence or danger. And, . . . no law of any commonwealth should interfere with, let, or hinder, the due exercise thereof, among the voluntary members of any denomination of Christians, according to their own profession of belief.”

This principle eventually blossomed, in the late 18th Century and most completely in the United States, into an insistence on separation of church and state, with no religion being established as the official state religion. The principle of freedom of conscience—that the state must not compel worship or assent to certain religious doctrines—had finally come into its own. 

Baptists and Seventh-day Adventists have been firm in arguing that there must be no coercion in the worship of God. In 1920, George Washington Truett, pastor of the First Baptist Church of Dallas for almost half a century, preached from the steps of the United States Capitol to over 10,000 listeners, stating:

“It is the natural and fundamental and indefeasible right of every human being to worship God or not, according to the dictates of his conscience, and, as long as he does not infringe upon the rights of others, he is to be held accountable alone to God for all religious beliefs and practices. Our contention is not for mere toleration, but for absolute liberty. There is a wide difference between toleration and liberty....Toleration is a gift from man, while liberty is a gift from God....God wants free worshipers and no other kind.”



Governments may not force the conscience in regard to religious beliefs or observances.  The first four commandments, which describe the Christian's duty towards his God, may not be enforced by law. Although righteousness is the path to national prosperity and greatness (Prov. 14:34), righteousness cannot be achieved by forcing people to believe in or worship God, or to join a certain religion or church. History has repeatedly shown that the path of enforced belief and worship leads only to persecution, injustice, misery and national disgrace.

These are the basic guidelines for the political activity of a Christian participating in a democratic form of government such as a republic or representative democracy. A Christian voter or elected representative may legitimately seek to have enacted and enforced principles of justice, principles of morality, principles of health and sanitary reform. However, a Christian voter or representative must never seek to enact legislation that will mandate belief in, or worship of, God, or enforce any religious observance or sectarian rite.