The Ten Commandments and the Role of Government, Part 1

How should a Christian vote? In a democratic society in which laws are made by elected legislators responding to public opinion, may a Christian promote laws that reflect his biblical belief system? For example, may a Christian seek to enact laws that protect traditional marriage? Or must a Christian put aside his own beliefs and try to think like an atheist when electing a representative or responding to an opinion poll? Can promoting sound principles of justice deteriorate into forcing the conscience of one's neighbors on religious matters?

These are perplexing questions on which committed Christians often disagree.  How should we approach these issues?

Jesus taught that there is a sphere that civil authorities legitimately regulate, but another and separate sphere that belongs to God alone, into which earthly princes have no right to intrude: “Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar's and unto God that which is God’s” Mat. 22:21. The question then becomes, “what belongs to Caesar and what belongs to God?”

 I believe that these two spheres roughly correspond to the two tables of the moral law, or Ten Commandment law, written by God’s own finger on stone and given to Moses on Mount Sinai. 


1.       The Legitimate Role of Government is to Enforce Morality

Preliminarily, we note that there are Bible passages that provide insight into the role of government.  Although the main point of these passages is to counsel submission to the governing authorities, they also describe the proper role of those authorities: 

“Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience. This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing. Give to everyone what you owe them: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor.” Rom. 13:1-7 (emphasis added).

Please note: the rulers are God’s servants when they reward right-doing and punish wrong-doing.  The legitimate and proper role of government is to enforce principles of right and wrong—principles of morality.  Peter said the same thing as Paul:

“Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human authority: whether to the emperor, as the supreme authority, or to governors, who are sent by him [the emperor] to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right.” 1 Peter 2:13-14.

Again, the proper sphere and role of government is enforcing morality by punishing wrongdoers and commending those who do right. 

According to Solomon, who was himself a king, kings hate wrongdoing, and a wise ruler will do his best to weed out and get rid of wrongdoers:

Kings detest wrongdoing, for a throne is established through righteousness.” Prov. 16:12 “A wise king winnows out the wicked; he drives the threshing wheel over them.” Prov. 20:26.

Biblically, governments exist to enforce principles of right and wrong—principles of morality—by commending those who do good and punishing those who do wrong. This proper governmental role is why Christians are to submit to the government and pay their taxes.

There is an old chestnut that “you can't legislate morality,” but this saying is both (1) contrary to the above Bible passages, and (2) in derogation of the legitimate role and purpose of government. Some who repeat this are thinking not of morality but of spirituality, or inward motive and belief.  And it is true that legislation cannot create in people’s hearts the love of righteousness that comes only from God and conversion to true religion. But government can pass and enforce laws prohibiting wrong behavior and encouraging right behavior toward one’s neighbors.   

Others who say “you can’t legislate morality” are thinking not of morality generally but of the narrower issue of sexual morality.  But even where it concerns sex, few dispute the right of (and the need for) government to create and enforce laws against prostitution, rape, incest, sexual abuse of minors, voyeurism/invasion of privacy, sexual harassment, sexual assault, indecent exposure/public nudity, the knowing transmission of AIDS or venereal disease, the trafficking of girls for sexual purposes, etc. Obviously, legislating and enforcing sexual morality is a usual and customary function of government, and only a madman would seek to entirely remove government from the sexual arena. 

Even those who repeat, “you can’t legislate morality,” thinking of sexual morality, are really thinking only that the government should not try to regulate sexual encounters between consenting adults who do not work together or, if they do, are of identical rank and economic power in the workplace.  This obviously does not mean that sex is not governmentally regulated, that government “can’t legislate morality.”  The government is still enforcing morality, but instead of enforcing Bible morality—in which sex is confined within heterosexual marriage—it is enforcing post-Sexual Revolution neo-pagan morality, in which sex is regulated by reference to consent.  Governmental enforcement is directed toward ensuring that sex is consensual by limiting it to adults of equal power.


2.       No Society Can Long Exist Without Enforcing Divine Principles of Morality

God wrote the Ten Commandments with His own finger (Ex. 31:18; Deut. 9:10). The moral law contained in the Ten Commandments comes from the mind of God and contains principles applicable to all people, principles that are necessary to civil government:

“The law was not spoken at this time exclusively for the benefit of the Hebrews. . . . it was to be held as a sacred trust for the whole world. The precepts of the Decalogue are adapted to all mankind, and they were given for the instruction and government of all. Ten precepts, brief, comprehensive, and authoritative, cover the duty of man to God and to his fellow man; and all based upon the great fundamental principle of love.” Patriarchs & Prophets, p. 305.

These precepts were not just for the Jews, but for all mankind.  Every functioning human society must have laws based upon principles found in Commandments Five through Ten, which specify man's duties to his fellow man:

5.       Honor thy father and thy mother that thy days may be long upon the land which the lord thy God giveth thee.

6.       Thou shalt not kill.

7.       Thou shalt not commit Adultery.

8.       Thou shalt not steal.

9.       Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.

10.     Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbor's.

Let’s review how these divine principles have been reflected in secular law and governmental administration.

A.    6th, 8th and 9th Commandments

There is little controversy that the sixth, eighth, and ninth commandments must be incorporated in secular law if the society is to survive.  Every nation has laws implementing, “thou shalt not kill.” Without such laws, society would descend into chaos and bloody violence.  In our society, the punishment for killing varies proportionately to the moral culpability involved. If purely accidental, only money damages are assessed. If the killing was reckless, such as by a drunk driver, there is a criminal sanction; if intentional but not premeditated, a yet more severe criminal punishment.  The most severe criminal punishment, often justly including the death penalty, is imposed when the killing was both intentional and premeditated.

Every society also has laws against bearing false witness. There are laws against perjury—lying during sworn testimony—without which no justice system can properly function and generate accurate verdicts and fair judgments. In addition to the laws against perjury, there are many laws and regulations—far too many to recite here—that are intended to compel parties to commercial, business, and consumer transactions to make full and truthful disclosure of all relevant facts.

Likewise, there are numerous laws—criminalizing robbery, burglary, theft, embezzlement, etc.—that are based upon the universal and timeless principle, “thou shalt not steal.” A society is which property is not secure will never rise above subsistence level.  Laws against fraud and false pretenses combine the principle of not lying with the principle of not stealing, and outlaw telling falsehoods for the purpose of obtaining money or property.  No society can long survive unless the divine principle—thou shalt not steal—is enshrined in its legislation. 

B.    The Fifth Commandment

The Fifth Commandment, “Honor thy father and they mother . . .” is sometimes thought to have little application in secular law.  The state generally does not enforce family discipline. But minors who violate criminal statutes can be arrested and tried in the juvenile justice system, a parallel justice system dealing with youthful offenders.  In addition, in most states, parents whose children have become unmanageable can file what is called a “PINS” (Persons in Need of Supervision, or CHINS—Children in Need of Supervision) petition.  Usually there is an attempt to resolve the problem informally, but if that is unsuccessful, a court will order governmental supervision and/or treatment for the child.  Truancy laws also sometimes trigger state intervention with rebellious children.  The state does not want to become the disciplinarian of minor children, but if a parent can show that she cannot control a rebellious child, the state will reluctantly step in.

Honoring one’s parents includes not only obeying them when you are young but caring for them when they are old.  Here, most developed countries have seen a role for civil government, and most—beginning in Germany under Bismarck in 1889—have established some form of old age insurance.  Old age insurance does not remove the need to care for one’s elderly parents, but it helps a great deal with basic economic needs. In the United States, Social Security makes cash payments to the elderly, and Medicare pays for their medical treatment; together these payments comprise by far the largest expense in the U.S. federal budget—in 2016 Social Security and Medicare spending constituted about $2.4 trillion of $4.1 trillion spent. A strict libertarian will argue that the civil authorities have no business being involved with “honoring thy father and thy mother,” but currently most of our tax money is spent on exactly that.

C.   The Seventh Commandment

The modern state recognizes and regulates marriage, starting with requiring a license to marry.  Much of the regulation kicks in when marriages end prematurely—before “death do us part”—when courts are asked to divide the marital property, rule on requests for alimony, and rule on child custody and child support payments. 

Formerly most states required a finding of fault—adultery, desertion, imprisonment, abuse/cruelty, etc.—to grant a divorce. The innocent spouse could prevent the divorce, or, if he or she wanted the divorce, the party at fault was usually punished in some way in the division of marital property and/or in the award of child custody.  But during the Sexual Revolution of 1967-’73 all U.S. states adopted “no-fault” divorce, meaning that either party could end the marriage at his or her own election, pleading “irreconcilable differences.”

Most of the nations in Christendom had laws criminalizing adultery. Most of these laws were repealed in the post WWII era; among the last countries of Christendom to repeal these statutes were Italy (1969), Malta (1973), Luxembourg (1974), France (1975), Spain (1978), Portugal (1982), Greece (1983), Belgium (1987), Switzerland (1989), and Austria (1997).

In the United States, a total of 41 states criminalized adultery, eleven between 1805 and 1899, and another 30 between 1900 and 1990.  Most of these criminal statutes are still on the books, but no one has been convicted of adultery since 1983. Many legal scholars believe that the Supreme Court’s 2003 ruling in Lawrence v. Texas, striking down anti-sodomy laws, would be extended to strike down anti-adultery laws should another case of adultery ever be prosecuted. 

Considering how crucial strong families are for any functioning society, it is little wonder that legislators have sought to bolster the family in various ways, including outlawing adultery. No combination of state agencies, bureaucracies and government subsidies that can ever take the place of married mothers and fathers in effectively producing the next generation of citizens. 

We tend to sniff at legal buttresses to marriage that are now deemed obsolete and retrograde—particularly fault-based divorce and the criminalization of adultery—but, given our divorce rate and the chaos caused by family breakdown, there is little room for pride in our modern ways of thinking.

We earlier noted that the modern trend is to regulate sexual encounters not by reference to marriage but by reference to consent. But the old rules protected women better than the new rules.  A system where sex—even adulterous sex or casual fornication—is wrong only if there is no consent places a lot of pressure on the young woman. Women face advances from every Tom, Dick and Harry—married and unmarried—and are obliged to fend for themselves in communicating a firm “no.” Arguably, the “me too” movement has erupted at least in part because sexual propriety depends only upon consent. I think most young women, whether they realize it or not, would prefer a world where societal expectations of faithful, monogamous marriage provided them greater protection—where the socially expected default answer to married men like Harvey Weinstein and Matt Lauer is a firm “no,” and, indeed, “no” to any man who isn’t their husband.  Removing the stigma once attached to adultery has worsened the problem of sexual harassment. 

D.   The Tenth Commandment

God deemed it so important not to steal one’s neighbor’s wife or his property that He made it a violation of the divine law to even desire those things.  God says, “you must not steal those things, and indeed you must not even want them.”  God has outlawed the mental state that leads to the wrongful deed.

Covetousness is a mental sin, hence one that most societies have had difficulty translating into legislation.  About the closest that any modern statute comes to outlawing covetousness is criminal conspiracy.  Criminal conspiracy—agreeing, planning, and taking preliminary steps toward committing a crime—is itself a crime.  Conspiracy is not entirely mental, however, because criminal conspiracy statutes require that at least one member of the conspiracy commit an overt act in furtherance of the aims of the conspiracy.


Clearly, a legitimate aim and goal of government is to legislate and enforce morality.  This includes incorporating into its laws and spending priorities the values found in the last six commandments.  In part two, we will explore the first four commandments, which consist of religious principles that it is not appropriate for the government to try to enforce.