Orthodox and Roman Catholic Christianity


The official Catholic and Orthodox Christian understanding of the Ten Commandments is as follows:

(Deuteronomy, RSV)


topThe first three commandments govern the relationship between God and humans.

1. "I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself a graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; you shall not bow down to them or serve them; for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments."

The text of what Catholics recognize as the first commandment precedes and follows the "no graven images" warning with a prohibition against worshipping false gods. Some Protestants have claimed that the Catholic version of the ten commandments intentionally conceals the biblical prohibition of idolatry. But the Bible includes numerous references to carved images of angels, trees, and animals (Exodus 25:18-21; Numbers 21:8-9; 1 Kings 6:23-28 1 Kings 6:29; Ezekiel 41:17-25) that were associated with worship of God. Catholics and Protestants alike erect nativity scenes or use felt cut-outs to aid their Sunday-school instruction. (While not all Catholics have a particularly strong devotion to icons or other religious artifacts, Catholic teaching distinguishes between veneration (dulia) -- which is paying honor to God through contemplation of objects such as paintings and statues, and adoration (latria) -- which is properly given to God alone.)

2. "You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain: for the LORD will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain."

The moral lesson here involves more than simply a prohibition of swearing; it also prohibits the misappropriation of religious language in order to commit a crime, to participate in occult practices, or blaspheming against places or people that are holy to God.

3. "Observe the Sabbath day, to keep it holy, as the LORD your God commanded you. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work; but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God; in it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, or your manservant, or your maidservant, or your ox, or your ass, or any of your cattle, or the sojourner who is within your gates, that your manservant and your maidservant may rest as well as you. You shall remember that you were a servant in the land of Egypt, and the LORD your God brought you out thence with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the LORD your God commanded you to keep the Sabbath day."

Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox Christians do not refrain from work on Saturday, the Sabbath, because of their interpretation of Mark 2:23-28. In that verse, Jesus defends his disciples for plucking corn on the Sabbath, saying, "The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath. Therefore the Son of Man is also Lord of the Sabbath." Furthermore, it is claimed, Jesus Himself broke the Sabbath by committing acts of charity on that day (for the counterview to Jesus transgressing the law, see E. P. Sanders). The Catholic Church recognizes Sunday as a fitting day to worship since it commemorates the day that God raised Christ from the Dead; however, it has never conflated Sunday and the Sabbath as later Protestant thinkers did. See Sabbath.

topThe next group of commandments governs public relationships between people.

4. "Honor your father and your mother, as the LORD your God commanded you; that your days may be prolonged, and that it may go well with you, in the land which the LORD your God gives you."

This commandment emphasizes the family as part of God's design, as well as an extended metaphor that God uses for his relationship with his creation.

5. "You shall not murder."

Since respect for life includes an obligation to respect one's own life and the lives of people under one's protection, it is legitimate to use force -- even fatal force -- against the threats of an aggressor who cannot be stopped any other way.

While Catholic teaching recognizes the right of states to execute criminals when necessary to preserve the safety of citizens, the Church argues that other methods of protecting society (incarceration, rehabilitation) are increasingly available in the modern world; thus, there are now few if any cases that really necessitate capital punishment. Catholics and Orthodox (along with many Protestants) also consider abortion sinful and a violation of this commandment.

6. "Neither shall you commit adultery."

For Catholics, marriage is a sacrament; unlike most Catholic sacraments, which are performed by a priest, in marriage, the husband and wife convey sanctifying graces upon each other. For the Orthodox, marriage is conferred by the priest, but is still seen as a sacred bond. Adultery is the breaking of this holy bond, and is thus a sacrilege.

7. "Neither shall you steal."

8. "Neither shall you bear false witness against your neighbor."

topThese last two commandments govern private thoughts.

9. "Neither shall you covet your neighbor's wife"

10. "and you shall not desire your neighbor's house, his field, or his manservant, or his maidservant, his ox, or his ass, or anything that is your neighbor's."

Moreover, within the Catholic tradition, as in much of Judaism, the Commandments are also seen as general "subject headings" for moral theology, in addition to being specific commandments in themselves.

Thus, the commandment to honor father and mother is seen as a heading for a general rule to respect legitimate authority, including the authority of the state. The commandment not to commit adultery is traditionally taken to be a heading for a general rule to be sexually pure, the specific content of the purity depending, of course, on whether one is married or not.

In this way, the Ten Commandments can be seen as dividing up all of morality.

topProtestant Christianity

John Wycliffee

There are many different denominations of Protestantism, and it is impossible to generalise in a way that covers them all. However, this diversity arose historically from fewer sources, the various teachings of which can be summarized, in general terms.

Lutherans, Reformed and Anglicans, and Anabaptists all taught, and their descendents still predominantly teach that, the Ten Commandments have both an explicitly negative content, and an implied positive content.

Besides those things that ought not be done, there are things which ought not be left undone. So that, besides not transgressing the prohibitions, a faithful abiding by the commands of God includes keeping the obligations of love.

The ethic contained in the Ten Commandments and indeed in all of Scripture is, "Love the Lord your God with all of your heart, and mind, and soul, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself", and, "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you."

Lutherans, especially, influentially theorized that there is an antithesis between these two sides of the word of God, the positive and the negative.

Love and gratitude is a guide to those under the Gospel, and the prohibitions are for unbelievers and profane people. This antithesis between Gospel and Law runs through every ethical command, according to Lutheran understanding.

The Anabaptists have held that the commandments of God are the content of the covenant established through Christ: faith is faithfulness, and thus, belief is essentially the same thing as obedience.

Reformed and Anglicans have taught the abiding validity of the commandments, and call it a summation of the "moral law", binding on all people.

However, they emphasize the union of the believer with Christ - so that the will and power to perform the commandments does not arise from the commandment itself, but from the gift of the Holy Spirit. Apart from this grace, the commandment is only productive of condemnation, according to this family of doctrine.

Modern Evangelicalism, under the influence of dispensationalism, commonly denies that the commandments have any abiding validity as a requirement binding upon Christians; however, they contain principles which are beneficial to the believer.

Dispensationalism is particularly emphatic about the dangers of legalism, and thus, in a distinctive way de-emphasises the teaching of the law (see antinomianism). Somewhat analogously, Pentecostalism and the Charismatic movement typically emphasize the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and the freedom of the Christian from outward commandments, sometimes in antithesis to the letter of the Law.

Quakers and pietism have historically set themselves against the Law as a form of commandment binding on Christians, and have emphasized the inner guidance and liberty of the believer, so that the law is fulfilled not merely by avoiding what the Law prohibits, but by carrying out what the Spirit of God urges upon their conscience.

For those Christians who believe that the Ten Commandments continue to be binding for Christians, their negative and positive content can be summarized as follows:

topTypical Protestant view

Exodus 20:

Preface: vs. 1-2

Implies the obligation to keep all of the commandments of God, in gratitude because of the abundance of his mercy and forbids ingratitude to God and denial that he is our God.

1.     vs. 3.

Enjoins that God must be known and acknowledged to be the only true God, and our God; and, to worship him and to make him known as he has been made known to us

Forbids not worshiping and glorifying the true God as God, and as our God; and forbids giving worship and glory to any other, which is due to him alone

2.     vs. 4-6

Requires receiving, observing, and keeping pure and entire, all such religious worship and ordinances as God has appointed; and zeal in resisting those who would corrupt worship; because of God's ownership of us, and interest in our salvation.

Prohibits the worshiping of God by images, or by confusion of any creature with God, or any other way not appointed in his Word.

3.     vs. 7

Enjoins a holy and a reverent use of God’s names, titles, attributes, ordinances, Word, and works.

Forbids all abuse of anything by which God makes himself known. Some Protestants, especially in the tradition of pacifism, read this Commandment as forbidding any and all oaths, including judicial oaths and oaths of allegiance to a government, noting that human weakness cannot foretell whether such oaths will in fact be vain.

4.     vs. 8-11

Requires setting apart to God such set times as are appointed in his Word. Many Protestants are increasingly concerned that the values of the marketplace do not dominate entirely, and deprive people of leisure and energy needed for worship, for the creation of civilised culture. The setting of time apart from and free from the demands of commerce is one of the foundations of a decent human society. See Sabbath.

Forbids the omission, or careless performance, of the religious duties, using the day for idleness, or for doing that which is in itself sinful; and prohibits requiring of others any such omission, or transgression, on the designated day.

5.     vs. 12

The only commandment with explicitly positive content, rather than a prohibition; it connects all of the temporal blessings of God, with reverence for and obedience to authority, and especially for father and mother.

Forbids doing anything against, or failing to give, the honor and duty which belongs to anyone, whether because they possess authority or because they are subject to authority.

6.     vs. 13

Requires all lawful endeavors to preserve our own life, and the life of others.Forbids taking away of our own life, or the life of our neighbor, unjustly; and, anything that tends toward depriving life.

7.     vs. 14

Enjoins protection of our own and our neighbor’s chastity, in heart, speech, and behavior.

Forbids all unchaste thoughts, words, and actions.

8.     vs. 15

Requires a defense of all lawful things that further the wealth and outward estate of ourselves and others

Prohibits whatever deprives our neighbor, or ourselves, of lawfully gained wealth or outward estate.

9.     vs. 16

Requires the maintaining and promoting of truth between people, and of our neighbor’s good name and our own, especially in witness-bearing.

Forbids whatsoever is prejudicial to truth, or injurious to our own, or our neighbor’s, good name.

10.    vs. 17

Enjoins contentment with our own condition, and a charitable attitude toward our neighbor and all that is his, being thankful for his sake that he has whatever is beneficial to him, as we are for those things that benefit us. Forbids discontent or envy, prohibits any grief over the betterment of our neighbor's estate, and all inordinate desires to


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