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Why Do Christians Accept the 10 Commandments Over the Rest of the Law?  

This week's question comes from Frank L. who asks about Christian's emphasis on the Ten Commandments as opposed to the rest of the Jewish commandments.  "It seems that Christians should consider all the laws together and accept, or reject all the Judaic laws as a group."

The Ten Commandments, also known as the Decalogue meaning the ten words, are found in the Torah (the Books of the Law, Genesis through Deuteronomy) in two places.  Exodus 20 contains the most commonly cited list, while Deuteronomy 5 has a nearly identical list. 

The primacy of the Decalogue among the other commandments arose not from Christianity, but from Judaism itself.  There are numerous laws recorded in the Torah, indeed scholars agree there are more than 600 of them that cover everything from civil and criminal law to what to eat and what to wear.  Within these laws, some were naturally considered more weighty than others, just as petty theft is considered less heinous than kidnapping.

Of the many laws, the Decalogue was considered the foundation of the ethical, civil, and criminal codes.  Indeed, when an official came to Jesus asking what he had to do to have eternal life, Jesus reminded him that he must keep the commandments, and then went on to list several of the Decalogue as examples (Luke 18.18-20).  Clearly, the Ten Commandments were considered more important than most of the others.

Christianity, on the other hand, regularly refers to the Decalogue, but has de-emphasized the rest of the Jewish Law.  This came about when the early Church realized that God's loving embrace was more about relationships than ritual.  By the days of Jesus, the Jewish Law had become exclusionary rather than inviting.  For instance, there were 365 laws that had been developed concerning what one couldn't do on the Sabbath day.  Further, there were other laws that had been developed to keep the "righteous" from having to come into contact with "sinners," i.e., those outside the faith (and how do you share your faith with those whom you cannot have contact with?).

Jesus repeatedly "broke" these human constructed laws (Luke 6.1-2, Mark 3.1-6, et al).  When asked what the most important laws were, he replied "To love God" and "To love others" (Matthew 22.37-39).   Indeed, he said, "On these two commandments depend all the law and the prophets" (Matthew 22.40).  The Church chose to embrace this teaching and began to weigh their words and deeds by these laws alone.  With the widening of the Church to include those of other cultures, it became apparent that to be a Christian one didn't need to also be Jewish, and so the Jewish laws were indeed abandoned as a whole. 

On the other hand, there is no question that many of the ethical commands of the Old Testament, and in particular the Decalogue, are foundational for appropriate interactions and in no way negate the two Great Commandments of loving God and loving neighbor.  And so the Church continues to turn to these laws as helpful, insightful, and basic to appropriate behavior.

The increased interest on the Ten Commandments in today's society may well be linked to a growing concern by the public, both religious and non-religious, that we have lost some sense of morality and values.  Most of our public institutions have been charged with providing education and services that are "values-free," so as to not offend those of varying religious or non-religious backgrounds.  The premise of this charge has been to separate church from state, and to allow parents to instill moral values within their children as they see fit, given their own belief system.

A problem has arisen, however.  It has been said, "It takes a village to raise a child," but our societal "village" has not stepped up to the challenge and clearly our nation's parents haven't either.  Our children have values, but those values tend towards egoism, consumerism, and provincialism-values eschewed by many, but values that have nonetheless been instilled by those who seem to most effectively influence our children's values: Corporate America.  And so, in response to our perceived eroding values, many have begun to realize that the "values-free" premise was misguided and that some sort of cultural foundation may be needed.  Hence the reemphasis of the Ten Commandments.

Although the Decalogue has long been a part of Christianity, it is in no way the foundational piece of ethical behaviors.  Rather, it informs and expands upon the Great Commandments that Jesus chose to emphasize.

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