Which of the Ten Commandments are optional?

In my previous post, I mentioned a debate with a friend about the Pope’s politics.  In the midst of it, my friend tried to defend the commonly perceived connection between Christianity and conservative politics that the current Pope’s ministry has challenged.  One line of argument went something like “Religion is inherently conservative.  Which of the Ten Commandments are optional?  Do you think partial-birth abortion is right?”  To which I mumbled a response to the second question (no, I don’t) but never got around to engaging the first.  If our debates were boxing matches, I would never come away from them feeling knocked out, but I would always lose on points.

In this post, I’d like to take a closer look at that offhand rhetorical question – “Which of the Ten Commandments are optional?”.  At first the answer seems obvious; a commandment is something that, by definition, is not optional.  And the Ten Commandments, as foundational teachings of both Judaism and Christianity, are certainly about as non-controversial as doctrines can be, right?

Not necessarily.  There isn’t a clear label on the Ten Commandments indicating them as more important than the other 593 commandments found in the Torah (the first five books of the Bible). Yet Christians don’t regard most of those other commandments as binding.  The whole relationship of Jesus’s teaching to the law of Moses is a complicated one, and I won’t present a full analysis of it here, but will refer you to several earlier blog posts, here, here, and here, that lay out my views on the subject.  In short, I believe that Jesus taught there are really only two commandments – love God and love your neighbor – upon which all other commandments moral precepts hang.  Paul, speaking of how we should treat others, also sums up the law as “love your neighbor”, in both Romans and Galatians.

Having said that, one could do much worse than to base morality on the Ten Commandments. Each of them outlines a good principle, and in the vast majority of circumstances, is consistent with an expression of love of God and love of neighbor.  I don’t have anything against them as a teaching tool and a standard against which to check one’s own behavior.

With a little thought, however, one can think of circumstances where it might be right to violate one of the Ten Commandments, in order to better keep the law of love.  One often-cited ethical dilemma involves being questioned by Nazis as to the whereabouts of Jews hiding from persecution. Lying in such a situation would probably be the more loving thing to do.  A very similar example is favorably reported in the Bible itself, in Joshua 2:1-5.  In cases like these, “false witness” appears to be okay,  although perhaps in the circumstances it doesn’t qualify as being “against your neighbor”.

A clearer example comes from Jesus’s own teaching.  The observance of the Sabbath as a day of rest, while a good custom that Jesus and the apostles often followed, is not mandatory in all circumstances.  Jesus’s disciples were criticized for picking a small amount of grain to eat on the Sabbath, and according to Mark, Jesus responds: “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.”  In other words, it seems the Sabbath is one tool in service of a greater purpose, and not an end in itself.  Matthew reports the same event, as well as an example of Jesus healing on the Sabbath.  Luke gives another example, as does John.  Both Matthew and John make clear that this was seen by Jewish leaders as a violation of the law, and a contributing cause to Jesus’s eventual arrest and death.

So, I think the correct answer to my friend’s question might have been, “observing the Sabbath is optional and can be waived in order to do good works”.

Again, there’s no desire on my part to denigrate the Ten Commandments.  However, just as accountants are often debating “rules-based” vs “principles-based” approaches to the preparation of financial statements, I think there’s a similar broad dichotomy between the Jewish and Christian approaches to the moral life (although by no means do all sects within each religion see this question the same way), and the Christian is encouraged by Jesus to adopt a “principles-based” approach rather than a “rules-based” one.  Reducing Ten Commandments down to two, and showing exceptions, is a good way to illustrate that.

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