The recent U.S. election campaign that seemed to run for about 6 years sadly did a great job of illustrating what Christianity looks like to many people.
The campaign focused almost exclusively on the problems the candidates saw in the country, in the world, and most of all, in the other person. Too often the church communicates a similarly negative message. In fact, many Christians combine the two messages and seek to create legislation that mirrors their beliefs about morality.
I have no problem with Christians condemning certain behaviours. I believe God does this also.
I do have a problem with this message drowning out the more important messages of the Christian faith.
The biggest problem those outside of Christ face is not that Christians criticise their sexual ethics. Their biggest problem isn’t that they drink too much alcohol. Their biggest problem isn’t racism. Their biggest problem is that they reject Jesus. That’s the problem that Christians need to speak up about.
Another point many Christians seem to neglect is that the parts of the Bible condemning sexual immorality, lying, theft, gossip, slander, anger, and violence are usually written to Christians, not pagans.
When Christians point the finger at other segments of society, rather than ourselves, we communicate that we don’t face those issues. This is why Christians are so often called hypocrites. Rather than growing our own spiritual maturity, we’ve spent too much time and effort pointing out the flaws of others. Just as a negative election cycle failed to generate much enthusiasm, so negative churches will fail to share the Gospel.
I was excited to find in Ephesians 4:17-5:2 how Paul encourages the church not just to put off sinful behaviour, but also to put on godly attitudes and behaviour. Look at these snapshots:
- Put off your old self… put on the new self, created to be like God…
- Put off falsehood… put on speaking truthfully to your neighbour.
- Put off stealing… put on working to share with others.
- Put off unwholesome talk… put on building others up.
- Put off bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice… put on kindness, compassion, forgiveness…
Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children and walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.
Christianity is an off and on faith. It inspires us to put off one set of behaviours and attitudes in order to put on another.
As a follower of Jesus, I want to be known for the things I’ve put on. I want to be truthful, generous, encouraging, kind, compassionate and forgiving. I want to hold others to those godly expectations also.
Most of all, I want to walk in the way of love.
Something has gone terribly wrong when the world only hears half the message and the half they hear is terribly off putting.
I’ll give the final word to the apostle Paul. I love how in Romans 8 he takes the negative commandments from the 10 Commandments and reframes them in a positive way. We don’t have to tell people what NOT to do. We can tell them instead to “love their neighbour” and that takes care of everything.
Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery,” “You shall not murder,” “You shall not steal,” “You shall not covet,“ and whatever other command there may be, are summed up in this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Romans 13:8-9
I don’t really expect people to change their terminology, but just know that The Ten Commandments are more accurately referred to as The Ten Words. Both Exodus 20:1 & Deuteronomy 5:22 refer to the list as words. (The NIV in Deut. 5:22 inexplicably translates the same Hebrew word as Ex 20:1 as “commandments” instead of “words”.) Compare this description with the first verse of Ex. 21, and Deut. 6 where the subsequent laws are clearly referred to as ordinances or commandments. In academia the 10 Commandments are frequently referred to as the Decalogue. This word originates from two Latin words: deka = ten, and logos = word.
I’m not just making this distinction to pick nits. Christians seem to often fall back on the Ten Commandments as the gold standard of moral law. We treat them as absolute stand-alone laws. However, I believe this elevates them to a purpose God never intended.
As always in interpreting Scripture, CONTEXT IS KEY. Exodus 19 provides the context for us. Before giving the Ten Words, God asks the Israelites if they want to be His people, enjoy His protection and provision, and embrace the responsibility of being His priests and holy nation. Although 19:4-6 are not phrased in the form of a question, v5 begins with an “if” indicating the conditionality of God’s promises. Moses’ actions demonstrate that God was making a proposal, or asking a question. He presented God’s statement to the nation then returned to communicate their positive response to God.
Based upon their experiences and relationship with God, the people respond, “We will do everything the LORD has said.” This connection between experience and relationship is also important. In 19:4 God reminds them of how He lovingly rescued them. We find a similar reminder in the introduction to the Ten Words in 20:2. God’s rescue of Israel forms the foundation of their relationship and motivates the Israelites’ acceptance of His proposal.
God only gives The Ten Words after the Israelites accept His proposal. They are not arbitrary stand-alone demands imposed on people whether they’re receptive or not. The Ten Words lay out the terms of God’s relationship with His people. Once they accept His invitation to become His “priestly kingdom and holy nation”, then He tells them how to fulfill that responsibility.
Christians sell God short when we expect people who have no relationship with God to observe The Ten Commandments. In Exodus, The Ten Words lay out the terms of an agreement between God and His people. Christians should spend much more time sharing why we have agreed to become God’s people, and what God has done in our lives, rather than requiring ungodly people observe the terms of God’s covenant.
- Many American Christians passionately support the public display of the Ten Commandments. If you’re one of those people, what do you see as the spiritual benefits of this tradition?
- Does your experience with God influence your faith? Or is your faith built more on promises and teaching than experience?
- Does placing The Ten Words in a context of covenant change your understanding of them?
- What similarities do you see between Exodus 19 & 20, and the Christian relationship with Jesus?