Economics 101 & Public Square & Theology 101

Life, Work, & The Ten Commandments

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Once I was given a private tour of the US House of Representatives. Our tour guide, a congressman’s chief of staff, had us sit in the Speaker’s chair, look straight ahead, and say what we saw.

Directly in front of us was a representation of Moses, whose writings were a primary basis for our country’s rule of law. Although many Christians might acknowledge the moral foundations of our nation’s laws, many are unclear about the place of biblical law in our personal and public life.

Let’s examine the Ten Commandments and then touch on their application to public life. This framework is important in order to make wise decisions in our work and in economics.

The Ten Commandments

When Moses received the Ten Commandments, Deuteronomy 4:13 records that he received two tablets of stone. Throughout church history, the first tablet is described as speaking to our responsibilities to God, and the second tablet to our responsibilities to our neighbor.

The commandments on the first tablet tell us we are to always:

  • Worship God’s ultimate being.
  • Worship God alone.
  • Guard God’s reputation (by not taking his name in vain).
  • Set apart time for God.

The commandments on the second tablet tell us we are not to violate our neighbor’s:

  • Person
  • Property
  • Marriage
  • Reputation

We are not to violate these things in thought, word, or deed.

What the Ten Commandments Mean for Our Lives

Throughout history, the Ten Commandments have been used as a framework for expounding all of our ethical responsibilities. For instance, John Calvin develops a substantial section of his Institutes of the Christian Religion by using the Ten Commandments as an outline.

A full exposition of the Commandments is impossible in a short article, but perhaps a thought or two on each mandate may help us as we face our personal and public lives.

1. “You shall have no other Gods before me.”

God is first. This means we should offer prophetic resistance to anything that would make itself a god, such as the totalitarian state.

2. “You shall not make for yourself a carved image.”

We must have no mental or material images that we would worship as an idol. Our work can often become an idol when we look to it for security instead of to God.

3. “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain.”

Following God requires complete conviction. We should not take God’s name in vain with respect to his worship, whether in language, in oaths, or in promises. Perhaps the worst sin is not profanity but lip service. Martin Luther once said that God is sometimes more pleased with the curses of the wicked than the hallelujahs of the pious.

4. “Remember the Sabbath.”

We must set aside time for our Lord and for worship, fellowship, and devotion. This is essential if we are to integrate our faith and work and do our jobs for the glory of God.

5. “Honor your mother and father.”

Heritage is important. C.S. Lewis urged that we need to let the breezes of the centuries blow through our minds.

Contemporary Christianity may have lost the biblical doctrine of work, but it can be rediscovered by reading what some of the great Church leaders of the past have written about a theology of work.

6. “You shall not murder.”

Every person has dignity. The image of God is the only adequate basis on which murder can be condemned, because it provides the basis for our dignity.

The image of God is also a reason why we should help the poor. We help them not only because God commands it, but because they are made in the image of God.

7. “You shall not commit adultery.”

Fidelity is important. Marriage and family are at the core of society. If they fail, society will become poorer economically and spiritually.

8. “You shall not steal.”

Stealing is evil because private property and ownership are good. This commandment and other passages like Exodus 21:28-36; 22: 1-15; Deuteronomy 22:1-4; 23:24-25; and Proverbs 22:28 and 23:1 all uphold ownership and property rights.

9. “You shall not bear false witness.”

In our culture, “truth has fallen in the street” (Isaiah 59:14). Truth is replaced by rhetoric and spin. We are to be truthful because God is truthful. Above all, we must uphold the veracity, or truth, of God’s word.

10. “You shall not covet.”

There is a difference between desire and greed. We can condemn greed and envy without prohibiting a healthy desire for relationships and things. Justly decrying greed does not negate the value of serving people through business and free markets, for instance.

These are just some of the ways the Ten Commandments can provide an ethical framework for our lives and work.

How else can the Ten Commandments guide our lives? 

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