Q If “Righteousness Exalteth a Nation,” Shouldn’t the Ten Commandments Be the Basis for a Nation’s Laws?
A The Bible does teach that the Ten Commandments are the basis for good civil laws and national stability; but it limits their enforcement to the last six commandments.
The Apostle Paul refers to this in his letter to the Roman Christians:
“Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God.
“Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation.
“For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil. Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power? Do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise of the same.” Rom. 13:1–3.
Then Paul listed from the last six of the Ten Commandments to clearly illustrate which “good works” he meant: thou shalt not steal; thou shalt not kill, thou shalt not commit adultery, etc. See Rom. 13:8–10 and Ex. 20:12–17. Governments that encourage and enforce respect for private property and personal liberties are doing their God-appointed duty. Nations whose governing bodies do this in a fair and just way foster peace and good relationships between diverse people as well as advance the development of their nation.
Paul even encourages us to pay tribute (taxes) to support the “higher powers” in this God-appointed role. Rom. 13:7. Jesus taught the same principle in his famous statement, “Render therefore unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s.” Matt. 22:21.
Why didn’t Paul mention the first four commandments?
If you review Ex. 20:3–11, you will find that these commandments specifically outline our obligations to God. Civil governments were not ordained to make people religious or to promote any specific way to worship or serve God. God does not need the government to tell us to pray, read our Bibles, go to church, pay offerings, or perform any other religious duty. Nor has He asked governments to decide which religious dogmas are orthodox and which ones are heretical. When governments use civil power to coerce the conscience, even to do a seemingly good thing like pray or attend church, a door is opened for oppression and persecution.
The “higher powers” that Paul refers to in Romans cannot legitimately force you to believe or not to believe in God; to practice or not to practice a religion. When Jewish leaders commanded the apostles not to preach or teach in the name of Jesus, the apostles respectfully refused and answered, “We ought to obey God rather than man.” Acts 5:29.
God desires us to serve Him out of love, not for fear of fines, imprisonment, the loss of property, banishment, or death—which are all ways that misguided governments have tried to control the religious beliefs and practices of their citizens. He maintains His presence in the world through a voluntary assembly of like-minded believers who encourage, not force, us to obey God and His Word. And He respects our freedom not to choose Him and even to believe that He doesn’t exist.
Societies that use civil authorities to enforce religious behavior, or even to forbid peaceable religious assembly, belief, or expression, have always become persecutory and eventually reap civil division and strife. On the other hand, societies who allow the free exercise of religions that uphold morality and respect for the religious liberties of others have found that religious people make good citizens.