Religious Liberty and Contemporary Trends Series, Part 2 – The Ten Commandments and Civil-Government

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Religious Liberty and Contemporary Trends Series, Part 2 – The Ten Commandments and Civil-Government

A central argument in current discussions on religious liberty and the separation of church and state concerns the two tables of the Ten Commandment law—the first, of course, addressing humanity’s duty to God, the second addressing our duty to each other.  There are those who insist that while non-theocratic civil government has no right to legislate obedience to the first four commandments, it does have the right to enforce obedience to the last six.[1]


Everyone would likely agree that those of the Ten Commandments which do in fact fall within the purview of the secular state are found on the second table of the Decalogue.  Murder, theft, child delinquency, perjury, to name just a few issues of obvious criminality, are covered by the last six commandments.  But the notion that all of the last six commandments are fair game for enforcement by a non-theocratic state provokes serious unease in many thoughtful minds.


Let us again consider the following Ellen White statements, quoted in the previous article of this series:


To protect liberty of conscience is the duty of the state, and this is the limit of its authority in matters of religion.  Every secular government that attempts to regulate or enforce religious observances by civil law is sacrificing the very principle for which the evangelical Christians so nobly struggled.[2]


The founders of the (American) nation wisely sought to guard against the employment of secular power on the part of the church, with its inevitable result—intolerance and persecution. . . . Only in flagrant violation of these safeguards to the nation’s liberty, can any religious observance be enforced by civil authority.[3]


From the present writer’s perspective, the two key phrases in the above statements are “liberty of conscience” and “religious observances.” Again, we are constrained to note, as was noted in the previous article, that neither statement identifies the consciences to be protected in a free country as Biblically faithful ones only.


What is more, many seem not to recognize that “religious observances” cover more than church attendance and similar rituals of faith.  For the great majority of human beings, marriage is a religious observance.  For most people, who can and cannot be united in marriage is determined by religious dogma.  For the Christian, the marriage institution was established by God in Eden at the creation (Gen. 2:24).  Because the image of God, as reflected in humanity, consists of the traits of both male and female (Gen. 1:27), any departure from the particulars of this union in either marriage or extra-marital intimacy is defined in the Word of God as fornication (I Cor. 7:2).


The Bible’s definition of marriage, in other words, is a theological principle, every bit as much as the Trinity, the virgin birth of Christ, His bodily resurrection from the dead, the right relation of law and grace, the investigative judgment, and the seventh-day Sabbath.


But in free America, the free exercise of religion doesn’t apply only to the exercise of Biblically correct religion.  The rights attendant to American citizenship are not reserved for conservative Christians or cultural conservatives of any kind.  One need not accept the Biblical theology of marriage to be a citizen of this Republic.  The same religious freedom which permits a Bible-believing pastor such as myself to refuse to unite two men or two women in marriage is the same that permits a Unitarian pastor down the street to in fact agree to bless such a marriage.  America is not a theocracy, and no theological construct of any faith can be used by such a government to control the conduct of citizens.  Religious liberty in a truly free society isn’t just for those with correct theology.


More on the Marriage Issue


Some will defend the civil disallowance of gay marriage based on what is best for children.[4] Bible-believing Seventh-day Adventists would certainly agree as to the superior wisdom in a host of tangible ways so far as God’s plan for marriage and the family are concerned.   However, I would also guess that statistics would show children raised in a single-faith family to be substantially better off emotionally, psychologically, and spiritually than children raised in a religiously-divided family.  But does this, therefore, give civil government the license to forbid marriage between persons of different faiths?  Or is this simply one of many areas in which a free society permits the unfettered interplay of ideas and choices and their resulting social consequences?  Freedom, after all, never comes without a price, as the great controversy between good and evil bears ultimate witness.


What becomes clear, when we consider the various theological definitions of marriage in our society, is that in the end, civil government really can’t honestly issue marriage licenses at all, but rather, only licenses for civil unions.  That may seem a radical concept at first, but few would maintain, when pressed, that a non-theocratic state is qualified to define what in fact marriage is.  Civil unions, by contrast, for such purposes as insurance and tax benefits represent a theologically neutral construct that can fairly apply to all, irrespective of faith or the lack thereof.  Such a construct would leave the definition of marriage to the faith community and to individuals while identifying a tangible purpose for such unions relative to such issues as medical decisions by intimate partners and the disposition of material assets due to death or separation.


The notion that state enforcement of the Biblical marriage model is appropriate both because marital faithfulness is covered by the last six and not the first four commandments[5] and because studies indicate the children of heterosexual marriages are better off socially, emotionally, and educationally than the children of same-sex marriages,[6] runs into trouble when we consider the inspired reasoning found in the first chapter of the book of Romans.  Here the apostle Paul argues that idolatry—a sin obviously addressed by the first table of the Decalogue (Ex. 20:3-5)—bears responsibility for a host of social evils (Rom. 1:23-31), including murder and lack of mercy (verses 29,31).  Therefore, using the logic of many seeking to outlaw gay marriage, a case could be made that prohibiting idolatry is also in the interest of a non-theocratic state, because such worship invites the radical moral decay described in the above passage.  But few would argue, I suspect, that Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox Christians, Buddhists, and others who venerate graven images should, therefore, have their religious freedom curtailed.


Ideas have consequences.  So do lifestyle choices.  So does speech.  Some of these consequences will be good, and others evil.  This is the risk society takes when it embraces liberty of conscience.  One thinks of the misguided efforts by certain ones to criminalize so-called “hate” speech.  The problem is, hatred is an opinion, and a free country cannot rightly seek to regulate or outlaw opinions.  Jonathan Rauch—a gay atheist, no less—wisely observes regarding those who hate him because of his lifestyle:


I will criticize and excoriate them.  But I will not hurt them, and I insist that they not hurt me.  I want unequivocal, no-‘buts’ protection from violence and vandalism.  But that’s enough.  I do not want policemen and judges inspecting opinions.[7]


I submit that policemen and judges inspecting the intimate choices of citizens is no better than such persons inspecting opinions.  These questions belong solely within the realm of theological and moral reasoning, evangelism, the conscience, and the faith community (if any) where one holds membership.  Civil authority is best kept at arm’s length from these matters.


Some have used Ellen White’s reference to Sir Walter Scott’s description of the moral climate encouraged by the French Revolution, in particular the transitory character of marriage made possible by the Revolution’s laws.[8] But to use this single reference to a historian’s description of this event as a call for Seventh-day Adventists to lobby the secular state for a strictly Biblical definition of what can legally be termed marriage is a bit of a stretch.  The two-or-three-witnesses principle in determining the consensus of inspired counsel comes to mind (Deut. 17:6; 19:15; Matt. 18:16; I Cor. 14:29; II Cor. 13:1; 1 Tim. 5:19; Heb. 10:28).  Ellen White’s use of Scott’s description of the marriage laws in France during the Revolution is better seen as a general reference to the moral chaos of French society during this time than as a direct command for Christians to enforce the Biblical particulars of marriage through civil law.


The Polygamy Question


Many, when discussing the government’s role in the regulation of marriage, will ask if polygamy might end up legal if the arguments for gay marriage were followed to their logical end.  But thoughtful reflection is soon constrained to recognize how quickly such a practice, if legalized, would fall of its own weight, except perhaps among the fundamentalist Mormons already doing it.


Stop and think about it.  A man marries several wives early in life, then in later years grows weary of them and adds two or three younger women to his harem.  Just one of the older wives, growing jealous of her younger rivals and thus initiating divorce proceedings, could prove financially ruinous to the husband, especially if he continues supporting his other wives and all their children, plus paying child support for the offspring of the wife divorcing him.  A class-action suit by more than one jealous wife would leave the poor fellow ready for food stamps, especially when one considers how divorce laws in much of Western society split the material assets of the separating partners more or less evenly.


Alcohol Prohibition


Many Adventists who support a role for civil government in the regulation of consensual morality have raised Ellen White’s support of alcohol Prohibition as an example of such laws.  The present writer maintains that Ellen White’s stand on this issue lies on a completely different plane from laws seeking to regulate choices such as marriage, adult sexual behavior, and related practices.  Here’s why:


Alcohol is a physically destructive substance, more hurtful to the physical health of its users than many of the drugs approved regularly by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.  If alcohol were discovered for the first time in our day, it would likely be banned as a consumptive product in every civilized nation on earth.  It is tolerated for the sole reason that it is a traditional indulgence.


The failure of Prohibition in the United States was significantly due to the Prohibition movement’s failure to properly educate the public regarding the physical harm and abuse resulting from alcohol consumption—a course Ellen White strongly supported in her own writings as a precursor to the legal measures she recommended.[9] We can see a definite contrast between the failure to educate along these lines regarding the alcohol issue a century ago, and the very different results in our own time of educating the public regarding the dangers of tobacco, and the dramatic lowering of resistance to laws against smoking in public places that has resulted from this education.


During my early years of pastoring in New York City, the mayor outlawed smoking in all public facilities, including bars.  At first, there were those who grumbled, but in time their resistance abated.  The reason?  Even people who persist in smoking fully understand its physical dangers, and are thus not likely to campaign for their right to inflict such injury both on themselves and those around them who resent having to breathe secondhand smoke.


In short, to compare the consequences of consuming a physically hurtful substance with the spiritual and even social consequences of intimate relationships between adults, is to compare apples with oranges.  While not disputing the negative social impact of fornication, adultery, or homosexual practice, the same could be said of many ideologies and behaviors tolerated within the purview of religious and other freedoms.  We’ve already noted the negative social and other consequences within the home of marriage between persons of different faiths.  A case might similarly be made for negative psychological and social consequences resulting from the doctrine that human beings must confess their sins—including very private ones—to other human beings, as in the teaching of Roman Catholicism.  After all, the Bible says that “evil communications corrupt good manners” (I Cor. 15:33).[10]


When certain ones speak favorably of “violence and sex in the media” being “restricted or even outlawed”,[11] they don’t perhaps perceive the peril of the Pandora’s Box they suggest opening.  If freedom of speech and of the press is curtailed because some view certain expressions thereof as socially harmful, the same principle can curtail the free expression of religious ideas, and on the same grounds.  (Were it not for the reverence in which it is held in conservative Western culture, portions of the Bible itself might not pass the censor’s filter in this regard.  Think Judges 19.)


If certain reading and viewing material can be prohibited by law because certain ones consider it morally or socially offensive, such books as The Great Controversy and The Desire of Ages could suffer a similar fate, on account of the offense Roman Catholics and Jews might take to these books.


For those who cherish genuine freedom, in other words, this is not a wise road to travel.




While each of the Ten Commandments correctly lying within the purview of the secular state can be found on the second table of the Decalogue, no inspired statement places all of the last six commandments within that purview.  As much as Bible-believing Christians and others deplore the corrupt morals of contemporary society, liberty and justice for all require that even ideas and practices the majority find offensive be protected, so long as they remain non-coercive toward others.


William Manchester, in his in-depth narrative of U.S. history from 1932 to 1972, writes:


If liberty is to signify anything substantive, it must also be extended to the last limits of the endurable, shielding under its broad tent the genuinely unpopular champions of causes which the majority regards as reprehensible.[12]


For those such as ourselves, who hold to an unpopular faith, it behooves us to define liberty of conscience in a free society as generously as possible.

Click here to read the rest of this series on Religious Liberty.



[1] See Nicholas P. Miller, The Reformation and the Remnant: The Reformers Speak to Today’s Church (Nampa, ID: Pacific Press Publishing Assn, 2016), p. 69-71, 80.

[2] Ellen G. White, The Great Controversy, p. 201.

[3] Ibid, p. 442.

[4] Miller, The Reformation and the Remnant, pp. 71-72,83-84.

[5] Ibid, p. 80.

[6] Ibid, pp. 82-86.

[7] Jonathan Rauch, “Thought Crimes,” The New Republic, Oct. 7, 1991, p. 20.

[8] White, The Great Controversy, p. 270.

[9] Ellen White, The Ministry of Healing, p. 346.

[10] Unless otherwise noted, all Bible texts are from the King James Version.

[11] Miller, The Reformation and the Remnant, p. 72.

[12] William Manchester, The Glory and the Dream: A Narrative History of America, 1932-1972 (New York: Bantam Books, 1974), p. 1,300.

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About the author

Kevin Paulson

Pastor Kevin Paulson holds a Bachelor’s degree in theology from Pacific Union College, a Master of Arts in systematic theology from Loma Linda University, and a Master of Divinity from the SDA Theological Seminary at Andrews University. He served the Greater New York Conference of Seventh-day Adventists for ten years as a Bible instructor, evangelist, and local pastor. He writes regularly for Liberty magazine and serves as a script writer for the It Is Written television ministry and other media ministries within the church. He also serves as the leading webmaster of, where many articles by him and others can be found which address a variety of denominational issues. He continues to hold evangelistic and revival meetings throughout the North American Division and beyond, and is a sought-after seminar speaker relative to current issues in the Seventh-day Adventist Church. He presently resides in Berrien Springs, Michigan.