Even setting aside the abuse of power widespread in religious denominations today — sexual abuse scandals, for one — churches diminish themselves by means of a badly tarnished understanding of Western religious life, and thus do no small amount of disservice to their congregations.

For example, the religious laws Jews and Christians think they know best, they actually know least.

I’m speaking of the Ten Commandments. For hundreds of years, theologians and practitioners of the major churches have asserted a consensus about what these laws mean. They are wrong.

The First Commandment (King James Version) to “have none other gods before me,” does not mean to love and give your life to the God of your denominational faith.

The Fourth Commandment to “keep the Sabbath day (holy),” is not an admonition to go to church and cease all gainful work on the Sabbath day, although those things are rightly done under the commandment.

The Tenth Commandment against “(coveting) thy neighbor’s wife,” does not refer merely to lusting in your heart or mind after a married woman. Understandings of the other seven are equally limited.

The problem with modern religion is we have completely misunderstood the nature of religion in the ancient world in general and in the Bible in specific. Religion then did not consist mainly of creeds of faith or belief as it does today. Then, religion encompassed church and state, science and law, economics and social life all combined.

That is why priests were employed in all kinds of secular civic activities including banking and law enforcement, in addition to their religious sacrifice duties. The kingdom of God gathered together all people and institutions acting in concert in a politically unified community.

In actual fact, each one of the ten great laws is about how to best do government, how to organize and operate a specific kind of humanitarian community — a democratic republic. None actually deals with religious doctrine at all.

The laws deal instead with the separation and sharing of domestic political power and international policy. They prohibit aristocracy and ungainly luxury. They empower private enterprise and religious freedom. They deal with public health and public education.

Sound like the ten commandments of your grandparents or your current priest or pastor or rabbi? The Ten Commandments are a constitutional law charter, not a creed for a private or a public established church.

The particular literary form of the seventeen verses that make up the Decalogue is the standard legal one for making treaties among ancient Near East nations. It was rightly used in this case to loosely bind together separate political clans or tribes like the twelve Israelite lineages into a confederation.

Misunderstanding the laws that Moses wrote, and Jesus said would never fade away, has had consequences. Churches have hurt the very people they desired to help by directing them off the path prescribed by the founders of their faith.

The church focuses on good things like sacraments, tithings, love, forgiveness, grace, atonement, justification, and the afterlife. But it should also be focusing on the huge amount of terrain those spiritual concepts leave out: criminal and civil law; wealth, taxation, and inheritance; civic education and public health; legislation and politics.

Robert Kimball Shinkoskey is a retired state government worker who writes about history, politics and religion, including “Democracy and the Ten Commandments.”

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