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Thatís an Order

The Ten Commandments . . . or not?

by Brian Radcliffe

Suitable for Key Stage 4/5


To encourage us to consider how we take decisions about right and wrong.

Preparation and materials

  • You will need a leader and one reader, who will need time to rehearse with the leader prior to the assembly. The leader and reader will need to emphasize the words ‘ask’, request, plead and command.

  • You will also need to be familiar with the Ten Commandments listed in Exodus 20.


Leader (speaking to Reader): If I want you to do something for me, what would be the best way for me to approach you?

Reader: There are many ways. You could simply ask me.

Leader: What sort of response would I get if I asked you?

Reader: Probably a fairly immediate one, depending on what you wanted me to do and what I was doing at the time.

Leader: If I made a request of you, would it make any difference?

Reader: Making a request implies that youre giving me more time to consider my response. It sounds a lot more formal.

Leader: What if I were to plead with you?

Reader: Now youre starting to play with my emotions. Youre taking into account how I feel about you. Youre implying that, if I say yes, it will please you, but if I say no, youll be disappointed.

Leader: But what if I commanded you?

Reader: Thats taking things to a whole new level. Its an order. Ive no choice in the matter. If I dont obey, Ill have to suffer the consequences. Im not happy about being commanded to do anything.

Leader: What I think Ill do then is to say ‘Thank you’ and ask you to take a seat.

Reader: And my immediate response is to say ‘My pleasure,’ and Im off!

Pause while the reader returns to his/her seat.

Leader: If you were to ask Jewish and Christian believers how they make decisions about the right or wrong way to live, most of them would start with the Ten Commandments. They believe that the Ten Commandments form a list of dos and donts that God gave to Moses, the leader of the Israelite nation thousands of years ago. Can anybody tell me any of the commandments?

Listen to a range of responses. Its not necessary to complete the ten, simply to get a flavour.

The understanding is that God wants people to live in a particular way. He doesnt ask them to do so. He doesnt request them to do so. He doesnt plead with them to do so. He COMMANDS them to live in this way.

How do you feel about that, about being commanded? Many people feel that its too prescriptive, whereas others simply dont like taking an order. There are also those who would argue that the Ten Commandments are irrelevant because they dont believe in God anyway. Then again, many people would read the Ten Commandments and see them as a good set of values to guide how we should live.

Time for reflection

How do you yourself decide what is right and what is wrong? You could start by putting yourself at the centre: if its good for me, its right; if its bad for me, its wrong. Sometimes, we all act a bit like that, but many of us would agree that its not practical most of the time. We cant say, ‘I want that money, so Ill steal it’ or ‘I dont like that person, so Ill kill them.’ Wed all end up at war with one another, serving our own self-interest. However, unfortunately, there are some people in the world who do act like that.

Alternatively, we could consider whats good and whats bad for others. At least wed be looking beyond ourselves. Complications arise, however, because what might be good for one group might be wrong for others. This leads some to argue that we have to search for what is known as the greater good. Whats right is whats beneficial for the largest number of people. That doesnt make it easy for groups or individuals who find themselves in the minority, though.

Then again, many people believe that we each have an innate sense of right and wrong inside us, a blend of our genes, our family and the society in which we are brought up. Its instinctive. However, our genes and our families are different, so our instinctive sense of right and wrong may not always coincide.

In fact, the law of the country already lays down rules for us about right and wrong in many areas of life. We dont have to make a judgement, we simply have to comply with the law that Parliament has set. However, there are times when people may regard a law as unjust and disregard it. One such example could be speed restrictions. Some people may see them as inconvenient and be tempted to break the law. They might not consider that they are doing the wrong thing, but they will get in trouble if they are caught.

The beauty of the Ten Commandments is that they are based on a sense of relationship. The first three commandments concern what we think about God, and his importance in our life. Christians believe that it is only when thats established that we can take decisions about work/life balance, family relationships, murder, sex, honesty and possessions. Christians and Jews believe this to be fundamental. Right and wrong are about being guided by a God who is trusted and seen as superior to us. One way in which some Christians make this work in everyday dilemmas is to ask the question, ‘What would Jesus do?’ Its an exercise of the imagination, but it can be helpful.

So, where does that leave us when we are trying to decide what is right and what is wrong? For those of us who believe in a God, guidance from above is helpful, but we still need to make some personal choices. For those of us who regard ourselves as atheists, we must develop some code of our own, using our own experiences and those of others, possibly taking the Ten Commandments as a reference point.

Dear Lord,
Thank you for the guidance that you give about whats right and wrong.
Remind us of your principles in the dilemmas that we face.
May we all consider the importance of others.
May we all seek to care for others and to walk in peace.

Publication date: November 2019   (Vol.21 No.11)    Published by SPCK, London, UK.
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