Understanding Commandments

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by Stephen R. Marsh

Too often commandments look like a crazy quilt of random historical accidents with a few that make sense to us.  This essay is about the different types of commandments, how they fit together and how they make sense, even if it doesn’t seem that they make sense to us right now as we look at them.

Commandments do not exist in isolation and they are almost always a sub-set of available commandments that would accomplish much the same thing.

Types of Commandments

  • Boundary marker commandments  Sewing blue threads into the hem of your clothing is a good example of this type of commandment.
  • Message commandments  These exist to send us a message and help us with reminders.
  • Negative boundary marker commandments Avoiding the other side’s boundary markers: in our culture, not wearing a gang’s colors when you are not part of a gang might be one of those.
  • Sacrificial thresholds Commitment commandments.
  • Improvement commandments Ones aimed at having someone do better than the culture they start with, such as rules about slaves.
  • Guidance commandments The changed emphasis on not using tobacco that began to be emphasized by the Church at about the time cigarettes were dramatically changed is a good example.
  • Core commandments Not immediately essential ones (e.g. any ordinance you can receive vicariously).
  • Core which you must avoid (e.g. not blaspheming against the Holy Ghost).

Many commandments overlap.  Not eating pork was once a boundary marker, as eating pork at one time connected a person with the worship of particular gods.  Not eating pork was also a guidance commandment as certain pork-born diseases were at one time common, dangerous, and incurable.  Circumcision is both a boundary marker (a sign of the Abrahamic covenant) and a sacrifice threshold (a cost to belong) when applied to grown men.

Boundary marker commandments

 These exist to allow a group to identify who is a part of it, who is not, to mark the boundary between a group and those outside of the group.  Cultures create these if they do not have other rules, because in order to be a group, a group needs some sort of marker of who belongs and who does not.  The blue thread commandment I started with above is a good example. The commandment comes as a part of the law of Moses.  The Torah states in Numbers 15:38:

Speak to the children of Israel, and say to them, that they shall make themselves fringes on the corners of their garments throughout their generations, and they shall put on the corner fringe a blue (tekhelet) thread.

Wearing the tzitzit is also commanded in Deuteronomy 22:12: “You shall make yourself twisted threads, on the four corners of your garment with which you cover yourself.”  Formal clothing, the showing of respect, often is a part of a boundary marker, and the marker changes across cultures.  Our culture and the modern LDS Church does not use blue thread to allow people to easily determine who is a member and who is not.  It uses other markers instead.

Message commandments

These are often also combined with boundary markers.  They are commandments that send a message or help us to remember things.  ”Do this to remember that” is often the pattern such a commandment has.  Tefillin or phylacteries are a good example from the law of Moses.  Wearing Tefillin or binding them on the door posts marks your person or your home as a part of the group.

In addition, they are commanded to be worn as a sign or a reminder of things God has done.  They send a message of things to remember. Negative boundary marker commandments. These are often part of admonitions not to send the wrong message, but they are commandments to avoid marking yourself as part of another group. I’ve given the example of not wearing gang colors when you do not belong to a gang as the sort of thing that we might have for our day.

The New Testament issue of “meat sacrificed to idols” was another one of these commandments that they debated.  All of the discussion about modesty is tied up, in part, with the issue of communicating which group you belong to as well.  These commandments exist to keep us from marking ourselves as part of the wrong group just as boundary marker commandments to help us mark ourselves as belonging to God.

Sacrificial thresholds

When people sacrifice or have a price for membership, they have a greater level of commitment and a greater satisfaction in the investment they make. It is one of the reasons that people who do not live together before marriage tend to be happier in marriage.  Some commandments appear to have, among other purposes, creating a threshold that improves our satisfaction in life and our commitment to God.  They usually have other meanings as well.

Circumcision in the Old Testament was a sacrifice, a price for entry.  It also was intended to remind people that they were part of a covenant.  It combined both purposes. Another good example of an overlapping sacrifice and other commandment is the one of premarital chastity. Couples who do not have sex before marriage are more committed, happier and less likely to be divorced than those who do not, and one of the reasons is that the level of sacrifice is increased.  Sacrifice and commitment has the psychological effect of making people happier and more committed to the choices they make. I believe chastity has other benefits as well, but it makes a good example because of the amount of statistical evidence that supports pre-marital chastity in spite of all the arguments for the contrary positions.

Improvement commandments

The easiest examples of these are the laws on slavery in the Old Testament.  For example, if slaves escaped and reached one of the forty cities in Israel, they were entitled to live free and not be forced back into bondage or discriminated against because they were escaped slaves.  The net effect was that almost every slave in Israel was only ten miles or so from freedom.  Rather than endorsing slavery, such commandments appear to be aimed at improving the way the culture interacted with slaves.

Christ was clear about some of these commandments. For example, when he said, “It was said unto you of old times, thou shalt not kill, but I say unto you that he who is angry” or “…Thou shalt not commit adultery, but I say unto you he that lusts in his heart” he is pointing out that the earlier commandment is an improvement commandment, not the final resting place of the disciple of Christ. “Thou shall not kill” is an improvement over the previous rule.

Looking back, it seems like an awfully low bar.  But many, many commandments and rules are that sort of rule that exists to raise the bar, not to set the target. Indeed, it seems that much of what Christ addressed was the mistaking of improvement commandments for privilege or the final goal.  Any time the Lord starts with “because of the hardness of your hearts …” that is not a good sign in terms of seeing the commandment given as anything but an improvement commandment.

  Guidance commandments

In the ancient world, wine was generally about as strong as weak beer.  The guidance in the Old Testament is just to not drink wine all day.  To quoteTo consume the amount of alcohol that is in two martinis by drinking wine containing three parts water to one part wine, one would have to drink over twenty-two glasses.  That is, in the Old Testament world, drinking wine as they drank it, you would have to drink a lot (twenty-two glasses) to get the effect a modern person might experience in a couple of modern drinks.

More recent guidance, in an environment where wine is both cheap and much stronger and not needed to make drinking water safe, is to just avoid it as the opportunity for addiction and other problems.  With stronger wine, the incidence of such problems is so much greater and the need for wine (in order to make drinking water safe) is much less.  The guidance for our times is different than the guidance for other times.

Another good example of a guidance commandment is the Word of Wisdom.  It became much more important and focused on as a commandment when the way tobacco was cured changed to make it much more addictive, especially in cigarettes (the acidity change meant that nicotine could be absorbed through the lungs rather than having to be dissolved in the saliva). Guidance commandments give us guidance that is appropriate to our times, and generally move us towards where we should be.  They may or may not also be improvement commandments.

Core, but not essential

Belief in Christ is essential to salvation.  Baptism is essential to salvation.  Yet if people die without ever hearing of Christ or without being baptized, they can be saved.  Proxy ordinances (e.g., baptism for the dead) allow vicarious compliance with such commandments. These commandments are core to the gospel, but not essential in this life.

Think about the implications for the laws and commandments God might give some people in some times.  There are commandments and rules that are core to salvation, but not essential for the individual to obtain while in this life.

Thoughts

It is important to realize that many commandments have their value in that they are a commandment.  A boundary marker is useful only if it marks a boundary when the majority of believers obey it.  Which boundary marker God commands is not so important as the existence of the marker and obedience.  If a boundary marker is ignored by enough people, it ceases to mark a boundary, and everyone is hurt, even if the specific boundary marker is not that significant.

Regarding the tzitzit (the blue thread in the hem of the garment in the Old Testament), ask yourself:  what if God had commanded red thread instead?  The tzitzit in red would not have been any less useful than it was with blue thread or would have been with brown thread — as long as everyone still followed the commandment.  The color choice was not as important as that there was a choice of colors and that everyone obeyed it.

Not wearing wool mixed with linen clothing loses its effectiveness as a boundary marker if only those who can not afford such clothes do not wear them.  It also loses its value as a reminder if people are not reminded of its meaning.

The flip side of negative boundary markers, is also important.  Consider men who quit wearing their wedding rings (for vanity, not for safety or size or lack of ability to buy).  They send a message about which group they belong to.  On the other hand, avoiding a pagan butcher has no meaning at all for us in our time.

When Paul writes of the law as a “schoolmaster to lead us to Christ” he is also referring to the value of the law of Moses in keeping the Jewish people from assimilation so that the beliefs could be preserved in order to have the right community for the Christ to be born into. He is speaking of laws that created and helped them maintain a community.

The importance of commandments qua commandments is hard to overstate sometimes.  It doesn’t matter that much if you drive on the right side of the road or the left.  What matters is that we have picked a side of the road to drive on and that everyone agrees to use the same side.  Does it matter if we worship on Sunday (as we do in the United States) or on Thursday (as members do in Saudia)?  No, but it does matter that we all pick the same day to gather together. If we all show up willy-nilly at the chapel on different days of the week, we are much less likely to be able to all worship together.

Message commandments are important as well, especially the message part of them (otherwise they become good luck charms or affectations).  We have our own reminders that are easily forgotten as reminders.  After all, how many people remember to think of Christ during the sacrament and how many spend the time thinking about other things?

Thresholds and sacrifice are significant, both for the sacrifice and as a marker of who is truly part of the group.  Avoiding them causes us to avoid commitment.  Avoiding commitment distances us from God.  Often these commandments are tied to other things or important life events (being faithful in marriage is a threshold, it also has a host of other factors as a part of it).  Seeing only one part of them causes us to miss the broader meaning.

The Word of Wisdom is a good example.  It has costs and it causes us to give things up.  It is a boundary marker.  It is guidance for our times.  It has broader meanings and purposes than just one part or just another. All commandments are important, and each has reasons — and most could be replaced by a different set of commandments — if everyone made the same change at the same time — and each loses value for all of us for each person who does not abide by them.

The bottom line is that commandments gain importance from obeying them as part of a group that obeys them and they gain importance in the context of the commandments given in this time and place to us for our good.  They gain in value as they are obeyed, for everyone in the Church, as a group as well as individually.

Next time you wonder about a commandment, or even a social more in the church, ask yourself what category it fits into and what is weakened by a lack of obedience to that commandment.  Ask yourself if you, like Paul, keep the commandment for no other reason as to avoid offending others because of your love for them through Christ.

  • Which commandments have proven useful to you?
  • Which commandments seem to make no sense?
  • How often have you looked at something in the Old Testament and wondered how God could tell someone to do that, but in looking back you realize that it was an improvement on what they had been doing before?
  • How fast do you think commandments and rules can change?
  • When Nephi talks about the Iron Rod and the Mists of Darkness, do you think he really means that each of us will have times when we do not understand what good the commandments we have are doing for us?
Images: (CC) MaryFrancesMain, (CC) Joe Snipes, In Remembrance of Me by Walter Rane (Church History Museum, Intellectual Reserve)

2 Responses to Understanding Commandments

  1. Paul says:

    I’ve been thinking about this post for a while (I confess, since reading it prior to its posting!) and considering the value of commandments in my life. Without being asked by God to do certain things, how do I know I am His? I want to be identified with Him. I want to claim that position. I do not pretend that my obedience alone makes me holy, but my obedience allows me access to Him because it helps me feel more like I am His. I do not believe my feeling this way limits the power of His grace or His plan for me or the atoning sacrifice of His Son, for without those, I would not have the commandments, nor the inclination to keep them.
    The mists of darkness question is interesting. I have often interpreted those as temptation, a means of losing our way. I do not believe disobedience necessarily plunges us into the mist of darkness, unless the mist follows us around waiting for us to sin. I think we live in a complex world that pulls us in many directions, and when we become confused about what is right, what is God’s path for us, we are then in the mist. And in that state, it’s easy to let go and get lost.
    I like to think of the Iron Rod and the LIahona as being complementary, not contradictory, views of obedience and spiritual guidance. In both cases, obedience to God’s will keeps us on His path home. Both provide guidance in times of confusion. Both can provide stability in our lives and markers along our path.
    Thanks for the piece, Stephen.

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