Have you ever wondered if the Ten Commandments are in any kind of order? With the summary of the law given in the New Testament, we know that the law covers two basic obligations: love for God and neighbor (Matt. 22:36–40). The exclusive love that we owe to God comes first, and that includes the ways we worship Him, honor His name, and set apart time for His worship. The first four commandments, thus, provide us with the content of our love for God, what Jesus calls “the great and first commandment.”
The second is like it. This is the love we owe to others, and it is unfolded in commandments five to ten. Here we are faced with a bit of a puzzle when it comes to the question of ordering the last six commandments. The first commandment in this section is to honor our fathers and mothers. Next come the prohibitions against murder, adultery, theft, bearing false witness, and coveting. There seems to be a descending order beginning with the sixth commandment. Taking a life would surely be the worst thing we could do against someone. After that, it would seem that violating the chastity of others, taking their property, spoiling their names, and coveting what they have represents a movement from the most serious to the least. If so, why would “honor your father and mother” be placed before murder? Is it really that important?
An answer emerges when we appreciate more fully the scope of the fifth commandment. On this we find great help from the Westminster Larger Catechism of 1647: “The general scope of the fifth commandment is the performance of those duties which we mutually owe in our several relations, as inferiors, superiors, or equals” (Q. 126). In the understanding of the Westminster divines, the fifth commandment embraces all the duties that we owe to others, whether they are our “superiors” (those senior to us in age, gifts, or authority, whether in family, church, or state); whether they are “inferiors” (those junior to us in some way); or whether they are “equals.” (The term inferiors might grate somewhat in our ears today, but the Westminster divines did not intend the negative connotations we associate with the term. It simply denoted those who were under others in some way, whether by age, gifts, or authority.)
Where did the Westminster divines get the idea that the fifth commandment extends so broadly in its application, covering not only the way children relate to their parents but all human relationships, so that a teacher is to be honored as one’s father or mother, or that an employee is to be regarded as a son or daughter? They found it in Scripture. For example, in 1 Timothy 5:1–2, Paul exhorts the young pastor Timothy: “Do not rebuke an older man but encourage him as you would a father, younger men as brothers, older women as mothers, younger women as sisters, in all purity.” Family structure is used to guide Timothy in pastor-congregation relations.
Paul was not a man to exhort others according to rules he did not apply to himself. In 1 Thessalonians 2, he describes his own ministry to the Thessalonian people in familial terms, as being “gentle among you, like a nursing mother taking care of her own children” (v. 7) and “like a father with his children” (v. 11). Correspondingly, having established the church with leaders to care for the congregation, he exhorted the people “to respect those who labor among you and are over you in the Lord and admonish you” (5:12). Throughout the letter he addresses the people with the familial term brothers seventeen times.
The tendency to view human society along family lines begins at the very start of the Bible. Jabal was “father of those who dwell in tents and have livestock” (Gen. 4:20). His brother Jubal was “father of all those who play the lyre and pipe” (v. 21). These identifications are not stressing the biological connection between these men and their descendants, but their place as the originators of trades and skills. They introduced these practices and others learned from them. Similarly, Elisha saw Elijah as his father in the faith and in the work of ministry (2 Kings 2:12). Others who followed after them were “sons of the prophets” (2:3; 4:1; 5:22).
By the use of familial terms in these extended ways, both in church and society, the Scriptures are teaching us that the family unit is the foundation of all human society, structuring all relationships according to the principles that make for a happy and prosperous family. It is fitting, therefore, that the fifth commandment introduces the commandments in the Decalogue that govern our relationships to others. The sixth through tenth commandments, then, are specific applications of the foundational principle laid down in the fifth commandment.