An Explanation of the Catholic Ten Commandments

Understandably, Protestants try to find ways to demonstrate that the authority of the Catholic Church is illegitimate or that Catholic doctrines are somehow corrupt. The more Catholics they find who can’t refute an argument, the more effective that argument appears to be. Even after arguments have been refuted by knowledgeable Catholics, Protestants often keep using them. With a bit of homework, Catholics can prepare themselves to address persistent misconceptions.

A classic Protestant argument has popped up on my radar from three different sources lately, so I think it might be good to address it in a public way, in order to help my fellow Catholics.

The argument goes something like this: “Did you know that the Catholic version of the Ten Commandments is different? They re-arranged the numbers, taking out the second commandment and splitting the tenth commandment into two! Of course we can see past the scheme of these sneaky Catholics… by removing God’s clear commandment against making graven images, they can get away with worshiping their statues!”


Before we go any further, I need to clarify a few things. First of all, Catholics are strictly prohibited from worshiping/adoring anyone or anything other than God (this is serious stuff). Secondly, the definition of “worship” can be a debate in itself, and if it comes down to a Protestant insisting that a Catholic person is worshiping something involuntarily… well that dog just ain’t gonna hunt. Thirdly, although the “ten commandments” are referred to in Exodus 34:28, nowhere in the Bible are they assigned numbers. The numbering of the commandments is an extra-biblical matter settled (for Christians) by Church authority.

Right off the bat we can see that the Protestants are appealing to tradition in the way they number the commandments. But, setting that aside, let’s proceed…

There are two places in the Old Testament where we see the Commandments listed. First, let’s take a look at Exodus 20:3-17

3 you shall have no other gods before me.

4 You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. 5 You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, 6 but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.

7 You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not acquit anyone who misuses his name.

8 Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. 9 Six days you shall labor and do all your work. 10 But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. 11 For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it.

12 Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.

13 You shall not murder.

14 You shall not commit adultery.

15 You shall not steal.

16 You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.

17 You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.

Protestants claim that verse 3 should be kept separate from 4-6, and that dividing verse 17 into separate references against coveting your neighbor’s wife and possessions is a stretch by Catholics in order to fill out the number of commandments to ten. However, let’s pause for a moment and consider a slightly awkward question…

Why are Protestants so determined to number wives in the same category as possessions, when Catholics are pointing out that it’s not necessary?

But it gets stickier from there. The case can biblically be made that verses 4-6 are a further clarification of the larger point made in verse 3, which is to not worship anything other than God (note also how verses 9-11 further clarify verse 8 regarding the Sabbath). There is good reason to not interpret words like “graven image” or “likeness” (depending on your translation) literalistically, because God instructed the people to make images, as seen in Exodus 25:18, Numbers 21:8-9, and 1 Kings 6:23-28. Finally, a blanket rejection of statues and images puts many Protestants in a tight spot, if their households contain photographs of loved ones or little statues in Nativity scenes during the Christmas season, or if they appreciate statues of historical figures.

You might still be thinking that dividing verse 17 into two distinct commandments (and ones apparently out of order, for that matter) is a bit of a stretch. That’s fair enough, and it brings us to the other list in the Old Testament of the Ten Commandments: Deuteronomy 5:6-21. This list is just as legitimate as the one found in Exodus 20, by the way. I encourage you to read it for yourself, but for the sake of brevity I’ll just quote verse 21:

21 Neither shall you covet your neighbor’s wife.

Neither shall you desire your neighbor’s house, or field, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.

Here we can see two distinctly different commandments… the ones Catholics know to be the 9th and the 10th.


This was not a comprehensive examination of the subject, but hopefully enough explanation to be helpful.

For a much better explanation:

-Ben 10/17/14

6 Comments on “An Explanation of the Catholic Ten Commandments”

  1. neodecaussade says:

    Dear Frontier Ruminations,
    I will pray for you. God bless,

  2. Frank Webb says:

    Hi Ben
    I guess I would ask… what difference does it make? The command still exists regardless of how you want to divide or number it.
    Regarding the cherubim, worship is not stated. Mosses bronze snake in the wilderness, worship is not mentioned. In Fact … king Hezekiah destroyed it because the Israelite’s were burning incense to it (in other words a form of worship). 2 Kings 18:4. In other words this was not acceptable. Scripture will always interpret Scripture. John 3 has Jesus discussing the serpent to Nicodemus. The imagery is that just as the Israelites looked to the serpent not to die (not to be bit, feel pain or show symptoms of the venom), we should look to Christ for eternal life ( not that we will not deal with hardship, pain, or show the effects a broken world has on us).
    Just throwing that out there
    God bless

    • Ben says:

      Hi Frank,

      I really appreciate your thoughtful comment.

      It sounds like we’re saying very similar things. You seem to be affirming that the commandment to worship ONLY God is the essential point to grasp, and this is what Catholics also believe.

      To quote Tim Staples:
      “Verses 3 and 5 make clear that this commandment is not simply condemning making statues; It is condemning making gods that you bow down to or serve. In a word, this first commandment forbids idolatry, i.e., the worship of anything or anyone other than God. The Catholic Church condemns this as well.”

      Yes, the commandments are there regardless of how they’re numbered, but they should be read with the proper interpretation, and the other verses that we’ve both mentioned help to provide that interpretation.

      What difference does it make? That’s a good question, and the answer is that people take the numbering of the commandments quite seriously, even though the Bible does not specify the numbering. We know from Exodus 34:28 that there are indeed “ten”, but numbering the commandments is not cut-and-dried, as Tim Staples points out:

      “If you count the ‘you shall nots’ along with the two positive commandments of keeping holy the Sabbath and honoring father and mother, you end up with 13 commandments. So the actual numbering of the commandments depends upon which ‘you shall nots’ you lump together as one commandment and which ones you separate. And in the end, which ‘you shall nots’ you lump together depends upon your theology.”

      In a nutshell, perhaps the difference can be summed up this way:

      Catholics regard wives as separate from possessions (see Deut. 5:21), whereas Protestants seem to be okay numbering them together. Protestants regard “other gods” as separate from “idols” (terms vary by translation), while Catholics seem to be okay numbering them together.

      Blessings to you as well!


  3. Linda says:

    I find this to be clear, thoughtful, and uncontroversial. But that’s me. 🙂 I, also, appreciated Frank’s input.