The Decalogue could be considered irrelevant because it belonged to a different era and it cannot address the complex moral dilemmas of modern life, such as abortion and IVF. It is hard to apply absolutist statements such as ‘ do not kill’ to the unborn, due to the debate surrounding when life actually begins.
Furthermore, the Decalogue was addressed to the nation of Israel. God chose Israel. The one thing about which the Jews are absolutely sure is that they are the chosen people: that in some way or other they specially and uniquely belong to God. This makes it irrelevant for other cultures. Morality is often relevant to culture. For example, in some countries such as Saudi Arabia stoning people may be seen as moral, yet most Western countries would disagree. You cannot expect one moral code to be relevant worldwide.
In our modern age of pluralism and secularism, the commandments seem very negative, as they are predominated by prohibitions. As presented by Moses, however, and taken as a whole, they are primarily religious. Relevant to Judeo-Christian believers, not so much to others. And, really, we didn’t need the god of Moses to tell us it’s wrong to commit murder, steal, and commit perjury. That is, or should be, common sense. And societies not based on Judeo-Christian principles have managed to recognize this without the help of Moses. So, to protect our constitutional rights, I have to say that the ten commandments are irrelevant to modern secular society, but may have relevance within the confines of certain religious organisations.
On the other hand, the Commandments can continue to inform moral decision making. Religious or not, society would greatly benefit if people did not kill, steal or commit adultery. The original settlers in America based their laws upon the Ten Commandments, and Samuel Adams – Father of the American Revolution, Signer of the Declaration – wrote, ” In the supposed state of nature, all men are equally bound by the laws of nature, or to speak more properly, the laws of the Creator.” Pope Francis encouraged people to embrace “ the art of living through the Ten Commandments.”
The principles of loving God and your neighbour remain relevant: “ This is love for God: to obey his commands. And his commands are not burdensome” (1 John 5: 3). The Ten Commandments were essentially a summary of the entire Old Testament law. Nine of the Ten Commandments are clearly repeated in the New Testament (all except the command to observe the Sabbath day).
Obviously, if we are loving God, we will not be worshipping false gods or bowing down before idols. If we are loving our neighbours, we will not be murdering them, lying to them, committing adultery against them, or coveting what belongs to them. The Ten Commandments are the very basis of Christian morality. According to S Michael Houdmann, “ The purpose of the Old Testament law is to convict people of our inability to keep the law and point us to our need for Jesus Christ as Saviour.”
Furthermore, the Ten Commandments remind us to slow down. We live in an age of 24/7 connectedness, especially to our jobs. Research shows that longer workweeks are associated with a decline in physical and mental health. The third commandment reminds us that the Sabbath is a needed respite and, as one Jewish rabbi put it, a “ celebration” and a chance to connect with family.
To conclude, the Decalogue remains relevant to Christians but not general society. According to Nick Spencer of the Guardian, the average Briton can quote four of the Ten Commandments from memory. Some 6% of people know all 10 from memory, and six of the Ten Commandments are deemed relevant by a majority of people (sabbath, no other gods, no graven images, and taking God’s name in vain all missed the cut). This suggests that the Decalogue is at least partially relevant to most people.