Should those who follow Jesus take oaths? Jesus says in Matt 5:33-37:
"Again you have heard that it was said to those of old, 'You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform to the Lord what you have sworn.' But I say to you, Do not take an oath at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not take an oath by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let what you say be simply 'Yes' or 'No'; anything more than this comes from the evil one." (ESV) It seems that Jesus prohibiting us from taking oaths of any kind. But is this the case?
What is an oath? Well, wikipedia defines an oath as "a statement of fact or a promise calling upon something or someone that the oath maker considers sacred, usually God, as a witness to the binding nature of the promise or the truth of the statement of fact." (When in doubt, turn to wikipedia!)
In considering Jesus' teaching on this, one cannot help but think of the many oaths we take in life: as we lay our hand upon a bible and swear to fulfill our civic duty in court, or in our wedding as we taken a solemn vow to God that we will love our spouse as God has ordained. One could think of oaths made by doctors, lawyers and clergy. When I think of oaths, I always think of the ceremony surrounding the presidential inauguration when the president-elect places his hand on a Bible and swears to uphold the Constitution. Our whole culture depends on the validity and truthfulness of the oaths we take. Our courts, our families, and our government falls apart if we do not honor these oaths.
Jesus' teaching on this oaths prompts a major question: Does God disapprove of such vow taking? Most Christians throughout history have answered this question with a resounding, "No."
Many committed Christians have served in court (as witnesses and as jurors) through out our country's history and many of our presidents have themselves been committed Christians. (Not to mention Christians in other countries and at other times making similar vows.) These people saw no contradiction between Jesus' words in Matthew and the oaths they took. Indeed, within the tradition of my own church (the Anglican Church), we have a specific statement on this in our Articles of Religion. Article 39 states: "As we confess that vain and rash Swearing is forbidden Christian men by our Lord Jesus Christ, and James his Apostle, so we judge, that Christian Religion doth not prohibit, but that a man may swear when the Magistrate requireth, in a cause of faith and charity, so it be done according to the Prophet's teaching in justice, judgment, and truth."
So, how is it that the many Christians I mentioned above and the Article just quoted come to such a conclusion? Is this a violation of common sense and a plain reading of Scripture to make oaths as a Christian? Let's consider a few things in order to answer this question:
1. What Jesus is really saying? First, one must look more closely at Jesus' teaching in Matthew 5 and then consider this teaching in the context of Jesus' other statements on this.
So, what is Jesus really prohibiting? If we read carefully, see that Jesus is actually prohibiting rash or dishonest oath-taking. In v. 34, he says: "not to take an oath at all," but in the sentences that follow, Jesus lists examples of what this command means. He says that we should not take oaths by "heaven... earth... or by Jerusalem... or by your head." Why did says this? Jesus is confronting the ways people in his day would make oaths with no intent of fulfilling them. The Jews of Jesus' day found it expedient to swear, not by God's Name, but by these lesser things. Apparently they hoped the intensity of their oath would be lessened by swearing on things not as important as God, and therefore they did not feel as bound to these types of oaths. (It's sort of like promising 'hope to die, stick a needle in my eye' but with your fingers crossed behind your back.) They were making impressive-sounding oaths ("I swear by heaven itself!") but with no intent of follow through.
Jesus seeks in his teaching to show the fallacy of this logic by pointing out that God is so powerful and present that you cannot escape Him and His judgment against lying. Even choosing some lesser object by which to swear does not "distance" us from God, for heaven is God's throne and earth is his footstool and Jerusalem is his chosen city. (Jesus uses a similar argument in Matt 23:16-22). Even our own bodies, which are made in God's image, are under his control and therefore carry with them a sacredness. Swearing by pig slop won't lessen His desire to see you be truthful in your vow. Jesus is reinforcing the teaching of the Prophet Jeremiah (alluded to in Article 39) who said that swearing in God's Name, but doing so without "truth, justice, and righteousness," is not approved. (Jer 4:2). Since all oath-taking, even if it's not in God's Name, is equivalent to swearing in God's Name, breaking any godly oath throws mud on God's Name.
One other word about oaths that stems from this passage. If an oath is indeed going to be said in keeping with God's Name (that is, his holy and righteous character) then it must be a true oath, and it must be concerned with a just and right action. A Christian cannot take an oath (in God's Name or not) that is not in keeping with God's character. These excludes lying, but also taking 'oaths' to sin. (Consider Jephthah's case in Judges 11). One cannot swear in God's Name to kill their neighbor, or lie to their spouse, etc.
So then, Jesus tells us in v. 37: "Let your 'Yes' be 'Yes', and your 'No' be 'No'," anything beyond on this, any justification you might offer, is simply evil. Jesus is not condemning oath-taking, but ungodly oath taking: lying, justifying of lying, and taking oaths we simply should not take. Jesus is correcting a misuse of the 3rd commandment: You shall not take the Name of the Lord your God in vain.
2. What did Jesus' Scriptures teach? The The Law and Prophets that Jesus says He did not come to abolish also teach this kind of oath taking. There are many many places we could quote from the OT that legitimize oath taking (indeed I have already made reference to two of them), but the existence of the third commandment will suffice: for what good is it to have a commandment which teaches us to not invoke the Name of God lightly if we are not to invoke God's Name? Indeed, God himself makes oaths in the OT. Jesus, who voices again and again that He is not contradicting the OT but fulfilling it, is in continuity with these teaches.
3. How did Jesus' followers receive this command? If anyone would've understood what Jesus meant when he spoke, it would be his disciples. When Jesus is not clear, we see them ask clarifying questions (which we don't get to do exactly). Also, if one is going to believe in the unity of Scripture, then what is said about oath-taking outside the Gospels matters just as much as what is said inside. We must always look to Scripture to understand Scripture. So, we must consider the apostle's actions and writings to see how they handled this. This teaching was not forgotten by the apostle's, as James shows us (James 5;12), but how did they live it? Repeatedly we see the Apostle Paul practiced and approved oath taking (2 Cor 1:23; Rom 9:1; Gal 1:10; Acts 5:37; 6:6; 18:18). It would seem that this oath-taking was not forbidden in the apostolic church.
In summary, we must remember this: Whenever Christians lie, whether we invoke his Name specifically or not, we are still defaming the Name of God, because we are called by his name.
So, you should ask yourself: Do I follow through on my promises? Do I spin my promises with excuses so that I won't have to fulfill them? Have I taken any vows in this life (baptism vows, marriage vows, or an oath associated with my vocation)? Am I honoring my word to others?
"The LORD detests lying lips, but he delights in those who are truthful" (Proverbs 12:22)
For other posts in this series click here.