The Performing of Oaths

The most common thing thought of when the word oath is brought up in conversation is either cursing, as in profanity, or by putting your hand on a Bible and swearing to tell the truth in a court of law. Article 7 of the Schleitheim Confession and Matthew 5, the main scripture passage in this blog article, deals only with the latter. An oath “Is an appeal made to God in public, calling upon him to witness a statement made in connection with an event or fact, past, present or future.”1

“There are two parts to an oath: 1) the oath itself (“I swear”) and 2) the confirmation: what is being sworn by.”2 The purpose of an oath is to ensure that you speak the truth concerning the past, or for the purpose of performing some deed in the future; swearing to act upon your spoken words.

“Again you have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform your oaths to the Lord.’ But I say to you, do not swear at all: neither by heaven, for it is God’s throne; nor by the earth, for it is His footstool; nor by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. Nor shall you swear by your head, because you cannot make one hair white or black. But let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No.’ For whatever is more than these is from the evil one.” (Matthew 5:33-37 KJV).

There are three questions I would like to ask regarding the issue of taking oaths. One, did Jesus forbid the taking of all oaths? Two, what is the meaning behind the abolishing of the oath and three, how is that relevant for us today?

  1. Did Jesus prohibit all oaths? The three contentions to the position that Jesus did in fact prohibit the taking of all oaths are these. One, God performed oaths in the Old Testament and Jesus spoke under oath according to Matthew 26:63-64. Two, the Old Testament commanded the taking of oaths such as in Deuteronomy 6:13. And three, the Apostle Paul sounds very close to speaking oaths in a number of his epistles.

In response to these arguments, first, just because God is able to perform an oath does not clear us to do the same. God takes vengeance upon the wicked but we are commanded to do the exact opposite in Romans 12:19-20.

Contention two. When Jesus says “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform your oaths to the Lord’,” Jesus is quoting Old Testament law. The oaths the Jews of Jesus’ day commonly used were anything but according to the law. Deuteronomy 6:13 says, “You shall fear the Lord your God and serve Him, and shall take oaths in His name.”

The Jews understood that an oath taken in God’s name was binding according to the law, so they tried to get around the law by swearing to anything and everything but God’s name. When Jesus goes back to the Old Testament law in verse 33 of Matthew 5, he is going back to the original intent of the law which was that oaths were to be taken only in God’s name.

Thereby when Christ says “But I say to you, do not swear at all” the first and foremost oath prohibited is the one in the name of Yahweh. After that Christ then adds that neither shall you swear by any of these other things as well. Do we interpret the teachings of Jesus by the Old Testament? Or do we allow his teachings to stand on their own and submit all others teaching to him.

Contention three. A couple of times Paul makes some pretty strong oath like statements in his epistles. The one I think is the strongest is 2 Corinthians 1:23, “Moreover I call God as witness against my soul, that to spare you I came no more to Corinth.” How do we interpret that?

First of all, we do not take what Paul said and reinterpret what Jesus said, because that would be contradicting Christ. If we say that Paul is making an oath then he is acting contrary to the command of Jesus. So we have two options. One, Paul is making a very strong statement in defense of his word to the Corinthians but not actually swearing an oath. Or two, Paul, who was writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, does swear in his own defense and violates the command of Christ. Option two is probably not an option.

  1. What is the meaning of Matthew 5:33-37? It is to be totally truthful in all your speech. The idea that in the “good old days” there was not much dishonesty is false. In the near past, here in America, a man was more likely to give his word and a handshake to seal a deal and keep it, but there has always existed the need for a way to make a man accountable to his words because of the potential for lying. The reason a court of law requires an oath or an affirmation is for the purpose of reminding men that they need to speak the truth and if they do not they can be found guilty of perjury.
    There is a problem with the oath though, it cannot control the human heart. The sin of the Jews in Jesus’ time was that they swore oaths with the purpose to make people believe their words all the while never intending to fulfill them. The true reason for their use of oaths was to conceal a lie. Jesus does not command a return to keeping oaths in accordance with the law but He elevates the law, to making every answer, whether yes or no, as binding as if it were an oath.

    The child of God is now accountable for his every word. A Christian should not be bound any closer to the truth under oath than without an oath. “Let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No.’ For whatever is more than these is from the evil one.” (Matt. 5:37).

  2. What is the relevance of this teaching for us today? First, you as a Christian could be in serious violation to this passage even though you have never sworn an oath your whole life. Are you careful to agree to something knowing that your word is enough to cause you to suffer to keep it? Or do you view your yes or no as up for interpretation and changeable?

    When I tell my wife that I’ll be back in a couple minutes, but then I get to talking with some friends and supper becomes cold, did I keep my yes a yes? Or did I change it to a maybe? If you need to bolster your words with promises to keep those words, that is a sign that all your words do not have equal weight.

Secondly, you may be put into a position that an oath is required. What should your response be? Not take the oath? Yes. But beyond that, your obedience to Christ should be used as a platform to witness for Christ.

When explaining why he would not put his hand on a Bible and swear, John Piper said his plea would be, “Your honor, my commitment to the truth and to the Lord of the truth, Jesus Christ, leads me to believe that it would dishonor both my commitment to the Lord and the Lord himself if I needed to put my hand on this sacred book to guarantee my truthfulness.”3

Let us be faithful to the command of Christ from the heart and by his grace show ourselves to be his children through our words and actions.

Milton, Rachel and Philip Milton Hershey resides in Elnora, IN with his wife Rachel and son Philip. As a WI boy who likes cool weather, Indiana summers can feel hot (to put it mildly). As well as being a full time husband and father, he works at K&K Industries as a mechanic/semi driver. He is currently in a pastoral apprenticeship under the direction of Truth and Grace Mennonite Church. He thinks reading books are a great way to stretch one’s mind and imagination. It will also improve your vocabulary and attention span. Amen.

Sources used:

  1. Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. The Cost of Discipleship. New York: Macmillan, 1959. Print.
  2. Marie, Andrew V. Ste. “God and the Swearing of Oaths.” Ephrata Ministries. N.p., n.d. Web. 01 May 2016.
  3. Piper, John. “Should Christians Swear on the Bible.” Desiringgod.org. N.p., 28 Mar. 2016. Web. 28 Apr. 2016. <http://www.desiringgod.org/interviews/should-christians-swear-on-the-bible&gt;.
  4. The Holy Bible: NKJV, New King James Version. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2011. Print

3 thoughts on “The Performing of Oaths

  1. I fully agree with not taking an Oath, however in the work place etc you can run into “attestations” and “affirmations” that this or that did not occur, such as ethical violations under federal law etc. They usually contain lengthy verbiage such as “i Doug Ladd attest that i am not aware of any cases were XYZ has occurred…” you then are required to sign below.. While it may be true you are not aware of XYZ, the Lord tells us to answer Yes or No… so is attesting more than a simple Yes or No? Is this an Oath? Is an Oath only an Oath when we use the word swear or oath? How do we make sure we stay true to the will and spirit of the commandment and Lord without adding to it? Just some thoughts regarding things people may run into out there.

    I appreciate you taking up the time to discuss these things that may seem normal to born and raise Anabaptist but they are not always so easy for those “English” like myself who have come from the outside in…

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    1. You bring up some good questions. I think Jesus was teaching much more than just a legalistic approach to oaths, however we do have two clear commands, “Swear not at all” and “Let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes’ and your ‘No’ ‘No.’ So first we take into account that those two commands are specific. If you are in some sort of deal or conversation in which you need to make your words stand as a testament to your integrity, you do not swear to God or any other created thing but you simply say yes or no. Very clear, you are not trying to spruce up your given word with anything but honesty. Secondly, the point is not just obeying the command but also keeping to the intent of the command which is to be honest in all your speech. But just because our intent is right does not give us room to break the clear command.
      So can we affirm or attest to something? Is that breaking the clear or the implied command? There is more than one way to say yes in the English language. If someone says, “Are you still on the computer?” and you answer, “Affirmative” almost anyone would know what you meant by it. If the law made allowance for simply saying yes to telling the truth, you would be just as bound to the laws regarding perjury as the one who took an oath. So when you affirm in a court of law you are essentially saying a fancy yes to telling the truth.

      When you sign a document that says you “Attest” you are saying that you confirm, or verify. So in a sense it seems more than a yes but try making that sentence say the same thing without the use of attest and it is almost impossible to make it sound right. The other way to look at it is that “Attest means to be a witness. So by you attesting to XYZ you are your own witness against yourself if your yes is false.

      If we are not breaking the clear commands and the intent of the heart is right, I see no reason that we cannot affirm or in other words say yes by saying yes to tell the truth. I would be glad for any corrections or any other input.
      –Milton

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  2. Very well written reply! I believe we are on the same page. one of the test i have used in the workplace is does the statement, attestation, etc convey a heightened level of certainty in what is said. Am i attesting in order to make my statement more “truthful and accepted” or am i attesting simply because its an available English word that better suits the context or venue in which its being used. If i am attesting or whatever to convey something more than a simple Yes or No, then for me it goes beyond and is in violation of the commands of Christ. However if i am simply using it as an alternative to the “plain” word Yes or No in the english language i believe it is fine.

    i also believe that if your heart is tuned with the Holy Ghost, He will convict you if your going outside the will of God. This i trust in and use daily in my engineering job, which at times has me attesting to federal rules and regulations, corporate rules and regulations, and even local office safety etc campaigns…

    As an example i have not signed a safety campaign before, because it would have had me agreeing that no safety violations would happen “on my watch”, i can not agree to that, while i can do all i can to help us stay safe, i can not guarantee nothing will happen, i am not God and in control. To me signing such a document would have me “swearing” or “promising” to something i can not control, and to me would be in violation of both the sovereignty of God and basically swearing to something i can not nor is in my control to keep… But that’s just a small convoluted example…

    Maybe some of the things i run into is why many conservative Anabaptist still reject a “profession”… sometimes i agree… 😉

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