Lawful Oaths and Weak Humans

101. But may we swear reverently by the name of God?
Yes, when the magistrate requires it, or when it may be needful otherwise, to maintain and promote fidelity and truth to the glory of God and our neighbor’s good; for such an oath is grounded in God’s Word,1 and therefore was rightly used by the saints in the Old and New Testaments.2
[1] Deut. 10:20; Isa. 48:1; Heb. 6:16. [2] Gen. 21:24; 31:53–54; Josh. 9:15, 19; 1 Sam. 24:22; 1 Kgs. 1:29; Rom. 1:9.
102. May we swear by “the saints” or by any other creatures?
No, for a lawful oath is a calling upon God, that He, as the only searcher of hearts, may bear witness to the truth, and punish me if I swear falsely;1 which honor is due to no creature.2
[1] 2 Cor. 1:23. [2] Matt. 5:34–36; *Jer. 5:7; *Isa. 65:16.

Lawful Oaths and Weak Humans

There have been Christians since the Reformation who denounced all oaths as a violation of the Third Commandment, especially many of the Anabaptists. Given Jesus’ words in Matt. 5:33-37, it is very understandable why one would come to this conclusion. Groups such as the Mennonites and Amish even today will not take oaths.

But Jesus’ teaching in this section is famously hyperbolic. Just before this section He recommended cutting a hand off or plucking an eye out to avoid sin. That does not mean His teaching doesn’t mean anything and can be safely ignored. He teaches the heart of the Third Commandment and the Ninth Commandment, to use words always in a truthful and forthright manner, whether directed to God or to men. Since the violation of God’s name was such a great crime, they would take oaths by things other than God, such as angels, the temple, or the like.

Some of the rabbis taught a complex system of casuistry whereby some formulas of oaths were more binding than others, and some unscrupulous people would even use this loophole to trick Gentiles or others that weren’t familiar with their rules.

We should not be superstitious about words, or about anything else. It is not the uttering of certain syllables which is the problem, but the misuse of God’s name to promote falsehood. Using God’s name to promote truth and fidelity among neighbors or in civil society is a right use of that name, and as question 101 says, has ample precedent in Scripture. In 2 Corinthians 1:23 Paul swears with God as his witness, that it was to avoid trouble with them that he did not go to Corinth, rather than to cause it, and several other similar examples can be cited.

So if a Mennonite says, “I affirm that the testimony I give is true” as opposed to saying “I swear…,” there really is no difference. The same thing is happening in both cases, and the substitution of one word for another is really just superstition, like the Pharisaical avoidance of using the name of God under any circumstances, even as they profaned His worship, twisted His doctrine, and abused His people.

It is a shame that there are any such people that would be comfortable lying to someone unless they first say, “I swear that…” But such people certainly exist, human nature being what it is. For well-meaning people, the oath, the raised hand, the hand on the Bible can all function to impress upon the person the importance of what he is saying so that he thinks about it extra carefully, when without such circumstances attending his words he might thoughtlessly toss off promises that he cannot or does not intend to keep. Additionally, while it would be wonderful if people could trust others in their words, we know there are many liars in the world, and it is easy for doubt and suspicion to creep into our relationships. We ought to deal with each other realistically with regard to the weakness of human nature. In 2 Corinthians 1:23 it was precisely the Corinthians’ skepticism about Paul’s real motive that prompted him to call God as his witness that it was the good of their relationship that kept him away in the past.

So a lawful oath can be a help to smooth dealings between sinful human beings, and when made with honesty and integrity, glorifies God by promoting the serious use of His name to promote truth in communication, something that accords very well with God’s nature.

The faithful keeping of covenants is one of the chief ways that God reveals Himself in His Scripture, that He is a God that does what He says He will do. Faithfulness is part of His very nature. One of the chief maladies afflicting the human race is faithlessness in their word. People break marriage vows, church vows, commercial contracts, and their obligations to their nation, and the cost to human society is enormous. We in the church, being renewed to the image of Jesus Christ, should be the very first to advocate for and strive for the faithful keeping of covenants, that we keep our promises and do what we say we will do.

All are welcome at Christ Reformed Church!  We worship at 10 AM Sunday morning at 600 W. 21st St, in College Heights Baptist’s old sanctuary.