Are Christians forbidden to take an oath or vow?

Are Christians forbidden to take an oath or vow?                                          By Jack Kettler

“Again, ye have heard that it hath been said by them of old time, Thou shalt not forswear thyself, but shalt perform unto the Lord thine oaths: But I say unto you, Swear not at all; neither by heaven; for it is God’s throne: Nor by the earth; for it is his footstool: neither by Jerusalem; for it is the city of the great King. Neither shalt thou swear by thy head, because thou canst not make one hair white or black. But let your communication be, yea, yea; nay, nay: for whatsoever is more than this cometh of evil.” (Matthew 5:33-37 KJV)

“But I say to you, do not take an oath at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God.” (Matthew 5:34 ESV)

It certainly appears from the above Scriptures that taking an oath or vow is forbidden. Are there other Scriptures that modify or clarify this seeming injunction against oaths? If and oath and vow are forbidden, this would present a problem for marriage and church membership vows. It would also be problematic in legal proceedings; the witness must swear an oath of truthfulness on a Bible. As in many studies, lexical and commentary entries will be consulted along with additional Scriptures.

Strong’s Lexicon:

“To swear

ὀμόσαι (omosai)

Verb – Aorist Infinitive Active

Strong’s Greek 3660: A prolonged form of a primary, but obsolete omo, for which another prolonged form omoo is used in certain tenses; to swear, i.e. Take oath.”

Of particular interest is verse 34, where Jesus says, “But I say unto you, Swear not at all…” Seemingly, this is a ban upon oaths and vows. As previously asked, are marriage vows, church membership vows, U.S. citizenship oath now forbidden?

Biblically speaking:

Oath: An oath is a solemn promise made to another party in which God is called upon to act as a witness and judge. See Exodus 20:7; Deuteronomy 10:20; Jeremiah 4:2; Chronicles 6:22-23

Vow: A vow must not be made to any creature but to God alone. Vows should be made and performed with the most conscientious care and faithfulness. See 1 Corinthians 7:2; Matthew 19:11

The apostle Paul made a vow:

“After this, Paul stayed many days longer and then took leave of the brothers and set sail for Syria, and with him Priscilla and Aquila. At Cenchreae he had cut his hair, for he was under a vow.” (Acts 18:18 ESV)

Back to the seeming prohibition of oaths in Matthew 5:34. If this passage does prohibit oaths, it would be in contradiction to:
 “And Moses spake unto the heads of the tribes concerning the children of Israel, saying, this is the thing which the Lord hath commanded. If a man vow a vow unto the Lord, or swear an oath to bind his soul with a bond; he shall not break his word, he shall do according to all that proceedeth out of his mouth.” (Numbers 30:1–2)

 At this point, commentary citations will be helpful:

 Ellicott’s Commentary for English Readers is helpful in understanding the seeming conflict in Scripture:  “(34) Swear not at all.—Not a few interpreters, and even whole Christian communities, as e.g. the Society of Friends, see in these words, and in James 5:12, a formal prohibition of all oaths, either promissory or evidential, and look on the general practice of Christians, and the formal teaching of the Church of England in her Articles (Art. xxxix.), as simply an acquiescence in evil. The first impression made by the words is indeed so strongly in their favour that the scruples of such men ought to be dealt with (as English legislation has at last dealt with them) with great tenderness. Their conclusion is, however, it is believed, mistaken: (1) Because, were it true, then in this instance our Lord would be directly repealing part of the moral law given by Moses, instead of completing and expanding it, as in the case of the Sixth and Seventh Commandments. He would be destroying, not fulfilling. (2) Because our Lord himself answered, when He had before been silent, to a solemn formal adjuration (Matthew 26:63-64), and St. Paul repeatedly uses such forms of attestation (Romans 1:9; 1Corinthians 15:31; 2Corinthians 1:23; Galatians 1:20; Philippians 1:8). (3) Because the context shows that the sin, which our Lord condemned, was the light use of oaths in common speech, and with no real thought as to their meaning. Such oaths practically involved irreverence, and were therefore inconsistent with the fear of God. The real purpose of an oath is to intensify that fear by bringing the thought of God’s presence home to men at the very time they take them, and they are therefore rightly used when they attain that end. Practically, it must be admitted that the needless multiplication of oaths, both evidential and promissory, on trivial occasions, has tended, and still tends, to weaken awe and impair men’s reverence for truth, and we may rejoice when their number is diminished. In an ideal Christian society, no oaths would be needed, for every word would be spoken as by those who knew that the Eternal Judge was hearing them.

(34-35) Neither by heaven; . . . nor by the earth; . . . neither by Jerusalem.—Other formulæ of oaths meet us in Matthew 23:16-22; James 5:12. It is not easy at first to understand the thought that underlies such modes of speech. When men swear by God, or the name of Jehovah, there is an implied appeal to the Supreme Ruler. We invoke Him (as in the English form, “So help me God”) to assist and bless us according to the measure of our truthfulness, or to punish us if we speak falsely. But to swear by a thing that has no power or life seems almost unintelligible, unless the thing invoked be regarded as endowed in idea with a mysterious holiness and a power to bless and curse. Once in use, it was natural that men under a system like that of Israel, or, we may add, of Christendom, should employ them as convenient symbols intensifying affirmation, and yet not involving the speaker in the guilt of perjury or in the profane utterance of the divine name. Our Lord deals with all such formula in the same way. If they have any force at all, it is because they imply a reference to the Eternal. Heaven is His throne, and earth is His footstool (the words are a citation from Isaiah 66:1), and Jerusalem is the city of the great King. To use them lightly is, therefore, to profane the holy name, which they imply. Men do not guard themselves either against irreverence or perjury by such expedients.” (1)

Another commentary selection will be helpful:

Matthew Henry’s Complete Commentary:
“5:33-37 There is no reason to consider that solemn oaths in a court of justice, or on other proper occasions, are wrong, provided they are taken with due reverence. But all oaths taken without necessity, or in common conversation, must be sinful, as well as all those expressions which are appeals to God, though persons think thereby to evade the guilt of swearing. The worse men are, the less they are bound by oaths; the better they are, the less there is need for them. Our Lord does not enjoin the precise terms wherein we are to affirm or deny, but such a constant regard to truth as would render oaths unnecessary.” (2)  
Oaths in the Biblefrom encyclopedia .com:

“The custom of swearing, or taking oaths, that is, of putting a curse on oneself if what is asserted is not true or if a promise is not kept, has always been widespread among all people who believe either in the magical power of such self-maledictions or in the avenging justice of a deity who punishes those who swear falsely. This article is concerned with the taking of oaths as mentioned in the Bible.

In the Old Testament. Anthropomorphically, God Himself is often presented in the Old Testament as taking oaths, especially in regard to His covenant [see covenant (in the bible)]. Thus, “he promised on oath to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob” (Gn 50.24) to make their descendants a great nation and to give them a special land (Gn 22.16–18; 26.3–4; 35.12). He renewed this sworn promise to Moses (Dt 1.8). Later, “the Lord swore to David a firm promise” [Ps 131 (132).11] of an everlasting posterity and rule [Ps 88 (89).4–5, 36–37] and an eternal priesthood [Ps 109(110).4]. It is these promises that are reaffirmed by the prophets (Jer 33.21–22; Mi 7.20). Besides these oaths that promise great blessings, there are the oaths that threaten with punishment the Israelites who revolted in the desert (Nm 14.28–35).

Whether men swore by God explicitly (Gn 21.23; Jos 2.12) or implicitly (Gn 42.15; 1 Sm 1.26), an oath was a serious matter (Ex 20.7), for the oath always involved a conditional or contingent curse. Moreover, the oath was ever regarded as a sign of loyalty to God (Dt 6.13; Is 48.1), and therefore a false oath was basically a profanation of God’s name (Lv 19.12; Ex 20.7). Oaths were employed both in judicial matters and in a variety of everyday affairs. Thus oaths were taken to certify the truth of an utterance and to pledge fidelity to one’s word (1 Sm 14.44; 20.13; 25.22; 2 Sm 3.9; Gn 25.33; 47.31); to ascertain the guilt of a person suspected of a crime, e.g., in the trial by ordeal (Nm 5.16–28); and to ratify an alliance (Gn 21.24, 26, 31) or a friendship (1 Sm 20.16–17).

In the New Testament. It is only in the New Testament that the oaths made by God in the Old Testament attain their perfect fulfillment: by sending the Messiah God has been faithful to “the oath that he swore to Abraham our father” (Lk 1.73), His promise to David has been fulfilled by Christ’s Resurrection (Acts 2.29–35), and it is God’s solemn oath that ratifies Christ’s eternal priesthood and guarantees the reality and efficacy of the New Covenant (Heb 7.21, 25).

Respect for oaths seems to have been carefully preserved by the ancient Israelites, but by the time of Christ’s coming the Pharisees had distorted this traditional respect through their casuistry. Christ energetically attacked these legalistic abuses, demanding absolute sincerity of his disciples (Mk 23.16–22). He proclaimed a new ideal: “But I say to you not to swear at all” (Mt5.34). St. James restates this teaching: “Let your yes be yes, your no, no” (Jas 5.12). Yet Christ did not absolutely abolish or condemn the use of the oath; His demand set the Christian ideal, but did not rule out the possibility of an oath on certain occasions. Thus, e.g., St. Paul often employed oath formulas in order to testify to the truth of his assertions (Rom 1.9; 9.1; 2 Cor 1.23; 11.31; Gal 1.20).

Bibliography: Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Bible, tr. and adap. by l. hartman (New York 1963) 1656–58. j. pedersen, Der Eid bei den Semiten (Leipzig 1914). s. h. blank, “The Curse, Blasphemy, the Spell, and the Oath,” Hebrew Union College Annual 23.1 (Cincinnati 1950–51) 73–95. f. horst, “Der Eid im AT,” Evangelische Theologie 17 (1957) 366–384. encyclopedia.com” (3)

Jesus rebukes the Pharisees for their abuse of oaths:

“Woe unto you, ye blind guides, which say, whosoever shall swear by the temple, it is nothing; but whosoever shall swear by the gold of the temple, he is a debtor! Ye fools and blind: for whether is greater, the gold, or the temple that sanctifieth the gold? And, Whosoever shall swear by the altar, it is nothing; but whosoever sweareth by the gift that is upon it, he is guilty. Ye fools and blind: for whether is greater, the gift, or the altar that sanctifieth the gift? Whoso therefore shall swear by the altar, sweareth by it, and by all things thereon. And whoso shall swear by the temple, sweareth by it, and by him that dwelleth therein. And he that shall swear by heaven, sweareth by the throne of God, and by him that sitteth thereon.” (Matthew 23:16-22)

In particular, the Pharisees used oaths to escape their duty to God:

“Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For ye pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have omitted the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy, and faith: these ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other undone.” (Matthew 23:23)

Westminster Confession of Faith Chapter XXII. Of Lawful Oaths and Vows:
“I. A Lawful oath is a part of religious worship, (Deu 10:20); wherein, upon just occasion, the person swearing solemnly calleth God to witness, what he asserteth, or promiseth, and to judge him according to the truth or falsehood of what he sweareth, (Exd 20:7; Lev 19:12; 2Co 1:23; 2Ch 6:22-23).

II. The name of God only is that by which men ought to swear, and therein it is to be used with all holy fear and reverence, (Deu 6:13). Therefore, to swear vainly, or rashly, by that glorious and dreadful Name; or, to swear at all by any other thing, is sinful, and to be abhorred, (Exd 20:7; Jer 5:7; Mat 5:34-37; Jam 5:12). Yet, as in matters of weight and moment, an oath is warranted by the Word of God, under the new testament as well as under the old, (Hbr 6:16; 2Co 1:23; Isa 65:16); so a lawful oath, being imposed by lawful authority, in such matters, ought to be taken, (1Ki 8:31; Neh 13:25; Ezr 10:5).

III. Whosoever taketh an oath ought duly to consider the weightiness of so solemn an act, and therein to avouch nothing but what he is fully persuaded is the truth, (Exd 20:7; Jer 4:2): neither may any man bind himself by oath to anything but what is good and just, and what he believeth so to be, and what he is able and resolved to perform, (Gen 24:2-3, 5-6, 8-9). Yet it is a sin to refuse an oath touching anything that is good and just, being imposed by lawful authority, (Num 5:19, 21; Neh 5:12; Exd 22:7-11).

IV. An oath is to be taken in the plain and common sense of the words, without equivocation, or mental reservation, (Jer 4:2; Psa 24:4). It cannot oblige to sin; but in anything not sinful, being taken, it binds to performance, although to a man’s own hurt, (1Sa 25:22, 32-34; Psa 15:4). Nor is it to be violated, although made to heretics, or infidels, (Eze 17:16, 18-19; Jos 9:18-19; 2Sa 21:1).

V. A vow is of the like nature with a promissory oath, and ought to be made with the like religious care, and to be performed with the like faithfulness, (Isa 19:21; Ecc 5:4-6; Psa 61:8; Psa 66:13-14).

VI. It is not to be made to any creature, but to God alone, (Psa 76:11; Jer 44:25-26): and, that it may be accepted, it is to be made voluntarily, out of faith, and conscience of duty, in way of thankfulness for mercy received, or for the obtaining of what we want, whereby we more strictly bind ourselves to necessary duties; or, to other things, so far and so long as they may fitly conduce thereunto, (Deu 23:21-23; Psa 50:14; Gen 28:20-21, 22; 1Sa 1:11; Psa 66:13-14; Psa 132:2-5).

VII. No man may vow to do anything forbidden in the Word of God, or what would hinder any duty therein commanded, or which is not in his own power, and for the performance whereof he hath no promise of ability from God, (Act 23:12, 14; Mar 6:26; Num 30:5, 8, 12-13). In which respects, popish monastical vows of perpetual single life, professed poverty, and regular obedience, are so far from being degrees of higher perfection, that they are superstitious and sinful snares, in which no Christian may entangle himself, (Mat 19:11-12; 1Co 7:2, 9; Eph 4:28; 1Pe 4:2; 1Co 7:23).”

 In closing:

In modern times, abuse of an oath may take the form of “I swear on my mother’s grave.” This reduces an oath to something frivolous and brings God into the oath as a witness.

 Oaths and vows are not categorically forbidden in Scripture. In Matthew 5:33-37, the believer is warned not to make a rash oath or the misuse of oaths and vows.

 Therefore, oaths and vows taken with carefulness and truthfulness are not forbidden in New Testament times.

 “Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.” (2 Timothy 2:15)

 “To God, only wise, be glory through Jesus Christ forever. Amen.” (Romans 16:27) and “heirs according to the promise.” (Galatians 3:28-29)

 Notes:

 1.      Charles John Ellicott, Bible Commentary for English Readers, Matthew, Vol.15, (London, England, Cassell and Company), p. 165.

2.      Matthew Henry, Complete Commentary, Matthew, (Peabody, Massachusetts, Hendrickson Publishers,), p. 633-634.

3.      Oaths in the Bible from encyclopedia. com Mr. Kettler has previously published articles in the Chalcedon Report and Contra Mundum. He and his wife Marea attend the Westminster, CO, RPCNA Church. Mr. Kettler is the author of the book defending the Reformed Faith against attacks, titled: The Religion That Started in a Hat. Available at: https://www.amazon.com/Books-Jack-Kettler/s?rh=n%3A283155%2Cp_27%3AJack+Kettler

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