Monday, May 22, 2017

Oaths and Vows


James 5:12
But above all, my brothers, do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or by any other oath, but let your “yes” be yes and your “no” be no, so that you may not fall under condemnation.
What is the New Testament teaching on sacred promises such as oaths, vows and pledges? James is almost quoting the Lord from the Sermon on the Mount in this verse:
"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 evil. (Mat 5:33-37)
Pastor James want us to be conformed to the image of Christ in the way we use our tongues – not to slander or to grumble one against another. This is the way of building our horizontal relationships. He is also concerned that we do not blaspheme against God, or use the name of the Lord our God in vain and so break the 3rd Commandment. This is what informs the reproof before us – do not swear!
1.     Is all swearing evil?
The Friends Church, commonly called the Quakers take this statement in its absolute sense to mean that swearing is universally wrong and sinful. Therefore, they never take oaths even when they are taking an office or in a judicial/civil court. They would only affirm something by the lifting of their hand and not by holding a Bible – if you are old enough you would remember how Mr. Musalia Mudavadi takes oaths of office, being a Quaker. Do the Quakers have a ground for this position?
There are sufficient number of Scriptures to show that the Scriptures have both example and precept both in the OT and the NT of swearing:
"If a man gives to his neighbor a donkey or an ox or a sheep or any beast to keep safe, and it dies or is injured or is driven away, without anyone seeing it, an oath by the LORD shall be between them both to see whether or not he has put his hand to his neighbor's property. The owner shall accept the oath, and he shall not make restitution. (Exo 22:10-11)
It is the LORD your God you shall fear. Him you shall serve and by his name you shall swear. (Deu 6:13)
You shall fear the LORD your God. You shall serve him and hold fast to him, and by his name you shall swear. (Deu 10:20)
Now Elijah the Tishbite, of Tishbe in Gilead, said to Ahab, "As the LORD, the God of Israel, lives, before whom I stand, there shall be neither dew nor rain these years, except by my word." (1Ki 17:1)
But it is very easy to conclude that all this is from the OT therefore, under the old covenant this was tolerated just as polygamy was tolerated. But consider that there is as much evidence in the NT of swearing by the Lord and by the apostles! Even the prophet Isaiah who saw the farthest, in the anticipated kingdom, speaks of this swearing in certain terms as something to look forward to:
So that he who blesses himself in the land shall bless himself by the God of truth, and he who takes an oath in the land shall swear by the God of truth; because the former troubles are forgotten and are hidden from my eyes. (Isa 65:16)
The Lord accepted/condoned it – he clearly did not condemn it in Matthew 26:63, 64:
But Jesus remained silent. And the high priest said to him, "I adjure you by the living God, tell us if you are the Christ, the Son of God." Jesus said to him, "You have said so. But I tell you, from now on you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power and coming on the clouds of heaven."
Paul swore:
For God is my witness, whom I serve with my spirit in the gospel of his Son, that without ceasing I mention you (Rom 1:9)
I am speaking the truth in Christ—I am not lying; my conscience bears me witness in the Holy Spirit— (Rom 9:1)
Therefore, as the Puritan Richard Baxter (1615-1691) says, “all this is so far from forbidding necessary oaths that it is but to confirm them, by preserving the due reverence of them… The true nature of an oath is, by our speech, to pawn the reputation of some certain or great thing, for the averring of a doubted less thing; and not (as is commonly held) an appeal to God or other judge.”[1]
Yet we must remember what that one of the seven woes to the Pharisees was because of their vows:
"Woe to you, blind guides, who say, 'If anyone swears by the temple, it is nothing, but if anyone swears by the gold of the temple, he is bound by his oath.' You blind fools! For which is greater, the gold or the temple that has made the gold sacred? And you say, 'If anyone swears by the altar, it is nothing, but if anyone swears by the gift that is on the altar, he is bound by his oath.' You blind men! For which is greater, the gift or the altar that makes the gift sacred? So whoever swears by the altar swears by it and by everything on it. And whoever swears by the temple swears by it and by him who dwells in it. And whoever swears by heaven swears by the throne of God and by him who sits upon it. (Mat 23:16-22.)

2.     Under what circumstances may we swear?
“…but let your “yes” be yes and your “no” be no, so that you may not fall under condemnation.”
It should suffice to confirm or deny what you say by a simple yes or no. We are to be known as those who speak the truth at all times so that we do not give room of being suspected of falsehood. This way, there will be no need for taking an oath or vows to confirm or deny anything. Unless this is true, you will constantly be in need of backing whatever you say with oaths.
It is being suspected of falsehood that leads men to swearing. Let it be known that you keep to truth, and are firm to your word, and by this means you will find there is no need to swear to what you say. Thus shall you escape the condemnation which is expressly annexed to the third commandment: The Lord will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain.”[2]
Christians should be prepared to swear even to their own hurt as we read in Psalm 15:3. In other words, when you give a promise, it should be good enough to be taken to the bank, because you will honour your word. It must be known that Christians are a people of a particular breed:
Christians are by definition:
1)      Sincere for they walk uprightly. They fear God and live as in His presence throughout their lives on earth. He is really what he professes to be – sound at heart, with a good conscience before men and in private. A believer has been approved of God, can approve himself to God in his integrity, in all he does.
2)      Honest and just in all his dealings. Faithfulness is part of the fruit of the Spirit. A Christian endeavours always to be fair to all with whom he has to do. Yes, a believer works righteousness. He seeks to obey all the ordinances and commandments of the Lord, in order to love God and men. He walks by the rules of righteousness and truth, and scorns and abhors the gains of injustice and fraud.
3)      Truthful from within his heart. His prayers, professions, and promises, to God, come not out of feigned lips. His words to men ought not to be adorned, so to speak by a lie.
4)      Earnest, tender and loving to his neighbour. He does no evil at all to his neighbour willingly or by design. He offers nothing to offend or grieve his spirit. Nothing to prejudice the health or ease of his body. Nothing to injure him in his relations or reputation, property or ambition, interests, or religion. He loves his neighbour as himself.
This is what informs the need for  a Christian to bridle the tongue so that he is not a source of injury for his Saviour or his neighbour. If any man, in this matter, does not bridle his tongue, his religion is useless. We should do all we can to make the best of everybody, and the worst of nobody. We should frown at a backbiting tongue, and immediately seek to silence it (Prov. 25:23).
Therefore, when we take vows of whatever nature – whether in Christian marriage, in a civil court of law, or as we take the oath of office, we should endeavour to have our yes as what it is – yes and our no as who it is – a definite no. Christians take vows under very serious circumstances.
3.     Why is such carefulness necessary in making vows, pledges and promises?
Ecclesiastes tells us that God has no patience with fools who make promises they cannot keep and that God will destroy the works of their hands - Ecclesiastes 5: 1-7. We notice that vows lay a trap for us in creating a burden that we, in our weakness and finiteness cannot keep. There are a number of reasons for this:
1)      Vows are about actions in the future, and the future is something over which we have little or no control.
2)      Vows are solemn and sacred and involve powerful heavenly realities (God in His providence) that we should not try mess with.
3)      Some people e.g. the Pharisees used vows to make people trust them so they can trick and cheat others.
4)      Breaking a vow can result in judgment (James) and the destruction of the work of our hands (Ecclesiastes).
5)      We may make a vow that depends on the actions of another person, and that person may act in such a way to make fulfilling the vow impossible - such as a vow to be responsible for another person's debts. 
6)      Our circumstances may change so that we cannot keep the vow or pledge e.g. we may lose our job and be unable to pay the pledge to the church or debt to another.
7)      We may construct the vow in absolute terms using words such as 'always" or "never" and in reality life is too complex to say we will "always" do X or "never" do Y. 
8)      We may make an open-ended vow that traps us with its consequences using terms such as "whatever".
To illustrate this, lets look at three very foolish vows recorded in Scripture:
1)      Herod (Matthew 14: 6-12) : Herod made an open-ended vow "whatever she might ask" and when Herodias' daughter asks for the head of John the Baptist on a silver platter Herod has to reluctantly comply.
2)      The Jewish Assassins (Acts 23:20-24 20): These fanatical Jewish assassins bound themselves with an absolute oath "that they will neither eat nor drink till they have killed him" Did they keep this oath? If they kept their oath they would have starved to death since Paul was rescued! This oath depended on the actions of others and on circumstances remaining constant – which did not.
3)      Jephthah's Daughter - Judges 21:30-40): This tragic oath came about because it was open-ended "… whatever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me, when I return in peace". Unfortunately it was his daughter. There is some debate as to whether Jephthah actually sacrificed his daughter as a burnt offering or simply kept her single like a nun all her days. Either way it was tragic.
Therefore, rash oaths, vows and pledges can bring us into tragedy and judgment and are so all such oaths are forbidden by Jesus and the apostles. The Biblical principle is that promises to God must be fulfilled – even at a great cost and because we are fallen and finite it is better not to make such promises at all.
4.     What do we do when we have made promises that we cannot keep?
 Proverbs tells us what to do when we have made a promise that we cannot keep:
1)      Proverbs 6:1-5: The principle is: "Go and humble yourself; Plead with your friend …" and do it as soon as possible. Do not remain under a foolish vow, for pride's sake, any longer than necessary. Go to the friend, the church, the relative or whoever and humble yourself and ask to be released from your vow. Admit your ignorance or foolishness in taking the vow in the first place.
Christians, when asking to be released from a vow they have made to God can also use this principle. God, through the cross has become our Friend and we can plead with Him on such matters. Therefore, when we have made a wrong vow to God, we need to quickly humble ourselves before Him and ask forgiveness and release from the vow.
5.     What are some of the common vows, oaths, pledges and promises?
1)      Tithing, Promises and Pledges: Unfortunately many churches encourage people to make solemn vows to about financial matters such as tithes, pledges and large sacrificial/love offerings they may not be able to fulfil. This violates NT teaching on not giving under compulsion, but cheerful giving and can bring the church members into judgment. The clear principle of NT giving is that it should be voluntary and not under compulsion, cheerfully. See 2 Corinthians 8:12;  9:7 
2)      Rash Romantic Vows: Some Christians make promises of marriage to totally unsuitable people and need to swiftly apply Proverbs 6, before the wedding takes place. No amount of pride, honour or expense is worth a failed marriage.
3)      Idealistic Vows: Idealistic vows are vows made to God in a moment of spiritual light-headedness such as vowing to go to North Korea as a missionary. Now there is nothing wrong with wanting to be a missionary but vowing to be a missionary, when you are not really suited or called is sheer rashness and folly and does not please God. Venturing into ministry does not just depend on the individual, it also depends on being sent by the church. We must consult our pastors, and those who are over us in the Lord before making such vows.
4)      Inner Vows: Now we turn to the complex topic of inner vows. Inner vows are the deepest promises we make in our own heart. They mainly fall into four categories:
a)      I shall never... be poor, marry a man like my father, trust a _____, be a missionary, have children, depend on others, give in, be taken advantage of...
b)     I shall always ... be virgin, be strong, be in charge, be on my guard, be wealthy, be nice, be submissive, be safe, be an expert on everything....
c)      I must ____ or else ____ get 100% or I am a total failure.
d)     If I ever _____ then I'll _____ make a mistake in public - I will die..., If I get married - I will go crazy, etc.
The problem with such vows is that they remain a permanent part of our psyche and affect our future actions. When we try and act in a way that opposes our ancient inner vow we find ourselves having a huge inner conflict that we do not understand.
Imagine someone made a solemn inner vow that they would never marry when they were a young girl and their parents divorced. Later on when she is 28 she may have such strong wedding jitters that she may break off the engagement.
5)      Marriage Vows, Civil pledges, and Vows In Court:
Socially we are asked to make vows in three areas, loyalty pledge, marriage vows and vows in court.
a)      The Loyalty Pledge is not made to God, and does not require specific actions. It thus has minimal spiritual impact and is relatively safe for Christians:
I pledge my loyalty to the President and the Nation of Kenya,
My readiness and duty to defend the flag of our Republic,
My devotion to the words of our national anthem,
My life and strength in the task of our nation’s building.
In the living spirit embodied in our national motto – Harambee!
And perpetuated in the Nyayo philosophy of peace love and unity.
b)     Marriage Vows: Are made to the spouses with the help of God, and do prescribe specific actions, which we may not be able to fulfil due to our partner's actions. There should be solemnity and responsibility in marriage and there should be a covenant between the marriage partners and a sense of deep commitment. However the wording of such vows, should be done with utmost care. Here is an example of good marriage vows;
I, JOHN SMITH, TAKE YOU MARY OTHER, TO BE MY GOD-GIVEN WIFE TO HAVE AND TO HOLD FROM THIS DAY (22ND MAY 2017) FORWARD, IN JOY AND IN SORROW, IN TIMES OF PROSPERITY AND IN TIMES OF DIFFICULTY, IN HEALTH AND IN SICKNESS, TO LOVE YOU ACCORDING TO GOD’S WORD, UNTIL DEATH PART US, GOD BEING MY HELPER.
I, MARY OTHER, TAKE YOU JOHN SMITH, TO BE MY GOD-GIVEN HUSBAND TO HAVE AND TO HOLD FROM THIS DAY (22ND MAY 2017) FORWARD, IN JOY AND IN SORROW, IN TIMES OF PROSPERITY AND IN TIMES OF DIFFICULTY, IN HEALTH AND IN SICKNESS, TO LOVE AND SUBMIT TO YOU ACCORDING TO GOD’S WORD, UNTIL DEATH PART US, GOD BEING MY HELPER.
c)      Vows in court: I’ve thought about this because I have taken vows in court a few times. I no longer think it is advisable to swear on a Bible or under an oath to God but would use the alternative vow "I promise to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth".
6.     How do we make our “YES” yea and our “NO” nay?
Both our Lord Jesus and James tell us to simply make our Yes, yes and our No, no. We should be trustworthy and reliable people whose word is as good as our bond. People should get used to us being people who can deliver on our promises. We should be people who are honest in every single word, and who do not need oaths, vows or pledges to keep us on track.
Who shall ascend the hill of the LORD? And who shall stand in his holy place? He who has clean hands and a pure heart, who does not lift up his soul to what is false and does not swear deceitfully. He will receive blessing from the LORD and righteousness from the God of his salvation. (Psa 24:3-5)

6)      For Whatever Is More Than These Is From The Evil One.
How are oaths "from the evil one"? In two ways:
a)      False oaths can be a cover for dishonesty
In Jesus day, people used oaths a way to avoid responsibility to their parents – see Mark 7:10-13 and Matthew 23 which we considered.
Matthew 23 Jesus chides the Pharisees for teaching that if you swore by the "the Temple" that was not binding but if you swore by the "gold of the Temple" it was binding. This is like making a promise then saying "… but I had my fingers crossed when I said it". Oaths thus became a way of cheating another person!
b)      Genuine oaths can bring us into judgment if we fail to keep them.
Genuine oaths: James warns us against vows and oaths saying: "lest you fall into judgment." Broken oaths bring us into judgment and as Ecclesiastes says. This results in God destroying the work of our hands. This is why Jesus always attacks the making of oaths, vows and pledges, and did not require his disciples to make oaths vows or pledges.
"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 evil. (Mat 5:33-37)




[1] Henry, M. (1994). Matthew Henry’s commentary on the whole Bible: complete and unabridged in one volume (p. 2419). Peabody: Hendrickson.
[2] Henry, M. (1994). Matthew Henry’s commentary on the whole Bible: complete and unabridged in one volume (p. 2419). Peabody: Hendrickson.

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