|Vol. 2, No. 7||Page 15||July 2000|
By Matthew P. Lewis
There is much confusion on whether a Christian can or cannot take an oath. The problem stems from verses of Scripture such as Matthew 5:33-37 where Jesus says, “But let your communication be, Yea, yea; Nay, nay: for whatsoever is more than these cometh of evil” and passages like Galatians 1:20 and 1 Thessalonians 5:27 where Paul swears an oath and asks Christians to swear an oath. What is the answer? Can we or can we not swear oaths.
When reading passages like Matthew 5:33-37, the verses must be kept in context. Jesus tells us that in the Old Testament it is written, “Thou shalt not forswear thyself, but perform unto the Lord thine oaths.” Jesus is referring to Leviticus 19:12 where they should not swear by God falsely or profane his name. The word “forswear” in Matthew 5:33 means to commit perjury and at the end of the verse Christ says that they were to perform their oaths to the Lord. In verse 34, Jesus makes a contrast with the words “but I say unto you,” to contrast the Old with the New. Verses 34 to 36 are a list of things by which we are not to swear. It was the practice of the Jews in the Old Testament to seal any type of business transaction by swearing an oath and it was not considered binding unless the name of God was brought into the oath. By bringing the name of God into the oath, the thing was assured because God would be profaned if the oath were not performed, and God would hold the individual accountable. It was also the practice of deceptive Jews in a transaction to swear by anything other than God, so when they could not or would not perform their oaths, they would not be held accountable because the name of God was never invoked. This is what Jesus addresses in verses 34-36. In verse 37, Jesus tells us that our “yes” is to mean “yes” and our “no” is to mean “no.” When a person tells another, “Yes, I will do this,” or “Yes, I will do that,” it is surely as binding in the eyes of God as if that person took an oath. If the “yes” is not performed, it makes one a liar and will condemn him to hell (Revelation 21:8). James 5:12 uses the exact same language.
“It is not the design of James 5:12 or Matthew 5:34-37 to forbid all oaths including those of a judicial nature.”2 When Jesus was being tried before the Sanhedrin in Matthew 26:63-64, the high priest adjured3 Jesus to tell them if he was the Son of God, and he answered them.
The apostle Paul in Galatians 1:20 swore an oath to the Galatians telling them the things, which he had written, are the truth. He also charged4 the Thessalonians to read the epistle he had written to them to all of the brethren (1 Thessalonians 5:27).
God swore oaths to man, and when he did, he swore by himself because there was no one greater (Luke 1:73; Acts 2:30; Hebrews 6:16; 7:20-21).
When we deal with our fellow man, we are to say “yes” or “no”; however, the Bible does teach when those in authority are questioning us, an oath would not be sinful. In this country, we are fortunate that if we do not want to take an oath when dealing with government officials, we may make an affirmation. An affirmation is a declaration that one will tell the truth under the penalty of perjury without invoking the name of God.
The Bible tells us in Romans 14:22-23 that we are not to violate our conscience because to do so is sinful. If a person is uncomfortable taking an oath, he should make an affirmation, since for him to take an oath would be sinful because it violates his conscience.
Endnotes1 Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary 10th Ed., Springfield, Merriam-Webster Incorporated, 1993.
2 Woods, Guy N., A commentary on James, Nashville, Gospel Advocate, 1991.
3 Adjure in Matthew 26:63 is the Greek word enkoridzo which means to exact an oath.
4 Charge in 1 Thessalonians is the same Greek word enkoridzo found in Matthew 26:63 and has the same meaning.