Oaths, Vows, Pledges, and Sovereignty
|Copyright © 1996, 2002 - All rights retained by author|
|Written by: C. W. Booth|
God’s Sovereign Presence
Can a man, any man or any woman, guarantee that he or she will still be alive by the time they finish reading this introductory paragraph? If they are honest, they would have to say, "No, I cannot guarantee it, but I can make a pretty good guess." The difference between guessing at the future and knowing the future is the difference between being human and being deity.
God does know, of course. He has the hairs on our head numbered, the longevity of our days written in His mind, and He has the Lamb’s Book of Life which tells Him who will be saved and who will be sent to Hell. And all of these things, God reserves as His own domain to know and to change if He pleases; even granting salvation to an unbeliever and writing his name into the Book of Life. The ability to genuinely know, change, and control the present and the future is sovereignty.
It is one of those terrible lessons that we many times forget: God retains exclusive rights over our very lives and the events that comprise our lives. We can plan according to our best guesses as to what God has prepared for us, but only He knows. When we forget this lesson, we stumble into evil as the following verses graphically illustrate.
Come now, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow, we shall go to such and such a city, and spend a year there and engage in business and make a profit.’ Yet you do not know what your life will be like tomorrow. You are just a vapor that appears for a little while and then vanishes away.
Instead, you ought to say, ‘If the Lord wills, we shall live and also do this or that.’ But as it is, you boast in your arrogance; all such boasting is evil. Therefore, to one who knows the right thing to do, and does not do it, to him it is sin. James 4:13-17
In this passage we see that the only thing that these men did was to plan an ordinary business initiative. In fact, the planning phase of such an engagement is considered to be good common sense. On the negative side, it happens all the time that a business will begin operations without proper planning and without researching possible expenses or even the targeted marketplace, resulting in financial failure and ridicule from their competitors and stockholders. Why then does James say that these apparently prudent men were "arrogant", "boastful", "evil", and that they did not do the right thing? How could writing a little business plan be so wrong?
According to the passage, it was for the simple reason that they did not acknowledge God’s control of their world by adding the phrase "If the Lord wills" to the beginning of their plans. All that was required to make their evil boasting into legitimate planning was to state that they would be successful in business only if God Himself permitted it. In fact, God also wanted them to admit that they would live to see another day only "if the Lord wills". It is not enough to know that God is in control, we must be willing to have our best prepared plans changed if He changes our circumstances. God requires us to confess, "If the Lord wills, we shall live and also do this or that…one who knows the right thing to do, and does not do it, to him it is sin."
In other words, to assume that we can dictate the outcomes of our own futures, even one day from now, is not doing the right thing, and is a sin. To assume we can guarantee that we will execute our carefully made plans for the future causes us to sin by claiming man is in control and not the sovereign Creator. Only God knows whether He will permit us to live, prosper, or continue in a sound mind and body; only God.
Establishing Sovereignty in Oaths
Within the Sermon on the Mount is recorded some of the most controversial assertions that Jesus made. Some of these teachings were controversial because they emphasized the sovereignty of God over man, the unchanging nature of God and His Word, and the sinful nature of man in not accepting these two things. In this spirit is the following passage from Matthew 5:33-37.
Again, you have heard that the ancients were told, ‘You shall not make false vows, but shall fulfill your vows to the Lord.’ But I say to you, make no oath at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is the footstool of His feet, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King.
Nor shall you make an oath by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. But let your statement be, ‘Yes, yes’ or ‘No, no’; and anything beyond these is of evil.
What is Jesus commanding of us in this passage? Of first importance, He is reminding mankind that they are created beings and that the Creator is not pleased that they do not acknowledge God as having control over every aspect of human lives. Humans must profess God as having sovereign control over the happenings on earth and even in heaven instead of trying to manipulate God with their clever turns-of-a-phrase.
Let us examine this passage in some detail.
"…you have heard that the ancients were told, ‘You shall not make false vows, but shall fulfill your vows to the Lord.’ But I say to you, make no oath at all"
Jesus sets a high level of conduct here. He states that the prophets were told by God to tell the people not to make "false vows, but … fulfill your vows to the Lord". In other words, a "false vow" is a promise made by men, invoking God by name as a participant, but never having the intention to do what they promised, or, intending to do what was promised but ultimately not doing it completely. In fact, making a vow of any kind while knowing in advance you cannot or will not keep it completely is making a "false vow". In the Old Testament we read that making "false vows" is indeed a sin.
Here Jesus is speaking to the multitudes of common Jews who came to listen to Him at the mountain. With His first statement on the subject He tells them that making a vow and keeping it is what they had been taught already, by their teachers, but that God had an even higher level of conduct for them. In other words, merely keeping your vows and oaths is not sufficient.
Everyone already knew that breaking your vow is a "false vow"--something that is obviously a sin. Even the Old Testament required the person who invokes the name of the Lord in a vow to keep that entire vow without fail, under extreme penalty of judgement by God Himself. Jesus does not withdraw that command--all vows must be fully completed. However, if that were all Jesus had meant to say, He would have then concluded by saying, "So if you make a vow, you must keep it."
Jesus goes further. He says that even keeping your vows is not pleasing to God, because God expects more. God expects us to "make no oath at all".
Some critics have said that Jesus did not actually mean "make no oath at all", but simply that we should keep those vows that we make. For someone to assert this argument, it is necessary for them to ignore that Jesus started out by saying that merely keeping your vows (not making false vows) is insufficient. Jesus actually said, "you have heard… ‘You shall not make false vows, but shall fulfill your vows to the Lord.’ But I say to you, make no oath at all".
It is poor scholarship to try and interpret this command of Jesus as "just keep your vows" when that is precisely what Jesus said they were already being taught to do by the prophets in the scriptures. Jesus said they were already being taught to "keep your vows" but He was going to teach them to "make no oaths at all".
There is an enormous difference between the words, "You shall fulfill your vows to the Lord" and "make no oaths at all". Jesus told them they already knew the teaching "fulfill your vows to the Lord" but He was now teaching them "to make no vows at all".
Why did Jesus say, "make no oath at all" instead of just telling the multitudes to "fulfill their vows to the Lord"? The answer comes from James, Chapter 4:
"Instead, you ought to say, ‘If the Lord wills, we shall live and also do this or that.’ But as it is, you boast in your arrogance; all such boasting is evil."
By making a vow or an oath you are making the claim that you can control the future and can bind God with your speech to do your bidding, and therefore you usurp God’s sovereignty.
As humans, we do not even know if we will live through the night, therefore, how can we ever make a vow, oath, or promise about what we will do in the future? Even worse, how can we make God a participant in our presumptions about what we will do in the future?
But I say to you, make no oath at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is the footstool of His feet, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King.
Nor shall you make an oath by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. But let your statement be, ‘Yes, yes’ or ‘No, no’; and anything beyond these is of evil.
Jesus began his teaching by stating that it is not good enough just to "fulfill your vows to the Lord" (this much the people already knew and believed), He added that we should make no oaths at all because making vows is usurping God’s absolute sovereignty. He goes on to explain that even making vows "by heaven" instead of "to the Lord" is a sin. Why? Because heaven is the "throne of God". Stated another way, heaven not only represents God’s presence, and therefore God Himself, but it is also where God reigns. Where God reigns, man cannot reign. For this reason, man may not pretend to make vows or oaths in "heaven’s name" because God is in control and is sovereign there.
Again, Jesus says that men may not swear an oath invoking the name of the city of Jerusalem. As it turns out, Jerusalem is "the city of the Great King". God reigns over Jerusalem and man cannot control events there either.
Nor may man swear a binding vow by invoking the earth itself. By this time the message is well understood, but Jesus elaborates; the earth is "the footstool of His feet". Even the lowly earth where men dwell and appear to have dominion is actually under the royal foot of its true King and Sovereign, God the Creator. How can man make any genuine claim guaranteeing events within God’s domain?
Finally, it comes down to the man himself. "Nor shall you make an oath by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black". Man is incapable of controlling his own aging process or the time of his own death. Therefore, Jesus says quite clearly that no man may swear an oath even on his own life. No man is permitted to say, "I swear on my own head or by my own word…" . Everything about man is fully under God’s determination, including how long he lives and all that happens to him.
Yes and No
Since the act of swearing an oath is something Jesus calls a "sin" and "is of evil", then what is man permitted to do to affirm that he means what he says? "But let your statement be, ‘Yes, yes’ or ‘No, no’; and anything beyond these is of evil."
Some, in contradiction to Christ’s teaching, who still endorse the practice of making vows tend to read more into this expression "Yes, yes or No, no" than is actually there. They imagine some form of extraordinary affirmation or promise in the expression because the words yes and no are repeated. This is quite an incorrect interpretation.
The Bible interprets this phrase ("Yes, yes or No, no") for itself. James 5:12 states: "But above all, my brethren, do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or with any other oath; but let your yes be yes, and your no, no; so that you may not fall under judgment." James interprets the expression to mean simply that when you say "yes", mean it and then do what you said you would do, and when you say "no" you must also mean it; no other affirmation is appropriate. In fact, adding any other affirmation to your "yes" or "no" is an act of evil which may cause you to "fall under judgment".
Paul encountered a situation which all people seem to have encountered at some time. The Christians at Corinth very much wanted Paul to come visit them, so Paul made plans to travel to the Corinthians and stay with them for a while. However, he knew it would be wrong to make a promise (swear an oath) guaranteeing he would come, so instead he wrote to the Corinthians: "But I will come to you soon, if the Lord wills…" 1 Cor.4:19a. "For I do not wish to see you now just in passing; for I hope to remain with you for some time, if the Lord permits." 1Cor.16:7 Not only was this tactful, but it acknowledged God’s sovereignty over all things and events, even travel plans. Paul said, "Yes, I will come, but only if God permits it to happen." As a human his "yes" meant "yes", but he also knew, and stated, that only God could control whether he actually went or not. He could have said, "Yes, I swear I will come!", but that would have been the sinful extra affirmation that James and Jesus prohibited.
Vows, Oaths, Promises and Swearing Defined
It is essential to come to a common understanding of the key concepts used in the Scriptures. For this reason, we will look to the Bible and to ordinary English usage to define vows, oaths, promises, and swearing.
In the following passage we find the key words "promise", "oath", and "swear".
For when God made the promise to Abraham, since He could swear by no one greater, He swore by Himself, saying, "I will surely bless you, and I will surely multiply you." And thus, having patiently waited, [Abraham] obtained the promise.
For men swear by one greater than themselves, and with them an oath given as confirmation is an end of every dispute. In the same way God, desiring even more to show to the heirs of the promise the unchangeableness of His purpose, interposed with an oath, in order that by two unchangeable things, in which it is impossible for God to lie, we may have strong encouragement, we who have fled for refuge in laying hold of the hope set before us. Hebrews 6:13-18
In the New Testament the word "promise" means that a person is "professing something true" or making "a proclamation of intent". As is shown in verse 13 a proclamation or promise becomes an "oath" only when it is combined with some form of extraordinary affirmation, otherwise known as "swearing by something greater than oneself". A promise is always a binding statement, whether it is made as a simple statement of intent (e.g. "Yes, I will give you this land.") or when it is combined with swearing to become an oath. Because a promise (statement of intent), or any other ordinary agreement a Christian may make, is genuinely binding on the believer; there is no advantage at all in "swearing an oath". Christians must do what they say they will do, if the Lord permits, and swearing an oath will not improve on that.
An oath (literally it means "to shut in or out", as if to lock in the agreement) is generated when a person swears an affirmation to a statement. The sworn affirmation must invoke something or someone greater than the one swearing--for that is its purpose; it assumes the one swearing has need of appealing to a higher authority to guarantee the truthfulness and ultimate performance of the promised statement.
Finally, in the New Testament the Greek word for "vow" is the same Greek word for "swear"; exactly the same word, letter-for-letter. "To vow" (to swear) literally means "to make an oath, swear".
So, for a man to say, "Yes, I will help you" is merely his profession of intent. His yes means yes assuming he is telling you the truth. This type of statement is certainly the type that Jesus said we should be making in Matthew 5. To lie, of course, is obviously a prohibited sin.
For a man to say, "Yes, I swear by my god that I will help you" is by definition an oath or vow. This is what Jesus and James calls an "evil" proclamation. Even if that person were to swear by their own head or by their own word, it is a sworn affirmation that is beyond "yes" and "no".
Old Testament Oaths
In the Old Testament there are numerous examples of men and women making vows to the Lord. If God is unchangeable, why did Jesus forbid us from participating in making vows in the same way as the ancient Hebrews?
A foundationally important concept must first be understood before going further: Activities that were commanded or even permitted by the Law of Moses are not necessarily to be practiced by Christians today. For example, certain animal sacrifices of thanksgiving and freewill offerings were permitted under the law (Lev. 7:16), but animal sacrifices were made entirely unnecessary by the death and resurrection of Christ (Heb.7:27, 9:7-13). In just the same way, some aspects of the Law have been completed and made obsolete by the Law of Grace. Certainly, swearing oaths and vows is among them.
For example, it was commanded by God that the Ceremonial Law be taught and followed from one generation to another, without fail. This included a prohibition on eating pork. If you were a righteous Jew alive during the days of David the king and you taught someone that Jews could eat pork, you would have been a heretic, a sinner, and fallen under justifiable condemnation.
However, the Ceremonial Law has been "set aside" because Christ made it obsolete (Heb.8:13). In an ultimate irony, if today you taught someone that it was a sin to eat pork (for indeed the Old Testament said it was a sin to eat pork), you would again be guilty of heresy, because it is now righteous to eat pork. Christ fulfilled the law and you may no longer forbid men to eat pork.
In the Old Testament Law of Moses, we read that animals must be sacrificed to cover our sins. Sacrificing animals to cover your sins was one of the holiest activities in which a man could participate. However, if today you decide that it is good and necessary to present living animals to be sacrificed to cover your sins you would be committing a most serious sin against God. We have only one sacrifice for sins, Christ, and if you deem that sacrifice is not sufficient, there is no more hope left for forgiveness (Heb.10:26-29).
It should be very apparent, what was once considered a mandatory and righteous activity under the Law of Moses, is now a forbidden activity. This is true of the ban on pork, sacrificing animals to cover sins, and making vows.
Those who wish to claim that they have the right to continue following the Law, or to be specific, only selected elements of it, fail to comprehend the enormity of what they claim. The Law was originally given to demonstrate man’s inability to follow the way of righteousness, thus demonstrating to mankind the legitimacy of his own condemnation before God. But the Law was made obsolete by the New Covenant. Anyone who wishes to continue to abide by even certain pieces of the Law lacks a degree of understanding.
This is the only thing I want to find out from you: did you receive the Spirit by the works of the Law, or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?" Gals.3:2,3
For as many as are of the works of the Law are under a curse; for it is written, "Cursed is everyone who does not abide by all things written in the book of the Law, to perform them." Now that no one is justified by the Law before God is evident; for , "The righteous many shall live by faith." However, the Law is not of faith; on the contrary, "He who practices them shall live by them." Gals.3:10-12
Why invoke the Law of Moses with regard to "making vows"? Is it to ensure you adhere to an oath more perfectly? Galatians 3 severely condemns attempting to live a life of righteousness by invoking elements of the Law. Invoking the Law requires that we abide by the entire Law, and that perfectly. However, true righteousness is via the Spirit and faith, not acts of the Law. It is for this very reason the Law was made obsolete by the New Covenant.
As is often the case, we fail to comprehend what lessons were taught under the Law, which is for us a wonderful example and opportunity for instruction. Begin with Numbers 30, the entire chapter. It teaches us that oaths (vows) are permanently binding. If we break them, we are guilty to God. Even "rash statements" uttered within an oath are binding as long as the person lives. Rashness is not a loophole and does not invalidate the oath.
Turning to Deuteronomy 23:21-23:
"When you make a vow to the Lord your God, you shall not delay to pay it, for it would be sin in you, and the Lord your God will surely require it of you.
However, if you refrain from vowing, it would not be sin in you.
You shall be careful to perform what goes out from your lips, just as you have voluntarily vowed to the Lord your God, what you have promised."
Here we learn that never making a vow or an oath is perfectly acceptable to God. Refraining from vows and oaths is not a sin.
And finally, in Ecclesiastes 5:4-6:
"When you make a vow to God, do not be late in paying it, for He takes no delight in fools. Pay what you vow!
It is better that you should not vow than that you should vow and not pay.
Do not let your speech cause you to sin and do not say in the presence of the messenger of God that it was a mistake. Why should God be angry on account of your voice and destroy the work of your hands? "
We learn that if we invoke God as a participant in our vows and oaths and then we are delinquent or negligent in fulfilling that vow, God may even choose to destroy the very works of our hands. And yet once again we are reminded that it is better to not vow than to vow and not fulfill the terms.
What we learn from the Law concerning oaths should give every Christian pause. Vows are serious, permanent, place us under God’s judgement if left unfulfilled, and altogether an optional practice in the Old Testament Law. Consider that the purpose of the Law was to demonstrate to us that we could never meet God’s standards of perfection. No wonder Jesus said, "Again, you have heard that the ancients were told, ‘You shall not make false vows, but shall fulfill your vows to the Lord.’ But I say to you, make no oath at all…But let your statement be, ‘Yes, yes’ or ‘No, no’; and anything beyond these is of evil."
Old Testament Prohibition On Oaths
There are many passages on the making and taking of vows and oaths in the Old Testament. Usually these verses regulate who may take oaths and how vows may be taken. In two lesser known passages (Jer.4:2, 12:16) God even commanded the unrepentant Jews to stop making vows in the name of Baal and to start vowing "as the Lord lives" in order to demonstrate their true conversion and salvation from idol worship back to worship of the one true God.
However, Hosea 4:15 is a special passage. It is the forerunner of the prohibition that Jesus places on oath making, and for the same reasons.
"Though you, Israel, play the harlot, do not let Judah become guilty; also do not go to Gilgal, or go up to Beth-aven, and take the oath: ‘As the Lord lives!’" Hosea 4:15
God saw that the sins of the people betrayed the evil in their hearts. He knew that whether they swore an oath in the name of the true God or not they were unrepentant and even unbelieving. Any unbeliever, or any unrepentant believer, who invokes God during a vow is "swearing falsely". The one doing the swearing simply cannot mean what he says when he swears, "as the Lord lives", therefore making it a false vow. If he indeed believed that "the Lord lives", before he swore he would first believe God and repent.
Finally, God does not listen to the prayers of unrepentant hearts (Isa.1:15). Any vow or oath is an invocation for God to participate--in other words, a special type of prayer. The unrepentant person who prays for anything other than the ability to believe and for repentance is just fooling himself, for God will not listen and his swearing is a "false vow".
Jesus places the same type of prohibition on swearing oaths that Hosea instituted. Hosea said that God forbids men to swear oaths when their hearts were unrepentant. Jesus prohibits the taking of oaths because men are incapable of ever "guaranteeing the future". Jesus knows men will sin and will ultimately break almost every vow they make; men cannot "guarantee" their hearts will remain pure and sinless, so He prohibits all vows and oaths as "evil".
Common Objections to Obedience
Most often a lack of obedience to the command of Jesus to not make vows is bolstered by a covey of reasonable-sounding objections. A few of these objections will be examined below.
Not Truly Scripture
For those who claim that Jesus never uttered the words recorded in Matthew 5, and that James was mistaken in his rendering of a similar command, our only recourse is to appeal to God’s Word.
And so we have the prophetic word made more sure, to which you do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star arises in your hearts. But know this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation, for no prophecy was ever made by an act of human will, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God. 2Peter1:19-21
All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work. 2Tim.3:16,17
Not All Vows Prohibited
Many hold to the position that not all oaths and vows are prohibited by Jesus and James. They maintain that the prohibition only applies to those vows literally spelled out in the text, namely: false vows, oaths that reference God by name, vows invoking heaven, the temple, Jerusalem, one’s own head, or the earth. Logically, then, vows that invoke dead persons, saints, etc. may be permissible.
Such rationalization is flawed. The very reason that objects and places are forbidden are tied to the fact that these are the places and things where God sits (His throne) or rests His feet. In other words, these are places and objects where God is the ultimate sovereign and He refuses to be made subject to human control. Is God not the Sovereign over the believers and saints who have died just as He is over the Earth and Heaven?
People as the "appellate authority" (higher authority) are also rejected. Why? Because humans are so incapable of being the guarantor of even the simplest promise that they cannot even control their own death or their own aging.
Finally, a very simple paraphrase sums up the main premise of both Jesus and James: "Anything you say that includes more than the word ‘yes’ or ‘no’ is a promise rooted in evil."
Jesus Said He Was Not Abolishing the Law
Perhaps the most compelling of the reasons to reject a literal reading of Matthew 5 and James 5 is put forward when critics quote Jesus in Matthew 5:17-19.
"Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish, but to fulfill. For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass away from the Law, until all is accomplished. Whoever then annuls one of the least of these commandments, and so teaches others, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever keeps and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven."
Indeed, Jesus did not abolish even the smallest commands of the Law. He actually interprets for us the genuine meaning and intent and by doing so He dramatically increases the unattainable nature of it. What we originally thought of as a Law that was too difficult to follow becomes more difficult still as Jesus explains what it actually meant.
For example, in Matthew 5:21-24 Jesus says that the Law calls murder a sin, but He then defines unrepentant anger as a sin equal to murder. (John MacArthur writes: "[God] does not prohibit every form of anger…[verse 22 refers to] selfish anger…brooding, simmering anger that is nurtured and not allowed to die. It is seen as holding a grudge, in the smoldering bitterness that refuses to forgive.") Hatred is essentially wishing someone were dead, what Matthew Henry calls "heart murder" (1John 3:15). By this statement, Jesus effectively establishes a prohibition on brothers derisively belittling each other with the taunt "you fool" ("raca") [this taunt is meant to indicate that everything about a person, and all that they do, is of no value--a general condemnation of a person’s entire life and character]. When Jesus equates thinking murderously angry thoughts with the very act of murder itself, He does not abolish any part of the Law, He actually raises the expectations God has of our human conduct. The Law governed our outward actions, Jesus wants us to also govern our hearts.
Again, in Matthew 5:27-32 Jesus explains that they were taught that divorces were "legal" so long as official "certificates of dismissal" were granted. Without abolishing any part of the Law, Jesus prohibits all divorces (except those initiated because of sexual affairs) by declaring that a divorce is not only the same as the sin of adultery, but it is in fact adultery.
Matthew 5:38,39 quotes Jesus on the topic of not retaliating in kind when someone insults you by slapping your face. Jesus here creates a de facto prohibition on returning insult-for-insult, slap-for-slap, even though such conduct may seemingly have been tolerated by the Law. Jesus expects of His followers conduct superior to that which was "regulated by the Law".
In this same spirit, Matthew 5:33-37 outlines how Jesus prohibits the making and taking of vows and oaths. He does this without "abolishing" any part of the Law. He declares that His followers must speak in truth, all the time, with sincerity and acknowledging that God is in sovereign control of all circumstances and outcomes.
Jesus says that all of our speech is to be as true, pure, and binding as that used in making vows. Therefore, Christ makes vows obsolete, irrelevant, unnecessary, and even sinful by requiring all that we say to be more honest than that which was expected under the minimal regulations of the Ceremonial Law pertaining to oaths.
Jesus came to "fulfill the Law". This means He came to literally "complete" or "finish" the Law. The Law as the Jews had come to practice it regulated the external aspects of human conduct. In Matthew 5 Jesus demonstrates that God’s true expectations (call them Laws if you like) are focused on our minds and our hearts, our thoughts and our motivations. This is but one aspect of "completing the Law", but it is an important one.
Oaths and vows were made useless by Christ when He said, "let your yes mean yes" because at His command there is now no higher promise that can be made which is any more effective than the believer saying, "yes". Our words must always be true, and our actions must be as faithful as our words. Our "yes" means we will do what we say without fail, but it also permits God to be our sovereign and to change our plans "as He wills". Vows would only bring us back down to the level of the Law, watching over our conduct as though we did not have the Spirit of Christ.
In no way is anything that Jesus teaches in Matthew 5 contradictory to the Law of Moses. On the other hand, He raises the standards of conduct by which we must live. He does this by placing prohibitions on unrighteously angry speech, divorce, insults, and vows. How is it Jesus had the right to raise our standards of conduct even higher than the way the Law was being interpreted in His day? Because He was and is our God, and He has the right and the authority.
"The result was that when Jesus had finished these words, the multitudes were amazed at His teaching; for He was teaching them as one having authority, and not as their scribes." Matthew 7:28,29
Problem Verses in the New Testament
Several passages have been advanced as "proof texts" that are purported to somehow invalidate or contradict Christ’s and James’ prohibition on swearing oaths and vows.
In Acts 21:20 -24 a mention is made of four men under a vow. Paul is asked by the church to lead these four men through a Jewish purification process, to which they had already obligated themselves with a vow, so that the entire Jewish community can see that the Law of Moses is still being taught and followed by Paul.
The scheme back-fires, and a near riot among the Jews result, ending in Paul being led away in chains by the Romans because the Jews wished to kill him.
It would be wrong to attempt to justify making vows on the basis of this incident. Did these men take this vow before or after they became Christians? We are not told. We are told these vows were in regard to Jewish rituals. To prove that Paul and his followers had not abandoned the Law of Moses they wanted to parade their adherence to the Law in a public demonstration. Today’s Christians are not attempting to prove that they still follow the Law of Moses, so any equivalent motivation would appear to be lacking. Finally, it is implied that this specific incident of identifying with the unsaved world through vow-taking was not necessarily an effective outreach technique.
Collection of Money
2Corinthians 9:5 is also cited as an example where the church engaged in making a promise, but where it is not referred to as a sin, implying we can make similar promises today. The key word "promised" is the Greek word "proepaggello", which means "to announce before", or in other words, "to declare your intentions ahead of time". It is an entirely different word than the ones used to offer a guarantee, such as is used in Ephesians 1:13 concerning the Holy Spirit of promise. The Corinthians had simply, but enthusiastically, declared they would assist in alleviating the suffering of their international brethren through a financial gift to be given at some future date.
This was not some form of a church-wide collective oath. As is plain from the text Paul asks them to set aside money on a regular basis and to be generous, demonstrating the "promise" was not a guarantee or oath, but was only a declaration of intent, and not for any specific amount of money. Paul was actually concerned that they might be embarrassed by an unsuitably small gift, so he urged them to strategically plan their giving as well as to be generous, because it was their own free will in gift-giving that they were exercising.
What we have examined so far has been relatively unambiguous. But in our modern culture we are asked to make pledges, take wedding vows, enter into contracts, covenants, commitments, and to agree to join accountability groups. What do all these words mean today, and are they the sinful vows Jesus has condemned as evil, or are they harmless ways to say yes and no?
Perhaps the most common of all questions surrounds the wedding ceremony, and more to the point, the so called wedding vows. We know from the scriptures that a marriage is a contract, a simple agreement or covenant, between two people that they will be a husband and wife for life. The Bible does not require any specific words or phrases be uttered to make this happen, nor is any form of an oath required to be taken for a marriage to become valid. All that is necessary is that two people decide "Let us be husband and wife" (Gen.24:67).
Even though God does not require it, most all clergy will impose some form of "wedding vows" to be taken at any wedding over which they officiate. The Bible guarantees us that refraining from oaths and vows is not sinful, however, the question presents itself, will refraining from vows also mean that no clergy will ever consent to officiate at your wedding?
Ironically, many times wedding "vows" are inappropriately named because many times they are not vows at all. The vows often simply consist of multiple questions that require a simple ‘yes’ answer (pity the groom who ever says ‘no’). This type of formality, where the questions outline the terms of the agreement, is quite an appropriate template for a simple contract between believers.
For example, "Do you take this woman to be your lawfully wedded wife, to love and to hold, in sickness and in health, from now until death?" This is not "technically" a vow or an oath. The principal ingredient missing is the extra affirmation (the swearing) beyond the simple ‘yes’.
To make the question a bonafide vow or an oath would require that the groom answer with "Yes, I swear that I will…" This type of oath is strictly forbidden by Jesus. To simply reply, "Yes, I will" is not the vow or oath that Jesus condemned.
Sadly, for those couples who do have convictions about not taking oaths, some pastors feel it is their duty to escalate the "seriousness of the moment" by adding a passive oath. It is done with words such as, "In the sight of God, Jane, do you solemnly promise to…". Even though the bride merely answers, "I do", she is actually answering, "I, Jane, do solemnly promise in the sight of God that I will…". A simple agreement, an uncomplicated covenant, a straightforward understanding is turned into an oath by adding the "swearing". It is precisely this "swearing" that Jesus prohibits.
Even if one were to believe that swearing an oath were a biblically acceptable activity, they must also deceive themselves when it comes to wedding vows. "Do you promise to love…?" Love, as Christ loved the church? In a sacrificial, patient, never sinning manner? Can any man ever really do this? For a lifetime? How about for twenty-four hours? If you know you cannot perfectly fulfill the vow, why would you insult God by swearing to it?
Wives, will you swear to obey your husbands? How often? Even when you think he is wrong? Will you ever be disobedient? Of course you will. So why would you swear to obey him and invoke God as the guarantor of your obedience to that oath when you already know you will not fulfill this promise? It then becomes a "false vow"; a vow you knew from before you even made it that you would break it. This is exactly what the Pharisees did; they made vows with supposed loopholes knowingly implied in advance so they could break the terms of the vow but not feel guilty about it, a righteous-sounding "false vow".
To better understand the futility of making such a wedding vow, try this challenge: write the vow in such a way as to make it true, now and for all time. For example, you may begin by writing, "I promise to obey my husband, except when I become selfish and sinful." That is a good start, but incomplete. "I promise to try to obey my husband, except when I become selfish and sinful or when he is decidedly wrong and it will cost us extreme amounts of money and embarrassment." At least this is approaching honesty. Would you now be willing to take this "more honest" vow in front of your groom, his parents, and all your attendants?
No one who has ever attended a wedding has ever believed that the groom would perfectly fulfill his vows to love his bride as completely as Christ loved His church. No one who has ever sat through a wedding service has ever believed the bride would always obey her husband. Such is human nature--we rebel and sin. All wedding vows such as these, that invoke God as the guarantor and ultimate judge, are "false vows" because no one believes they will be perfectly fulfilled, including the bride and groom. In fact, everyone knows they will be broken from time to time.
If you are somehow brash enough to swear an oath to God, knowing in advance that you will not keep it completely, you must also know that it is a "false vow" and not just a "mistake". You never intended to keep the whole promise, with perfection, for the duration of the time period you vowed you would. Even the Old Testament says, "You shall be careful to perform what goes out from your lips, just as you have voluntarily vowed to the Lord your God, what you have promised." Ecclesiastes 5:4-6: "When you make a vow to God, do not be late in paying it, for He takes no delight in fools. Pay what you vow! It is better that you should not vow than that you should vow and not pay. Do not let your speech cause you to sin and do not say in the presence of the messenger of God that it was a mistake. Why should God be angry on account of your voice and destroy the work of your hands? " False vows are one way a human can use to look good in front of other men, demonstrating pride and arrogance while ignoring the consequences with God.
"But I say to you, make no oath at all…" Was Jesus trying to make our lives more difficult, or was He trying to save us from ourselves?
If you want a genuine and biblically acceptable wedding "covenant", evaluate the following wording alternatives:
To The Groom
"Do you understand your biblical role as husband, to love your wife as Christ loved His church?"
"Do you understand the words of our Lord when He says that marriage from the beginning of human history was meant to be one man, one woman, until death?"
"Do you take this woman as your bride?"
To The Bride
"Do you understand your biblical role as wife, to obey your husband as he is head of the household?"
"Do you understand the words of our Lord when He says that marriage from the beginning of human history was meant to be one man, one woman, until death?"
"Do you take this man to be your husband?"
This is a covenant. A set of criteria that defines a formal agreement. No "promises", no "vows", no "oaths", and no "pledges". Is God watching? Yes. Is the couple married? Yes. Are they obligated in the most serious and solemn manner possible for humans? Yes. Their agreement, their "yes", is as binding as any oath, and is far more truthful.
Pledges - Financial
We now enter an area of modern language where having a set of English-based definitions will assist us. Webster’s New International Dictionary - Second Edition defines swearing as: "1.To affirm or utter a solemn declaration, with an appeal to God for the truth of what is affirmed…2.To make a solemn promise, …to vow …4.To take an oath…" Notice that the very act of swearing is, by definition using the common English language of our day, the same as making a promise, vow, and an oath. Unlike Greek where a promise was just a statement of intent, in modern English a promise is considered the equivalent of making a vow.
An oath is further defined by Webster’s as a noun that means "1.A solemn appeal to God…for the truth of an affirmation or declaration, or in witness of the inviolability of a promise…".
Is pledging the same thing as making an oath? Webster’s says a pledge is, "1…a person whose body is given as security for the performance of an obligation…a hostage… 2. Something liable to forfeiture in case of nonperformance…"
Pledging is giving one’s body to be held for potential forfeiture if the pledged action is not carried out. The question then, is not whether pledging is an oath, for by definition it is swearing on one’s own body that one will do something, which is very definitely an oath. Rather, the question is, does God permit this kind of oath? "Nor shall you make an oath by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. But let your statement be, ‘Yes, yes’ or ‘No, no’; and anything beyond these is of evil."
As a practical matter, when one is asked to sign, for example, a financial pledge card at church, there are alternatives which will demonstrate support for the church without exposing the concerned Christian to making a vow or an oath by signing the card. We are told that financial pledging primarily helps the church plan its fiscal year in a budget. Planning is important, but pledging is a sinful compromise when we understand the scriptures. A good alternative is for the church to hand out "Fiscal Planning Cards". Instead of printing, "I, Mr. Christian, pledge to give the church $50 every week", the cards may be printed as, "I, Mr. Christian, plan to give $50 every week, if the Lord wills." If you do receive a "pledging" card, you also have the option of not signing it, or even crossing out the pledging aspects of it and replacing the text with your own hand-written notations.
Pledges - Verbal
As you will recall, the word "pledge" means to offer one’s own body as penalty payment should the pledge ever be broken or go unpaid. Placing the definition into certain common "pledges" a clearer meaning can be ascertained. For example, the opening to the "Pledge of Allegiance to the Christian Flag":
As Spoken: "I pledge allegiance to the Christian flag…"
Interpreted: "I swear on possible forfeit of my own life and body that I will forever be loyal to the Christian flag…"
What is wrong with this statement? First it is condemned by Christ and by James. Secondly, what if over the years the "Christian flag" stops standing for Christ and is perverted into something else? Should we truly have pledged ourselves to the flag at all, with no stated caveats? The flag and the pledge are man-made. And the pledge is prohibited by Christ.
What can you or your children do when faced with such pledges? First, you have the option of asking the child’s instructor for exemption from the pledging (this author has done just that). You also have the option of appealing to pastors and administrators. Another alternative is to quietly instruct your child to change the wording himself, to something like: "I give allegiance to the Christian flag…". And always remember the words of God, "…if you refrain from vowing, it would not be sin in you."
Since oaths, vows, swearing, and pledging are all essentially the same outlawed behaviors, how should contractual obligations be handled? Just as most everything else in life, this requires careful thought and sound judgement.
A contract, in general, is a formal obligation, often between two or more persons, most often in writing. There is nothing in Scripture that prevents us from making agreements, and more to this point, formal and written contracts.
However, some formal agreements contain hidden oaths. For example, a church may ask you to sign its covenant or maybe its statement of faith in order to become a full member. This is as reasonable as asking someone to sign a rental agreement. If, on the other hand, the agreement also contains words such as, "swear to abide by the terms of this covenant", then the agreement crosses the line into swearing an oath. Again, in such a matter as this, it might be acceptable to simply cross out the offensive wording, and sign it as an ordinary agreement. Open dialogue is appropriate in such cases.
Even secular courts are open to alternative wording in this day and age. It used to be standard practice to ask a person to "swear an oath of honesty…so help you God" before they provided testimony. It is often perfectly acceptable now to offer to "agree to tell the truth" in front of the court based on religious grounds. Even Richard Nixon changed his inaugural presidential oath from "I swear" to "I affirm" on the basis of his religious convictions.
God is sovereign over this world, over human life, and in heaven. Making oaths, vows, and pledges violates His sovereignty. Jesus forbade the taking of oaths in Matthew 5:33-37. James also places a blanket prohibition against any form of swearing in James 5:12.
Through these verses and the simple act of examining some of the English words we use for "swearing oaths", we have seen that "pledging" also violates these clear prohibitions.
Finally, we examined the lessons of the Old Testament Law concerning oaths and vows. In addition to learning of the severe consequences involved with breaking them, we learned that avoiding oaths and vows altogether is never a sin.
Although forms of oath taking and pledging are still unfortunately in common practice, there are constructive alternatives available to the mindful Christian. If we do not prove faithful in this seemingly little command, how can we expect to take on the bigger ones? "…to one who knows the right thing to do, and does not do it, to him it is sin."