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Catechism Class, LD37 The Swearing of Oaths

15/08/2020

The Swearing of Oaths

H/C LD37 Q101-102

In this short lesson we look at legal oaths – the kind of oath you would take in court, or before a lawyer, or at a wedding, before a minister or registrar.   Before we think about this subject let’s see what the catechism says, and read some Bible passages.

H/C. Q101 But may we swear an oath by the name of God in a godly manner?

A. Yes, when the government demands it of its subjects, or when necessity requires it, in order to maintain and promote fidelity and truth, to God’s glory and for our neighbour’s good. Such oath-taking is based on God’s Word and was therefore rightly used by saints in the Old and the New Testament.

Q.102 May we also swear by saints or other creatures?

A. No.  A lawful oath is a calling upon God, who alone knows the heart, to bear witness to the truth, and to punish me if I swear falsely. No creature is worthy of such honour.

READ: Matthew 5:34-37.  Romans 1:9   James 5:12  

Here’s an ethical dilemma to think about.  In 1997 I was involved in a road traffic accident, at one of those awful mini-roundabouts, where no-one seems to know who has the right or way.  I approached the roundabout and looked right.  I saw a car approaching, but it looked a long way off, so I proceeded slowly onto the roundabout.  What I didn’t properly estimate was the speed of the other vehicle.  Driven by two notorious local ‘rascals’ (for want of a better word), their car drove straight over the pimple on the road, (not around it as it should have done) and did some damage to the front of my vehicle.  No-one was injured at the time – after all the two boys pushed their car off the scene and into a side street before the police could arrive, but strangely, a few days later they both developed whip lash and sore backs, and although the police didn’t consider it worth an investigation or prosecution, they demanded compensation, and it went to a civil court. 

On the day of the hearing I met a barrister, hired by my insurance company, who asked what I wanted to settle the case.  I replied, “Nothing – I wasn’t hurt.”  “Ok, but your opponents in this case are claiming they were, so you’ll have to appear as a witness.”  “Fine,” I replied, “But I want to affirm, rather than take an oath.”  The barrister was shocked and was sure that it would look suspicious to the judge that a minister wouldn’t swear before Almighty God to promise to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.  “Why” he asked, “I’ll just make you look guilty?”  I quoted Matthew 5:34-37.   In the eyes of the barrister, I had cost him the case.  We had surrendered.  The plaintiffs – the rascals were awarded compensation, and I walked away with £600, to cover my insurance excess and a week’s lost work.  My insurance company was less than happy. 

Now, what would YOU have done?  And with hindsight, and a better understanding of reformed doctrine, what would I do if that situation arose now?  Let’s think about this ethical challenge, as we listen to the words of Psalm 63

Psalm 63 (Tune: Crasselius)

1 O God, you are my God alone; I seek your face with eagerness.
My soul and body thirst for you In this dry, weary wilderness.

2 I’ve seen you in your holy place; Your power and glory held my gaze.
Far better is your love than life, And so my lips will sing your praise.

4 I’ll bless you, Lord, throughout my life And raise my hands to you in prayer.
5 My joyful lips will sing your praise; My soul is fed with richest fare.

6 Upon my bed I lie awake And in my thoughts remember you;
I meditate throughout the night And keep your constant love in view.

7 Because you are my help alone, In shadow of your wings I’ll sing.
8 You hold me up with your right hand; To you, O God, my soul will cling

(Sing Psalms)

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So, have you thought about what you would do if asked to swear by Almighty God?  After all, Jesus said that we are not to swear AT ALL! It’s on that basis, that some Christian groups and sects will always refuse to make any oath, for example the Mennonites or the Quakers, and some brethren sects.  Of course, as a Christian, my word should be my bond, and I should always mean what I say, and when I make a promise I should keep it.  In a truly Christian society, there would be no need for any oaths at all.

The catechist however, at first glance, appears to differ from what Jesus has said in the sermon on the mount.  Jesus says, ‘Do not swear at all’ and our instructor says, “May we swear an oath by the name of God in a godly manner? – Yes!”  Why?

First of all let’s note that the passage in which Jesus is teaching his disciples not to swear needs careful exegesis.  What is Jesus really teaching his disciples about, and what is the context the lesson?  Let’s read it again, but this time let’s consider some of the surrounding verses, READ Matthew 5:17-36

There are three things we should notice:

  • The context of Christ’s teaching.  Notice here that Jesus is addressing a problem caused by the Pharisees, who have been misinterpreting the law, adding the sayings and teaching of men to the law of God, and making those human teachings (Mishnah and Talmud) mandatory, binding upon jews.  So Jesus prefaces his teachings by warning that he has not come to abolish the law, rather to fulfil it.  With that proviso, he then begins to call out the hypocritical Pharisees on their interpretations of the law, including their hypocritical practices when they swear an oath.  Because pious Jews wouldn’t utter the name of God, they would swear by other, lessor entities, so they would swear by heaven, or by the earth, or by Jerusalem, or by their own head…. (Sometimes you will hear modern people doing this too – ‘I swear on my mother’s grave…. I swear by my children’s lives…etc etc ). Basically they wanted to impress their hearers about their intention to fulfil their vows, without the sanction of swearing before God – it was a ‘get-out’ clause, so that when they went back one their word, their defence would be, “I didn’t swear by God, he won’t judge me…”. Jesus’s instruction not to swear at all must be seen in that context.  It is better not to make any oath than to make an oath you don’t intend to keep.  Christians should ALWAYS keep their word.  James’ teaching in James 512 simply echoes the words of Christ, heaven, earth. Yes and no etc..
  • The precedent of the Law.  What was the teaching of the law on this – the law that Jesus was not going to abolish, but which the Pharisees were hedging about with terms and conditions?  Look at Deuteronomy 6:13 Deuteronomy 10:20   Oh – the law thatJesus is NOT abolishing tells us to make vows unto the Lord!  Just like the catechist says.
  • The practice of the early church.  The practice of the early church bears this out.
    • Jesus himself called upon God to be his witness. Matthew 16:62-64  
    • Paul made vows before the Lord.  Romans 1:9   2 Corinthians 1:23  
    • Hebrews records that God himself made an oath.  Hebrews 6:16-18  
    • Early church practice reflects OT practice.  Jeremiah 4:1-2, 1 Kings 1:29  

So the overall teaching of the bible is that we must keep our word, as Christians, when we do have to make an oath, there should be no get-out clause or prevarication – we are calling upon God, who is our judge to hear our words and to judge us as to whether we fulfil those vows.  R C Sproule: Jesus’ teaching leads us to conclude that it is better not to make a vow than to swear an oath that we have no intention of keeping. It also reinforces the point that oaths and vows should not be made on just any occasion, but they should be reserved only for occasions of great import and lasting significance. In other cases, we should let our yes be yes and our no be no. But in all circumstances, we must strive to keep our word.  Can you think of when those lasting and important circumstances might be?  

  • A court case, when we are acting as a witness to events or circumstances, when earthly justice might depend on our honesty.
  • A marriage, when we swear before God to love, honour and obey, to remain faithful, for better or for worse, for richer or for poorer, in sickness or in health, till death us do part…
  • A last will and testimony…

The catechist gives us more good reasons for being prepared to take our most important oaths before the Lord…

  1. Because our civil authorities may demand it, in order that truthfulness prevails in society.  When the government makes a legal demand that does not contradict the law of God we should be prepared to obey., when the government demands it of its subjects, or when necessity requires it, in order to maintain and promote fidelity and truth.  It is also a tacit acknowledgement to the court that there is a higher court – the court of Almighty God, where ll our words and actions are already revealed, and where all lies and untruths are eternally uncovered, that our heavenly judge cannot be deceived by our words and excuses.   
  2. Because if we swear by God’s name and it is seen that we keep our word, it brings glory to God, in that the honesty in our lives testify to God’s dealing in our lives.   to God’s glory
  3. Because it may bless a neighbour. and for our neighbour’s good.  You can imagine the scenario, – where a neighbour may be falsely accused, and my testimony, honestly given in the sight of God, knowing that he hears my words, may help to establish innocence.
    Such oath-taking is based on God’s Word and was therefore rightly used by saints in the Old and the New Testament.

So now that we have got to the bottom of all this, let’s think back to my decision that day in court.  Did I do the right thing?  What would YOU do?

For an alternative view by John Piper see: https://www.desiringgod.org/interviews/should-christians-swear-on-the-bible

See also: https://www.ligonier.org/learn/devotionals/jesus-teaching-on-oaths/

For further reading:- Matthew 23:16-22  Deut 6:13; 10:20; Jer 4:1, 2; Heb 6:16.. Gen 21:24; 31:53; Josh 9:15; 1 Sam 24:22; 1 Kings 1:29, 30; Rom 1:9; 2 Cor 1:23. Rom 9:1; 2 Cor 1:23. Mt 5:34-37; 23:16-22; Jas 5:12.

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