LAWFUL OATHS AND VOWS
1 A lawful oath is an act of worship
When taken, a lawful oath is not merely a civic obligation, it is an act of worship for it involves a calling on the name of the Lord. To perjure oneself in a court of law then does not merely make one guilty of breaking the laws of the state, it makes him guilty of impiety and profaning what is holy.
in which the person swearing in [the light of God’s] truth, righteousness and judgement,
Uppermost in the mind of the one who takes an oath is not the court’s right to punish those who swear falsely, or even the need to be technically and legally precise, but rather the truth, justice and righteousness of God. The swearer may be able to satisfy all the demands laid on him by the legal system, man’s truth and justice, and still have sworn falsely because he did not keep in mind God’s standards.
solemnly calls God to witness what he swears, and to judge him according to the truth or falsity of it.1
In taking an oath we do not merely call on ‘expert’ witnesses to examine and support our testimony, we call on God himself to listen to what we say and judge whether we are telling the truth or not. With God as judge there can be no hiding behind appearances and legal maneuvers that are intended to conceal some aspects of the truth. This judgment of course includes the idea of taking appropriate action if we have been lying.
2 People should swear by the name of God alone, and his name is to be used with the utmost holy fear and reverence.
This is not an escape clause that permits us to take an oath so long as we do not use God’s name. Jesus condemned the Pharisees for this kind of thinking that had turned “You shall not swear by my name falsely” into “You shall not swear by my name falsely.” They felt that so long as they did not use the name of God they were free to take oaths and not keep them. The intent of this statement though is that we are to consider an oath lawful only when it is taken in God’s name. Otherwise, we are not to take the oath. A proper oath is taken with all holy fear and reverence for we realize in taking the oath we are calling upon God to enter into our conversation, hear what we say and take action for or against us on the basis of our words.
To swear vainly or rashly by that glorious and awesome name, or to swear at all by any other thing, is sinful and to be abhorred.2
To swear without proper consideration of the holiness of God and his hatred of falsehood is sinful. To swear by anything else other than God is sinful for the taking of oaths is an act of worship. We are ascribing to God the power to discern the truth and the justice needed to act on it. It would be foolish indeed to call upon that Name only to say later that we were not serious. This would be taking God’s name in vain, an act that he does take very seriously.
An oath is sanctioned by the Word of God in weighty and momentous matters to confirm truth and end strife, so a lawful oath imposed by lawful authority ought in such circumstances to be taken.3
The taking of oaths was done by divine command in the Old Testament (Ex 22:11). The many godly men who swore under oath further confirm Scriptural sanction of this practice. Jesus broke his silence during his trial when Caiaphas asked him under oath if he was the Christ, the Son of the living God (Mt 26:63-64). The momentous importance of this truth bound Jesus to answer the high priest’s question. In an oath Paul called on God as his witness that the reason he had not visited them had nothing to do with his lack of concern for them, but was only to spare them from the harsh reproach he would have brought with him for their sinfulness (2 Cor 1:23). It was important enough for the Corinthians to believe this, and there were enough rumors floating around to cause them not to, that Paul resorted to the taking of an oath to confirm the truth of what he said.
The Westminster Confession says that a lawful oath imposed by lawful authority ought to be taken. Our Baptist confession says only that it is permissible to take such an oath. It seems that though the authors of the confession took a Reformed perspective they had some sympathy for the Anabaptists who refused the taking of any oaths. They apparently saw the Anabaptist reaction to the abuse of oaths as proper. They agreed with the sentiment behind the refusal, but not the theology.
3 Whoever takes an oath sanctioned by the Word of God ought to consider the seriousness of so solemn an act, and to affirm nothing but what one knows to be the truth.
It is important that those who take an oath recognize what they are doing is more than submitting to a civil ceremony of some sort. Because they are calling on the God whose Word is truth they must be very careful to testify only to what he knows to be the truth. There can be no exaggeration of the truth in order to make a point, no compromise of the truth in order to achieve a ‘greater’ good. No matter what the consequences, the truth and the truth alone is to be spoken under oath.
For by rash, false and empty oaths the Lord is provoked and because of them a nation is brought to misery.4
When lying under oath, whether it comes through thoughtlessness or intentional deceit, becomes commonplace it is not just the perjurer who is hurt, but society as a whole. Order and justice cannot be maintained among a people who do not value the truth. It is not merely that lying destroys the roots of trust necessary to bind people together, it brings that land under the judgment of God.
4 An oath is to be taken in the plain and ordinary sense of the words, without ambiguity or mental reservation.5
Speaking under oath is no place for mental gymnastics. Taking an oath with the secret intention of a double meaning, saying something that is technically true but spoken in such a way that others will come to an erroneous conclusion, is sinful. Taking an oath on a matter when we know we are not in full agreement with the subject as plainly stated is unlawful. The professor who signs a statement of faith as a condition of employment knowing full well that he does not agree with the doctrines as the authors intended them to be understood is sinning. He cannot tell himself, “I believe this statement ought to mean this” when he knows those who wrote it intended that it mean something else.
5 A vow is not to be made to any creature, but to God alone,6 and it is to be performed with the utmost care and faithfulness.7
Vows are closely related to oaths. Both are solemn promises and both are divinely sanctioned. The difference is that vows are solemn promises made to the Lord, while are oaths are made before the Lord, but to men. The purpose of the oath is confirmation, the purpose of the vow is commitment. The close relationship between these two means that most of what has been said about the oath can be applied to the vow. Because vows are in a sense an act of worship, they must be made to God alone. Because they are made to the Lord who by his very nature is a God of truth and justice we must be true to our vows. Once made they must be kept, even if doing so causes us personal hardship.
But monastic vows of a perpetual single life, professed poverty, and regular obedience, are far from representing degrees of higher perfection, rather, they are superstitious and sinful snares in which no Christian ought to entangle himself.8
Vows are proper only when what is promised is not contrary to Scripture. We cannot properly vow, and thus be obligated, to do anything sinful. To take a vow to do something God’s Word does not justify is a sin in itself. To keep such a vow would only lead to further sin. The sin is in making such a vow, not in breaking it. All vows however that are lawful should be kept whatever the costs.