Taking Oaths

"Again, you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, 'Do not break your oath, but keep the oaths you have made to the Lord.' But I tell you, Do not swear at all: either by heaven, for it is God's throne; or by the earth, for it is His footstool; or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make even one hair white or black. Simply let your 'Yes' be 'Yes', and your 'No', 'No'; anything beyond this comes from the evil one."
- Matthew 5:33-37 NIV

This passage is often misinterpreted to mean several different things. First of all, some people mistakenly think that Jesus is referring to what we call “cussing” or “cursing,” depending on where you live. However, He wasn’t speaking of cussing or cursing at all, but rather the actual taking of oaths.

God set up the standards for oaths in the Old Testament. Here are a couple of the statements that God makes in the Old Testament where it concerns oath-taking:

Leviticus 19:12 says, “Do not swear falsely by my name and so profane the name of your God. I am the LORD.”

Deuteronomy 23:21 says, “If you make a vow to the LORD your God, do not be slow to pay it, for the LORD your God will certainly demand it of you and you will be guilty of sin.”

Now, if God set up this standard for oaths, then why would Jesus say that we are never to take an oath? The answer lies in what the Jews, once again, had done to pervert the word of God. By the time of Christ, the Jews had an incredibly elaborate system of oath-taking. It was so convoluted and elaborate that it formed the basis of actually lying, rather than telling the truth! There were “stages” of truth, and also “stages” of telling falsehoods within that elaborate system! So Jesus was telling the people that if they were habitually truthful, they had no reason to take an oath, because others could depend upon their “yes” to mean “yes”, and their “no” to mean “no”. For a truthful person, there was no need for taking an oath, under any set of circumstances.

In our world today, we’ve developed a system of oath-taking, too, although ours is generally not so elaborate as that of the Jews in Jesus’ time. However, I can think of several situations – initiations into groups and organizations particularly – where the very act of taking an oath to that group or to its “cause” is very near to the same kind of elaborate disguising of lies as those used by the Jews.

For instance, I can think of one organization where a Christian would be forced to tell a falsehood in order to become part of that organization. The reason is, part of their initiation ceremony requires the new member to say, “I am in the dark, and I seek the light of....” However, 1 John 1:5-7 says, “This is the message we have heard from him and declare to you: God is light; in him there is no darkness at all. If we claim to have fellowship with him yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live by the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin.” And in Matthew 5:14-16, Jesus says, “You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.” So, for a Christian to say, “I am in the dark, and I seek the light of _________”, that person will have to lie.

So what should we do when confronted by such a situation? As Christians, if we are committed to Jesus and living our lives for Him, the only choice we would have is to walk away and refuse to make such a statement, no matter how many of our friends are members of that organization and no matter now much prestige it would give us to be members, too. If refusal to take an oath keeps you from being allowed membership in that organization, then consider this instruction from Jesus as His way of protecting you from something in which you do not need to be involved.

If you do try to walk away, your friends most likely will say something like, “It's just a harmless fraternal oath. It doesn't mean anything.” Or does it? Take a look at what Jesus said in Matthew 12:36-37, "But I tell you that men will have to give account on the day of judgment for every careless word they have spoken. For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned." Does that oath still sound harmless? Think about it.

"See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather than on Christ." Colossians 2:8 NIV

By Bonnie Ricks