Christian oaths and vows
Question: In Matthew 5:33-37, Jesus says not to take oaths. Did He mean that we should never take an oath?
Answer: No, I don’t believe that’s what He meant.
Matthew 5:33-37 says (I’ll also include James 5:12 because it’s similar to the Matthew passage):
- Matthew 5:33-37
- Again you have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform to the Lord what you have sworn; But I say to you, Do not take an oath at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not take an oath by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No”; anything more than this comes from evil.
- James 5:12
- But above all, my brothers, do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or by any other oath, but let your “yes” be yes and your “no” be no, so that you may not fall under condemnation.
On its face, it seems clear that the Bible prohibits oath-making and swearing. However, I’d like to offer three reasons why the “face” view is incorrect:
- God ordained oaths in specific situations.
- Exodus 22:10-13. This passage explains a conflict resolution process. For example, if you loaned me something, and the thing that you loaned me came up lost or destroyed, we would go before God. Once we were there I would have to swear that I had nothing to do with the lost or destroyed item. Please read the passage for more on the process.
- Numbers 5:11-31. In this passage, God instituted a process whereby a jealous husband, and his possibly unfaithful wife, came before Him. The woman had to swear that she hadn’t broken faith with her husband.
People in the above situations would be at a loss to resolve their problems if swearing were off-limits.
- Paul engaged in oath-making. Here are a few examples (emphasis mine below):
- Romans 1:9
- For God is my witness, whom I serve with my spirit in the gospel of his Son, that without ceasing I mention you
- 2 Corinthians 1:23
- But I call God to witness against me—it was to spare you that I refrained from coming again to Corinth.
- Galatians 1:20, 21
- (In what I am writing to you, before God, I do not lie!). Then, I went into the regions of Syria and Cilicia.
- 1 Thessalonians 5:27
- I put you under oath before the Lord to have this letter read to all the brothers. Here, Paul is putting the entire congregation under oath.
- Romans 1:9
Paul seems to swear a lot. You can almost see him raising his right hand when making most of his statements. But, of course, that would be a problem if he were doing something that Jesus forbade.
- The texts themselves hint at a limited application.
- Matthew 5:33-37, says:
- “ … Do not take an oath at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not take an oath by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No”; anything more than this comes from evil. Emphasis mine.
- James 5:12
- But above all, my brothers, do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or by any other oath, but let your “yes” be yes and your “no” be no, so that you may not fall under condemnation. Emphasis mine.
- Matthew 5:33-37, says:
If we read the texts carefully, it becomes clear that the prohibition applies to certain oath categories. In other words, the passages above say don’t swear (or make oaths) at all by “… heaven, earth, Jerusalem, or your head ….”
If my conclusions are right, why would the Bible limit its warning to the aforementioned categories? Well, apparently, the Jews invented ways to make oaths that they could break without negative repercussions. Vows that invoked God had to be kept. Oaths that did not (like those listed in the texts above), Jews believed, could be freely broken. See Matthew 23:16-22.
In summarizing this point about breaking oaths, one commentary said:
Jesus refers, not to the solemn judicial oath … but to oaths common among the Jews. Generally speaking, prefixing an affirmation with the words “I swear” turned the statement into an oath. But, as in other things, the Jews contrived many devices by which to free themselves from obligations accepted under oaths.
It’s what we do today when we swear to something, but secretly cross our fingers (or hands, feet, or eyes – well, maybe not the eyes). Or, how some people believe that if it’s not in writing, there’s no obligation to honor their solemn promises.
Why Make A Vow?
So, why would anyone vow to anything? The answer is complicated. Let me offer two reasons. First, making oaths may help people focus on the situation at hand. Sometimes, I’m in danger of multitasking and committing myself to things without paying attention. Making a solemn promise may help me to be “in the moment.” I have to confess, though, I don’t believe I’ve ever made an oath or vow. Second, people offer oaths to assure the other party of their commitment to the situation. One of the ways these assurances are conveyed is that the parties are, by invoking God, implicitly asking Him to curse them if they violate their oath. Asking for a curse upon one’s head may seem strange, but look at Paul’s oaths above. See also Matthew 26:72-74 where Peter invokes a curse on himself if he is lying about his relationship with Jesus.
Finally, here are my four takeaways and one question on this subject:
- Matthew and James prohibit a particular type of oath; and not all oaths.
- When I swear or take an oath by something other than God (for instance, “I swear on my mother’s grave”), it suggests I have an evil intent (not to honor the oath).
- When we vow to do something – like during a marriage ceremony or when we are called as a witness in court – we are asking God to curse us if we break our vow (see also Joshua 9:3-27, particularly verse 20). For example, see the swearing-in ceremony of President Obama for his second term (listen to Chief Justice Roberts’ question at the very end):
- We should be more guarded and deliberate with our words. See Proverbs 10:19; Ecclesiastes 5:5; Matthew 12:36, 37.
- How do the following situations amplify your understanding of this subject:
- Proverbs 6:1-5 – My son, if you have put up security for your neighbor, have given your pledge for a stranger, if you are snared in the words of your mouth, caught in the words of your mouth, then do this, my son, and save yourself, for you have come into the hand of your neighbor: go, hasten, and plead urgently with your neighbor. Give your eyes no sleep and your eyelids no slumber; save yourself like a gazelle from the hand of the hunter, like a bird from the hand of the fowler.
- Act 5:3-5 – But Peter said, “‘Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back for yourself part of the proceeds of the land? While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, was it not at your disposal? Why is it that you have contrived this deed in your heart? You have not lied to man but to God.’ When Ananias heard these words, he fell down and breathed his last. And great fear came upon all who heard of it.”
Please let me know what you think. J-
 All Bible references are to the English Standard Version unless otherwise stated.
 I don’t think Jesus was speaking of profanity, in the usual sense of the term. I think He meant perjury, which invokes the name of God and thereby dishonors and profanes His name.
 James 5:15 states: “But above all, my brothers, do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or by any other oath, but let your “yes” be yes and your “no” be no, so that you may not fall under condemnation.” Emphasis mine. So the question arises, “what did James mean when he said, “… or by any other oath ….”? Certainly, this phrase prohibits all oaths, including those that invoke God. Doesn’t it? However, reading the phrase “… or by any other oath …” as prohibiting all oaths would contradict Matthew 5 and make Paul’s examples sinful. I believe a better reading, and thus scripturally more harmonious, is to see the phrase as a mirror of Matthew 5:33-37. That is to say that “any other oath” means other things not listed but similar to those listed.
 Seventh-day Adventist Commentary, Volume 5, page 338.