Does Jesus prohibit Christians from being put under oath?

In Matthew 5:33-37, Jesus commands his followers not to take oaths. So what happens if we have to be sworn in at court or when becoming a citizen or when enlisting in the armed forces? Should we refuse?


Some Christians have thought so. For almost three hundred years it was common for Christians to refuse to take state oaths. This is one of the reasons they were often despised and persecuted by the Romans. But when Constantine became a Christian and decriminalized Christianity in 313, that changed. There was a budding new relationship between church and state, and Christians saw prudence in making exceptions in the prohibition against oaths. The more refined position has been known as the make/take distinction:

  • Don't make oaths on your own.
  • But it's okay to take oaths when required by the state.
Most Christians have lived by this code since the 300s, although there are exceptions including the Mennonites and Quakers. 

Oath taking seems like an odd thing for Jesus to get worked up about. And his brother James took it a step further, forbidding "above all" the taking of oaths because it leaves one "condemned" (James 5:12). What's so bad about taking oaths? Why all the fuss?

Here is what I think Jesus (and James) is driving at. He wants the society he creates to be so truth-laiden that oaths are not only unnecessary but outlawed altogether. Why? Because saying "I swear" and "I promise" presupposes that we will make some utterances that are true and others that are false, and we will make some commitments we will keep and others we will break. In other words, the entire foundation upon which oaths and promises rest is like wood riddled with termites. It presupposes lying and promise-breaking. That's why oaths are from the evil one. They only exist in his world, infested as it is with deception and falsehood. 

In Jesus' sparkling new society, oaths are a thing of the past. Saying "I swear" or "I promise" is not only unnecessary but distasteful. As I preached about this yesterday at Sanctuary, I wondered how often we simply don't see the almost blinding brilliance of the society Jesus was creating. 

I wouldn't make a Christian law against being sworn in or taking a state-required oath. But I can see why Christians do.

Comments

  1. Kingdom life needs no oaths being covered by the covenant of Christ's atonement (think At One Ment), but the world will always require oaths. Ironically, out institutional churches also "require" oaths in their membership requirements, while not always called oaths there are nonetheless such professions.

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  2. Thanks, Pat. The world will always require oaths -- agreed. Well, to a point. The world in this age will always require oaths.

    In the second ("ironic") part of your response, what do you believe would be a better state of affairs?

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