Are Christians Allowed to Take Oaths?
James, Day 24
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"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." - James 5:12, ESV
One of the nasty side-effects of the internet and social media has been a breakdown in understanding and empathy between opposing groups, increasingly bitter polarization, and even the fragmentation of society. It's rare for people with opposing views online to truly listen to each other and seek to understand each other. Instead, we are quick to speak at each other, rather than to each other, and to vilify anyone who disagrees with us.
A quick way to check yourself on this issue is to pick some position you don't hold and ask yourself, "Do I understand why people hold this view?" You don't have to agree with someone to be able to understand what they believe and why they believe it. So, if you think, "I can't understand why anyone would believe ______________," I would encourage you to find out why, so you can better love your neighbor as yourself.
I'll give you an example: Someone recently asked a friend of mine if he really believed that God was sovereign, and my friend said, "Yes, I do." The other person replied, "Well, then, you believe God is the author of evil, don't you?" My friend quickly replied, "No, I don't." Later in the conversation, this person said, "Well, I just believe that whosoever will may come," to which my Calvinist friend replied, "Well, so do I. We agree on that, you know." If you don't know how a Calvinist can believe that God is sovereign over all things, including salvation, and yet not believe that God is the author and evil and believe wholeheartedly that whosoever will may come and drink freely from the waters of life (Rev. 22), then you haven't understood biblical Calvinism at all.
Today's verse raises another somewhat controversial issue: Can Christian take oaths? I was selected for jury duty earlier this week. While I didn't end up serving, it reminded me that some Christians believe it is wrong to solemnly swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing bur the truth. They prefer to simply affirm that their testimony will be true and reliable. What's the difference? Does it really matter?
Today's verse is one of a coupe of verses (along with Matthew 5:34-35) which seem to forbid taking oaths. Christians disagree on what these verses actually require. Some take them at face value and say that Christians should never take oaths but should just be honest and straightforward at all times. Others say that, while Christians should always be honest, the verses don't really forbid taking oaths at all, but rather taking oaths in a deceptive way.
In the days of Jesus and James, many religious people would take high-sounding oaths as a way of appearing sincere, but in truth their oaths had loopholes which allowed them to lie without consequence. Jesus condemns this hypocritical and legalistic code of oath-taking in Matthew 23:16-22.
Christians should be known as people of integrity, people whose word is reliable and trustworthy. We should love the truth because we love the Lord who is truth. Any attempt to use an oath to cover a lie (like saying "I swear on my mother's grave" when your mother is still alive) is absolutely unacceptable for a child of God. Some people believe these verses also require Christians to never take oaths at all. I can understand why they believe that. I think it's possible to uphold the spirit of what is being taught here, even if you're called on to take an oath. Whether taking an oath or not, always " let your “yes” be yes and your “no” be no, so that you may not fall under condemnation."
And while we're striving to keep our word with integrity, let's give room for understanding those whose convictions won't allow them to take an oath, as well as for those who believe they can, as long as they do so with integrity. Let's respect one another's conscience of conviction on these secondary matters, as long as we agree on the essentials.