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Does the Bible Forbid Taking an Oath?

The Bible says it's OK to take an oath. In fact, the Westminster Confession of Faith says "it is a sin to refuse an oath touching any thing that is good and just, being imposed by lawful authority."[1] In the Previous Page we saw that the Bible has a high view of oaths.

There are some Christians who understand the Bible to teach that it is wrong to take any oath at any time. I don't understand the Bible to say that. Not at all.

Here's some of what the Bible says about oaths:

1. God swears oaths. In fact, we could speak of the Bible itself as divided into the "Old Oath" and the "New Oath." A "Testament" is a promise to transfer property. The Bible says God made these promises under a solemn oath. No oath, no salvation.[2] 2. As God is holy, we are to be holy [1 Peter 2:16 / Leviticus 11:44]. So the Bible has numerous provisions regarding our oath-taking. 3. In some circumstances, swearing an oath is commanded by God.
Taking oaths has a long history among God's people.

Certain groups, however, have taken a statement of Jesus to mean we should never swear an oath at all. Ever. I have heard stories of Christians who have cut their hands off to "obey" Jesus. Literally, with a knife, one would cut his hand off. It was a proud symbol of their "total dedication" to Jesus.[3] You may remember that Jesus said,

But I say unto you, That whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart. {29} And if thy right eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell. {30} And if thy right hand offend thee, cut it off, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell.
Matthew 5:28-30

"No more traditional religion for us!! We're led by the Spirit!" If you want to really follow Jesus you have to poke your eye out, right?

Wrong. We need to be sensible and Godly people. God doesn't want all His children to have only one hand and one eye. Jesus isn't saying "Cut your hand off!" He's saying "Don't lust!" Isn't that obvious? In fact, I would even say that anyone who pokes his eye out is disobeying Jesus. Jesus says that lust is so bad that it would be better to have only one eye and not lust than to have both eyes but keep lusting. "Don't lust!" is the point. But don't stop using your eyes altogether! God gave you eyes: use them the way He instructs you.

Jesus was a very powerful, dynamic personality. He shook up the complacent couch potatoes of His day. The people He addressed were often lukewarm, self-centered sinners. Those in positions of authority were greedy liars. People looked up to them, and they were misled. This is terrible. It angered Jesus. His rhetoric is not always understood by wimps and hypocrites.

Now consider the passage which has led some Christians to never take an oath. Jesus says "Swear not at all" (Matthew 5:34). As with the "cut off your hand" command, this command has to be seen in the context of sins and abuses by wimps and hypocrites. Jesus is trying to end an abuse of something good, not to end that good thing itself. Eyes are good, if we use them right. So are oaths. But the Jews were misusing them:

{16} Woe unto you, ye blind guides, which say, Whosoever shall swear by the temple, it is nothing; but whosoever shall swear by the gold of the temple, he is a debtor! {17} Ye fools and blind: for whether is greater, the gold, or the temple that sanctifieth the gold? {18} And, Whosoever shall swear by the altar, it is nothing; but whosoever sweareth by the gift that is upon it, he is guilty. {19} Ye fools and blind: for whether is greater, the gift, or the altar that sanctifieth the gift? {20} Whoso therefore shall swear by the altar, sweareth by it, and by all things thereon. {21} And whoso shall swear by the temple, sweareth by it, and by Him that dwelleth therein. {22} And he that shall swear by heaven, sweareth by the throne of God, and by Him that sitteth thereon.
Matthew 23:16-22

The Jewish leaders were trying to appear to be real holy ("I will take a sacred oath!"), and trying to get people to believe them ("I swear by the Temple!") but they had no intention of keeping their promise ("I didn't swear by the gold of the Temple!"[4]) So Jesus is talking to liars and hypocrites. He wants to shake them up so they will repent. So here are the famous words:

Again you have heard that it was said to those of old, "You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform your oaths to the Lord." {34} But I say unto you, Swear not at all; neither by heaven; for it is God's throne: {35} Nor by the earth; for it is his footstool: neither by Jerusalem; for it is the city of the great King. {36} Neither shalt thou swear by thy head, because thou canst not make one hair white or black. {37} But let your communication be, Yea, yea; Nay, nay: for whatsoever is more than these cometh of evil.
Matthew 5:33-37
Jesus says it would be better never to swear an oath at all than to use it like the Jewish leaders were: to sin.

I believe God wants me to use my eyes and my oaths the right way, not to eliminate them completely. So I have no objection to oaths per se. The Reformed/Presbyterian heritage (which is part of this country's heritage, as well as my own personal history) is very pro-oath. It is not because I am an anti-oath Quaker that this court case has arisen. Reformed Theology has always seen the oath as an act of religious worship. People who lived at the time the Constitution was ratified understood this.

A well-known expositor of the theology of the Reformation, A.A. Hodge, a Professor at Princeton, wrote in 1869 about the requirements of God's Law:

1. A lawful oath consists in calling upon God, the occasion being of sufficient seriousness and importance, to witness the truth of what we affirm as true, or our voluntary assumption of an obligation to do something in the future-with an implied imprecation of God's disfavour if we lie or prove unfaithful to our engagements. This last is generally expressed by the phrase forming the concluding part of the formula of most oaths, "So help me God;"-i.e., Let God so help me as I have told the truth, or as I will keep my promise.

Hence an oath is an act of supreme religious worship, since it recognizes the omnipresence, omniscience, absolute justice and sovereignty of the Person whose august witness is invoked, and whose judgment is appealed to as final.

2. It hence follows that it is a sin equivalent to that of worshipping a false god if we swear by any other than the only true and living God; and a sin of idolatry if we swear by any thing or place, although it be associated with the true God.

This principle is fully recognized in Scripture. We are told to swear by the true God: "Unto me every knee shall bow, every tongue shall swear," Isa. xlv.23; "He that sweareth in the earth shall swear by the God of truth," Isa. lxv.16; "Thou shalt fear JEHOVAH thy God, and serve him, and shalt swear by his name," Deut. vi.13. We are forbidden to swear by the name of false gods: "How shall I pardon the for this? thy children have forsaken me, and sworn by them that are no gods." Jer.v.7; Josh. xxiii.7.

3. The literal meaning of the Third Commandment is, "Thou shalt not take the name of thy God in that which is false"-that is, to confirm an untruth. The command not to take a false oath, or any oath upon a trifling occasion, by implication carries with it the permission to call upon the God of truth to confirm the truth upon all worthy occasions. Hence the oath is enjoined in the Old Testament as a recognized religious institution. Deut. vi.13; x.10, etc.[5]

Throughout the history of Western Civilization, oaths have been understood to be solemn declarations made in the presence of God, to Whom we are accountable.[6]


Because of the importance attached to oaths by Scripture and centuries of common law experience, it is important for us to consider the oath of office.

If we are tempted to think that the oath is not important, perhaps because we have heard some Christians say the Bible says we should never take an oath at all, we should reconsider our position.

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1. Ch. XXII, iii, citing Numbers 5:19,21; Nehemiah 5:12; Exodus 22:7- 11.  [Back to text]

2. Cf. R. Rushdoony, "Oath and Covenant," in Institutes of Biblical Law 522-525 (1973); G. North, "Oaths, Covenant, and Contracts," in The Sinai Strategy, 51-71 (1986).  [Back to text]

3. Maybe this is why they were called "Jesus freaks."  [Back to text]

4. "You fell for it - SUCKER!!"
(Oh, no, they would never actually say that; they had to maintain the "dignity of their office." But that was the bottom line. You can bet Jesus was fuming.)  [Back to text]

5. A.A. Hodge, The Confession of Faith, 287 (1869 [1978]). Hodge was a professor at Princeton, 1877-86.  [Back to text]

6. "Wigmore has traced the long history of the oath from its 'summoning of Divine vengeance upon false swearing,' to 'a method of reminding the witness of the Divine punishment somewhere in store for false swearing,' 6 Wigmore on Evidence 285" Imbrie v. Marsh, 3 NJ 578, 71 A2d 352 at 354, 18 ALR2d 241 at 243 (1950).  [Back to text]