On Swearing

James 5:12 forbids Christians to swear. This “swearing” is not cursing. Rather this has to do with taking oaths. Jesus also forbade swearing in Matthew 5:34-35. So is it ok for Christians to take an “oath” of office? Is it ok for Christians to swear to “tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth” before testifying in court?

Matthew 5:34-35 records Jesus teaching:

 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.

It is helpful to know that the ancients used oaths to excuse themselves from other oaths. Some oaths or agreements were heavily binding, but they saw other oaths as not as important. So oaths were used flippantly.

In that teaching Jesus confronted the Pharisaic practice of using various formulas to create different levels of oaths, some of which were considered less binding than others. (Cf. Mt 23:16–22.) The Pharisees could thereby bind themselves to their promises in various degrees and so excuse themselves from keeping commitments they had made with lesser oaths. They could use their oaths to sound exceedingly pious and to justify themselves as deeply religious, while being in fact hypocritical. (See Stott’s discussion of Mt 5:33–37, 1978:99–102.) Jesus commanded his followers therefore not to swear but to invest their simple words of yes or no with complete integrity.

George M. Stulac, James, The IVP New Testament Commentary Series (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1993), Jas 5:12.

We can tell that this is not a straightforward issue because there are examples of God taking part in an oath and accepting others who took oaths. God swore in Hebrews 6:17. Jesus swore in Matthew 26:63, 64. The New Testament law is echoing God’s decree in the Old Testament. Leviticus 19:12; Deuteronomy 23:21; and Numbers 30:3. Jesus summarized these saying: “Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil” in Matthew 5:37.

The simplest course of action is just to tell the truth without the added necessity of swearing. ”

The man whose heart is true to God utters every statement he makes (λόγος) as though it were made in the very presence of God before whom even his heart with its inmost thought lies bare. With a heart thus pledged to truth, his lips will find no need to add anything to his “yea” and “nay.”

R. C. H. Lenski, The Interpretation of St. Matthew’s Gospel (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Publishing House, 1961), 238.

If mankind were not tempted so easily to lie and misrepresent the truth, there would be no need for oaths or swearing.

It is the necessity for the oath, a necessity due to the world full of lies, that is produced by Satan and his influence upon men. The church has no room for oaths because everything said and done in the church is done in God’s own presence. In their intercourse with men Christians will make no use of oaths, for they speak and act as being in God’s presence. This leaves the oath to the state alone, and also state penalties for perjury. When certain associations demand oaths of those who join them, their demand brands them as being ungodly; and when they exact oaths regarding promises, the contents of which are still unknown to the person concerned, they show themselves as doubly ungodly.

R. C. H. Lenski, The Interpretation of St. Matthew’s Gospel (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Publishing House, 1961), 239.

But that prohibitions and the nature of our civic life leaves the Christian in quite a dilemma. What can we do? May we participate in areas of life which demand “oaths” be given?

I tend to agree with Douglas Moo who wrote:

When James says Do not swear, it is not coarse or vulgar speech he prohibits but invoking God’s name to guarantee the reliability of what a person says. A person may take an oath to reinforce the truth of something he has said or to bind himself to a future course of conduct.

Douglas J. Moo, The Letter of James, The Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI; Leicester, England: Eerdmans; Apollos, 2000), 232.

This seems to be the proper course since we see both the Father and Son engaging in the practice of taking an oath (Hebrews 3:11, 18; 4:3; 6:13, 16; 7:21; etc.). If the act of taking an oath were ungodly, then God would not do it. Likewise, Paul seems to use the language of taking an oath often as well (Romans 1:9; 2 Corinthians 1:23; 11:11; Galatians 1:20; Philippians 1:8; 1 Thessalonians 2:5, 10).

Jesus and James are forbidding swearing which presents a reliance on oneself and ones own abilities.

Now we can see the proper application of 5:12. We are getting sidetracked if we focus on whether Christians should take oaths in courts of law. We are being too superficial if we see this verse merely as an injunction against “frivolous and indiscriminate oaths and the thoughtless mention of the divine name” because such speech would violate God’s law and hinder one’s witness to unbelievers (Tasker 1983:125). Those are important matters, but James is here (as usual) cutting to an essential difference between genuine and false religion. He is saying: Do not allow suffering to pressure you into unbelief. Do not try to impress each other or to manipulate God as if your works were what counted instead of God’s grace. If you are trusting in God’s grace, you have no need to impress God or people, and you can be at peace with saying honest words. Integrity should characterize Christians, and integrity will flow from wholehearted reliance on grace. Unbelief manifests itself in bargaining, manipulating and trying to impress. The opposite manifestation, flowing from faith, will be prayer.

George M. Stulac, James, The IVP New Testament Commentary Series (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1993), Jas 5:12.

The condemnation of relying on self rather than depending on God’s grace is a common theme in James’s letter. The sermon on the Mount also presents Jesus as condemning those who would seek themselves rather than God’s glory. In these texts God is forbidding his people to display any false hope of depending on self and making showy proclamations of one’s own false “truthfulness.”

Since God has taken oaths in the official sense, we must conclude that God has forbidden our flippantly using an oath just to appear truthful.

If, then, his words do not touch the case of oaths solemnly tendered to men in a court of justice (and his own acceptance of an adjuration on his trial shows that they do not), no more do St. James’s. Both our Lord and his apostle had probably in view “only those profane adjurations with which men who have no deep-seated fear of God garnish their common talk”

H. D. M. Spence-Jones, ed., James, The Pulpit Commentary (London; New York: Funk & Wagnalls Company, 1909), 69.

So why is it wrong to flippantly enter into oaths? Matthew Henry noted that:

for how can you expect the name of God should be a strong tower to you in your distress if you profane it and play with it at other times?” But (as Mr. Baxter observes) “all this is so far from forbidding necessary oaths that it is but to confirm them, by preserving the due reverence of them.” And then he further notes that “The true nature of an oath is, by our speech, to pawn the reputation of some certain or great thing, for the averring of a doubted less thing; and not (as is commonly held) an appeal to God or other judge.”

Matthew Henry, Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible: Complete and Unabridged in One Volume (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1994), 2419.

The issue of whether or not a Christian may take an oath in an official manner has been often debated. There are exceptions made for those who would prefer to not make an oath in official capacities. However, it is my present humble opinion that Jesus and James were forbidding the use of oaths flippantly without regard for God’s nature or with the presumption that they may be able to perform their oaths without God’s blessing.


Be merciful

D. L. DeBord

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.