Should Christians Swear Oaths?

Should Christians Swear Oaths? April 25, 2023

Should Christians swear oaths?

“I swear to God!”

“I swear on my mother’s grave!”

“I swear I’m telling you the truth! I swear!

We use such statements when we are trying to convince someone that we are being honest (especially if they are not believing us for whatever reason).

praying hands on bible
Image via Pixabay

These are not “oaths” in the traditional sense, but nonetheless, serve our purposes as we discuss this Anabaptist distinctive today.

Jesus said the following in the Sermon on the Mount:

33 “Again, you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not break your oath, but fulfill to the Lord the vows you have made.’ 34 But I tell you, do not swear an oath at all: either by heaven, for it is God’s throne; 35 or by the earth, for it is his footstool; or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King. 36 And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make even one hair white or black. 37 All you need to say is simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one.” (Mt 5.33-37)

Even as we read this, we also see some New Testament examples (Ac 18.18; Rev 10.5-6) of vows to the Lord/oaths being sworn.

So what did Jesus mean, and how do we apply it?

For some Anabaptists, Jesus must be speaking of literally any formal commitment, and thus they have historically responded by not engaging in anything of the kind, including common contracts and business agreements.

This is hard to square when Jesus seems to be talking primarily about vows made to the Lord or vows primarily sworn in His Name, and thus likely doesn’t refer to, for example, signing an agreement for your mortgage at the bank, or an employment contract with your workplace.

And yet the bigger issue doesn’t seem to be about oaths themselves, but about integrity.

The key comes in the last line: “All you need to say is simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one.” (v.37)

So it’s less about the oath itself, although Jesus does tell us that swearing by God or even our own head is futile, because we are not God.

To live a life where we just say “Yes” or “No” is not just about the simplicity of that.

It’s about living my life with such incredibly integrity that everyone around me automatically takes me at my word.

It means that when I say “Yes,” I have fulfilled my “yeses” in the past to such an extent that everyone knows that I mean “yes” and will follow things through. When I say “No,” everyone has seen me be so faithful to my word that no one doubts that I mean that “no.”

So is it wrong to sign a business agreement? I think not. A mutual agreement to conditions is not the same as swearing an oath in the Lord’s name.

Anabaptists have traditionally struggled, however, with loyalty pledges to the secular government, as an example. Swearing loyalty to anything other than Jesus is problematic, and many Anabaptist would quietly and respectfully not make such commitments.

Yet what about health care workers swearing an oath to protect patients, or lawyers swearing to uphold the law, or any other profession that requires a similar pledge of some kind?

Again, these things seem to fall outside of what Jesus is talking about. To make a public and sometimes legal pledge to do your job properly is not a bad thing, and brings everyone in that profession onto the same page of commitment.

Jesus, again, is speaking primarily of oaths sworn to the Lord, or in His Name/by His throne/etc. When it comes to fulfilling our commitment to the Lord, we don’t need to make profound vows or public declarations binding us to Him in a transactional way: “I swear to God, I will be faithful to obey His commands!”

Don’t swear it, Jesus is saying. Just do it. And if you live your life properly, you shouldn’t need to swear an oath, because everyone will know that you mean what you say.

Christians should live with such integrity in fulfilling our words that there is absolutely no need to back up our words and commitments with oaths.

When people can look at us and say, “That person always does what they say, every time,” then we are living out what Jesus asks us to. Our simple “yes” or “no” is enough to make clear that we will do what we said.

Oaths are not the main issue; integrity is. Those who find the way of integrity in their words and then their actions find the way of Christ.


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