Question: Since Jesus seems to be prohibiting the taking of oaths in the Sermon on the Mount, then how can we as believers, take vows when we join a church?
This is another great question to consider, especially since our church requires that people becoming members take membership vows before the LORD. Are we asking them to go against what the LORD has said?
- First, we will look at what Jesus says in Matthew 5:33-37.
- Second, we will determine if there is any difference between oaths and vows.
“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.’ But I say to you, do not swear at all: neither by heaven, for it is God’s throne; nor by the earth, for it is His footstool; nor by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. Nor shall you swear by your head, because you cannot make one hair white or black. But let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No.’ For whatever is more than these is from the evil one (Matthew 5:33-37).
On the surface, it looks like Jesus is giving a universal ban on taking oaths. However in Matthew 26:63, we have Caiaphas the high priest putting Jesus under an oath, and Jesus accepted that oath in responding to it. This was during His trial when the high priest said, “I put You under oath by the living God: Tell us if You are the Christ, the Son of God!”
Jesus took the opportunity to be under the oath in order to declare truthfully who He was. Jesus responded: “It is as you said.” If He were making a declaration against all oaths, then He would not have allowed Himself to be placed under an oath.
We also must look at the greater context of what He is saying in Matthew 5. There, He is declaring that we should not take oaths to heaven, the earth, Jerusalem, or the city of a great King. He was referring to a practice in which the parties only had to keep their words when they made an oath to heaven, the king, or some other greater object. This practice was deceitful because in allowed for dishonesty if an oath wasn’t taken.
What Jesus desires in us is that all our words be truthful. Our “yes” should be “yes” and our “no” should be “no.” We should speak so honestly and forthrightly that taking an oath should never be necessary. I can remember growing up hearing my grandparents speak about the mark of a man was his word. Did he keep his word? Keeping his word was everything. This is the same thing. We are to keep our word when we give it.
I like what G.I. Williamson writes about this issue.
“In the Kingdom of God which is to come there will be no oaths, for all will speak the truth in utmost purity (Rev. 21:8, 27). Meanwhile, in this present evil world falsehood remains so common that special solemn occasions may require oaths, and under proper circumstances, they may be made.”
And we do see that oaths are taken in the New Testament like the one mentioned above. We also are reminded that God Himself swore an oath to Abraham in Luke 1:73 and David in Acts 2:30. Certainly the God of sinless perfection had no need to take an oath to fallen creatures, yet He does so.
“The proper occasions upon which an oath may be taken are those in which serious and lawful interests are involved, and in which an appeal to the witness of God is necessary to secure confidence and end strife, and also whenever the oath is imposed by competent authority upon those subject to it. In that later case, especially,the taking of an oath is a duty, and its refusal is a sin.”
The point being is that Jesus is not ruling out oaths all together, but the practice of misusing oaths during His days.
Oaths and Vows
Understanding the difference between oaths and vows will help clarify the issue. When we take an oath, we are making a promise from man to man. We are declaring to those around us that we are going to keep our word in a certain regard.
A vow is a promise that we freely make to God. We are asking God to help us keep our word in regard to the vow we are making to Him. This is why we take vows in wedding ceremonies. We are asking God to help us keep our vows in marriage. The same is true when we take vows to be members of a local congregation. We are asking God to help us keep the promises we are making as members of a particular congregation.
Given that my congregation is committed to the Westminster Confession of Faith, I appeal to it in order to show that these views are not my merely my own, but are grounded in the truth of Scripture as it is explained in the WCF:
It (a vow) is not to be made to any creature, but to God alone: and that it may be accepted, it is to be made voluntarily, out of faith, and conscience of duty, in way of thankfulness for mercy received, or for the obtaining of what we want, whereby we more strictly bind ourselves to necessary duties: or, to other things, so far and so long as they may fitly conduce thereunto.
Given all of this, since the elders of the congregation have agreed that members should take vows, then they are to do so. In requiring such, they are not out of line with Scripture and not causing anyone to sin in doing so. In the vows taken, new members are making their public profession of faith and agreeing to submit to the elders as all believers are commanded to do in 1 Peter 5:1,”Likewise you younger people, submit yourselves to your elders. Yes, all of you be submissive to one another, and be clothed with humility, for ‘God resists the proud, But gives grace to the humble.'”
For those who are curious, here are the questions prospective members have to answer when joining our local congregation.
- Do you acknowledge yourselves to be sinners in the sight of God, justly deserving His displeasure, and without hope save in His sovereign mercy?
- Do you believe in the Lord Jesus Christ as the Son of God, and Savior of sinners, and do you receive and rest upon Him alone for salvation as He is offered in the Gospel?
- Do you now resolve and promise, in humble reliance upon the grace of the Holy Spirit, that you will endeavor to live as is becoming for a follower of Christ?
- Do you promise to support the church in its worship and work to the best of your ability?
- Do you submit yourselves to the government and discipline of the church, and promise to study its purity and peace?