Some Christians believe that Christ outlawed the making of vows based on Matthew 5:33-37 and James 5:12. They believe based on these passages it is wrong for Christians to swear allegiance to their country, to swear to tell the truth in court and even to make marriage vows. But is this conclusion based on sound principles of Biblical interpretation?
First we will look at Christ’s words from the Gospel of Matthew on this subject of vows:
33 “Again, you have heard that the ancients were told, ‘You shall not make false vows, but shall fulfill your vows to the Lord.’ 34 But I say to you, make no oath at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, 35 or by the earth, for it is the footstool of His feet, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. 36 Nor shall you make an oath by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. 37 But let your statement be, ‘Yes, yes’ or ‘No, no’; anything beyond these is of evil.”
Matthew 5:33-37 (NASB)
I have used the NASB here because I think it communicates the language a little better than the KJV in this particular case. But both the NASB and KJV accurately reflect a key phrase “But I say to you, make no oath at all” (NASB) and “But I say unto you, Swear not at all” (KJV).
So it appears based on this passage Christ is telling us that we should no longer make oaths or vows which are really the same thing.
Again, James writing under the inspiration of God states this about vows:
“But above all, my brethren, do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or with any other oath; but your yes is to be yes, and your no, no, so that you may not fall under judgment.”
James 5:12 (NASB)
He makes a clear statement here – “do not swear” which seems to echo Christ’s words on the subject. Many Christians have taken these two passages as undeniable proof that Christians are forbidden from taking vows or oaths.
However, I will demonstrate that such a conclusion violates the following principles of Biblical interpretation:
- We must always take the context both of the passage itself and the historical context in which is stated into account as we make our conclusion on any doctrinal matter.
- We must always take the entire witness of the Scriptures on a particular subject taking into account both the Old and New Testaments while understanding that God can and does alter his laws from the Old to New Testaments.
What did the Old Testament say about making vows?
In the book of Genesis Abraham made his servant swear a vow to him when seeking a wife for his son Isaac:
“And I will make thee swear by the Lord, the God of heaven, and the God of the earth, that thou shalt not take a wife unto my son of the daughters of the Canaanites, among whom I dwell:”
Genesis 24:3 (KJV)
Later Moses would give these commands regarding oaths to the Israelites:
“Thou shalt fear the Lord thy God, and serve him, and shalt swear by his name.”
Deuteronomy 6:13 (KJV)
The Israelites were only forbidden from swearing falsely by God’s name falsely or using it in vain (as in a curse word) as seen in these two passages:
“Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain; for the Lord will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain.”
Exodus 20:7 (KJV)
“And ye shall not swear by my name falsely, neither shalt thou profane the name of thy God: I am the Lord.”
Leviticus 19:12 (KJV)
New Testament Examples of Vows
The Book of Acts shows that Paul, one of James fellow Apostles and writers of the Scriptures, made a vow and fulfilled it:
“And Paul after this tarried there yet a good while, and then took his leave of the brethren, and sailed thence into Syria, and with him Priscilla and Aquila; having shorn his head in Cenchrea: for he had a vow.”
Acts 18:18 (KJV)
Paul also made other vows – essentially swearing by God’s name that what he was saying was the truth:
“Moreover I call God for a record upon my soul, that to spare you I came not as yet unto Corinth.”
II Corinthians 1:23 (KJV)
“Now the things which I write unto you, behold, before God, I lie not.”
Galatians 1:20 (KJV)
“For God is my record, how greatly I long after you all in the bowels of Jesus Christ.”
Philippians 1:8 (KJV)
These examples from the New Testament prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that Christians are not forbidden from making oaths and swearing by the name of God that what they are saying is the truth. If that were the case than Paul sinned in penning the very Word of God in the examples I have shown and we know that can never be the case.
So what this tells is – we need to look a little deeper into what Christ and later his Apostle James were saying about swearing and taking oaths and vows.
Understanding Christ’s prohibition on vows and oaths in their historical context
A good way to understand what Christ was talking about in Matthew 5:33-37 is to look at what he later says in the same Gospel of Matthew:
“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 (KJV)
What was happening is the Jewish leaders were saying if people swore by one thing – they could not be held to their vow, but by another thing they could be. They were using things they vowed on as a way of tricking people and getting out of their vows.
So what was Christ telling us about swearing by God’s name and making vows and oaths? He was saying we should never ever knowingly make a false vow. We should never make an oath or promise knowing we will later try to weasel out of it or break it. Every oath or vow should be made with the genuine intent to fulfill that vow.
And we should never ever swear use God’s name falsely to say we are telling the truth when we are not. But if we are telling the truth we may do as the Apostle did and swear by God’s name that we are indeed telling the truth. So if we are asked in court to swear we are telling the truth, “So help me God” there is no sin in this.
Don’t play the games that the Jewish leaders were allowing people to play and be a man or woman of your word – who keeps your commitments – this is what Christ was saying.
A warning on making hasty and emotional vows
The Scriptures give a great warning about making rash vows, oaths and promises:
“2 Be not rash with thy mouth, and let not thine heart be hasty to utter any thing before God: for God is in heaven, and thou upon earth: therefore let thy words be few. 3 For a dream cometh through the multitude of business; and a fool’s voice is known by multitude of words.
4 When thou vowest a vow unto God, defer not to pay it; for he hath no pleasure in fools: pay that which thou hast vowed. 5 Better is it that thou shouldest not vow, than that thou shouldest vow and not pay.”
Ecclesiastes 5:2-5 (KJV)
God does not want us to be rash or hasty in making vows, oaths, commitments or promises. Many good Christians with noble intents and the full intent of fulfilling a vow have made rash and hasty vows based on the emotion of a moment. This behavior is wrong for a Christian. We should always take the time to pray and consider the consequences of any vow. We should make our vows based on leading of the Holy Spirit, not the leading of our emotions and feelings.
Far too often Christians with noble intentions in the passion of a moment make rash and hasty vows that they should not have made. While both men and women struggle with this – in my life experience I have seen women struggling with this more than men because they are emotionally driven creatures.
Even in the case of well thought out vows (such as marriage vows), we often invoke emotion into our vows and make parts of our vows completely based on the emotion of the moment. We do not consider the future or the fact that we are sinful creatures and will not be able to keep some of our emotionally driven vows. I will speak more on marriage vows in an upcoming article on this subject.
It is a foolish Christian who makes vows hastily and often. A wise Christian rarely makes vows and oaths and when he does so he only does so after careful consideration.
When we make vows we should always be mindful that we do not control the future. We should make realistic vows that we can keep.
For example, it is realistic to swear in a given moment that we will not lie. I can swear in court that in that moment my testimony will be the truth before God. But what I cannot do is swear I will never tell a lie for the rest of my life.
It is utterly wrong for a Christian to vow things like “I vow before God to never do [fill in the sin]”. You can’t vow not to sin! You are a sinner and you will be one till the day you die. But many Christians think if they vow not to do something – then they won’t do it any more for fear of breaking the vow. The problem is you are setting yourself up for failure and only compounding your sin when you make such vows.
It is also foolish to vow things like “I will always do [fill in the blank]”.
The fact is we should avoid terms like “always” or “never” in our promises, vows or oaths.
Instead we should say “I will endeavor (try hard) to not do such and such or to do such and such by God’s power as I submit myself to him”. This is not absolute promise to do something or not do something, but rather a commitment to try with the Lord’s help to do something.
Making commitments and allegiances is a good thing – as long as it is done with careful consideration of this sinful world we live in and our own sinful natures.
In the Old Testament we see patriarchs like Abraham and others making vows in the name of God. In the Law of Moses God actually commands his people to swear by his name while at the same time warning them not to use his name in vain or swear falsely by his name.
Yes, God can and does change his laws. There are some Old Testament laws such as the ceremonial and civil laws of Israel that are rescinded in the New Testament. Some definitions of sin are even expanded such as when Christ spoke on adultery.
But the question is – did God change his law concerning the making of vows in the New Testament?
While at first glance it might appear that Christ took away the ability to make vows based on passages like Matthew 5:33-37 and James 5:12 if we look at the entirety of the New Testament we will find this cannot be the case. Paul made a vow and kept it as well as he swore that he was telling the truth by the name of God several times.
We know that Scripture never contradicts Scripture so that means we must look deeper into what Christ was saying. After looking at other parts of the New Testament as well as the history of the time we see that Christ is addressing the abuse of making vows – not vows themselves. He is addressing the false system the Jewish leaders had setup concerning vows that if you swore by certain things your vow did not count. Christ was saying all vows count and that we should not swear by things on this earth or by heaven itself but only in the name of God as Paul did and only in a truthful manner. Our “yes” should truly mean “yes” and our “no” should truly mean “no”. We should never ever make a vow knowing there is a good possibility we will break or that we intend to break it.
Also we should not make hasty vows. This truly does come from the Devil. Satan wants us to make rash and hasty vows that he knows we will break. Like when we vow not to sin anymore – he knows we will break that vow and he knows it compounds our sin when we do so.
Christians can make vows, oaths and promises. However vows, oaths and promises should be rare for us and only in the most important of matters. Our vows should be well thought out and always take into consideration the sinful world we live in – including our own sinful natures. Also when we make vows we should not be afraid to add in many caveats and disclaimers should circumstances in the future change that make it too difficult or even impossible to keep such vows.