James is wrapping up his letter of miscellaneous instructions. This one only spans one sentence, but it is a weighty issue, so we’ll spend a great deal of time on it today.
Intro to Oaths
It seems kind of odd for James to mention the issue of oaths out of the blue, and particularly to give it the high ranking of “but above all.” But, we must remember that the readers of James’ letter were Jewish converts, and oaths and vows were a major focus of Jewish culture dating all the way back to the book of Genesis.
The principle of abstaining from swearing oaths is also prevalent in the teachings of Jesus, such as:
“Again, you have heard that the ancients were told, ‘YOU SHALL NOT MAKE FALSE VOWS, BUT SHALL FULFILL YOUR VOWS TO THE LORD.’ But I say to you, make no oath at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is the footstool of His feet, or by Jerusalem, for it is the CITY OF THE GREAT KING. Nor shall you make an oath by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. But let your statement be, ‘Yes, yes,’ or ‘No, no’; and anything beyond these is of evil.”
- Matthew 5:33-37
Why the Change-Up?
Now, this brings up the question – why would God flip a 180 and have his followers stop making vows as an act of worship? One likely explanation is that the world had (and was going to) changed radically. God’s followers would now be sacrificing their lives for Him by literally sacrificing their lives, not by giving Him a third of their sheep or acting as a Nazarite for a year. Also, believers needed to be “all things to all men (1 Corinthians 9:20-22) to draw people from all around the world to Christ, and I don’t think strictly maintaining every facet of Jewish culture could have accomplished that.
What Does it Matter?
So, what’s the big deal about swearing oaths? I can think of a few scenarios:
Here in the U.S., allowance in made in a courtroom setting for a Christian to “affirm in” rather than swear in, directly because of such teachings. If I swear in, what I’m communicating is, “I am not normally bound to tell the truth, but here, I am bound temporarily – I am bound by your authority.” If I affirm in, I’m communicating, “I am always bound to tell the truth, and He who binds me is a far higher authority than you.” It is a way to bring glory to God by both separating ourselves from the court’s authority, and by pointing out that we are morally bound at all times.
Or let’s say you swear to give God a quarter of all your income…and then your daughter gets in a horrific car crash. The insurance won’t cover it all, and she’ll die if she doesn’t get this care. Because of your oath, you have put yourself in a moral dilemma – break your oath to God, or let your daughter die! I don’t think that you being in this kind of situation is at all God’s will, which is why He commands us not to get tangled up in vows (consider Judges 11:29-40 for a real-life example of such a tragedy).
Or, going back to the Jewish culture and Jesus’ teaching, let’s say you make some flashy vow (maybe, half of your flock) to God, and you swear it on the temple. Now, is the temple really going to fall down if you break your vow? No. Additionally, it’s not yours to swear by! So, the Jews in Jesus’ day had found an easy way to make vows that would impress others by making them seem super holy and that wouldn’t end up costing them anything if they broke them.
Or let’s say (in an unstable country, historical time period of upheaval, or in a situation here at home if society were to collapse) that you swear allegiance to some militia group that you honestly believe is doing good. Worse yet, you swore this oath “before God.” Then, a bunch of stuff changes and your allegiance to this group requires you to sin. Who, then, are you loyal to? Now this is a mess you’ve gotten yourself into! Because if you break your oath to avoid sinning, you break an oath made before God, and it dishonors God before others because to them, it looks like you’re chickening out and not fulfilling your oaths to God.
A Slight Tangent – but an Important One
A side-note on this last scenario – this is why some professed Christians (in some cases, cult members, and in others, genuine believers) refuse to say the Pledge of Allegiance or join the military.
Where do I come down on the matter? I say – it is a sin to some believers, and other believers are completely free to do it. It all depends on what your conscience (a.k.a., the Holy Spirit within in) tells you to do. Some of us may need that manifested reminder that our loyalty is to God, then country, whereas others may need that manifested reminder that obedience to our country is a direct act of obedience to God.
Let’s dissect these two examples:
The Pledge of Allegiance
Some contend that Christians should never “pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the country for which it stands” because, Biblically, our loyalty to our country should only remain so long as our country is loyal to God. Others contend that saying the pledge is perfectly acceptable because that disclaimer is mentioned directly in the pledge: “…and to the country for which it stands, one nation under God.” In this, you are placing your allegiance to America under your allegiance to God.
I believe both arguments are entirely valid, and that you can bring honor to God whether or not you choose to participate in the pledge.
(If you do not choose to, I would recommend bowing your head, folding your hands, and lifting up a silent prayer for America while others are saying the pledge. This way, you are quietly refusing rather than making a huge scene, and still showing respect to both our country and those around you.)
Joining the Military
Some people believe that joining the military violates the command not to take oaths because you very well may be ordered to do something outside of God’s will; some add that now of all times in history – when we are speeding toward the End of Days – is a particularly bad time to join the military, because who knows if the U.S. military may at some point get involved in helping set up the Antichrist’s global kingdom? Others, however, feel that joining the military is a very noble and godly thing to do, fulfilling the commandments to protect one’s wife and children, to defend the widow and the orphan, to set the captives free, etc.
Once again, I believe both arguments are valid – it all comes down to what the Holy Spirit tells you, specifically, to do.
Wrapping it Up, and Discussion Questions
Well, with all of that, I hope I’ve given you plenty of material to think about regarding what kind of situations to avoid and whether or not you think certain sticky situations qualify as taking an oath – and whether or not you should participate.
So, what do you think? What other reasons can you think of why God would pseudo-reverse His position on oaths? Can you think of other scenarios in which taking an oath would end badly? What’s your opinion on the issues of the Pledge of Allegiance and joining the military? (And as for the last question, I know that the debate can get quite heated at times, so let’s please keep it friendly. J Thank you.)