What Does the Bible Say about Christians Taking Oaths?

christians taking oaths

by Elliot Ritzema

I remember reading a description of a political meeting from the seventeenth century. In it, one speech was described as “pathetic.” That was jarring to me, since calling something or someone “pathetic” is an insult today. But back then, it merely meant that the speech was intended to move the listeners to compassion.

If word meanings change over time, even in the same language, imagine translating an ancient concept from one language to another! We often have to do this when we study the Bible, so it is always worthwhile to research the words’ ancient meanings. One example is the concept of oaths in James 5:12.

Step 1: The Passage Guide

I often begin a study using the Passage Guide in Logos, which points me to commentaries, journals, cross-references, and ancient literature. Here I notice that Jesus’ statement about oaths in Matthew 5:33–37 is listed prominently among the cross-references. But for now, I want to use a feature called the Cultural Concepts tool. I’m interested in how the concept of oaths was understood in the New Testament world.

oaths james 5:12

Step 2: Survey Oaths in the Bible

Clicking on “Oath” tab opens a Factbook entry on the concept of oaths: passages throughout the Bible, key verses, dictionary entries, different senses, and a list of ancient works all related to the concept of oaths.

I want to narrow my search to look at oaths in the Bible. The Bible list under the Cultural Concepts tab gives me 128 passages, only some of which use the word “oath.” This is one benefit of exploring a topic with the Cultural Concepts tool rather than doing a word study.

Here I find that oaths were used frequently by people including Abraham, Jacob, David, and God himself. How then did James get the idea that swearing oaths was a bad thing?

swearing oaths James 5:12

Step 3: The New Testament Background of Swearing Oaths

To find an answer, it may be helpful to explore the concept in a dictionary or two. The Lexham Theological Wordbook tells me that “the perspectives on oaths and vows shift in the NT period. Jesus cuts through the cluttered and misguided practices of the religious leaders of his day in their swearing (ὀμνύω, omnyō) of oaths (ὅρκος, horkos) while at the same time pointing his followers to a higher standard than that of OT law (especially Matt 5:33–37).” This shift makes sense, especially since this passage—the one we found earlier—is from the Sermon on the Mount, in which Jesus explains how he fulfills the Law and the Prophets in unexpected ways.

Exploring the cultural concept of oaths reveals that, although swearing oaths was a common occurrence in the Old Testament and in the cultural milieu of the New Testament, Jesus changed the attitude toward oaths. James continues that teaching, exhorting Christians to be honest at all times—not only when they have sworn an oath to do so.

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A version of this article originally appeared in the Mar–Apr 2015 issue of Bible Study Magazine. Every issue of BSM includes tutorials like this—plus interviews with Christian leaders, infographics, Bible study plans, and devotionals. Learn more about subscribing to Bible Study Magazine.