Devoted to the Propagation and Defense of New Testament Christianity
February 23, 1967
NUMBER 41, PAGE 11-12a

Can Christians Take Judicial Oaths?

Jimmy Tuten, Jr.

Webster's dictionary defines an "oath" as a "solemn declaration of truth telling with an appeal to God as witness." To "swear" means "to make a solemn declaration by appealing to God for the truth of what is affirmed; to give evidence on affirm or utter by appeal to God; cause to take, or bind by an oath." Speaking from a judicial standpoint, swearing and/or oath taking refers to the same function of testifying before God concerning the truthfulness of a matter. Like many other things in life, man has abused this function, so that swearing for some is nothing more than the use of profane language. Others have abused the oath so that it is nothing more than a blasphemous use of the name of God. While the abuse of a thing does not necessarily mean that the thing done in and of itself is unlawful, the fact remains, there are some who feel that a Christian cannot consistently testify under oath, nor swear that what he is saying is truth. Does the Bible forbid the Christian to take judicial oaths?

Passages To Consider

In the sermon on the mount, Jesus said "swear not at all" (Matt. 5:33-37). The epistle of James says, "but above all things, my brethren, swear not, neither by heaven, neither by earth, neither by any other oath; but let your yea be yea; and your nay, nay; lest ye fall into condemnation" (Jas.6:12). Many have looked upon these passages as an absolute condemnation of oath taking. But in contrast to this, let it be observed: (1) God has sworn by himself (Heb. 3:11, 18; 6:13; 7:21). (2) Jesus took a judicial oath when he testified before the Sanhedrin (Matt. 26:63-64, "adjure:" is from the Greek word HORKIZO, which means to demand testimony under oath, Thayer, P. 453). (3) The Apostle Paul called upon God to witness the validity of his words in the Corinthian epistle (II Cor. 1:32). He uses the oath formula in commanding that the Thessalonian epistle be read by all men (I Thess. 5:27). So any attempt to make something short of actual oaths in the New Testament is to blind oneself of the facts thereof (Acts 7:17; Matt. 23:16; 18, 20-22; Rev. 10:6, et al.). The whole problem is the result of failure to understand the passages under discussion. What then is the contrast between those passages which appear to condemn swearing and those which record the many examples of actual oath taking?

The Context Of "Swear Not"

God's original law on swearing forbade perjury (i. e. , swearing falsely, Deut. 23:23; Lev. 19:12). All oaths were to be performed unto the Lord, for Jesus said, "thou shalt not forswear thyself, but shalt perform unto the Lord thine oaths" (Matt. 5:33, Lev. 19: 12). In the context of Matthew 5:33-37, there is evidence that the Jews had abused God's original laws on swearing, by not taking them seriously, or not having an intention of keeping them. There is a contrast in the text between the perverted and/or traditional use of oaths, and the law of God in its original purity. The Jews felt that some oaths could be used in common conversation which were "nothing," i.e., they were not binding. Hence, if they swore by such things as the temple, the earth, Jerusalem, without these directly involving the name of God they felt they were not obligated to keep the oath. They construed the law as giving them exemption from the binding effects of all oaths which did not involve the name of God. But their oaths, regardless of their nature, did constitute perjury. Hence, Jesus condemned this abuse by saying "swear not at all; neither by heaven; for it is God's throne; nor by the earth; for it is his footstool; neither by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great king." Swearing or taking judicial oaths is prohibited under the conditions described in the text.

Looking at the context of Matthew 5:33-37 from another angle, J.. W. McGarvey says "the universality of this prohibition is distributed by the specifications of these four forms of oaths, and is, therefore most strictly interpreted as including only such oaths" (The Fourfold Gospel, P.243). Another words, the expression "swear not at all" is followed by a series of negatives introduced by the word "neither." "Neither" is a participle, and the use of participles in this passage divides it into component parts. This strengthens the fact that Jesus was not condemning oaths in general, nor repealing the original law of God with respect to them, but only prohibiting such oaths as are under consideration. Only the evasive or common oaths which the Jews did not intend to fulfill are condemned. Judicial oaths are not included. This is why we find the many examples of solemn and important affirmations found in the Scriptures, and these do not contradict our Lord's teaching.

James 5:12 is another passage misunderstood. It is an allusion to Matthew 5:34, and is therefore parallel to what the Lord taught in His sermon on the mount with regards to swearing. Our observations on Matthew 5 would apply to James 5:12 with equal force. To swear by the item mentioned with no feelings of obligation, is to bring oneself into "condemnation," for all oaths involve God ultimately. The practice of swearing daily" countless times, and then swearing that they have not sworn," shows the profaneness of their action and the nature of the thing to be avoided. Sometimes the objection is raised that the expression "nor by any other oath," includes all oaths. This is not true. The word "other," translated from the Greek ALLOS, simply means "any of the same kind" (Restoration Quarterly, Vol. 4, Number 1, P.34). So any oaths of the same nature as those referred to in the text are condemned.


The teaching of our Lord and the Apostle James on oath taking is in reality a teaching against thoughtless oaths, oaths which one feels he would not have to keep. Taking oaths is serious business. Any oath will have to be honored, or else the party making the oath would be brought under the charge of fore-swearing himself, hence profanity. All oaths should be avoided except those given in a solemn manner in civil or religious situations. Any oath should be given so as to honor the name of God and not some lesser name. All of our pledges should be fulfilled "before God." The life of the Christian should be such that a simple "yes" or "no" would be sufficient. However there are some occasions so important that they demand an oath. One may affirm, adjure, swear, or use some other word to describe the action, and we may justly argue the expediency of using the expression "I affirm" in preference to "I swear," but the fact still remains, the Bible confirms the scripturalness of oaths and pledges made in good faith, anytime and anywhere.

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