“In James 5:12, Christians are commanded not to swear any oath. Does this mean that we should not submit to practices such as swearing an oath of honesty in a court of law, or pledging allegiance to the American flag? Furthermore, is it also wrong to say ‘I promise . . .’? I have never heard any Christian speaking against these things, but I want to make sure that I understand this matter correctly.”
First, let me point out that the term “swear,” as employed in our modern society, has two distinct senses. It is used as an equivalent for “profanity,” which, of course, no Christian should ever use. Also, though, the term “swear” may refer to a “legal oath.”
The question above pertains to this latter usage. Is it proper, for example, in a court setting to answer in the affirmative when asked: “Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth so help you God?” The following facts may help us put the matter into focus:
Oathes are not evil
An oath is not intrinsically evil. Jehovah bound himself under an oath to Abraham when he promised to bless the patriarch (cf. Heb. 6:13-14). With reference to the priesthood of Christ, God “hath sworn, . . . ‘You are a priest for ever after the order of Melchizedek’” (Psa. 110:4).
Since the Lord is perfect, one must conclude that an oath per se is not sinful.
Jesus testified with an oath
When Jesus was on trial, the high priest said:
“I adjure you by the living God, that you tell us whether you are the Christ, the son of God” (Mt. 26:63).
The word “adjure” translates the Greek exorkizo, which means “to extract an oath, to force an oath” (Thayer 1958, 224). Caiaphas put the Lord under oath, hoping that he would incriminate himself.
And Jesus honestly replied, “You have said” (su eipas), which, as language authorities note, “is a Greek affirmative reply” (Robertson 1930, 218). Mark’s parallel has it even plainer: “I am” (Mk. 14:62). This is the same expression used by Jesus when Judas asked the Lord, “Is it I?” (Mt. 26:25).
Paul made an oath
The apostle, Paul, employed an oath when he wrote to the Corinthians:
“But I call God for a witness upon my soul, that to spare you I forbare to come unto Corinth” (2 Cor. 1:23; cf. Rom. 1:9).
And remember, he wrote these words by inspiration.
Observe the apostle’s strong statement in this passage:
“Now concerning the things which I write unto you, behold, before God, I lie not” (Gal. 1:20).
Warnings for a false oath
The Scriptures warn against “false swearers” (1 Tim. 1:10), which would seem to be a needless specific if all swearing, of any sort, is prohibited.
What is the meaning of James’ prohibition from swearing an oath?
What, then, is the meaning of James’ prohibition?
Since it is apparent that a respectful, sincere, legal oath is not condemned in the Scriptures, we must conclude that the prohibition of James 5:12 (cf. also Mt. 5:33-37) pertains to something else.
A different kind of swearing must be in view in these passages. What is it? Let me introduce the testimony of several respected scholars.
J. T. Mueller, a professor at Concordia Theological Seminary, describes sinful swearing as that which is “false, blasphemous and frivolous” as well as the assumption of oaths regarding “uncertain things” (Harrison 1999, 382).
Professor D. Edmond Hiebert says that the New Testament condemns the “indiscriminate, light, or evasive use of oaths” (Pfeiffer 1998, 1219).
Guy N. Woods noted that oaths that are condemned involve the “flippant, frivolous and profane” use of God’s name. Woods pointed out that the prohibitions of Matthew 5:33-37 and James 5:12 have no reference to sincere judicial oaths. His discussion of these matters is very thorough (1991, 288-294).
Jesus authorized oaths
That all oaths of every kind were not forbidden is evident within the context of Jesus’ discussion of this theme in the sermon on the mount. In the context of condemning certain oaths, the Lord said, “but you shall perform unto the Lord your oaths” (Mt. 5:33).
What about the Pledge of Allegiance
Finally, as to the Pledge of Allegiance, there is nothing in this historic pledge that is at variance with the principles of Christianity. It is simply an affirmation of devotion to the laws of the government under which we live. This is entirely consistent with the instruction of Romans 13:1ff (cf. 1 Pet. 2:13), which enjoins obedience and respect for the “powers that be.”
Of course one’s allegiance to his nation is always subservient to his loyalty to God, and whenever the two come into conflict, obedience to the Lord takes precedence (Acts 4:19-20; 5:29).