“Are judicial oaths forbidden in the scriptures? Specifically, is it wrong for a Christian to swear to tell the truth as a witness in court, or to take oaths in other civil and legal matters? (Matt. 5:33-37; James 5:12)”
An oath is a “solemn appeal to God, or to a sacred or revered person or sanction (as the Bible, the temple, the altar) by way of attesting the truth of one’s word, the inviolability of a promise, etc; also, the affirmation or promise supported by the oath, or its form of expression.” (Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary.)
Thus, there are two elements involved in an oath: (1) an affirmation or promise; and (2) an appeal to God who knows all things, and punishes those who lie. The basis on which an oath is regarded as binding on the conscience is seen in Heb. 6:16, as an appeal to God to ratify or confirm the affirmation or promise.
Oaths were common to the Old Testament period. They involved:
- Agreements to perform certain acts (Gen. 14:22; 24:2, 8, 9).
- Allegiance to a superior (Eccles. 8:2; 1 Kings 18:10).
- Promises of a ruler (1 Sam. 14:24).
- Vows made in the form of oaths (Deut. 23:21-22).
- Public and legal vows and oaths (Lev. 6:3; Deut. 19:6-19).
The above list is by no means complete and may be greatly extended by means of a concordance.
Oaths, among the Jews, took many forms, among them being:
- “God do so and more also…” (1 Sam. 14:44).
- “As Jehovah liveth…” (1 Sam. 11:39).
- “Jehovah is between thee and me for ever…” (1 Sam. 20:23).
- “The God of Abraham…judge betwixt us.” (Gen. 31:53).
Judicial oaths, legal oaths, statement before notaries public, and the like common to the business world, are not forbidden.
But, you might say, did not James include, among the prohibitions, “any other oath?” Would this not also include oaths or every type and kind?
It is significant that an oath, in the name of God, is not mentioned by James; it would seem that if it were the purpose of the sacred writer to forbid all oaths, including judicial ones, this would have been the first mentioned. But, as a matter of fact, this type of oath, in contrast with others, was specifically commanded under the law (Deut. 6:13; 10:20). “Thou shalt fear Jehovah thy God; and him shalt thou serve, and shalt swear by his name.” That it was not the purpose of our Lord or of James to forbid all oaths seems to follow from these considerations:
- Jesus, before Caiaphas, testified under oath (Matt. 26:63-64).
- Paul often asserted things in the form of an oath: “For God is my witness, whom I serve…” (Rom. 1:9; see also 2 Cor. 1:23; Phil. 1:8; Gal. 1:20.)
- God, when he could swear by no greater, “Sware by himself.” (Heb. 6:13).
- The ancient prophets often invoked the name of God in their solemn affirmations (Isa. 65:16).
Had James intended to assert that any oath, all oaths, every oath, must be refrained from, he would have used for the word “other” the Greek heteros, which means another of a different kind, instead of allos (which he did use), another of the same kind. (James 5:12). It seems clear, therefore, that the sacred writer intended to include only such oaths as were of the type under consideration and to which the people of that day were specially addicted.
Some today seek to avoid “taking an oath,” when called to the witness stand in court to testify by resorting to an affirmation which the law allows. Those who thus do, though they do not follow the form of oaths usually administered in such cases do bind themselves to tell the truth, and they can be convicted for perjury for failing to do so. Perjury is false swearing—lying under oath! So, there is really no difference.