We at ECC are revamping our membership list, aiming to follow the New Testament call to be a faithful and unified local assembly of Jesus Christ. As part of this process, with Jesus’s responsibility and authority that he gave in the “keys of the kingdom,” after years of not having any official membership list here at ECC, we as a local assembly are now trying to fulfill our responsibility of “binding” those who presently know and are representing Jesus from this assembly. And on the flip side, of not binding (or “loosing”) those who we cannot affirm presently know and represent Jesus as part of this assembly—whether because of unrepentant sin (which is typical church discipline), or mainly simply because we haven’t confirmed their faith right now and/or they no longer assemble with this assembly (which is more of a typical refining of a membership list). (For more on this listen to the sermon “Why Did Jesus Establish the Church?”)
So that’s what we’re going through together as a church.
The tool, then, that we are using to implement this biblical call is our ECC Membership Agreement & Commitment. It could have been called an ECC Membership Covenant, as many churches have, but Agreement & Commitment is simply the easier wordage for our modern ears.
And by the grace of God, many at our church have filled out this form. But for others, I sympathize with a concern I’ve heard a few times so far. And it’s the objection about oaths. In basic, the concern is that a form like this falls in the category of an “oath,” and Jesus said we shouldn’t ever take oaths in Matthew 5:33:37.
As your pastor, brothers and sisters, first, I just want to say that if that genuinely is your objection, then in a sense, praise God. Because above all, we should be people of God who want to follow God in his word. “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). So if you want to reaffirm or join here at ECC but simply cannot fill out this form because of a Bible passage, that is very commendable.
But what I’d like to do in this blog post is simply try to help anyone with this objection to see how I, supported by smarter-than-me conservative Bible scholars, think Jesus’s teaching about oaths should properly be interpreted and applied. And thereby, I hope you may see that Jesus’s teaching does not forbid something like our ECC Membership Agreement & Commitment—all so that our church may be more unified on this, and so that you may more freely in your conscience agree and commit to this church with such a form and not feel like you are not disobeying our Lord and Savior by doing so.
To begin, let’s set up a problem we must keep in mind as we interpret and apply a passage like Matthew 5:33-37. We’ll come to the passage itself in a bit, but to begin, let’s be clear about something that needs to be addressed as we interpret it.
And it all starts with God himself. Because what we see in the Bible is that yes, Jesus does say what he says in Matthew 5 about not taking oaths, but then also there’s this interesting fact that God himself is said to swear and take oaths in the Bible. So this right away shows us that taking oaths in itself cannot be sinful or wrong.
The best passage to show this comes from the New Testament in Hebrews 6. And let’s remember, this was written after Jesus’s teaching in Matthew 5, with the author almost certainly knowing the famous sayings of Jesus. Yet the inspired author writes:
“For when God made a promise to Abraham, since he had no one greater by whom to swear, he swore by himself, saying, ‘Surely I will bless you and multiply you.’ And thus Abraham, having patiently waited, obtained the promise. For people swear by something greater than themselves, and in all their disputes an oath is final for confirmation. So when God desired to show more convincingly to the heirs of the promise the unchangeable character of his purpose, he guaranteed it with an oath, so that by two unchangeable things, in which it is impossible for God to lie, we who have fled for refuge might have strong encouragement to hold fast to the hope set before us.” (Hebrews 6:13-18, emphasis added)
As we can see, the author’s point is that God, in order to further affirm the truthfulness of his promise, “swore by himself”—he took “an oath” (and the verb “he swore” here is the same exact Greek verb Jesus uses in Matthew 5). In fact, it’s even implied here that God swore by his own name, since there was nothing greater to swear by, which might be strange to us since Jesus said not to swear by heaven. But the point for us is that this is an idea in God’s word: God himself takes “oaths” (see also Acts 2:30: “God had sworn with an oath”—again the same verb Jesus uses in Matthew 5).
This problem is continued as we go on to read other parts of the New Testament. For example, in the same Gospel of Matthew, Jesus himself testifies while under oath (Matthew 26:63-64; the high priest literally says, “I put you to oath,” and Jesus responds under oath). Then Paul in Acts willingly takes an oath (Acts 18:18). Then in the apostolic letters, the apostles call God to witness against them to prove their truthfulness, using oath language (Romans 1:9; 2 Corinthians 1:23; and more). And finally, even a sinless angel who dwells in God’s presence swears by an oath in Revelation (Revelation 10:5-6, again with the same verb Jesus uses in Matthew 5).
In sum, then, the Bible is clear that we do have Jesus’s teaching in Matthew 5 (which is of course of utmost importance!; we’ll come to it soon). But also, in God’s inerrant word we have the teachings that God, the inspired apostles, and sinless angels in heaven take oaths, even after Jesus’s Matthew 5 teaching, and they are not said to do so in opposition to Jesus’s teaching.
Then add to this the second part of the problem—which admittedly is less of a problem, although it may show that any biblical application we have against any sort of formal oath taking may not be consistent with how we live. And this is the fact that we ourselves, even as Christians, don’t usually strictly apply Jesus’s words from Matthew 5. Now, to give some groups credit—for example, the Jehovah Witnesses—they do try to consistently apply this, not taking oaths in court or anything like that. But as for most of us modern Bible-believing Christians, we do sign documents, we do make commitments to institutions, and we do make vows (which all are very similar to our ECC Membership Agreement & Commitment, especially since our agreement may not even properly be called an “oath”; see the final note one at the end of this post).
Now again, this doesn’t mean we should—we very well could be disobeying Jesus’s command every time we do so. But it does build up the problem.
Which finally leads us to Jesus’s teaching. So the problem is that God, the apostles, sinless angels, and we (the least significant of the four!) all take oaths and participate in formal promises. But Jesus himself says in Matthew 5:
“Again you have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform to the Lord what you have sworn.’ But I say to you, Do not take an oath at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not take an oath by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil.” (Matthew 5:33-37)
So how do we interpret such a passage, especially in light of the aforementioned other biblical passages?
To begin, let’s understand the context of Matthew chapters 5-7. For this passage here is found in the midst of Jesus’s famous Sermon on the Mount. And this is significant because as we know, Jesus in this sermon is continually using a rhetorical feature: he’s takes something specific they taught—something in the rabbinical interpretations and teachings—and then he shows why they’re incorrect while also usually increasing its demand. For example, the concern isn’t just murder, but anger (Matthew 5:21-26); the issue isn’t just sleeping with someone, but looking with lust (Matthew 5:27-30).
That’s the context. And it’s in this context then that Jesus employs this same strategy with oaths. So the question is, “What is Jesus doing with their teaching on oaths?”
To answer that, let’s pay closer attention to their teaching that calls for Jesus’s counter-teaching. As we can see, Jesus says their lower-level teaching was, “You shall not swear falsely but shall perform to the Lord what you have sworn.” And at first that sounds commendable. But it’s the historic context here that gives insight to what was really going on—and Jesus mentions it in his next statements as he starts talking about swearing “by heaven,” or “by earth,” or “by Jerusalem,” or “by your head.” So what’s going on here?
Explaining this historical context, here’s a quote from Bible scholar D.A. Carson. In basic, Carson talks about how a sophisticated line of reasoning existed in Jesus’s day among the Bible teachers about which oaths needed to be kept and which were okay to break. Carson explains that in their day:
“Swearing by heaven and earth was not binding, nor was swearing by Jerusalem, though swearing toward Jerusalem was. That an entire Mishnaic [a rabbinical interpretation] tract is given over to the subject shows that such distinctions became important and were widely discussed” (The Expositors Bible Commentary, 153).
So it’s in this setting that Jesus finds himself in and is addressing. The people were taking oaths, and swearing “by”this or that, but then, by how they said it, the oath either was binding or breakable. Their oath taking was disingenuous deception; linguistic loopholing and lying.
As one answer to this question about oaths states,
“People had a loophole. They could lie or exaggerate in their conversations and lend themselves an air of credibility by saying, ‘I swear by heaven that this is true!’ They could not be held to account because they did not specifically swear by God’s name and the vow was private. Jesus countered that idea.” (GotQuestions.org, “What does the Bible say about keeping your vows / oaths?”)
In other words, what Jesus was doing was addressing a specific issue—an issue that, as Carson says was so “widely discussed” that most, if not all, of Jesus’s listeners would’ve understood—and Jesus is responding to such a misuse of oaths and saying, “Truly, I say to you [to you people who take oaths like this!], do not take an oath at all.”
Now, again, it’s at this precise moment in Bible interpretation and Bible application that we must remember that from here on out in God’s inspired word Jesus’s apostles, a sinless angel, and even God himself are all still said to rightly and sinlessly and even formally take vows and oaths. And so, we can’t read Matthew 5:34 and just say, “By Jesus’s teaching, formal agreements and oaths are now bad.” Instead, by taking context into account, and by using Scripture to interpret Scripture, we should realize that 1) Jesus is responding to a specific situation, and 2) therefore, Jesus’s point is that if in your oath taking or promise making your doing it irrelevantly and cunningly, like they were with their many loopholes, then don’t take an oath at all. Instead, let your “yes” be yes and your “no” be no.
This same interpretation fits, and is even confirmed, in Jesus’s half-brother, the apostle James’s, similar teaching in James 5. James writes,
“But above all, my brothers, do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or by any other oath, but let your ‘yes’ be yes and your ‘no’ be no, so that you may not fall under condemnation.” (James 5:12)
Important for our interpretation and application of this verse is that last phrase, “so that you may not fall under condemnation.” For this, along with the many “by” qualifiers, shows us that James is addressing a similar situation to Jesus—one where people were taking oaths in such a way where they were falling under condemnation (by not taking the oaths seriously and intending on easily breaking them). So once again, the issue at stake here isn’t oaths in general. Instead, it was this specific conniving way of taking oaths in which you knew you could break it with a phraseology loophole.
Which all means that if there is a situation where an oaths are taken seriously, without this falsity and intention to break, then presumably it biblically would be okay, even commendable at times, to take an oath, a vow, like it was in the Old Testament. And now, here’s the important point: We say that because it’s this that then makes the most sense of the context and of the whole picture from God’s word. For again, biblically oath taking is a positive thing, as long as you intend to genuinely keep your oath. Hence, God himself swearing and taking an oath in Hebrews 6:13-20, the apostle Paul taking an oath in Acts 18:18, and the heavenly angel doing so in Revelation 10:5-6. All those were situations where oaths were used positively—and so positively that they even helped confirm the certainty of the promise (which is the author of Hebrews exact point about why God swore with an oath in Hebrews 6).
With all that said, then, we need to say that, on one hand, Jesus is clear, we shouldn’t take oaths or make promises that we’re not taking seriously, and especially that we are intending to break by our trickery. If that’s the case, instead just be a truthful person; let your “yes” be yes and your “no” be no. That’s Jesus’s exact point. But then on the other hand, we see that God, the apostles, and sinless angels take oaths. So oaths in the Bible in this way are not only neutral, but used positively.
And it’s here then, with all those Bible texts covered, 1) we can try to say, “Any formal, written promise making or oath taking still is sinful for us,” but if we do so, we have to also admit that biblically God, Paul, and a sinless angel took oaths in positive ways, plus formal promises are made all over the Bible. Or 2) interpreting Scripture with Scripture and applying the historical context of Matthew 5, we can understand that Jesus (and James) was addressing a specific issue, and he was saying that if you are taking an oath and doing it “by” some specific thing in order to break that oath, the answer isn’t to take an oath by something different! It’s to not take an oath at all; it’s to be a truthful person, not a person who is trying to trick the system by taking an oath you have no intention of keeping.
In this way, this means that applying Jesus’s command in Matthew 5 to ourselves is not to avoid all formal promises or even oaths. That’s not his teaching, nor what God imitates or says elsewhere in his word. Instead, the application specifically of Jesus’s command of “I say to you, do not take an oath at all” is, in context, to avoid taking an oath if you know you’re really being deceptive with your words and not trying to keep it. In that case, Jesus’s teaching is to stop being sly; be truthful; let your “yes” be yes and your “no” be no.
Practically for us as a church, then, with all that considered from God in his word, I don’t see any biblical reason for why we should not reaffirm or join as members to this church and commit to the biblical idea of a church with a signature and a form. Now, it’s one thing if the points on that form are un- or extra-biblical—if that were the case, then we’d be adding to God’s word, which is serious. But if the form is simply a tool we are using to obey the Bible’s call for a local church—for us individually to seriously agree and commit ourselves to God’s vision of church and local church membership—then the form 1) doesn’t fall under Jesus’s condemnation of Matthew 5:33-37 (unless you are signing it deceptively knowing you just want to break your commitment), and 2) it even can be used positively, as a way of confirming that you sincerely agree and commit to the Bible’s call.
Now, brothers and sisters, I do encourage you to research this yourself. But all that being said, this is why, when speaking on this issue, the vast majority of biblical interpreters will say that instead of denouncing all vows and any formal written promise- or oath-taking, Jesus’s teaching is in fact more in line with the proper understanding of the Old Testament teachings on oaths (which the teachers of Jesus’s day had so perverted)—which was that oaths shouldn’t be made deceptively, should be kept, and should be preserved for times of importance and consequence. (See, for example, Ligonier Ministries’s treatment on this at https://www.ligonier.org/learn/devotionals/jesus-teaching-on-oaths.)
So for us at ECC, after years of not having an official membership list or a pastor overseeing the members, as we now are reconsidering who is this church—as we’re taking account of each individual we as a local assembly are affirming, with the authority of heaven, as part of Jesus’s assembly—it seems that this would be a time to willingly agree and commit with the seriousness of Bible texts, prayer, and a signature.
For we take such seriousness with things commitments in our marriage vows and with signatures on certain legal documents, and biblically we see that it would fit to apply such gravity to being a member of a local church. Because above all, this is Jesus’s church, and each local church is most simply an assembly of his people who know him and are to properly represent him. And so, with the goal of knowing who really agrees to the truth of Jesus’s gospel, submits to Jesus’s way of an elder-led church, and has obeyed Jesus’s command about being baptized, along with committing to the biblical vision for a local church—which those four things together essentially are all the ECC Membership Agreement & Commitment form is—it may then be something worth formally signing to in agreement and commitment.
Two final notes:
First, as you’ve seen, all the above has been about this idea of “oaths,” but technically the ECC Membership Agreement & Commitment does not need to be, nor should be, described as an oath. And this is because in English, we usually use the word “oath” to describe a formal promise you make as you swear by something else (which was going on in Jesus’s day as well). But for our ECC Membership Agreement & Commitment, there is nothing we are swearing by on the form; it is simply a written and signed agreement to certain truths you believe, and then it’s a handful of biblical commitments that you personally are committing to. Thereby, there is no official oath “swearing by.” That being said, since some people interpret Jesus’s teaching to apply to any formal, contractual agreement, especially in the church, the above discussion does apply.
Second, as a final practical note: As your pastor, and in seeking the health and unity in this church, I just want to conclude by saying that, even if after reading and consider all the above from God’s word, you still do hold that Jesus in Matthew 5 applies to us not signing any written documents, then I respect your desire to obey God’s word as you see it and we can figure out a verbal agreement somehow. But again, I do encourage you to study and consider the points above, because not only do we want church unity, but above all we want to understand what our God is truly saying and follow him in his word.