15 Dec 2011

Is swearing wrong?

Yesterday at 5.00 pm saw me unexpectedly standing in the back room at work, raised hand clutching a (lovely little old red Stewart tartan) Bible and swearing in the presence of the Lord as witness that I was who I said I was, and what I said I was doing was what I'd done, "so help me God". As I was reading the words of the oath, two little verses flashed through my mind. The first was this:
Above all, my brothers, do not swear—not by heaven or by earth or by anything else. Let your “Yes” be yes, and your “No,” no, or you will be condemned. James 5:12 NIV
The second was this:
Fear the LORD your God, serve him only and take your oaths in his name. Deut 6:13 NIV
My words faltered as I began wondering to myself - which is right? Should I be doing this? As I found my mind wandering from the solemn and serious words that I was saying, I drew myself back to the task at hand, but still I pondered.

Later, I was thinking through what I had done. I found myself recollecting a fine English Presbyterian couple that I know who a few years ago decided that they would take up Australian citizenship. Feeling very strongly that their "Yes" should be yes and their "No" no, they chose to take an affirmation rather than swearing an oath on the Bible. To their wry amusement, during the ceremony and watched on by family and Church friends, they found themselves grouped with the predominantly Muslim non-Christian minority watching on as the rest swore with God as their witness to be good Australians. Funny, but sad, they thought, but to them they had done the right thing. To them swearing is wrong.

The Westminster Divines would disagree with them. The Westminster Confession of Faith in Chapter XXII says:
Yet is it a sin to refuse an oath touching anything that is good and just, being imposed by lawful authority.
I found the experience of swearing an oath on the Bible to be a solemn and weighty matter of extreme importance. I believe that I treated the matter with seriousness it deserved, and I do not belive I did wrong, but I did not enjoy the feeling of being placed in the uncomfortable position of doing something serious without being entirely sure it was what I believed. I will not find myself in that position again. Next time I shall be sure.

What do you think? Is swearing right or wrong? Do you know what you believe? Have you ever taken an oath? How did it make you feel?

Do share. Please.

This is the rest of the section of Westminster Confession of Faith on oaths:
Of Lawful Oaths and Vows

A lawful oath is a part of religious worship, wherein, upon just occasion, the person swearing solemnly calleth God to witness what he asserteth, or promiseth; and to judge him according to the truth or falsehood of what he sweareth.

Deut. x. 20; Exod. xx. 7; Lev. xix. 12; 2 Cor. i. 23; 2 Chron. vi. 22, 23.

II. The name of God only is that by which men ought to swear; and therein it is to be used with all holy fear and reverence. Therefore, to swear vainly or rashly, by that glorious and dreadful Name; or, to swear at all by any other thing, is sinful, and to be abhorred. Yet, as in matters of weight and moment, an oath is warranted by the Word of God, under the New Testament, as well as under the Old; so a lawful oath, being imposed by lawful authority, in such matters ought to be taken.

Deut. vi. 13; Exod. xx. 7; Jer. v. 7; Matt. v. 34, 37; James v. 12; Heb. vi. 16; 2 Cor. i. 23; Isa. lxv. 16; 1 Kings viii. 31; Neh. xiii. 25, Ezra x. 5.

III. Whosoever taketh an oath ought duly to consider the weightiness of so solemn an act; and therein to avouch nothing, but what he is fully persuaded is the truth. Neither may any man bind himself by oath to anything but what is good and just, and what he believeth so to be, and what he is able and resolved to perform. Yet is it a sin to refuse an oath touching anything that is good and just, being imposed by lawful authority.

Exod. xx. 7; Jer. iv. 2; Gen. xxiv. 2, 3, 5, 6, 8, 9; Num. v. 19, 21; Neh. v. 12; Exod. xxii. 7, 8, 9, 10, 11.

IV. An oath is to be taken in the plain and common sense of the words, without equivocation, or mental reservation. It cannot oblige to sin: but in anything not sinful, being taken, it binds to performance, although to a man's own hurt. Nor is it to be violated, although made to heretics, or infidels.

Jer. iv. 2; Ps. xxiv. 4; 1 Sam. xxv. 22, 32, 33, 34; Ps. xv. 4; Ezek. xvii. 16, 18, 19; Josh. ix. 18, 19 with 2 Sam. xxi. 1.

V. A vow is of the like nature with a promissory oath, and ought to be made with the like religious care, and to be performed with the like faithfulness.

Isa. xix. 21; Eccles. v. 4, 5, 6; Ps. lxi. 8; Ps. lxvi. 13, 14.

VI. It is not to be made to any creature, but to God alone: and, that it may be accepted, it is to be made voluntarily, out of faith, and conscience of duty, in way of thankfulness for mercy received, or for the obtaining of what we want; whereby we more strictly bind ourselves to necessary duties; or to other things, so far and so long as they may fitly conduce thereunto.

Ps. lxxvi. 11; Jer. xliv. 25, 26; Deut. xxiii. 21, 22, 23; Ps. l. 14; Gen. xxviii. 20, 21, 22; 1 Sam. i. 11; Ps. lxvi. 13, 14; Ps. cxxxii. 2, 3, 4, 5.

VII. No man may vow to do anything forbidden in the Word of God, or what would hinder any duty therein commanded, or which is not in his own power, and for the performance whereof he hath no promise of ability from God. In which respects, Popish monastical vows of perpetual single life, professed poverty, and regular obedience, are so far from being degrees of higher perfection, that they are superstitious and sinful snares, in which no Christian may entangle himself.

Acts xxiii. 12, 14; Mark vi. 26; Num. xxx. 5, 8, 12, 13; Matt. xix. 11, 12; 1 Cor. vii. 2, 9; Eph. iv. 28; 1 Peter iv. 2; 1 Cor. vii. 23.


  1. I have wondered about this at times. I've never really stopped to contemplate so thoroughly if it is wrong. I feel that if one is sure of the oath being taken, and that it is not offensive to God (swearing to not eat any more cookies isn't my idea of a situation worthy of an oath), then it is okay to do. It isn't something that should be done casually or taken lightly.
    Good question.

  2. Quakers affirm; we do not believe in using God's name to swear by nor in the taking of oaths.

  3. I just stumbled across this blog from someone else's and felt I had to comment on this. I believe the words of Jesus on this (expanding on the original law He had given to the Israelites) are quite clear: 33 “Again you have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform your oaths to the Lord.’ 34 But I say to you, do not swear at all: neither by heaven, for it is God’s throne; 35 nor by the earth, for it is His footstool; nor by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. 36 Nor shall you swear by your head, because you cannot make one hair white or black. 37 But let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No.’ For whatever is more than these is from the evil one.

    While swearing was allowed in OT times I believe this was because of "the hardness of their hearts" - as with divorce.

  4. I've been in this uncomfortable position before and choose to take the affirmation. I felt then (and would feel now) uncomfortable to be grouped with unbelievers in doing so but it was the right decision for me. I know others who have had opportunity to say why they are not taking the oath and yet are going to speak the truth before the God they very much believe in but we don't always get to explain ourselves. At least be clear in your own mind and therefore have a good conscience about your actions.

  5. No you've got me wondering...I THINK President Truman "affirmed" his oath....interesting. I never really thought of it like this. I took the Oath (almost word for word the same as the President takes) when I joined Peace Corps.....


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