• johned@aibi.ph

Oaths, Vows and Pledges


Today we will be looking at the New Testament teaching on sacred promises such as oaths, vows and pledges.Our passage in our series on the Sermon on the Mount is:

Matthew 5:33-37 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.

The easy answer is that the bible strictly and totally forbids oaths, vows and pledges, but the reasons for this are complex and the applications to daily life are numerous. We will look at formal vows made to God, and vows made to the church and inner vows we make to ourselves, lastly we shall look at pacts made with the Devil which, though rare, can have a devastating impact on one's life. Just to be clear when I talk of "oaths" or "swearing" I am not talking about abuse but about a sacred promise such as "swearing on the Bible".

Apart from our main passage there are three key bible passages that outline the principles behind not taking oaths, vows and pledges. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus tell us quite bluntly "But I say to you, do not swear at all:" and later He rebukes the Pharisees telling them how solemn oaths were and how dangerous it was to make them flippantly:

Matthew 23:16-22 Woe to you, blind guides, saying, Whoever shall swear by the temple, it is nothing; but whoever shall swear by the gold of the temple, he is a debtor. (17) Fools and blind! For which is greater, the gold, or the temple that sanctifies the gold? (18) And, Whoever shall swear by the altar, it is nothing; but whoever swears by the gift that is on it, he is a debtor! (19) Fools and blind! For which is greater, the gift, or the altar that sanctifies the gift? (20) Therefore whoever shall swear by the altar swears by it, and by all things on it. (21) And whoever shall swear by the temple, swears by it and by Him who dwells in it. (22) And he who shall swear by Heaven swears by the throne of God, and by Him who sits on it.

Jesus' brother James writes in his epistle "above all, my brethren, do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or with any other oath."

James 5:12 But above all, my brethren, do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or with any other oath. But let your "Yes" be "Yes," and your "No," "No," lest you fall into judgment.

And Ecclesiastes tells us that God has no patience with fools who make promises they cannot keep and that God will destroy the works of their hands.

Ecclesiastes 5: 1-7 1 Walk prudently when you go to the house of God; and draw near to hear rather than to give the sacrifice of fools, for they do not know that they do evil. 2 Do not be rash with your mouth, And let not your heart utter anything hastily before God. For God is in heaven, and you on earth; Therefore let your words be few. 3 For a dream comes through much activity, And a fool's voice is known by his many words. 4 When you make a vow to God, do not delay to pay it; For He has no pleasure in fools. Pay what you have vowed- 5 Better not to vow than to vow and not pay. 6 Do not let your mouth cause your flesh to sin, nor say before the messenger of God that it was an error. Why should God be angry at your excuse[a] and destroy the work of your hands? 7 For in the multitude of dreams and many words there is also vanity. But fear God.

From the above verses we can see that vows lay a trap for us in creating a burden that we, in our weakness and finiteness cannot keep. There are a number of reasons for this:

1. Vows are about actions in the future, and the future is something over which we have little or no control.

2. Vows are solemn and sacred and involve powerful heavenly realities that we should not mess with.

3. Some people e.g. the Pharisees uses vows to make people trust them so they can trick and cheat others.

4. Breaking a vow can result in judgment (James) and the destruction of the work of our hands (Ecclesiastes).

5. We may make a vow that depends on the actions of another person, and that person may act in such a way to make fulfilling the vow impossible - such as a vow to be responsible for another person's debts.

6. Our circumstances may change so that we cannot keep the vow or pledge e.g. we may lose our job and be unable to pay the pledge to the church.

7. We may construct the vow in absolute terms using words such as 'always" or "never" and in reality life is too complex to say we will "always" do X or "never" do Y.

8. We may make an open-ended vow that traps us with its consequences using terms such as "whatever".

Lets look at three very foolish vows recorded in Scripture:

Foolish Vows

Herod (Matthew 14: 6-12) 6 But when Herod's birthday was celebrated, the daughter of Herodias danced before them and pleased Herod. 7 Therefore he promised with an oath to give her whatever she might ask. 8 So she, having been prompted by her mother, said, "Give me John the Baptist's head here on a platter." 9 And the king was sorry; nevertheless, because of the oaths and because of those who sat with him, he commanded it to be given to her. 10 So he sent and had John beheaded in prison. 11 And his head was brought on a platter and given to the girl, and she brought it to her mother. 12 Then his disciples came and took away the body and buried it, and went and told Jesus.

Here Herod makes an open-ended vow "whatever she might ask" and when Herodias' daughter asks for the head of John the Baptist on a silver platter Herod has to reluctantly comply.

The Jewish Assassins (Acts 23:20-24 20) And he said, "The Jews have agreed to ask that you bring Paul down to the council tomorrow, as though they were going to inquire more fully about him. 21 But do not yield to them, for more than forty of them lie in wait for him, men who have bound themselves by an oath that they will neither eat nor drink till they have killed him; and now they are ready, waiting for the promise from you." 22 So the commander let the young man depart, and commanded him , "Tell no one that you have revealed these things to me." 23 And he called for two centurions, saying, "Prepare two hundred soldiers, seventy horsemen, and two hundred spearmen to go to Caesarea at the third hour of the night; 24 and provide mounts to set Paul on, and bring him safely to Felix the governor."

These fanatical Jewish assassins bound themselves with an absolute oath "that they will neither eat nor drink till they have killed him;" and if they kept their oath they would have starved to death since Paul was rescued. This oath depended on the actions of others and on circumstances remaining constant -which they did not.

Jephthah's Daughter - Judges 21:30-40

29 Then the Spirit of the LORD came upon Jephthah, and he passed through Gilead and Manasseh, and passed through Mizpah of Gilead; and from Mizpah of Gilead he advanced toward the people of Ammon. 30 And Jephthah made a vow to the LORD, and said, "If You will indeed deliver the people of Ammon into my hands, 31 then it will be that whatever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me, when I return in peace from the people of Ammon, shall surely be the LORD's, and I will offer it up as a burnt offering." 32 So Jephthah advanced toward the people of Ammon to fight against them, and the LORD delivered them into his hands. 33 And he defeated them from Aroer as far as Minnith-twenty cities-and to Abel Keramim,[a] with a very great slaughter. Thus the people of Ammon were subdued before the children of Israel.

34 When Jephthah came to his house at Mizpah, there was his daughter, coming out to meet him with timbrels and dancing; and she was his only child. Besides her he had neither son nor daughter. 35 And it came to pass, when he saw her, that he tore his clothes, and said, "Alas, my daughter! You have brought me very low! You are among those who trouble me! For I have given my word to the LORD, and I cannot go back on it."

36 So she said to him, "My father, if you have given your word to the LORD, do to me according to what has gone out of your mouth, because the LORD has avenged you of your enemies, the people of Ammon." 37 ....And it was so at the end of two months that she returned to her father, and he carried out his vow with her which he had vowed. She knew no man.
And it became a custom in Israel 40 that the daughters of Israel went four days each year to lament the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite.

This tragic oath came about because it was open-ended "whatever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me, when I return in peace" . Unfortunately it was his daughter. There is some debate as to whether Jepthah actually sacrificed his daughter as a burnt offering or simply kept her single like a nun all her days.

So we see that rash oaths, vows and pledges can bring us into tragedy and judgment and are so all oaths are forbidden by Jesus and the apostles.

The biblical principle is that promises to God must be fulfilled - even at great cost and because we are fallen and finite it is better not to make such promises at all.

Dangerous Promises - Proverbs tells us what to do when we have made a promise that we cannot keep:

Proverbs 6:1-5 1 My son, if you become surety for your friend, If you have shaken hands in pledge for a stranger, 2 You are snared by the words of your mouth; You are taken by the words of your mouth. 3 So do this, my son, and deliver yourself; For you have come into the hand of your friend: Go and humble yourself; Plead with your friend. 4 Give no sleep to your eyes, Nor slumber to your eyelids. 5 Deliver yourself like a gazelle from the hand of the hunter, And like a bird from the hand of the fowler.

The principle is: "Go and humble yourself; Plead with your friend .." and do it as soon as possible. Do not remain under a foolish vow, for pride's sake, any longer than necessary. Go to the friend, the church, the relative or whoever and humble yourself and ask to be released from your vow.

Christians, when asking to be released from a vow they have made to God can also use this principle. God, through the cross, and has become our Friend and we can plead with Him on such matters, and so when we have made a wrong vow to God, we need to quickly humble ourselves before Him and ask forgiveness and release from the vow.

There are some common categories of oaths, vows and pledges that Christians get ensnared in:

Tithing, Promises And Pledges

Unfortunately many churches encourage folk to make solemn vows to about financial matters such as tithes, pledges and very large sacrificial offerings they cannot fulfill. This violates NT teaching and can bring the church members into judgment. As a missionary I do not ever ask for pledges of support from people because some of the nicest people, with the least resources, make the largest and most impractical pledges. I simply ask people to give as God directs, whenever God directs, without any sense of obligation. Nor as a pastor do I insist that people tithe or that they pledge to tithe. The reason for this is that some people are in such dire financial straits that tithing is impossible, particularly people paying child support, which in Australia can be 80% or more of a person's income.

I am certainly happy when people give regularly and in a disciplined fashion, that is a good and noble thing to do. But I will not hang it over their heads as a spiritual obligation. The clear principle of NT giving is that it should be voluntary and not under compulsion.

2 Corinthians 8:12 For if the eagerness is present, it is acceptable according to what one has, and not according to what one does not have.

2 Corinthians 9:7 Each one, as he purposes in his heart, let him give; not of grief, or of necessity, for God loves a cheerful giver.

I am not going into the whole issue of tithing today, because it is complex. The aspect I want to clarify is that you should not solemnly promise God to give a certain amount of money because that can become a trap for you if your circumstances change. Give and give generously, but give freely and without compulsion and not as one being compelled by an oath, vow or pledge.

Rash Romantic Vows

Some Christians make promises of marriage to totally unsuitable people and need to swiftly apply Proverbs 6, before the wedding takes place. No amount of pride, honor or expense is worth a failed marriage.

Idealistic Vows

Idealistic vows are vows made to God in a moment of spiritual light-headedness such as vowing to go to Uzbekistan as a missionary. Now there is nothing wrong with wanting to be a missionary but vowing to be a missionary, when you are not really suited or called is sheer rashness and folly and does not please God. I do not serve God out of a vow. I serve God because I am called and because I find it very fulfilling. I am not under any onerous obligation. I am free to serve Christ any way the Holy Spirit directs. Churches should not ask people to stand and pledge themselves for the ministry, instead they should ask them to be enquirers, to start on the journey and to take the time to discern their path.

Inner Vows

Now we turn to the complex topic of inner vows. Inner vows are the deepest promises we make in our own heart. They mainly fall into four categories:

I shall never...... be poor, marry a man like my father, trust a _____, be a missionary, have children, depend on others, give in, be taken advantage of...

I shall always.... Be strong, be in charge, be on my guard, be wealthy, be nice, be submissive, be safe, be an expert on everything....

I must __________ or else _______ get 100% or I am a total failure..

If I ever __________ then I'll __________ make a mistake in public - I will die..., If I get married - I will go crazy,

The problem with such vows is that they remain a permanent part of our psyche and affect our future actions. When we try and act in a way that opposes our ancient inner vow we find ourselves having a huge inner conflict that we do not understand. Say someone made a solemn inner vow that they would never marry when they were a young girl and their parents divorced. Later on when she is 28 she may have such strong wedding jitters that she may break off the engagement.

When you find yourself very reluctant to do something ask yourself if you ever made a promise to yourself that stands in the way of what you are trying to do. Then write on a piece of paper "I hereby release myself from my sacred vow that I would never get married.." or whatever the vow was. You made the vow and you can release yourself from it. Say it three times then burn the piece of paper in a little ceremony. You will find a sense of inner release and normality inside yourself.

Dealing With Blood Pacts and Satanic Vows and Rituals

There is a very sinister kind of vow people make and that is making a pact with the Devil.

The Devil makes offers to people and even made a Satanic offer to Jesus:

Matthew 4:8-10 Again, the Devil took Him up into a very high mountain and showed Him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory. (9) And he said to Him, All these things I will give You if You will fall down and worship me. (10) Then Jesus said to him, Go, Satan! For it is written, "You shall worship the Lord your God, and Him only you shall serve."

The Devil can make people very prosperous, famous, wealthy and powerful - but always at the cost of their souls which is why Jesus said:

Matthew 16:26 For what is a man profited if he shall gain the whole world and lose his own soul? Or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul?

People with strong desires may make a bargain with the Devil in order to get what they want. They may well get what they want but the long-term price will be awful. Sometimes the deal will be written in a drop of blood on a piece of paper.

When such a person becomes a Christian the deal may be forgotten but strange things will happen in their life as the Devil exacts revenge for the broken promise. The person may even need deliverance and much prayer. The key to deliverance is a seven step process:

1. Renounce the Devil and all his works.
2. Claim the blood of Jesus Christ and God's cleansing.
3. Tell the Devil he no longer has any power or right over you because you are no longer in his kingdom of darkness and rebuke him.
4. Assert that you now belong to God alone.
5. Claim the protecting power of God. Put on the armor of God.
6. Be filled with the Spirit and spend much time in prayer.
7. Destroy all artifacts associated with the pact or with the devil.

Marriage Vows and Vows In Court

Socially we are asked to make vows in three areas, pledging the flag, marriage vows and vows in court.

The Pledge of Allegiance is not made to God, and does not require specific actions: I pledge allegiance to the Flag of the United States of America and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.

It thus has minimal spiritual impact and is relatively safe for Christians.

Marriage Vows: are made to God, and do prescribe specific actions, which we may not be able to fulfill due to our partner's actions. There should be solemnity and responsibility in marriage and there should be a covenant between the marriage partners and a sense of deep commitment. However the wording of such vows, should be done with utmost care. Technically it would be better not to have such vows before God but simply replace them with solemn promises to each other.

Vows in court: Personally I would not swear on a bible or under an oath to God but would use the alternative vow "I promise to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth".

Making Your Yes, Yes and Your No, No

Both Jesus and James tell us to simply make our Yes, Yes and our No, No.

We should be reliable people whose word is as good as our bond. People should get used to us being people who can deliver on our promises.

We should be people who are honest in every single word, and who do not need oaths, vows or pledges to keep us on track.

For Whatever Is More Than These Is From The Evil One.

How are oaths "from the evil one"? In two ways:
a) False oaths can be a cover for dishonesty.
b) Genuine oaths can bring us into judgment if we fail to keep them.

False oaths: In Jesus' day people used oaths a way to avoid keep their word. In Matthew 23 Jesus chides the Pharisees for teaching that if you swore by the "the Temple" that was not binding but if you swore by the "gold of the Temple" it was binding. This is like making a promise then saying "but I had my fingers crossed when I said it". Oaths thus became a way of cheating another person!

Satan uses such false oaths to trick people as part of his campaign of lying, cheating, stealing, killing and destroying.

Genuine oaths: James warns us against vows and oaths saying: "lest you fall into judgment." Broken oaths bring us into judgment and as Ecclesiastes says results in god destroying the work of our hands.

Thus Satan, who wishes to snare well-intentioned Christians and bring them into condemnation gets them to swear binding oaths. Sacred oaths may feel right and seem solemn and deep and spiritual but they are a spiritual snare.

This is why Jesus always attacks the making of oaths, vows and pledges, and did not require his disciples to make oaths vows or pledges.

Lets' finish with the words of Jesus: Matthew 5:33-37 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.


This article may be freely reproduced for non-profit ministry purposes but may not be sold in any way. For permission to use articles in your ministry, e-mail the editor, John Edmiston at johned@aibi.ph.