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Making Oaths

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Posted by Lee Gatiss, 11 Mar 2021

Lee Gatiss preaches the first part of Homily 7, “A Homily against Swearing and Perjury.”

So that his most holy name should be honoured and evermore magnified by the people, Almighty God commanded that no one should take his name in their mouth vainly. He threatened punishment to those who irreverently abuse it by swearing, perjury, and blasphemy. So that this commandment may be better known and kept, it shall be declared to you both how it is lawful for Christian people to swear, and also what peril and danger it is vainly to swear, or to commit perjury.

Lawful oaths
First, when judges require oaths of people for declaration of the truth or for execution of justice, this manner of swearing is lawful. It is also lawful when people make faithful promises, calling to witness the name of God, to keep covenants, honest promises, statutes, laws, and good customs as Christian rulers do in their conclusions of peace, for the conservation of common wealth, and private persons promise their fidelity in marriage, or one to another in honesty and true friendship. It is lawful for all when they swear to keep common laws, and local statutes, and good customs, for due order to be had and continued among people, when subjects swear to be true and faithful to their rulers and countries, and when judges, magistrates, and officers swear truly to execute their offices, and when a person would affirm the truth in setting forth God’s glory (for the salvation of the people) in open preaching of the gospel, or in giving of good counsel privately for their soul’s health.

All these ways of swearing, for necessary and honest causes, are lawful. But when people swear out of custom, in reasoning, buying and selling, or other daily communications (and many are common and great swearers) such swearing is ungodly, unlawful, and prohibited by the commandment of God. For such swearing is nothing else but the taking of God’s holy name in vain.

Here it should be noted that lawful swearing is not forbidden, but commanded by Almighty God. For we have examples of Christ, and godly men, in holy scripture, who swore themselves and required oaths of others likewise. And God’s commandment is, “You shall fear the Lord your God, and shall swear by his name” (Deuteronomy 6:13). And Almighty God says by his prophet David, “all who swear by God will glory in him” (Psalm 63:11). In this way our Saviour Christ swore several times, saying, “Truly truly” (e.g. John 3:3, 11). And St. Paul swears thus: “I call God as my witness” (2 Corinthians 1:23). And Abraham (as he was getting old) required an oath of his servant, that he would find a wife for his son Isaac, who should come from his own kindred; and the servant swore that he would perform his master’s will (Genesis 24:1-9). Abraham also swore to Abimelech the king of Gerar, when he required him to, that he would not hurt him or his posterity, and likewise did Abimelech swear to Abraham (Genesis 21:22-31). And David swore to be and continue a faithful friend to Jonathan, and Jonathan swore to become a faithful friend to David (1 Samuel 18:3, 20:12-17, 42).

God once commanded that if a thing was given in pledge to someone, or left with them to keep, if the same thing were stolen or lost then the keeper of it should be sworn before judges, that they did not convey it away, or use any deceit in causing the same to be carried away, by their consent or knowledge (Exodus 22:10-11). And St. Paul says that in all matters of controversy between two persons, if one says yes and the other no, yet no due proof of the truth can be found, the end of every such controversy must be an oath administered by a judge (Hebrews 6:16).

Making oaths rightly
God by the prophet Jeremiah says, “You shall swear, ‘The Lord lives’, in truth, in judgment, in righteousness” (Jeremiah 4:2). So that whoever swears when they are required to by a judge, let them be sure in their conscience that their oath has these three conditions, and they shall never need to be afraid of perjury. First, the one who swears may swear truly, that is, they must (setting apart all favour and affection to the parties involved) have the truth only before their eyes. For love of truth they must say and speak that which they know to be truth, and no further. Second, the one who takes an oath must do it with judgment, not rashly and unadvisedly, but soberly, considering what an oath is. Thirdly, the one who swears must swear in righteousness, that is, for the very zeal and love which they have for the defence of innocence, to the maintenance of the truth, and of the righteousness of the matter or cause. All profit, loss, all love and favour to the person for friendship or kindred should be laid aside.

Thus an oath (if it has with it these three conditions) is a part of God’s glory, which we are bound by his commandments to give to him. For he wills that we shall swear only by his name, not that he has pleasure in oaths. In the same way as he commanded the Jews to offer sacrifices to him — not for any delight that he had in them, but to keep the Jews from committing idolatry — so he commands us to swear by his holy name, not to teach us that he delights in swearing, but that he forbids us to give his glory to any creature in heaven, earth, or water (Isaiah 42:8. Psalm 150:6). So lawful oaths are commanded by God, used by Patriarchs and Prophets, by Christ himself, and by his Apostle Paul. Therefore Christian people must think lawful oaths, both godly and necessary.

For by lawful promises and covenants confirmed by oaths, rulers and their countries are confirmed in common tranquillity and peace. By holy promises, with calling on the name of God to witness, we are made living members of Christ when we profess his religion, receiving the sacrament of baptism. By a similar holy promise, marriage knits together man and wife in perpetual love, so that they do not desire to be separated in any adversities. By lawful oaths, which rulers, judges, and magistrates swear, common laws are kept undamaged; justice is impartially administered; innocent persons, fatherless children, widows, and the poor are defended from murderers, oppressors, and thieves, so that they suffer no wrong or harm. By lawful oaths, mutual society, friendly relations, and good order are continually kept in all communities such as boroughs, cities, towns, and villages. And by lawful oaths, criminals are searched out, wrongdoers are punished, and those who sustain wrong are restored to their right. Therefore lawful swearing cannot be evil, since it brings to us so many godly, good, and necessary advantages.

Answers to excuses
Therefore, when Christ so earnestly forbade swearing, it should not be understood as though he forbade all oaths. But he forbids all vain swearing and perjury both in the name of God, and in his creatures, such as the common use of swearing in buying, selling, and in our daily communication, to the intent that every Christian’s word should be as well regarded in such matters as if they should confirm their communication with an oath. For every Christian’s word (says St. Jerome) should be so true, that it should be regarded as an oath. And Chrysostom witnessing the same says, “It is not appropriate to swear: for why do we need to swear when it is not lawful for one of us to lie to another?”

Perhaps some will say, “I am compelled to swear, or else those who live with me, or buy and sell with me will not believe me.” To this, St. Chrysostom answered that whoever says this shows themselves to be an unjust and a deceitful person. For if they were a trustworthy person, and their deeds taken to agree with their words, they would not need to swear at all. For the one who uses truth and plainness in their bargaining and communication shall have no need of such vain swearing to make themselves credible with their neighbours so they will not mistrust their words. If their credence is really so lost that they think no one will believe them without such oaths, then they may well think that their credibility has completely gone. For it is true (as Theophylact writes) that “no one is less trusted than the one who swears so much.” And Almighty God by the wise man says, “That person who swears much shall be full of sin, and the scourge of God shall not depart from their house”.

But here, some will excuse the many oaths in their daily talk by saying, “Why should I not swear, when I swear truly?” To such people it may be said that although they swear truly, yet in swearing often unadvisedly, for trifles, without necessity, and when they should not swear, they are not without fault, but take God’s most holy name in vain. Much more ungodly and unwise are those who abuse God’s most holy name, not only in buying and selling of small things daily in all places, but also in eating, drinking, playing, talking, and reasoning. As if none of these things might be done without commonly using and abusing the most holy name of God, vainly and irreverently talking and swearing. This breaks God’s commandment and procures his indignation.

Lee Gatiss is Director of Church Society

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