Wednesday, 21 January 2015

On taking oaths.

I have been called for jury duty in the coming months. Apparently, as part of the role of juror, I must take either an oath or affirmation. The oath is as follows:

'I swear by Almighty God that I will faithfully try the defendant and give a true verdict according to the evidence.'

This raises the question of whether I, as a Christian, can take the oath, considering Jesus' instruction in Matthew 5. Viz-a-viz:

“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. ’ 34 But I say to you, Do not take an oath at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, 35 or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. 36 And do not take an oath by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. 37 Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil."

It would seem at first glance that Jesus is outlawing all oaths here. However, this may not be the case, given two things which occur later. Firstly, Jesus' own behaviour under trial, and secondly, the actions of the apostle Paul.

Considering the first point, under trial, it seems that Jesus is put under oath by the High Priest. Jesus recognises his authority to ask for and expect an honest response, which he does. The account reads:

62 And the high priest stood up and said, “Have you no answer to make? What is it that these men testify against you?” 63 But Jesus remained silent. And the high priest said to him, “I adjure you by the living God, tell us if you are the Christ, the Son of God.” 64 Jesus said to him, “You have said so. But I tell you, from now on you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power and coming on the clouds of heaven. (Matthew 26)

Considering the second point, Paul calls God as a witness on a number of occasions. To cite three:

For God is my witness, whom I serve with my spirit in the gospel of his Son, that without ceasing I mention you. (Romans 1:9)

But I call God to witness against me—it was to spare you that I refrained from coming again to Corinth. (2 Corinthians 1:23)

For God is my witness, how I yearn for you all with the affection of Christ Jesus. (Phil 1:8)

As is often the case, I turn to other wiser heads for counsel. Thomas Arnold wrote a letter to a former student and later clergyman about this issue. Here is the text:

'I honour and sympathise with an anxiety to follow our Lord's will in matters of real moral importance, as much as I shrink from the habit of exalting every notice of what was once done in matters of form into a law, that the same [thing] ought always to be done, and that Christ has commanded it. But I do not feel your objection to taking an oath when required by a lawful and public authority.... It is quite clear to me that the evil is in requiring an oath, - when we speak of solemn oaths, and not of those used gratuitously in conversation, to which I believe our Lord's words in the letter apply. I would not do anything which would imply that I thought a Christian's word not sufficient, and required him to make a distinction between it and his oath. But if an authority in itself lawful says to me, "I require of you, though a Christian, that same assurance which men in general have agreed to look to as the highest," I do not see that I should object to give it him, although in my own case I feel it to be superfluous. And it appears to me clear that our Lord did Himself so comply with the adjuration of the High Priest. It is a grief to me that the Church in this, as in many other things, has not risen to the height designed for her; but it seems to me that the individual's business is not to require oaths, rather than not to take them when required by others. The difference seems to me to lie, as I think our Article implies, not between oaths voluntary and involuntary, - for no oath can be strictly speaking involuntary, "Commands being no constraints" - but between oaths gratuitously proffered, where you are yourself enforcing the difference between affirmations and oaths, and oaths taken on the requisition of a lawful authority, where you incur no such responsibility.'

If I've understood him rightly, Arnold is saying:
a) its good and right to follow the Lord's teaching;
b) Christians ought not require oaths of one another;
c) if a lawful authority requires an oath it is lawful to give one (on the basis of Christ's example) - even though in his case (and the case of any genuine Christian) its quite superfluous.
d) that the 39th Article of the Church of England correctly implies that vain and rash swearing is forbidden by the Lord, but is lawful when required by a magistrate.

I think I agree with Arnold, and also must think T.R. for his insights into this matter. But if any other Christian has a comment to make on this matter, I should be grateful to hear it...

Post Script: A friend (JW) contacts me and reminds me that it is possible to take a simple affirmation. I am inclined to think that this is what I will do. While my comments above I think are probably correct, I am also aware that Satan's chief tactic is to say 'Did God really say...' So for the avoidance of doubt, I will follow the Lord's revealed will, and not take an oath.