How many times in a day do you make an oath?
While you might not raise your right hand and put your left hand on a Bible, you surely make promises every day. At least, you tell someone what you will do, and the only assurance is your word.
While we should not equate simply telling someone that you will pick them up at 5:00pm and swearing to tell the truth to a judge, we nevertheless are working off of the same principle. The truth is all we have.
While Scripture, which The London Baptist Confession summarizes, does permit proper oath-taking, it also shows us the wisdom of never making oaths at all. To break an oath is to bring about a curse on your head. That does not mean that bats will swarm around you and you’ll fall into a well, but it does mean that not keeping your word, whether intentionally or unintentionally, is in fact sin.
The Confession continues, Whosoever takes an oath warranted by the word of God, ought duly to consider the weightiness of so solemn an act, and therein to avouch nothing but what he knows to be truth; for that by rash, false, and vain oaths, the Lord is provoked, and for them this land mourns.
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 (5:12).
Again, promises should be made, but not by lesser beings or things. Swearing oaths does not bring about God’s judgment on its own. Take notice that swearing oaths falsely by the name of God is what brings about judgment. Falsity can be intentional or not, and it is sinful either way.
Moses also tells us, You shall not swear by my name falsely, and so profane the name of your God: I am the Lord (Leviticus 19:12).
The Confession continues, An oath is to be taken in the plain and common sense of the words, without equivocation or mental reservation.
I would argue, anecdotally, that this is the most common way that oaths are unfaithfully sworn today. Look no further than everyday politics. We speak in such a way that it would be easy to later say, “That’s not what I meant.” How often do we employ that retort week to week? If you have any hesitation in your heart that you’re not telling the full truth, do not speak at all.
I think of Laban from the book of Genesis. He tricked Jacob into marrying his older daughter, Leah, even though Jacob believed he had agreed to marry Rachel, whom he loved (Genesis 29). Only speaking technically, Laban did no wrong. But clearly working off of what Jacob had proposed and what he intended, Laban knew precisely what he was doing when he agreed to let Jacob marry his daughter.
Any attempt to avoid the commitment you’re making is a false oath, and it brings about God’s judgment.
The Confession continues, A vow, which is not to be made to any creature, but to God alone, is to be made and performed with all religious care and faithfulness; but 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.
Vows are somewhat distinct from oaths in that vows, in biblical usage, are only made to God. What this paragraph is addressing is the kind of vow that is commonly performed in Roman Catholicism. Why the need to address this?
Persecution toward the earliest Christians was brief and relatively isolated until the early 300s. And as brief as it was during the first few years of the fourth century, it was awful. Bishops, Bibles, and buildings were all burned to the ground. Ordinary Christians were hunted and killed.
While it lasted only a few years, it did create a view of martyrdom that bordered on the heroic. Now that Christians were tolerated again (and would eventually be placed in the highest levels of civic life), how can we prove we’re as courageous and honorable as the martyrs of the last few years? The answer turned out to be monasticism.
Monasteries and monks before the third century were not exactly like schools and printing houses, but the similarities are good enough to make the point. Men and women created communities that were self-sustaining and spent their days copying the Scriptures. We owe them a debt for the copious amounts of manuscripts we have.
But the change in the monasteries after the persecutions of the 300s turned them into the places where people could go seek a higher way of life on par with the martyrs. Eventually, dogma caught up with practice, and by the middle ages, monks took vows of poverty and chastity to attain a higher plain of faithfulness. It is this unbiblical practice and thought that the Confession (and all Protestants) reject.
Is a vow of celibacy or poverty intrinsically evil? Of course not. Jesus says in Matthew 19:12 that some men have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of God. What we cannot do is argue biblically that these people who have made such vows have attained, or are on the path to attaining, a higher form of Christianity. That notion should be rejected outright. There are not levels of Christianity. There are those farther along the path of sanctification, but to imply they have done the work themselves is foolish. As Paul writes to us, And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ (Philippians 1:6). God began the work, and he will finish it. You don't to be a poor virgin to be loved by God.
Next, we will see what the Confession says about something that tends to get people’s attention: how the Christian should relate to the government.