Swearing Oaths: Taking Jesus’ Words to Heart – Exodus 22:10-11, Matthew 5:33-37

Today I am talking about swearing and taking oaths, and how that relates to us as Christians, and more particularly as Mennonites.  The verbs “to swear” and “to take an oath” have a couple of meanings, and I’m going to talk today about two meanings.  The first meaning is the use of oaths in the process of truth-telling, “I swear to tell the truth.”  And second, swearing or taking an oath as a way of declaring loyalty to something.  I’m not going to talk about swearing, as in the sense of taking God’s name in vain, or using vulgar language…that’s a sermon for another day.

Truth-telling.  From the time we are very little, we know that the truth matters.   There’s a phrase from my childhood, “Cross my heart and hope to die”…words we say to show that we are really really telling the truth.  It’s actually an oath…although it’s lost its religious meaning.  “Cross my heart”…which is a religious symbol, calling God to bear witness, and “hope to die”, meaning,  if I don’t tell the truth, may God strike me dead!

We need to know whether people are telling the truth.  Whether it’s the person who is selling us a car, the person we are dating, or a politician to whom we give power…we want to know that they are trustworthy.  We make decisions and base our lives on people telling us the truth.

One of the ways our society tries to insure truth telling is by having people take oaths.  It’s a way of formally saying, “I am really really really telling the truth.” An assumption in taking oaths is that we don’t tell the truth a lot of the time, so we need some exceptional words/circumstances to guarantee that what we are saying is the truth.  In other words, taking oaths means that lying is a part of life.  Most oaths have some religious background, calling on God’s divine presence to witness that the truth is being told.  “Cross my heart and hope to die” is just a step away from putting your hand on a bible in a courtroom and promising to “Tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help me God.”  The idea behind this is that God will not only help us tell the truth, but God will punish us if we don’t tell the truth.

Taking oaths as a way of making sure that someone is telling the truth is a very old tradition, older than many of the stories in the Bible.  In the Old Testament there are many examples of people taking oaths, calling on God as a witness to say, what I am saying to you is true.  Especially in the days before writing, you needed to know, “Are these cows yours to sell?”  or “How do I know you won’t kill me?” There are lots of references to oaths, here’s one from Exodus… 

Exodus 22:10-11: When someone delivers to another a donkey, ox, sheep, or any other animal for safekeeping, and it dies or is injured or is carried off, without anyone seeing it, an oath before the Lord shall decide between the two of them that the one has not laid hands on the property of the other; the owner shall accept the oath, and no restitution shall be made. 

Oaths were perfectly acceptable and expected in Jewish culture and religion.  It’s calling on someone higher than me to insure that what I am saying is the truth, and being willing to accept the punishment from God if I use that name in vain.  In the Jewish tradition, they were increasingly careful about not saying God’s name, so they started the practice of swearing by holy things, so you wouldn’t have to say God’s name so often.  So you wouldn’t just say, “By God, this is true…” but “By  the throne of God…by the earth, by Jerusalem, this is true.”

Jesus came into this culture, and had new teaching about telling the truth.  Let’s hear this scripture from the Sermon on the Mount. 

Matthew 5:33-37  ‘Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, “You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.”  But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let your word be “Yes, Yes” or “No, No”; anything more than this comes from the evil one.

Jesus  wanted to get at something fundamental about our dealings with each other.  He wanted people to be truthful will each other.  Period.  Tell the truth.  You don’t need to swear you’re telling the truth, because you always tell the truth.

In the 1500’s there was a group of people who were reading the Bible, and challenging many of the traditions of the church.  They were called Anabaptists, because they challenged the church tradition of baptizing babies.  They didn’t see any biblical proof that babies should be baptized.  So they rebaptised themselves as adults..and that’s why they were called Anabaptists.  Menno Simons was an Anabaptist, and he organized a lot of these people, and they followed him, so they were called Menno-nites.

Anabaptists read the bible, and they took the Sermon on the Mount seriously.  They read, “Don’t take oaths” and they believed it meant, “Don’t take oaths”.  Many Anabaptists absolutely refused to swear that they were telling the truth.  That meant that whenever they were brought in front of a judge, they upset the whole apple cart, because their testimony was thrown into question.   Anabaptists knew that not taking an oath would get you into trouble, especially in courts of law.  But they believed that making trouble was a public witness, because it brought up the question of truth telling. They were saying, “I am a person who always tells the truth, so I do not need to take an oath to tell the truth.”

Menno Simons saw this as a way of making a public witness, declaring…

“Worthy Reader, are you one who fears the Lord and you are pressed to take an oath—stand by the Word of the Lord, which forbids you so clearly to swear, and let your yea be yea and your nay be nay, as He has commanded, whether it means life or death to you, so that you may by your valiance and steadfast truthfulness so admonish and rebuke the worthless, unfruitful, vain world…. so that perchance someone may be converted from his unrighteousness and thereby led to deeper thought and be saved.”  (Menno Simons, A Fundamental and Clear Confession, 1552)

Anabaptists were not the only people who challenged oaths, there were other reform groups like the Quakers that did the same thing, and this resistance was all based on Jesus’ commandment.

 Mennonites and Quakers and other groups petitioned governments so that they would be able to go to court and make statements…they weren’t opposed to courts, it’s just that they couldn’t swear in good conscience…I’m going to talk a little bit more about that in a minute.  Over time, gradually, they were given legal rights in various courts of law to affirm something rather than swear.   Affirming means that I am stating solemnly…I am telling the truth. 

Today, in the Canadian system everyone is given the option in court to swear or to affirm, and if they swear, they can swear on any holy book.  I talked to Tim this week about his work as a lawyer, and he says that in court he mostly sees people affirming and that only people who are serious about their faith choose to take an oath on the Bible or another holy book.  He says it’s kind of ironic, that the countercultural move of Mennonites is now the norm…to affirm in court does not in any way show you are serious about your faith, in fact it will probably be taken as evidence that you don’t believe in God.

The issue underlying Jesus’ words are important for us today, and they aren’t so specifically about what we do in court, but about who we are as people.  Are we truthful?  Are we honest?  Can people rely on what we say?  Being an honest person is at the foundation of our church congregation. We trust what people say.  When we find out that someone through their words or actions has been lying to us, it shakes us deeply…because we took them at their word.  It shakes our identity as honest followers of Jesus.   

I heard a story of a Mennonite person who was dishonest in their business dealings, and it was deeply troubling for the whole congregation.  They were asking themselves, “What do we do about this?  What kind of witness is this?  How does this affect the way people view our whole community?”  When we lie as Christians, we hurt Christ’s good name, by lying.  When we lie as Mennonites, we hurt the good name of Menno Simons, or the name of the Mennonite church, because people will think that lying is acceptable here.

This is something I think most people who are older understand extremely well, because you have seen people ruin their good name by lying.  You can have all sorts of excuses about why you might tell a lie, and you might say to yourself, “I tell the truth 99% of the time.”  But if you tell a lie, people will not be sure about whether you are telling the truth.  Jesus calls us to be truthful people.  We do not need to swear on the word of God, on the Bible, in order to be made to tell the truth.  We have the word of God in our heart, and that means we are truth-telling people.

The second meaning of taking an oath is to swear loyalty to someone or something.  Early church fathers writing in the 200’s and 300’s…thinkers and writers  like Origen, Tertullian, Chrysostom, all took this passage of scripture literally and said, “Christians cannot swear oaths.”  That also meant that Christians could not swear oaths of allegiance to an emperor, or to a military leader.  This caused lots of problems for Christians, because they lived in societies that required people to take oaths of allegiance. When Constantine the Roman Emperor embraced Christianity, the tide changed.  The state was not seen quite so negatively, as it was led by a Christian leader, so theologians began to accept oath-taking as normal. 

The Anabaptists, like the early church fathers, took Jesus’ words about oaths very literally.  And they also faced difficulties because of that.  In our society, you can get by pretty well not taking an oath, so it may not seem like a very big deal to us.  But in the 1500’s oaths held societies together.  There weren’t countries back then like we have now.  Each city had a ruler, it was a state in itself, a city-state.  If you wanted to live in the city, you had to agree that you would be loyal to the king, you had to swear loyalty each year, you had to take an oath. It would be like today everyone who lives in Lincoln would have to go to Town Hall once a year and say, “I swear allegiance to our mayor Bill Hodgson”, and if you don’t do that, people would drive you from your home. In the 1500’s loyalty meant that you would take up arms and defend the city, which Mennonites would not do.  There are many examples of Mennonites who would not swear loyalty to their ruler, and were expelled from their cities.

Also, in order to join a profession, there were associations called guilds…and these also required oaths. So if you were a weaver, or a baker, or a blacksmith, you belonged to an association, and you had to swear loyalty to that organization, that you would work together and do good work.  If you would not take an oath, you were cast out of your guild, which meant that you lost your profession.

Since oath-taking was the glue that held society together, and because the price of not taking an oath was so high, there was debate among Mennonite leaders about whether certain oaths might be acceptable while others were not.  

Mennonites looked for places where they could live in peace, where a government would allow them to not swear oaths of allegiance, and not require military service. Mennonites started moving around the world. Some Mennonites moved to Prussia, where they were granted freedom for a time…years later when rulers changed and required more from them, some of them heard of a person named Catherine the Great who had land in the Ukraine she would give without requiring oaths and military service.  Some Mennonites heard of a man named William Penn, who founded a colony in the New World called Penn’s woods, or Pennsylvania.  Quakers, like Mennonites, also did not want to take oaths, and they were given freedom from that in this new colony.  In 1683 100 Mennonites from the Lower Rhineland area in Europe followed Penn to Pennsylvania, and founded THE first Mennonite church in North America in a place called Germantown.

In Pennsylvania Mennonites lived in peace for almost a hundred years.  However in 1776 with the beginning of the American war of Independence in 1776, there was religious persecution of people who would not swear oaths of loyalty to the new American government.  This was at least part of the reason why some Mennonites and Quakers came to Canada, to find a place where they could live peaceably. 

Mennonites came to Canada in the late 1700’s  because they had an assurance that certain freedoms would be granted.  They petitioned the government of Upper Canada to get these rights in writing.  As early as 1801, along with Quakers and Dunkers, they petitioned the government of Upper Canada in Niagara on the Lake for freedom from taking oaths, and the right to affirm.  It was stalled in government, but in 1809 they were given the right to make “affirmations or declarations”.  The same act that gave them that right, also disqualified them from giving evidence in criminal cases, from serving on juries and from holding any office or place in government. (Frank Epp, Mennonites in Canada, p. 103).

Mennonites have not wanted to swear oaths of loyalty because it meant giving up their right to follow their conscience. This is most evident in military oaths, where you promise to obey orders.  See for example the oath you take today when you join the American military:

The Military Oath – The following oath is taken by all personnel inducted into the armed forces of the United States, as found in the US Code, Section 502. I , _________, do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; and that I will obey the orders of the President of the United States and the orders of the officers appointed over me, according to regulations and the Uniform Code of Military Justice. So help me God.

It’s not your right to decide on the basis of your Christian conscience whether you can or cannot follow an order, you are called to obey what your commander says.  Today if you join the Canadian military, you are given the right to affirm, or swear,” I do swear/solemnly affirm that I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth the Second Queen of Canada.  Her heirs and successors according to law. (so help me God)

In both statements, you are given the right to affirm, however belonging to that organization, and the necessity of following the orders of a military commander, could come into conflict with your loyalty to Jesus Christ as the Prince of Peace. 

When I became a Canadian citizen a number of years ago, there was an oath of citizenship…which I was allowed to affirm.  Allegiance to a government can come into conflict with being a Christian, and as a Christian, our first and foremost allegiance is to Christ.  My country may say that certain people on the other side of this invisible line drawn on the ground are my enemies…and that it’s OK to kill them…but Christ tells me that all people are children of God and I am called to love them.

Today, there are other places where you may be required to say an oath.  There are certain organizations or secret societies, like the Masons, that require an oath.  Mennonites have taken a stand that you should not join a society like that, because you should not say an oath, and you should not promise to follow the rules of an organization that may be in conflict with your relationship with God.  Some Mennonites through history have also been reluctant to join labour unions because of this as well.  Unions require their members to follow what the union decides.  For example, if I am a part of a union that is striking, my union may decide that we will not go to work.  But maybe people will suffer because the work is not being done, and I may feel God calling me to follow my conscience and go to work.

It boils down to an identity question.  Who are we?  We are followers of Christ, and we should not belong to any organization, or make promises to any organization, that would compromise our relationship to God. The early Anabaptists read the Bible and heard Jesus’ words…let your yes by yes and your no be no. As I researched this topic, I was struck by the deep thought that Anabaptists over time have put into what it means to be a follower of Jesus, and the difficulties they were willing to face because of their faith. 

I hope that we are still communities that think deeply about truthtelling. Are you a person who yes is yes and no is no? Maybe you can remember a time where you were caught in a lie, and what the consequences were.  Maybe over lunch today you can talk about the importance of telling the truth.  Maybe some of you have been asked to join organizations that require an oath of allegiance… has that ever been a problem?  Let’s talk about loyalty, obedience and following Jesus. Jesus invites us to follow even if the cost is high. But the truth sets us free, every single time.

 A Sermon preached at
The First Mennonite Church, Vineland, ON
by Carol Penner
April 25, 2010

About Carol Penner

I am a Mennonite pastor currently teaching theology at Conrad Grebel University College in Waterloo, Ontario. I’ve served congregations in Ontario and most recently, Alberta.

I love to write and to lead worship! If you are finding my writing helpful, I would love to hear from you! Feel free to use or adapt the material here, it is all written by me. If printing material, please credit “Copyright Carol Penner www.leadinginworship.com” (and say whether you modified it). If publishing, please contact me for permission. Contact me at carol@leadinginworship.com

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