Today as we continue our study of the Reformation and worship, we come to a subject that many people have misunderstood: oaths and vows. Among the various elements that constitute Christian worship, Westminster Confession of Faith 21.5 includes the swearing of lawful oaths and vows. This has been a contentious topic for many Christians because of certain passages that seem at first glance to prohibit the taking of oaths and vows by believers. For example, Matthew 5:33–37 records Jesus’ teaching that we should “not take an oath at all.”
A careful consideration of Matthew’s text, however, shows us that Jesus was not outlawing all oaths and vows. Instead, He was correcting a common Jewish belief that if you swear an oath by anything other than God’s name, you are not obliged to fulfill the oath. Jesus’ point is that swearing an oath by heaven, Jerusalem, or any other thing does not release someone from keeping the oath. As long as it is a lawful oath, it is made in the presence of God the Creator even when His name is not invoked. Thus, the Lord will hold us accountable. Jesus was teaching that it is better not to swear an oath at all if you are looking for a way out of keeping it.
Apostolic practice confirms that Jesus did not intend to abolish oath taking altogether. For example, Acts 18:18 tells us that the Apostle Paul made vows even after he was converted to Christ. This should not surprise us, for the practice of swearing vows was commonplace for Jews such as Paul. The Old Testament records several occasions on which the people swore vows in the context of worship. During one celebration of the Feast of Booths, for instance, the postexilic community took vows to keep the law of God, as we read in today’s passage (Neh. 10:28–29). We also read of a similar vow that the people of Israel took at the point of the initial ratification of the Mosaic covenant (Ex. 24).
The Westminster Confession closely associates oaths and vows with special occasions, which makes sense given that the Old Testament examples of oaths above took place during festivals and other infrequent or special observances. We should note, however, that in one sense, every worship service is itself an oath or vow. Every Lord’s Day, we come before God with praise, confessing our sin, testifying that we are His people, and recommitting ourselves to serving Him in the week ahead of us.