Should A Christian Make a Vow?



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  • Should A Christian Make a Vow?

    From the teachings found in scripture, we can find teachings that give guidance about our asserting oaths, vows and pledges. The teachings on this subject can seem complex and the applications to daily life are numerous. Below we will discuss formal vows made to God, and vows made to the church and inner vows we make to ourselves.

    The first passage of consideration is from the oracles of Christ. He addressed the Jews who were notoriously guilty of common swearing, for which our Lord particularly reprehends them, and warns his disciples against, whereas the Jews commonly swore by heaven, by earth, by Jerusalem, and by their head. The Jews had trouble telling the truth consistently, just like you and I do, so in order to guard themselves against being found guilty of swearing falsely by the name of God, it seems that they had firmly established the habit of swearing by everything EXCEPT God. They wanted to add some kind of force to their promises to make their words more credible, but they didn’t want to incur the judgment of God by swearing something in His name when they didn’t fully intend to make it good or when it was not entirely true. So they created what was in effect a lesser class of oaths – oaths that were bound to various parts of God’s creation rather than to God.

    “Again, you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not break your oath, but keep the oaths you have made to the Lord.’ But I tell you, Do not swear at all: either by heaven, for it is God’s throne; 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 even one hair white or black. Simply let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one." Matthew 5:33-37

    Some Christians have incorrectly interpreted this passage to teach that we must not, under any circumstances, utter an oath or vow. So they refuse to take an oath in a court of law, in a marriage ceremony, or in any other situation. This is not at all what the Lord is teaching. Make no oath (Greek: Omnuo) means to affirm the truth of a statement by calling on a divine being to execute sanctions against a person if the statement in question is not true. In Jesus' day the swearing of oaths had degenerated to a system which indicated when a man could lie and when not.

    Example - “May I lose my head (i.e., my life) if what I am telling you is not true, or if I fail to fulfill my promise.”

    Let's break down some of the passages from Matthew into study parts. “And do not swear by your head” - This was a common oath. The Gentiles also used this oath. To swear by the head was the same as to swear by the life; or to say, I will forfeit my life if what I say is not true. God is the author of the life, and to swear by that, therefore, is the same as to swear by him.

    “...for you cannot make even one hair white or black” - Jesus logic is that how can they control their life? No man can even change the intrinsic color of his hair. Ultimately even the hairs of the head are all under God's control and ownership. He Alone determines whether at any given moment a hair is black or white. Therefore, it follows that even swearing by one’s head is in the final analysis swearing by God and is just as binding as an oath using the specific name of God.

    “anything beyond this comes from the evil one” - The phrase "of evil" is rendered "of the evil one" in some of the translations (NIV, NKJV, NET). The usage here may be very reasonable to translate and interpret this as a reference to the devil who is the master deceiver.

    Matthew Henry has an excellent comment summarizing the use of oaths writing that... “The worse men are, the less they are bound by oaths; the better they are, the less there is need for them. Our Lord does not enjoin the precise terms wherein we are to affirm or deny, but such a constant regard to truth as would render oaths unnecessary.”

    James seems to echo the words of our Lord in his epistle, and he puts special emphasis on this command, introducing it with the words, “above all.” Reading James 5:12 “But above all, my brethren, do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or with any other oath. But let your “Yes” be “Yes,” and your “No,” be “No,” lest you fall into judgment.”

    Some words can have a double meaning, and some words can be interpreted in two different ways. But there is only one possible way of interpreting “yes.” “Yes” does not mean “no.” There is only one way you can interpret “no.” You can never interpret that as meaning consent. When you say “yes,” it means “yes”; when you say “no,” it means “no.” The Lord demanded that one's speech be so trustworthy that men would not have to debate what was meant and interpret what was said.

    Jesus’ words in Matthew 23 show how absurd the Jew’s swearing system had become: “Woe to you, blind guides, who say, ‘Whoever swears by the temple, that is nothing; but whoever swears by the gold of the temple, he is obligated.’ You fools and blind men; which is more important, the gold, or the temple that sanctified the gold? And, ‘Whoever swears by the altar, that is nothing, but whoever swears by the offering up on it, he is obligated.’ You blind men, which is more important, the offering or the altar that sanctifies the offering? Therefore, he who swears, swears both by the altar and by everything on it. And he who swears by the temple, swears both by the temple and by Him who dwells within it. And he who swears by heaven, swears both by the throne of God and by Him who sits upon it.”

    Do you see where the scribes and Pharisees had taken this, and how Jesus stands their foolish logic on its head? They were coming up with all sorts of mental acrobatics to insulate themselves from accountability to God, and Jesus told them you cannot get away from your accountability to God by invoking things, because God is sovereign over all things!

    Oaths and vows show up remarkably often in both testaments, and the Law addresses them a great many times. It is strikingly consistent that, aside from this passage and James 5:12, the rest of the Scriptures does not prohibit oaths. Indeed, the Law specifically commanded God’s people to swear their oaths in His name.

    (the “Hear, O Israel” passage): “You shall fear only the Lord your God; and you shall worship Him, and swear by His name. You shall not follow other gods, any of the gods of the peoples who surround you.” Deuteronomy 6:13-14

    “You shall fear the Lord your God; you shall serve Him and cling to Him, and you shall swear by His name.” Deuteronomy 10:20

    When Abraham sent his servant to choose a bride for Isaac, he said to his servant in Genesis 24:3: “I will make you swear by the LORD, the God of heaven and the God of earth, that you shall not take a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites, among whom I live.” Abraham did not swear by the heavens or the earth. He swore by the God of heaven and the God of earth.

    God didn’t take oaths and vows lightly. He still doesn’t. Even a promise or a word of commitment is subject to the same tenants as an oath based upon your personal integrity. For example, if a person takes on a project, yet fails to complete it, is it often treated as harmless procrastination by the violator. Rather, it is a failure of moral integrity. Or a person might promise to pay a monthly debt to a family member, but fail to comply repeatedly, and dismiss it as a lack of means to do so. This again is a severe breach of moral integrity, not only a failed promise, but a type of curse that damages one’s own value and core perception of self.

    “When you make a vow to God, do not be late in paying it, for He takes no delight in fools. Pay what you vow! It is better that you should not vow, than that you should vow and not pay!” Ecclesiastes 5:4-5:

    Paul acknowledges that our “yes” must be “yes” and our “no” must be “no,” and yet, he employs an oath to affirm the genuineness of his motivation for changing his plans. Paul repeatedly invokes God as his witness to emphasize the solemnity and the truthfulness of the things he is declaring, and he does so under the superintending of the Holy Spirit.

    But I call God as witness to my soul, that to spare you I came no more to Corinth." 2 Corinthians 1:23

    Now in what I am writing to you, I assure you before God that I am not lying." Galatians 1:20

    For God is my witness, how I long for you all with the affection of Christ Jesus." Philippians 1:8

    Was Paul violating the teaching of Jesus? Jesus’ point in Matthew 5 is that oaths are evil or that an oath can never be legitimate. Jesus' point is that the swearing of oaths as practiced by the Scribes and Pharisees was evil, in its entirety – because they deliberately swore their oaths by everything EXCEPT God in a foolish effort to sidestep their accountability to God!

    In essense, it would be better to swear no oath at all than to think you can contrive a way to avoid accountability before God to be a truthful person. From the above study we can begin to see that personal vows can lay a trap for us in creating a burden that we, in our weakness and finiteness cannot keep. There are a number of reasons for this:
    • Vows are about actions in the future, and the future is something over which we have little or no control.
    • Vows are solemn and sacred and involve powerful heavenly realities that we should think we can bring under our command.
    • Some people e.g. the Pharisees used vows to trick people into trusting them so that they can cheat the gullible.
    • Breaking a vow can result in judgment (James) and the destruction of the work of our hands (Ecclesiastes).
    • We may make a vow that depends on the actions of another person, and that person may act in such a way to make fulfilling the vow impossible - such as a vow to be responsible for another person's debts.
    • Our circumstances may change so that we cannot keep the vow or pledge e.g. we may lose our job and be unable to pay the pledge to a person or our church.
    • We may construct the vow in absolute terms using words such as 'always" or "never" and in reality life is too complex to say we will "always" do X or "never" do Y.
    The biblical principle is that promises to God must be fulfilled - even at great cost. Since we are fallen and finite it is better not to make such promises at all.

    Dangerous Promises

    Proverbs tells us what to do when we have made a promise that we cannot keep: "My son, if you become surety for your friend, If you have shaken hands in pledge for a stranger, You are snared by the words of your mouth; You are taken by the words of your mouth. So do this, my son, and deliver yourself; For you have come into the hand of your friend: Go and humble yourself; Plead with your friend. Give no sleep to your eyes, Nor slumber to your eyelids. Deliver yourself like a gazelle from the hand of the hunter, And like a bird from the hand of the fowler." Proverbs 6:1-5 1

    The principle is: "Go and humble yourself; Plead with your friend .." and do it as soon as possible. Do not remain under a foolish vow, for pride's sake, any longer than necessary. Go to the friend, the church, the relative or whoever and humble yourself and ask to be released from your vow. When asking to be released from a vow they have made to God can also use this principle. God, through the cross, and has become our friend and we can plead with Him on such matters, and so when we have made a wrong vow to God, we need to quickly humble ourselves before Him and ask forgiveness and release from the vow.

    There are some common categories of oaths, vows and pledges that Christians get ensnared by:

    Tithing, Promises And Pledges

    Unfortunately churches often encourage their flock to make solemn vows about financial matters such as tithes, pledges and very large sacrificial offerings they cannot fulfill. This violates scriptural teaching and can bring the church members into judgment. A church leader should not ask for pledges of support from people because some of the selfless people, with the least resources, make the largest and most impractical pledges. One should only be asked to give as God directs, whenever God directs, without any sense of obligation. Nor should a church leader insist that people tithe or that they pledge to tithe. The reason for this is that some people are in financial hardship, making tithing essentially impossible.

    New Year’s Vows

    One of the traditions associated with New Year’s observances is the making of resolutions, promises to stop or start something in the new year. Typically, about 75 percent of people who make resolutions maintain their commitment past the first week, and less than half keep their word to themselves after six months, which diminishes their self-efficacy. Setting a goal or several goals at the beginning of the new year is not bad in itself, as long as they are not bound in a vow. Christians should make sure their resolutions are biblical and glorifying to God. A good resolution would be to pray to God, 'Father, what is on your heart for me, my family, my employment this year?'

    Romantic Vows

    Some Christians make promises of marriage to unsuitable people, not at all the person God would have blessed as a partner. Some need to swiftly apply Proverbs 6, before the wedding takes place. No amount of pride, honor or expense is worth a failed marriage.

    Idealistic Vows

    Idealistic vows are vows made to God in a moment of spiritual zeal such as vowing to become a missionary when a person is not all able to fulfill such a promise. We must not serve God based on a vows, but instead take each day as it comes, in full dedication to his every prompting. Churches should not ask people to stand and pledge themselves for the ministry, instead they should ask them to be enquirers, to start on the journey and to take the time to discern their path.

    Inner Vows

    Inner vows are the deepest promises we make in our own heart. The problem with inner vows is that they remain a permanent part of our psyche and affect our future actions. When we try and act in a way that opposes our predefined inner vow we find ourselves ensnared by an inner conflict that we do not understand. When you find yourself very reluctant to do something that you should, ask yourself if you ever made a promise to yourself that stands in the way of what you are trying to do. Recant (repent) of any irrational vows under the blood of Christ, and you will find a sense of inner release and normality inside yourself.

    Marriage Vows

    Marriage vows are made to God, and do prescribe specific actions, which we may not be able to fulfill due to our partner's actions. There should be solemnity and responsibility in marriage and there should be a covenant between the marriage partners and a sense of deep commitment. However the wording of such vows, should be done with utmost care. Technically it would be better not to have such vows before God but simply replace them with solemn promises to each other.

    There are certainly many other categories that could be added to this list. However, it is suffice to say, vows by their very nature, are not only serious to God, but effects us deeply in ways we cannot objectively comprehend.

  • #2
    Very well laid out teaching. Easy to understand. Thank you for sharing.


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