Friday, September 29, 2017

Stump the Priest: Oaths

Question: "Since Christ forbids us to make oaths (Matthew 5:33-36),why does the Orthodox Church allow them?"

First of all, it should be noted that that it is not the Orthodox Church only that allows oaths under solemn and justifiable circumstances, but so do Roman Catholics and most mainstream Protestants.

For example, see:

 The Catholic Encyclopedia entry on Oaths,

The Westminster Confession, Chapter 22 (Of Lawful Oaths and Vows)

A lawful oath is made when one soberly calls God to witness to the truth of what they say, or to assure others of their commitment to fulfill a vow.

Examples of such oaths are found throughout Scripture. For example, Abraham made his servant swear an oath that he would fulfill his wishes regarding his son Isaac (Genesis 24). There are numerous laws regarding proper oaths (e.g., Numbers 30; Deuteronomy 23:21-23). One of the clear applications of the third commandment ("Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain" (Exodus 20:7) is with regard to making false oaths. God also commanded people to be bound by oaths in legal disputes (Exodus 22:11-12Numbers 5:19). Even Christ was placed under oath ("I adjure (εξορκιζω, which means "I place under oath") thee by the Living God") by Caiaphas, and He did not refuse to answer accordingly (Matthew 26:63;

St. Paul called God as his witness in his epistles on several occasions:
"Moreover I call God for a witness against my soul, that to spare you I came not as yet unto Corinth" (2 Corinthians 1:23).
"For God is my witness, whom I serve with my spirit in the gospel of his Son, that without ceasing I make mention of you always in my prayers" (Romans 1:9).
"Now the things which I write unto you, behold, before God, I lie not” (Galatians 1:20).
1 Timothy 1:10 mentions "false-swearers" (perjurers) among a lists of persons whose sins are opposed to sound doctrine -- and if all oaths were sinful, it would have made more sense to simply lump all those who take oaths together, whether they kept them or not.

We find that even God Himself swears oaths (Deuteronomy 7:8; Luke 1:73Hebrews 6:16-17). And in fact,  Deuteronomy 29:12 speaks of God entering into an oath together with His people:
"That thou shouldest enter into covenant with the Lord thy God, and into His oath, which the Lord Thy God maketh with thee this day."
So what was Christ forbidding in Matthew 5:33-36?
"Again, ye have heard that it hath been said by them of old time, Thou shalt not forswear thyself, but shalt perform unto the Lord thine oaths: but I say unto you, Swear not at all; neither by heaven; for it is God's throne: nor by the earth; for it is his footstool: neither by Jerusalem; for it is the city of the great King. Neither shalt thou swear by thy head, because thou canst not make one hair white or black. But let your communication be, Yea, yea; Nay, nay: for whatsoever is more than these cometh of evil."
The Church teaches that what He was speaking against here were frivolous oaths. People had fallen into the habit of making oaths very lightly, and they had even come up with a system of determining whether an oath was binding or not, based on certain formulas, with the obvious intention of being able to make false oaths without any fear of violating the law, as they had misinterpreted it. Christ spoke of this very specifically, elsewhere in the Gospels:
"Woe unto you, ye blind guides, which say, Whosoever shall swear by the temple, it is nothing; but whosoever shall swear by the gold of the temple, he is a debtor! Ye fools and blind: for whether is greater, the gold, or the temple that sanctifieth the gold? And, Whosoever shall swear by the altar, it is nothing; but whosoever sweareth by the gift that is upon it, he is guilty. Ye fools and blind: for whether is greater, the gift, or the altar that sanctifieth the gift? Whoso therefore shall swear by the altar, sweareth by it, and by all things thereon. And whoso shall swear by the temple, sweareth by it, and by him that dwelleth therein. And he that shall swear by heaven, sweareth by the throne of God, and by him that sitteth thereon" (Matthew 23:16-22)
Christ often used hyperbole to make a point. For example, in the same Sermon on the Mount, after speaking against committing adultery in the heart, Christ said:
"And if thy right eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell. And if thy right hand offend thee, cut it off, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell" (Matthew 5:29-30).
If what Christ said here was meant to be taken in an absolutely literal sense, we would have Churches full of maimed and blind people. But in fact the Church specifically forbids taking these words to that extent (see Canons 22, 23 and 24 of the Holy Apostles). This is intentionally hyperbolic to drive home the seriousness with which we should take addressing our sins.

And so we should not make idle oaths. We should treat them with the utmost seriousness, but there are occasions in which they are not only permissible but necessary.

St. Philaret of Moscow, in his Catechism of the Russian Orthodox Church explains the meaning of the Third Commandment, and thus how it applies to oaths, and specifically to Christ's words in the Sermon on the Mount:

"On the Third Commandment.
532. When is God's name taken in vain?
It is taken or uttered in vain when it is uttered in vain and unprofitable talk, and still more so when it is uttered lyingly or irreverently.
533. What sins are forbidden by the third commandment?
1. Blasphemy, or daring words against God.
2. Murmuring, or complaining against God's providence.
3. Profaneness; when holy things are jested on, or insulted.
4. Inattention in prayer.
5. Perjury; when men affirm with an oath what is false.
6. Oath-breaking; when men keep not just and lawful oaths.
7. Breach of vows made to God.
8. Common swearing, or thoughtless oaths in common talk.
534. Are not such oaths specially forbidden in holy Scripture?
The Saviour says: I say unto you, Swear not at all, but let your communication be, Yea, yea; Nay, nay: for whatsoever is more than these cometh of evil. Matt. v. 34, 37.
535. Does not this go to forbid all oaths in civil matters?
The Apostle Paul says: Men swear by the greater; and an oath for confirmation is to them an end of all strife. Wherein God, willing more abundantly to show unto the heirs of promise the immutability of his counsel, confirmed it by an oath. Heb. vi. 16, 17. Hence we must conclude, that if God himself for an immutable assurance used an oath, much more may we on grave and necessary occasions, when required by lawful authority, take an oath or vow religiously, with the firm intention of not breaking it" (The Longer Catechism of the Orthodox, Catholic, Eastern Church (1839), in Philip Schaff, The Creeds of Christendom. Volume 2: The Creeds of the Greek and Latin Churches (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker, 1993 [reprint]), p 528f). 
For More Information:

Sermon on the Third Commandment: Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain