Both George Washington and Thomas Jefferson warned about “entangling alliances”.
So does the bible:
“But I say unto you, Swear not at all; neither by heaven; for it is God’s throne:” Matthew 5:34 NIV
“But above all things, my brethren, swear not, neither by heaven, neither by the earth, neither by any other oath: but let your yea be yea; and your nay, nay; lest ye fall into condemnation.” James 5:12 KJV
Yet vows, pledges, promises, and oaths are intricately woven into our culture
- Pledge of Allegiance to the flag
- Wedding vows
- Swearing in for political office
- Mortgages an other loans
- Court testimony
Speaking of court room testimony, I was fascinated when I was “sworn in” for jury duty selection. Apparently they’ve changed it to “I hereby swear or affirm”…
Or affirm? What’s up with that? Apparently some defendant refused to be sworn in citing that it was against their religion to take on oath. I wish I would have been the prosecution so I could have asked if it was against their religion to do whatever they were accused of!
So, are we never, under any circumstances, to take a public vow of any kind? That would seem to be the literal interpretation. However, the literal interpretation raises some very practical questions. Let’s turn to the 10 Commandments for some guidance.
There’s the one about taking the Lord’s name in vain. I guess that could apply to situations where you “swear to God”. But wouldn’t that include a wedding vow?
Then there’s the one about bearing false witness against your neighbor. That smacks of courtroom testimony.
How about just “don’t lie”? Wouldn’t that kinda cover it? Your word is your bond kinda thing? I think that’s the general idea. But can, or even should, we always be honest? The practical answer is…
Let me explain. In the course of human events, we make promises (otherwise known as pledges and vows) – lots of them. Remember that part about “entangling alliances”? Suppose you’re in combat and captured by the enemy. You’re going to be interrogated. Should you honestly answer their questions? We routinely promise to make payments on a loan. Suppose you lose your job. It’s not possible to honor every promise. Does that make us liars?
These are vexing ethical problems that have been debated for centuries by people way above my pay grade. What thoughts can we take away from these debates that will help us live our lives in an upright and honorable way?
First, let’s agree with the biblical principle that warns against “oath taking”. In a broad sense, be stingy with making promises. If you make enough of them, sooner or later, you’re going to break one of them. Better to under promise and over deliver! But there’s an even bigger problem. Sooner of later, we find ourselves in the “damned if I do, damned if I don’t” situation. Then what?
I look at Daniel for guidance. He was pledged to God, but also a subject of the King and bound to obey the law. He had to choose. At risk of his own life, he honored his pledge to the Lord. When we find ourselves in a situation where honoring one pledge will cause us to dishonor another – choose wisely based on biblical principles rather than under the pressure of the circumstances.
Recently we saw an example of this played out in the political arena. Each candidate made a pledge to support the ultimate victor. I assume that each took their pledge with good faith. During the campaign, toxic remarks and accusations were made against the wife of one candidate. Guess what? The candidate that made the toxic remarks won – fair and square I might add. Now what? Honoring the pledge to support the victor would implicitly be to dishonor your wife and family.
Damned if you do. Damned if you don’t.
Regardless of which side you would take, I think we should reflect on three biblical precepts:
- Marriage is a God ordained and therefore sacred institution.
- We should remove the plank from our own eye before pointing out the speck in someone else’s
- That thing about taking oaths (you know… “pledges”) – an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure!
That’s what’s on my mind. I’m interested in your thoughts. There’s lots of ways to hit me up so let me hear from you.
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