As we walked from the defense attorney’s office to the courthouse, where I was to testify in a dispute over an insurance contract, I mentioned to the attorney that when the witnesses were “sworn in,” that I would not swear. He shot a curious glance my way and asked, “Is that some religious thing?” I responded, “Jesus said, ‘Swear not at all,’” (Matthew 5:34, KJV) and I explained that I take Him at His word. We walked on in silence, and soon were sitting in the courtroom as the presiding judge began the proceedings.
After a few pleasantries, the aged judge instructed his clerk to administer the oath to those who were going to testify. The defense attorney then tried to speak up, but only uttered a halting stammer, seeming embarrassed about explaining my situation. At this, the judge looked puzzled, so I spoke up and said, “Your honor, I think the counselor is trying to explain to you that I will not swear.” This seemed to irritate the judge a bit, and he groused in response, “Well, you will stand up, won’t you!” As the witnesses rose before the bench, the judge said, “Those that will appear before this court, do you solemnly swear or affirm [he spoke those two words very deliberately, drawing them out with a large flourish of his hand in my direction] to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth?”
With that, the trial began. And, by the way, we lost the case.
Oaths—and judicial oaths in particular—are very common in our society. Many official documents require the acknowledgement of a Notary Public—an acknowledgement that usually states that the signer has sworn or given an oath. For example, when filing a claim under most insurance policies, a “Sworn Statement in Proof of Loss” is required. Loan documents, bills of sale, automobile titles and tax assessment documents are among the many that normally require the signer to “swear” that the information given is accurate.
“What’s the big deal?,” you might ask. “Why is this important?” Those are good questions, especially if one intends to live by every word of God (Matthew 4:4). Jesus Christ, teaching His disciples privately in a mountain setting, explained it this way: “Again you have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform your oaths to the Lord.’ But I say to you, do not swear at all: neither by heaven, for it is God’s throne; nor by the earth, for it is His footstool; nor by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. Nor shall you swear by your head, because you cannot make one hair white or black. But let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No.’ For whatever is more than these is from the evil one” (Matthew 5:33–37).
James—Jesus’ half-brother—reaffirmed this principle when he taught, “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,’ ‘No,’ lest you fall into judgment” (James 5:12).
A simple matter? Yes. But obviously one important to God, and thus something that should be important to us. In most jurisdictions, the law allows for simple affirmation rather than swearing, so one can respond “I affirm” rather than “I swear” in court or when signing a document.
James also instructs us, “let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak” (James 1:19). And, when we do speak, it should be plainly and without duplicity, so that people can understand our “Yes” and our “No” without resorting to oaths. To learn more, read our booklet, The Ten Commandments. You will learn how to reap the benefit of God’s many blessings by living in a way that pleases Him.