Authority: The Oath or Vow in Covenantal Institutions

This is part of a series of posts on the doctrine of Authority. Click here to see the entire series.

Matthew 5: 33-37 says:

Again you have heard that the ancients were told, “you shall not make false vows, but shall fulfill your vows to the lord.”  But I say to you, make no oath at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is the footstool of His feet, or by Jerusalem, for it is the City of the Great King.
Nor shall you make an oath by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black.  But let your statement be, “yes, yes” or “no, no”; and anything beyond these is of evil.

The doctrine of the oath or vow is rarely discussed by evangelicals these days.  It has been lost along with the doctrine of authority that is being advanced in this essay.  The oath (I will use the term ‘oath’ and ‘vow’ interchangeably) is an integral part of the doctrine of authority.  It is only in light of the doctrine of authority that the concept of any oath can make any sense.

The writing and sealing of a voluntary contract does not involve the use of an oath.  I have never known of anyone in the business world today who has required that the other party to a contract  swear an oath to uphold his part of the contract.  Indeed, the contract is written on the basis of the law of the land and both parties know their rights in the event of a breach of contract.  Signing the contract is not taking an oath. Signing a contract establishes a voluntary legal document that then can be adjudicated among the parties to the contract according to the law of the land.

Pietists take the words of Jesus in the passage quoted above and universalize them to mean that it is always a sin to swear an oath.  This is the exegetical practice of  pietists with respect to all the Sermon on the Mount.  That practice of universalizing the statements of the Sermon on the Mount has led to much confusion on proper Christian behavior in the world.  It is a grave mistake to assert that all vows are sinful.  Paul himself swore a vow while on one of his missionary journeys.  Although Paul certainly was not perfect, and he did sin, it is strange that he would publicly declare his vow and nobody would rebuke him for the sin of swearing a vow if it was indeed a sinful practice.

The apostolic church quickly established the use of baptismal vows in order to initiate new members into the local congregation.  Many of the written documents that have survived down to our time are documents that contain elaborate systems of vows and oaths the initiate had to go through prior to membership.  It seems strange that this practice would have been encouraged if the taking of a vow was a sin.

The reason for the confusion is the pietists misunderstanding of the nature of the vows that Jesus is speaking of.  Indeed, it was the practice of the Jews in Jesus’ time to swear an oath or make a vow as a regular part of their business dealings. Elaborate systems of oaths and vows had been developed for every type of voluntary contract that could be imagined.  It is into this context that Jesus enters and forbids the taking of a vow.  He is not forbidding the taking of a vow in a covenantal setting.  He is forbidding the taking of a vow in a contractual setting.

This really should be obvious to all of us.  Most people are married or have been married at some point in their lives.  Even most pietists who say that a vow should never be taken have sworn a marriage vow.  The initiation of the institution of marriage starts with a vow; and that is how it should be.  Many people have been involved in the legal system of the state in one way or another.  Getting involved with the state involves several vows.  To become an officer of the State or the Court you must take a vow to uphold the Constitution of the United States and the law of the land.  To testify in a criminal trial you must swear a vow to tell the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.  No pietist that I am aware of has ever refused to take these vows.  The point is quite clear:  covenantal institutions are intimately tied up with the taking of vows.  Why would this be so?

Remember that in a covenantal institution where the authority of God is being delegated downward from God Himself to the representative head of the institution, the person who serves as head already has a complete description of the form and functions of his office; that is, the biblical imperatives that he is to follow.    The vow/oath is the act whereby the person being appointed to a position in a covenantal institution swears to uphold the pre-existing terms and conditions that come with that office. (This creates a real problem for those who willingly swear an oath to uphold a document other than the Word of God or, even more of a problem for those who swear an oath to a document that is contrary to the Word of God.  More about this later.)  This is not necessary in a voluntary/contractual arrangement because the terms are always subject to change.  God’s Word, however, is never subject to change and those who would represent God to others are required to swear an oath to do so.

God takes the vow seriously.  He expects that those who represent Him will do so as He has ordered them to do so.  Taking the vow is the promise to represent God accurately.  It is also the promise to submit to those higher than you in the chain of command for that institution.  The vow is what initiates and vitalizes the covenantal institution.

Evangelicals have no problem in understanding the importance of the marriage vow.  Few, if any Evangelicals would be willing to live together outside of marriage.  They understand that the taking of the marriage vow initiates the marriage covenant that establishes the family.   They understand that God has clearly described the chain of authority in the family and that He has given specific, written instructions on how the family is to be run.

Unfortunately, many Evangelicals, due to a woeful ignorance of the doctrine of authority, have a very low view of the local church and church membership.  The debilitating effects of the presupposition of the contractual nature of church membership leads many believers into the mistaken idea that God has no opinion about their membership in the local church.  This, however, is not the case.

The local church is a part of the Church universal, the Body of Christ.  The Body of Christ is an institution that is best understood as one in which the authority of Jesus is delegated to His representatives (Eph 4  and I Cor 12).  Jesus has given the local church specific, written instructions about what they are to do and how they are to function.  Jesus has told His Church that the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.  Jesus has promised His Church that He will protect it and provide for it throughout this age.  Jesus has promised His Church that He will come for her in the future to be united in a tremendous celebration called the “marriage feast of the lamb”.  Jesus has told His Church that she will live with Him in the New Jerusalem for eternity.  Individual membership in this institution is more than just a simple “I do”.

When a person is regenerated by the Holy Spirit and repents and is saved, he is expected to align himself with the Church universal though membership in a local church.  (I am ignoring the status of children, that is another issue entirely.)  All orthodox Christians throughout the history of the Church have been united in their profession that “there is no salvation outside of the Church”.  This sounds like a terribly nasty thing to say in this Evangelical age when membership is seen as unimportant or even unnecessary; but it is the truth.

Entrance to the Body of Christ is through faith by grace and the taking of an oath of membership to a local congregation with a God ordained authority structure being present.  It is not an option.  The voluntary nature of joining the church is with respect to which particular church the believer wants to join.  Joining the Church universal is not an option and it must be expressed by membership in a local church somewhere.  Taking an oath at the time of membership is what tells God that the individual will submit to His authority, as seen in His designated representatives.  A simple test can be taken.  Read Hebrews 13: 17 and ask yourself, “Who does this apply to?’  If you have no answer, you are outside the church.  All Christians should be able to give a specific answer to the question, “Who are you submitting to as a leader of your church?”

Lastly, the oath of citizenship to the State is something very few people have a problem with.  In the United States, prior to the ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment in 1868, the decision to become a citizen was a voluntary one.  It was possible to live in the United States as a resident alien.  Those who wished to become citizens took an oath to uphold the Constitution of the United States and were admitted to citizenship.  For a variety of political reasons (mostly an attempt to punish the South after the Civil War), the Fourteenth Amendment was passed in which all people born in the United States are automatically deemed to be citizens of the country.

It should be obvious to those who are reading this essay that mandatory citizenship is akin to conversion at the tip of a bayonet and growth of the family by kidnapping.  All involve involuntary actions that are imputed upon the “victim”, perhaps against his will.  The State should allow for the classification of “resident alien” in which an individual would live, work, pay taxes, and submit to the law of the land in which he lives without being forced to take an oath of citizenship.  In the United States, since citizenship is automatic, this oath is imputed, whether you like it or not.  Since most people, and most Christians, are happy to be citizens of the United States, this rarely causes a problem.  As we shall see later however, this imputed oath causes a gigantic problem for those who understand the nature of biblical authority.

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