Third, where I grew up, oaths and swearing were considered sinful based on the seemingly clear teaching of the Sermon on the Mount. And here we have Paul asking his readers to swear that the letter would be shared with the entire church. How can that be?
This is so problematic that most translations hide the problem by saying something like “I charge you” or “I adjure you.” Therefore, most English readers are unaware of the problem, but the ESV courageously translates the words to say what they mean.
Notice the first person singular, “I charge you.” This is Paul speaking for himself, from his own heart and perhaps, at this point, holding the pen in his own hand (see disc. on 5:28; cf. also 2 Thess. 2:5). The expression is a strong one (enorkizō), “I put you on oath.” He is not swearing by the Lord (cf. Matt. 5:34) but appealing to his readers to act as though, in this matter, they were on oath to the Lord. Almost certainly the Lord is Jesus, as in verses 23 and 28, and that Paul should invoke him in this way is “another indication of the stature of the Lord as Paul saw him” (Morris, Themes, p. 33; see disc. on 3:11 and 2 Thess. 2:16).
David J. Williams, 1 and 2 Thessalonians, Understanding the Bible Commentary Series, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2011), 105.
Paul has plainly imposed an oath on the leaders of the church. Does this violate —
(Matt. 5:33-37 ESV) 33 “Again you have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform to the Lord what you have sworn.’ 34 But I say to you, Do not take an oath at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, 35 or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. 36 And do not take an oath by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. 37 Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil.”
Well, “do not take an oath at all” (v. 34) seems pretty plain. Means what it says; says what it means. And yet Paul evidently didn’t get the memo.
Actually, most commentators on the Sermon on the Mount believe that Paul did not violate Jesus’ teaching. For example,
Secondly, if swearing is forbidden, is the prohibition absolute? For example, should Christians, in order to be consistent in their obedience, decline to swear an affidavit for any purpose before a Commissioner of Oaths and to give evidence on oath in a court of law? The Anabaptists took this line in the sixteenth century and most Quakers still do today. While admiring their desire not to compromise, one can still perhaps question whether their interpretation is not excessively literalistic. After all, Jesus himself, Matthew later records, did not refuse to reply when the high priest put him on oath, saying: ‘I adjure you by the living God, tell us if you are the Christ, the Son of God.’ He confessed that he was and that later they would see him enthroned at God’s right hand. What Jesus emphasized in his teaching was that honest men do not need to resort to oaths; it was not that they should refuse to take an oath if required by some external authority to do so.
John R. W. Stott, The Message of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7): Christian Counter-Culture, The Bible Speaks Today, (Leicester; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1985), 101–102.
The commentaries note that God swore in the OT and the NT reveals Jesus himself taking an oath during his trial. Obviously, in context, Jesus did not intend an absolute prohibition despite the absolute words he used.
For some, this is all quite unthinkable. It seems to create a contradiction in scripture and so creates cognitive dissonance — even a crisis of faith. If you’ve been trained to read the text simplistically and if you’ve been told there are no contradictions in the scripture — and if you find one, you should leave Christianity! — then students quite naturally see a very serious problem here.
When we explain to such a student that the other texts assure us that Jesus’ teaching admits of exceptions, they object (a) that the readers of Matthew didn’t have 1 Thessalonians or these other texts to give them literary context, and (b) that if there are implied exceptions to this absolute language, then why not to the divorce and remarriage teachings? The teachings on judging others? How do we keep the implied exceptions from swallowing the rule?
Some would then argue that we must read Jesus as a First Century Jewish rabbi, not as the author of the United States Code. He’s not issuing new legislation but explaining how existing teachings should be applied in light of Kingdom principles. But this requires our simplistic reader to learn about the Kingdom and narrative hermeneutics — to which many reject because it’s not simplistic. Why doesn’t God make this easy??
These are actually very deep questions of biblical hermeneutics. And as we covered a post or two ago regarding the Holy Kiss, the literal words, no matter how absolute in language, are often not the true meaning. It’s the nature of human language to omit exceptions — unless we’re drafting a contract or statute. But in a biography or letter, that level of precisely is rarely provided or expected.
Even actual laws often allow implied exceptions from an absolute prohibition. Take the Ten Commandments. “You shall not kill” seems plain enough. But are there implied exceptions? Obviously so. For example —
- Killing in a war ordered or approved by God.
- Killing of certain tribal groups to cleansed the Promised Land when ordered by God.
- Government punishment for murder. The OT plainly allows capital punishment. The NT is highly controverted.
- Self-defense (again, highly controverted) but only if reasonably required due to a reasonable apprehension of immediate death or severe injury.
And the question gets even more complicated when we address failure of a fertilized egg to implant due to the mother taking the Pill, IUDs, suicide, government sanctioned assassination (was the assassination of Bin Laden part of a duly declared war?), do not resuscitate orders, assisted suicide, etc. (REALLY not interested in debating each of these in the comments.) But, of course, Moses did not have room on his two stone tablets to lay out all the rules.
Now, God could have told Moses to write a supplement to Torah explaining all this (which I’d love to have!), but he chose to lay out principles and then have us sort through the moral questions ourselves — in part because there’s not enough paper on the planet to cover every single possibility. Indeed, many of the moral dilemmas we must face today didn’t exist back then.
So this is the nature of human language. I tell my wife, “I’ll be home in time for dinner at 5:30,” am I a liar if I fail to mention the risk that traffic slows me by an hour? Or that my car might break down? Life is too short for us to speak to each other at that level of detail. The presence of these exceptions is understood despite the absolute terms of my language, and therefore I’ve not broken my promise if a meteor hits the interstate and makes me late — although I said nothing about meteors.
But very few people have thought about language this way. It’s what lawyers do, because we’re charged with writing documents and laws that cover all contingencies — which is impossible. As a result, any law or contract is written within a body of judge-made law that implies exceptions or excuses violations within ordinary commercial practice — to be fair and to reflect the parties’ intentions, even when not expressly stated.
Now, this is a profound truth about the nature of language, and God has chosen to communicate to his people using human language, with all its problems and limitations. But he’s also chosen to communicate with us in the person of Jesus — so his teachings and also his life are instructions to us that must be applied in a very different culture and language today.
And so we read in light of such broader principles as grace, love, patience, and forgiveness. We read as the God of chesed and grace would mean these words. Indeed, one of the most important hermeneutical principles is that we read the words of God knowing who God is. God’s personality and heart as revealed in Jesus must guide our reading. And when we read the text legalistically and far too strictly, we are assuming that God himself is a legalistic and far too strict. It’s a dangerous place to be.
But when we read in light of the character and purposes of God, who gave his one and only Son to die for us, well, that changes everything. God not only makes the rules, he’ll die on the cross so that there can be an exception to the rule that sin leads to death. God relationship with humanity is all about making exceptions.