Recently, a dear friend of mine challenged me on the idea of a church having a covenant. This friend took issue with the very word “covenant” because he understands it to be synonymous with an oath, and Christians are prohibited from taking oaths according to James 5:12 (and Matt 5:34). This is a real concern, and in this post, I want to offer my answer to the question, is having a church covenant a violation of James 5:12?
But above all, my brothers, do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or by any other oath, but let your “yes” be yes and your “no” be no, so that you may not fall under condemnation. (James 5:12).
This text seems pretty clear at first glance: Christians are not to swear oaths but are rather to affirm the truth by a simple response of “yes” or “no.” Upon closer examination, however, and comparison to other New Testament teaching, the conclusion is not so simple. The thing to notice is the combination of swear and oath. The prohibition is on the swearing of an oath not the oath itself, which I think is important. Let’s look at the definition of the word “swear” as it’s used in the Greek New Testament and then another passage in which it is used to understand what’s going on in James 5.
What does swear mean?
The word translated “swear” in verse 12 has only one meaning in the original language: “to affirm the veracity of one’s statement by invoking a transcendent entity, frequently with [the] implied invitation of punishment if one is untruthful” (BDAG, 706, s.v., ὀμνύω). The word is used some twenty-six times in the Greek New Testament and is translated as “swear,” “oath,” or “vow.” Sometimes it is translated as a noun—”oath” or “vow”—other times it is translated as a verb—”swear,” or “vow,” but the verb form, “to swear,” is what is behind the translation. We find one such instance in Matthew 5 where Jesus uses it twice to say, “Do not take an oath at all” (v. 34). In verse 34, Jesus uses the verb translated “swear” in James 5, not the noun “oath.” Jesus is saying, “Do not swear at all.”
But this doesn’t answer the question completely either. Though Jesus and James seem to be giving a complete prohibition against swearing oaths, other New Testament passages make support of such a conclusion tenuous.
For example, the author of Hebrews refers to God swearing— the same word as James 5 and Matthew 5 (Heb 3:11, 18; 4:3; 6:13; 7:21). An angel is said to have sworn by “him who lives forever and ever…” —i.e., God (Rev 10:6). And there are three New Testament passages (Rom 1:9; 2 Cor 1:23; Phil 1:8) where the Apostle Paul calls God as a witness to his testimony—though they do not use the word “swear,” these passages nonetheless weaken an argument of total prohibition. The conclusion from these passages is at least that swearing an oath is not inherently sinful for the Christian.
What shall we say then? The commentators and study Bibles are inconclusive. For me, I don’t have the space to develop it here, but I lean on the side that says both Jesus and James were prohibiting the flippant swearing of oaths. As one commentator put it, we are commanded to abstain from frivolous and profane uses of the Lord’s name when taking an oath. It is to be a solemn occasion for engaging in a church covenant. It surely is a violation of James 5:12 to take a church covenant as members one of another but never use it as a means of holding one another accountable. But I see a venerable use of a church covenant, one that seeks to enter into an agreement with other Christians before God, committing to one another in the most solemn and sober-minded way to love and cherish and pursue holiness and sanctification together for the glory of God.