Should Christians take oaths in court?: The importance of telling the truth (1)

David Mcllroy

The Ninth Commandment says "You shall not give false testimony against your neighbour." (Exodus 20:16).  Although this commandment is focussed on the question of perjury, it is usually understood to be encouraging Christians to be honest, to tell the truth and to keep their promises.

Those commitments throw up a number of challenges for Christians.  In this article, I am going to discuss the question of whether Christians should take oaths in court.  In another article to be published in the next edition of Justice Seeker, I will be looking at the question of what Christian lawyers should and should not say when negotiating with their opponents or presenting cases in court.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said: 'you have heard it was said to the people long ago, "Do not break your oath, but keep the oaths you have made to the Lord." But I tell you, Do not swear at all; either by heaven, for it is God's throne; or by the earth, for it is his footstool; or by Jerusalem, for it is the City of the Great King.  And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make even one hair white or black. Simply let your "Yes" be "Yes", and your "No", "No"; anything beyond this comes from the evil one.' (Matthew 5:31).

In order to understand this passage it is important to look at it in context.  The Sermon on the Mount as a whole is a midrash, a rabbinic exposition of particular parts of the Law of Moses. What is striking about Jesus' interpretation of the Law of Moses is how He extends its provisions.  Whereas the letter of the Law forbids murder, Jesus extends its provisions to cover anger (Mt. 5:21-22).  Whereas the letter of the Law says do not commit adultery, Jesus extends its provisions by saying that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart (Mt. 5:27).  Whereas the letter of the Law allowed divorce, Jesus prohibits divorce except in cases of "marital unfaithfulness" (Mt. 5:31).  In this context, what Jesus was teaching about oaths was, whereas the letter of the Law says that you are only bound by vows you make to the Lord or oaths you take to bind yourself (Numbers 30), you should treat yourself as bound by everything you say.

Christians should have a reputation for reliability, for always doing as we have said we would, unless it is physically impossible or other overwhelming circumstances arise.  This is a discipline which we need to cultivate in the little things of life: in keeping appointments, in being home when we said we would be, in accepting responsibility for the small things that we have done wrong.

Turning back to the court context: should Christians swear an oath on the Bible before giving their evidence? Many Quakers and other Christians have come to the conclusion, based on Jesus' teaching set out above, that they should not.   My father, who is a pastor, used to have to give evidence in court as a character witness or in opposing applications by petrol stations for off-licences.  He always affirmed rather than swearing on the Bible.  He told me that his reasons for doing so included the fact that for most people who swear on the Bible today, sadly, the act has no real meaning for them at all.  It has become a mere ritual.  Most of those who take an oath before giving their evidence would probably be horrified to learn that the intention of requiring people to swear on the Bible was that they would tell the truth out of fear that if they did not do so God would punish them!

One of the leaders in my Church was similarly convinced that Christians should not swear oaths.  But she worked as a police officer and she came to the conclusion that whenever a jury saw a police officer who was not prepared to take an oath, the jury would decide that the police officer was lying.  She therefore decided to swear on the Bible when giving her evidence in court, not because she needed to in order to tell the truth, but in order to convince the jury that she was going to give honest evidence to the court about what she had seen and heard.

For my part, the teaching of Jesus seems pretty clear.  Christians should not need to swear oaths because we should live our lives in such a way that our 'yes' is reliable as 'yes' and our 'no' is always an honest 'no' in everything that we say and do.  Whether that means that we can as Christians or should as Christians be prepared to swear on the Bible when giving evidence in court is a more difficult question.  I think that probably it's better if we do not, but the example of my friend the police officer is worth thinking about.  Writing in Romans about the Sabbath and about food, Paul wrote: "One man considers one day more sacred than another; another man considers every day alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind." (Rom. 14:5).  He recognised that on issues like these Christians can disagree.  But what matters is that we have thought and prayed about these issues and reached a conclusion which give us peace.

Dr David McIlroy at the time of writing was a practising barrister and the author of 'A Biblical View of Law and Justice' (2004) and 'A Trinitarian Theology of Law' (which will be published in 2009). 

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