Monday, February 18, 2008

Oaths Revisited

Today I'm going to revisit the topic of oaths. I already wrote an entry on this (which you can read by digging through the archives or clicking right here); today I want to cover three new elements. One that I read about right after writing that entry, one that I forgot to include, and one response to a comment made on that entry.

That last bit makes this a good time to explain that if and when I respond to reader comments, I'll tend do so by writing a new entry rather than by engaging in a dialogue within the comments sections. This is mainly because I think people are at least marginally more likely to read a new entry than the comments section on an old one.

First up, the new information I found after writing that. Not long after I wrote about oaths, a friend gave me a stack of Christianity Today (CT) magazines that he had piled up. Unlike me but apparently like most normal people, once he's read a magazine, he's finished with it and doesn't have the storage space or inclination to archive it. On the other hand, I still have almost every magazine I've ever purchased (or inherited, like these) and I could count on one hand the number of times I've simply thrown magazines in the garbage.

So, thanks to his much-appreciated handoff, I have reading material to keep me occupied for a while. (In addition to those CT issues, I've also recently picked up stacks of Maximum PC, Rolling Stone, Archaeology, and Discover at library book sales and the like. My "light reading" pile, where all the new magazine arrivals go, is almost a foot high at the moment.)

When I was reading the March 2007 issue of CT, an editorial entitled "Why Isn't 'Yes' Enough" caught my eye. I've since learned that it's available online as well, so you should go read it. I must admit, I'm far likelier to read the entire contents of a printed magazine than that same magazine's complete online article archive, so I missed this when CT put it up on their site.

I was very pleased to see again that I'm not alone in thinking that oaths are unnacceptable based on Scripture. Irenaeus, Tertullian, Quakers and Anabaptists agree with me. Or more accurately, I agree with them, since I'm guessing that at least some of them arrived at that conclusion before I did. Especially Irenaeus and Tertullian, who've both been dead for 18 centuries, give or take.

Others, the article notes, have disagreed - notably Augustine, Luther, and Calvin. If any of them were the Messiah, then their opinions would sway me. As it is, not so much.

Second, I forgot to mention note a video I had recently watched where the issue of oaths was discussed in some depth. It was an episode of The John Ankerberg Show, which may be available online if you know where to look (and can get in). Since downloading and watching it could theoretically violate one or more laws in your jurisdiction, I wouldn't know anything about that. Let's assume that I saw it whenever it first aired and have a very good memory.

Anyway, the episode was about the Masonic Lodge. If it were floating around various file-sharing sites - and remember, I'm not saying it is, ever has been, or should be - it would probably be called something like "Christianity and the Masonic Lodge - Are They Compatible?"

The episode took a debate format. A gentleman named Bill Mankin was arguing the "yes" side as to the title, with Dr. Walter Martin taking the "no" position. Watching the entire series (it was spread over five half-hour episodes), I found it pretty clear that *SPOILER ALERT* Dr. Martin was the clear winner on pretty much every possible level.

One of the issues tackled was the fact (or, as Mr. Mankin would argue, "opinion", but let's get real) that Masons swear some pretty elaborate and sometimes explicit oaths of secrecy and loyalty to the Lodge. Dr. Martin tried to address those oaths in light of the same passages I cited from Matthew and James.

Mr. Mankin tried the usual, tired arguments that those passages don't really mean that Christians can't / shouldn't swear oaths. "In the historical context of...(blah, blah, blah, fingers in ears, I can't hear you)"-type arguments that deny the clear reality of "Do not swear at all."

Dr. Martin would have none of it, although he was clearly amused (if a bit disturbed by the disingenuous misinterpretation of Scripture - Mr. Mankin is also a professing Christian). He at one point asked a terrific hypothetical question to clarify the matter.

Dr. Martin proposed that for just a moment we forget about the passages in Matthew and James that forbid oaths. Never mind those, pretend they aren't there.

Now, having done that, suppose that we were to "write in our own passage", wherein Jesus fully intended to clearly forbid His followers to swear any oaths, including oaths of office, being sworn in to testify in court, etc.

How do you suppose He would have worded that prohibition?

I think it would look very much like: "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." And, hey, that sounds kind of familiar!

Point made, I trust. On to my third issue for this entry, the question asked in the comments of the earlier Oaths thread. Quoting from a reader named Anonymous: "Do marriage vows count as oaths?"

That's an excellent question, Anon (do you mind if I call you Anon? Cool.). My answer is that it depends entirely on how the vows are worded. If they contain "swearing language", as demonstrated by terms or phrases like "swear" or "so help me (deity of choice)", then I would say that yes, they are at least dipping a toe into some dangerous waters. I have no problem, though, with something more like "Do you, Groomster, take this chickie to be your wife? How about you, Lady In The Fancy Dress? Want to hang out with this schmoe in the rented suit until death do you part?", followed by each party letting their Yes be Yes (or their No be No, depending on how the day is going).

If memory serves - it may not, and I'm not digging out the video to check - that's how my wedding ceremony went (possibly including the words chickie and schmoe). Two pretty straightforward questions, two pretty straightforward answers. If I'm misremembering, and we went into places where we shouldn't have, then once again I have reason to be glad that the blood of Christ atones for my myriad failures. (Sidebar: I strongly advise that you never consider my beliefs or behaviours, or the beliefs and behaviours of any mortal human being, as normative for Christians. We all sin and fall short of the glory of God. And if a statement or practice can't be backed up by Scripture, take it with a metric whack-ton of salt.)

So a more seriously worded answer would be: I believe that marriage ceremonies should take the Scriptural prohibition on oaths very seriously, and avoid any language that could reasonably be interpreted as the swearing of an oath. Ask the bride and groom each a simple question (feel free to embellish with as much of the "for richer or for poorer" boilerplate as wanted, as long as "oath language" is avoided), to be answered with a simple yes or no (feel free to go with "I do" if you want your wedding to be more like the ones on TV).

Enough rambling. Here's a picture of my son in his award-winning pirate costume, trying in vain to hide from the paparazzi.

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