When studying the Confession of Faith, it is important to pay attention to the placement of a given chapter within the development of the Confession as a whole and in relation to the chapters that precede it. Being mindful of this, we find that chapter 23 of the 1689 Confession of Faith, which addresses ‘Lawful Oaths and Vows’, is, in effect, an extension of chapter 22, ‘Of Religious Worship and the Sabbath Day.’ This is the case because the first paragraph begins with an identification of lawful oaths as ‘part of religious worship.’
The phrase ‘religious worship’ represents that worship which man ought to render unto God, according to God’s instituted prescription. Therefore, ‘Religious worship,’ being instituted worship, is, the opposite of ‘superstition,’ which refers to religious acts rendered to God without any warrant or command from God to do so.
Lawful oaths belong within religious worship because oaths are only to be made by invoking God’s name, an act which the third commandment forbids to be done vainly (Exodus 20:7). The writer to the Hebrews notes that it is the common custom of man to swear oaths by that which is greater than themselves (Hebrews 6:16), and yet God regulates our natural propensity to swear by greatness, demanding that we swear by the name of him who alone is great, and able to judge. Biblical examples such as Jeremiah 4:2 (‘As the Lord lives…’) and 2 Corinthians 1:23 ‘I call God to witness against me…’) demonstrate the lawfulness of oaths taken in God’s name.
And yet, because God’s name is not to be used vainly or vulgarly, God has also taught us to speak truthfully, such that oaths are not ordinarily necessary (Matthew 5:34-37; James 5:12). Oaths, therefore, are ‘for confirmation of truth, and ending all strife.’ John Owen laid down these truths in language very similar to the Confession of Faith. He said,
That where matters are in strife or controversy among men, the peace and tranquility of human society in general, or particular, depending on the right determination of them, it is lawful for a Christian or a Believer being lawfully called to confirm the truth which he knows by the interposition or an invocation of the Name of God in an Oath, with this design to put an end unto strife.1
The Confession states that ‘lawful Authority’ may impose oaths in matters of ‘weight and moment.’ It is not just the importance of the thing itself (the weight) but also the timing or (moment). Oaths are often taken in life-altering or binding situations. For example, at the time of the Confession’s publication, oaths were imposed in civil contexts such as marriage allegations, in which a person would swear that no impediments (precontracts, affinity, or consanguinity) would hinder an intended marriage between two consenting parties. Oaths would also be sworn when probating a last will and testament, sufficiently proving that one was the named executor or executrix of a given will. The entering of a binding relationship like marriage and the reception of the administration of a deceased person’s estate is, as we all know, a matter of ‘weight and moment.’
There were cases, however, in which Particular Baptists and others refused to take certain oaths. The most famous took place on 24 August 1662 when over 2,000 ministers were ejected from English parish churches because they refused to take the Oath of Supremacy, which acknowledged the monarch as the supreme governor of the Church of England. The ministers’ refusal earned them the name Dissenters or Nonconformists. But their refusal was based on the judgment that such an oath was not lawful.2 Oaths are regulated by God in the Scriptures, which do not legitimize a monarch’s claim of supremacy in the church. The dissenters’ refusals to take the Oath of Supremacy and related oaths which they deemed unlawful demonstrates why they would consider this matter of sufficient importance to merit, not just inclusion in a Confession of Faith (which deals with the fundamentals of religion) but also an entire chapter dedicated to the subject.
The records of disciplinary cases in Particular Baptist churches evince the same serious approach to oaths and vows. For example, Nehemiah Coxe wrote in the Petty France Church Book that on June 4th, 1682, the congregation was ‘informed that Robert Pabworth was guilty of … abominable cursing and oaths which he used familiarly.’3 The issue at stake was the preservation of the exalted majesty of the name of God. The way in which Nehemiah Coxe described Mr Pabworth’s sin makes it clear that the problem was not that Pabworth used oaths, but that he had done do so in an ‘abominable’ and ‘familiar’ fashion. The Petty France Church excommunicated him one week later.
Moving on from oaths, the Confession of Faith briefly addresses vows, similarly limiting them to be made ‘to God alone.’ So also, because the vow is a service rendered unto God, it should be ‘performed with all religious care, and faithfulness.’ As Psalm 76:11 says, ‘Make your vows to the LORD your God and perform them.’
This paragraph concludes with a criticism of Roman Catholic vows as ‘superstitious’ and ‘far from being degrees of higher perfection.’ In fact, they are ‘sinful snares.’ Because vows, like oaths, are limited by God’s revealed will, and because God has commanded man to work, a command reinforced by Paul in various places (Ephesians 4:28; 2 Thessalonians 3:10), and because Paul commands marriage as a means of expressing natural and innocent human sexuality, to the avoidance of sexual immorality, therefore, vows of poverty or celibacy cannot be considered valid or commendable for Christians. Christians should not vow to live unto God in ways that contradict or conflict with how he has commanded us to live. It is, therefore, ‘superstitious’ to expect God’s blessing in a religious life that God has not commanded. Such vows would not lead to a more sanctified life but would occasion temptation and frustration for the Christian.
For Christians today, these teachings, grounded on Scripture, are relevant and practical. We should not hesitate to swear by God’s name to the truth of matters of great weight or to swear by God’s name in matters of moment. Though the applications in civil contexts are likely common and undisputed, perhaps a more pressing application of the teaching of this chapter applies to the local church in its reception of members, its ordination of officers, its own statement of faith, and its communion with other churches.
Paragraph 4 of chapter 23, which I have skipped until now, states that ‘An oath is to be taken in the plain, and common sense of the words; without equivocation, or mental reservation.’ This means that oaths are not to be played with, lest their force and function be undone by hidden untruthfulness, insincerity, or empty commitment.
When members join a local church, if the church has a constitution or some stated set of requirements for membership, then vows or oaths of membership ought to be taken with all seriousness and kept with all faithfulness. How flippantly do members enter and depart from the membership of a church? How laxly do members keep their oaths and vows while they belong to a church? Just as we are concerned to keep our marriage vows, every day, so also vows of membership should continue to be regarded as sacred duty performed unto God.
Similarly, when officers are ordained in a local church, if they promise that they believe what the church believes, or that they will voluntarily express any conflict with such beliefs should it arise at a future time, then they must fulfil these oaths or vows as being taken in the presence not just of man, but Almighty God.
And lastly, if a church uses a Confession of Faith that it did not compose, but rather elects to use a Confession of Faith from the ages of the church in the past, such as the 1689 Confession of Faith, then it must profess to hold to that document ‘in the plain, and common sense of the words’ as they were understood when they were written. Churches, too, should not make claims to hold to that which they have no intention of keeping. They should openly express exceptions to a Confession of Faith, as they expect ministers to do.
When a Confession of Faith is thus held by a local church, according to ‘the plain, and common sense of the words,’ it becomes a platform for communion with other local churches who hold to the same document in the same way. They share a common faith, ‘without equivocation, or mental reservation.’
It may be a challenge to study and understand a historic document in its original historical context, but it is not impossible, and it is certainly not unprofitable. On the contrary, taking the teaching of this chapter and its applications to members, officers, local churches, and the communion of churches seriously will lead to a stronger union and communion at every level. Why? Because oaths are meant ‘for confirmation of truth, and ending all strife.’
Saturday 25th September 2021
1 John Owen, A Continuation of the Exposition of the Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Hebrews (London: Nathaniel Ponder, 1680), 149. Spelling updated.
2 This qualification is important because Quakers refused to take any oaths at all.
3 Pabworth was also accused of ‘whoredom…with other debaucheries as drunkenness, sabbath-breaking, and beating his wife.’