The Necessity of Divine Oaths in Church Courts

Wherever men acknowledge the Biblical teaching about human depravity; wherever men acknowledge the unique bearing of God’s name on the human conscience; wherever men trust in God’s promise to make truth prevail when His name is invoked, oaths will be required of all witnesses in church courts.  

In 2023, the PCA General Assembly considered an overture that would allow those who deny the existence of God and/or a future state of reward and punishment to testify in her courts.  This would render it unnecessary for witnesses to swear, or explicitly affirm before God that they will tell the truth.  The rationale for amending the Book of Church Order conditions (BCO 35-1, 35-8) for a “competent witness” was straightforward.  Would not the Lord and Savior of the Church, whose name is Truth (Jn. 14:6), allow as many true witnesses to testify in His courts as possible?  The victim of abuse by a church member would typically be among the most important witnesses to that crime.  Yet, the victim may be an atheist.  Ultimately, the overture was defeated by a slim margin.  That the vote was unsettling to a large portion of the assembly was clear from the many signatories of the minority report in favor of the overture.  Some have suggested that a theological test for witness competency is but a manmade tradition, the likes of which Jesus, not to mention the apostles and prophets, condemned (Matt. 15:1-14; Mk. 7:1-13; cf., Isa. 29:13; Col. 2:21-23).  If the Lord Jesus would have His church admit atheist testimony, then not only must the BCO undergo amendment, but the Presbyterian Church in America must also repent for an injustice it has allowed to exist for decades.

Sharing my brethren’s longing for truth to prevail in PCA courts, it will come as a surprise to many that I am compelled to oppose recent efforts to remove the oath requirement.  The Scriptures are unambiguous that Jesus Christ, the Head of the body has ordained oaths for the preservation of the truth, and for the protection of all parties in a world smitten by depravity and dishonesty.  In short, oaths are a divine ordinance, whereby a competent witness (a) acknowledges God as the lone sufficient Reason to tell the truth; and (b) the lone sufficient Helper who can make the truth prevail.  Invocation of the Almighty brings a weight of burden to the human conscience altogether different from manmade ethical codes.  The same invocation reflects the humble awareness, without which no witness can be competent, that even the most principled people need divine help to overcome the human proclivity to falsehood and error.  Most importantly, oaths (even false ones) effectively seize upon the Living God’s providence to vindicate the truth, in a manner that the strongest human resolve cannot.  Unfortunately, too many arguments for (and against) atheist testimony betray a lack of regard for the divine function of oaths, not to mention the depths of human depravity which necessitate them.

Human Depravity and Truth Telling

An underlying assumption in most of the GA discussion concerning oaths seems to have been that humanity is divisible into two groups—those who are competent, in themselves, to testify in a court, and those who are not.  Does it occur to proponents (and opponents) of the overtured change that the situation is rather more dire?  The Scriptures teach us that Epimenides’ evaluation of his countrymen is no less true of humanity: “Cretans are always liars” (Tit. 1:12; cf., Rom. 3:4, 13; Ps. 116:11).  On its surface, Epimenides’ statement is something of a paradox.  It might seem that it cannot be true, since the poet was himself a Cretan whose own speech, if the statement were true, must always be false!  Yet, speaking via the Apostle Paul, the Holy Spirit adds His infallible witness that Epimenides’ “testimony is true” (Tit. 1:13).  The Holy Spirit is neither affirming a flat contradiction, nor encouraging muddled thinking (1 Cor. 14:23).  “Always” might be hyperbole, in which case Epimenides’ statement may be true despite the prevalence of Cretan dishonesty.  More attractive is the solution that recognizes a subtle but important distinction.  Epimenides does not declare that Cretans’ every statement is a lie, but that Cretans are, at all times, liars.  It is very much in keeping with the theology of Paul (and the rest of Scripture) to declare that men who make innumerable true statements are always lying in other respects: suppressing their knowledge of God (Rom. 1:18; Jn. 1:9-10); underestimating their sin (Rom. 2:1-8; Lk. 18:11); overestimating their gifts and abilities (Rom. 12:3, 16; 2 Cor. 10:12); deceiving themselves about the extent of their virtues (Gal. 6:3); twisting the Scriptures for selfish gain (2 Pet. 3:14; Matt. 15:5-6); overlooking the most significant details of an enemies’ good character to justify hostility toward him (Jn. 7:24; 12:37-40); indeed, transgressing the Ninth Commandment in all the ways listed in Westminster Larger Catechism, Q. 145.  Common grace prevents fallen men from lying every time they speak, even though they are always liars.  It is exactly because sinners recognize, utilize, and publish true information in medicine, physical sciences, mathematics, ethics, business dealings, etc., that they are culpable for their unrelenting dishonesty about the most important (Christian theistic) implications of every fact.

It is true that personal interests are often sufficient to prevent fallen people from making false statements, especially when they might conflict with well-established truths or admit for simple investigation.  Lies of this sort can easily be exposed and met with social or legal repercussions (Matt. 21:25-27; Mk. 11:31-33; Lk. 20:5-8; Rom. 13:1-4; 2 Pet. 2:13-14).  Thus, the courts of the Presbyterian Church in America have always accepted police reports, receipts for monetary transactions, public records, etc. as admissible evidence, regardless of whether the person who initially recorded them professes belief in God.  Again, the public nature of the information combined with the penalties that accompany inaccurate recording are appropriately counted as a sufficient guarantee of their veracity, until and unless one can cite reasons to doubt them.  The situation is quite different when it comes to witness testimony.  Witnesses are brought forward in courts to testify (a) about disputed matters, (b) of considerable consequence, (c) to which the public lacks direct means of investigation.  From the outset, the veracity of a witness’s testimony is challenged by the accused, if not others as well (1 Kings 3:16-22; Jer. 26:16-18; Acts 24:13).  At least one party must be badly mistaken at best or lying at worst.  The Scriptures warn us about false accusers and “malicious witnesses” (Ps. 35:11; cf. Gen. 39:13-23; Ex. 23:1; Esth. 3:8; Ps. 27:12; Prov. 19:5; Acts 6:11), of whom Satan is the chief (Job 1:11; Rev. 12:10).  Other scoundrels are not their only targets, but often men of considerable integrity (Joseph, David, Job, Stephen, etc.), not to mention the God-man, Jesus Christ (Matt. 26:59-61; Mk. 14:55-59) along with His Father and Spirit (Gen. 3:4-5).  The Mosaic requirement that false witnesses shall incur the punishment they sought for the accused functioned as a weighty deterrent against that crime (Deut. 19:18-19; cf., 1 Tim. 1:9-11).  Lesser penalties for perjury in civil courts still exist today.  Noticeably, church courts lack the same deterrent, particularly in the case of non-member and atheist witnesses.  To them, PCA courts cannot apply any penalties; nor may atheists experience any social repercussions for dishonesty.  Of even greater significance is the fact that not even civil courts regard their penalties to be a sufficient safeguard against false testimony.  Instead, the requirement of a divine oath in civil courts reflects the bearing of natural law, imposed on the human conscience by God, and heeded by nearly all cultures.[1]

The very same personal interests that prevent lying in cases where one is likely to be caught may be the source of dishonesty in matters difficult to investigate, or in which one simply has much to gain from deceit (Lk. 16:3-8).  These include false suspicion about enemies, which the wayward heart treats as fact (1 Sam. 18:9; 22:8); reports and recollections of events lacking other witness (1 Kings 3:6-22; Jn. 21:23); personal, unrecorded business dealings (Amos 8:5-6; Jas. 5:4); welcome lies, that are sure to go uninvestigated by the relevant communities and courts with whom they are registered (Matt. 26:59-61; Mk. 14:55-59); etc.  Somewhere between willful deception and error is the human tendency to remember only those truths that we find useful, disregarding inconvenient details.  Apart from any conscious effort, fallen men often discern the interests of a community with lightning speed, and proceed to share only the information that the community welcomes (1 Sam. 22:9-10; 2 Tim. 4:3).  For example, atheist philosopher, Bertrand Russell incorrectly recalls Titus 1:12-13 as a clear instance of Biblical “contradiction.”[2]  He cites the passage as if Epimenides reported that Cretans only speak lies when, as we have seen, the poet wrote that they are always lying.  If one of the most brilliant philosophers of the 20th century can misrepresent the facts, exactly what is the profile of a competent witness?

Given the inadequacy of self-interests to ensure that men will tell the truth; given that the human “heart is more deceitful than all else and is desperately sick” (Jer. 17:9); given that “all [mere] men are liars” (Ps. 116:11), and always lying (Tit. 1:12), it is misguided to ask the question, “how can church courts refuse atheist testimony, which may very well be true?”  The quandary is just how any court, civil or ecclesiastical, can rely on human witnesses at all when it comes to matters that are sharply disputed from the outset.  If men like Epimenides are the most credible when they testify to their dishonesty (Tit. 1:13); if men are the most deceived when they insist on their own intelligence and integrity (Prov. 3:7; 14:12; 16:21, 25), how can anyone be judged a competent witness to the difficult and disputed matters before courts?  To this problem, faced by men in every corner of a fallen world, the Living God ordained oaths and vows as a genuine remedy.

Westminster Confession 22, “On Lawful Oaths and Vows”

In the course of a Lord’s Day sermon, I asked my congregation who would mention “Lawful Oaths and Vows” as one of the major headings under which to summarize the Christian Faith?  Not one parishioner raised his hand.  I suspect it also strikes many church officers as odd that the Westminster Divines devoted so much attention to that topic.[3]  Yet, the Westminster Divines’ careful discussion of the ordinance (WCF 22, WLC 111-114, and WSC 53-56) was equitable to the teaching of Scripture.  God ordained personal vows and public oaths as a powerful means to confirm a matter, even safeguarding against human deceit and error.  Oaths may be “promissory,” attesting to one’s determination to perform some future action(s), or “assertory,” attesting to one’s resolution to tell the truth about past events (2 Chron. 18:13 Matt. 26:63).[4]  Reserved for matters of great consequence (Jer. 4:2), vows or oaths belong to marriage covenants (Mal. 2:14; Prov. 2:17); binding agreements between individuals (Ex. 22:11; 1 Sam. 18:3; 23:16-18; 2 Sam. 2:12-25), families (Gen. 21:22-34; 26:26-33; 1 Sam. 20:2-17), and nations (Gen. 14:13; 1 Kings 5:12; 15:19; 20:34; 2 Chron. 16:3); covenants between a populace, or a military with its leaders (2 Sam. 5:3; 11:17; 2 Kings 11:4; 1 Chron. 11:3; 2 Chron. 23:1, 3, 16; Jer. 34:8-11); and even covenants between God and men (Gen. 22:16-18; Ex. 24:3; Isa. 45:23; Heb. 6:13-14).  The courtroom, civil and ecclesiastical, is a distinct setting where assertory oaths are justly required (Lev. 5:1; Prov. 29:24; 1 Kings 22:16; 2 Chron. 6:22-23; 18:13, 15), Jesus Himself bearing testimony only after He was adjured (Matt. 26:63[5]).

An oath is a safeguard because of its two indispensable, mutually supportive functions.  First, an oath calls on God as the lone sufficient power by whom the truth can be made to prevail in one’s testimony, and in the judgment of the court.  Second, an oath acknowledges God as the lone sufficient reason why the truth must be told.

WCF 22:1—A lawful oath is a part of religious worship, wherein, upon just occasion, the person swearing solemnly calleth on God to witness what he asserteth, or promiseth, and to judge him according to the truth or falsehood of what he sweareth.

Oaths Call on God as the Lone Sufficient Power

The first function of an oath, according to Westminster Confession 22:1, flies in the face of the naturalistic materialism to which our age is prone.  Although men can tell the truth, they are also accustomed to the opposite.  Therefore, to confirm that they will tell the truth, God allows men to invoke His name, calling Him to bear providential witness by directing their testimony to its proper end.  In other words, the oath-taker is not merely calling on the Divine Judge to take notice of his testimony.  If that were the meaning of, “solemnly calleth on God to witness,” the statement would be superfluous.  For, God’s awareness of our oaths is sufficiently presupposed in the clause that follows, where God is invited to “to judge him according to the truth or falsehood of what he sweareth.”  Instead, the earlier clause indicates that oaths call God to active witness, ensuring that the oath-taker’s words will be accurate, and that his avowed actions will come to fruition.  This reading is confirmed beyond all doubt by a consultation of those divines whose writings inspired; whose efforts produced; and whose subsequent writings interpreted WCF 22.  They uniformly testify that oaths have two functions, one of which is to “beg his [God’s] help” in confirming the truth of our witness.[6]  This concept is even retained in contemporary civil courts, where many witnesses still affirm their intent to “tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help me God.”

The proof texts cited in the original (and PCA) Westminster Confession also testify to the active divine witness upon which oaths call.  Solomon prays that God will respond to oaths sworn before the bronze altar, at the gate of the temple where trials would occur (cf., Jer. 26:2, 16-19).  Specifically, he asks God to cause the honest oath-taker to prevail, and the perjurer to fail within the course of the court’s proceedings (2 Chron. 6:22-23).  A typical Old Testament oath formula began, “As the Lord lives” (Isa. 5:2; cf., Ruth. 3:13; Judg. 8:19; 1 Sam. 14:39, 45; 19:6; 20:21; 1 Kings 2:24; 22:14; 2 Kings 2:4; Jer. 4:2; 12:16; 44:26).  The one who swore it was calling on the LORD whose life is certain, to make the fulfillment of his oath certain as well (Num. 14:21, 28; Deut. 32:40; Isa. 49:18; Jer. 22:24; 46:18; Ezek. 5:11; 14:16, 18, 20; 16:48; 17:16; 18:3; 20:3, 31, 33; 33:11, 27; 34:8; 35:6, 11; Zeph. 2:9; Rom. 14:11).  When God’s people rebelled against Him, they ceased to swear in His name.  They lost confidence that their neglected LORD would actively confirm their oaths (Jer. 44:26-27).  Again, when Paul calls on “God as [his] witness” (2 Cor. 1:23; cf., Rom. 1:9; 9:1; Gal. 1:20; Phil. 1:8; cf., Jer. 42:5), he is not simply asking God to take note of his words with a view to judging them.  Paul pleads for God to authenticate his stated desire to edify the suspicious congregations to whom he wrote, by imparting to credulity to his claims.

Oaths Call on God as the Lone Sufficient Reason

If they were only pleas for divine assistance, it would be beneficial to attach oaths to all our commitments, as expressions of the sixth petition of the Lord’s Prayer—“…deliver us from evil” (Matt. 6:13; cf., WLC 195).  While the Scriptures require that we “pray without ceasing” (1 Thess. 5:17; cf., Eph. 6:18), we are never instructed to “oath without ceasing.”  Quite the opposite.  Christ is clear that with respect to mundane matters men should “make no oath at all” (Matt. 5:34; cf., Jas. 5:12; Prov. 20:25; Eccl. 5:5).  This points us to the second function of oaths.  They are always self-maledictory, invoking God as a “a Revenger” if we should break them.[7]  This follows from the third commandment: “You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain, for the LORD will not leave him unpunished who takes his name in vain” (Ex. 20:7; Deut. 5:11; cf., Ex. 31:13-16; Lev. 26:2; Deut. 28:58; Zech. 5:3-4).

The Westminster Catechisms call our attention to the “reason” annexed to the Third Commandment (WSC, 56; cf., WLC, 114).  God Himself, in His capacity as judge, is the lone sufficient Reason why an oath-taker must devote the most focused efforts to bear honest witness (Deut. 23:21, 23; cf., Lev. 19:12; Num. 30:2; Job 22:27; Eccl. 5:4).  Whereas cunning liars may manage to “escape punishment from men, yet the LORD our God will not suffer them to escape his righteous judgment” (WSC, 56).  Some oaths are accompanied by specific curses (Num. 5:19-31; Ruth. 1:17; 1 Sam. 20:13-14; 25:22; 2 Sam. 3:9; 1 Kings 2:24; 2 Kings 6:31; Ezek. 16:59; Zech. 5:4).  All oaths presuppose God’s threat of punishment, as an omnipotent and omniscient Judge.  The Bible supplies ample and frightening testimony to God’s faithfulness in punishing broken oaths (2 Kings 5:17-27; Jer. 34:8-22), even centuries after they were first sworn (Josh. 6:26-27 with 1 Kings 16:34; Josh. 9:26-27 with 2 Sam. 21:1).  Alternatively, God promises to bless oath-keepers, especially with deeper fellowship with Himself (Lev. 26:11-12; Ps. 63:11; Isa. 19:18; 45:23; 65:16).  In the Old Covenant, the appropriate response to divine deliverance was to vow a sacrificial feast in God’s presence.  The votive offering served as a public witness to God’s faithfulness (Lev. 7:16; 22:18-23; Deut. 12:6-7; 50:14; 61:5; 65:1; 116:14, 18; cf., Job 22:27).  In the New Covenant, the Lord’s Supper is a taste of that celebratory meal Christ vowed to enjoy after being vindicated by His Father and Spirit in the resurrection (Ps. 22:25; Lk. 22:18).

Oaths Are the Seal of Witness Competency

As the BCO (35-1) makes clear, witness competency is not ultimately defined by a person’s ability to tell the truth.  The standard parties deemed incompetent—young children, the mentally ill, the intoxicated—frequently tell the truth.  Nor is abnormal intelligence sufficient.  A competent witness must also manifest good character,[8] at the heart of which is the humility to recognize that he needs divine help to accurately report the truth concerning disputed matters.  Hence, a competent witness must understand the seriousness of the court’s proceedings, and the ramifications for himself and others if he should (a) intentionally, or (b) unintentionally misrepresent the truth.  Acknowledgment of God as Judge is the lone sufficient reason why witnesses should not lie intentionally; and reliance on God as Helper is the only ground of hope that a witnesses will not bear false report inadvertently.  Hence, the atheist who cannot swear the assertory oath required in BCO 35-8 is necessarily excluded from a court’s proceedings as an incompetent witness.

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