Solemn oaths are an essential part of every nation’s laws. Without some form of legally self-binding promise, there would be no hope of justice and no way of punishing false witness and perjury.
However, the Lord Jesus and James both explicitly forbid the use of sworn oaths. Some commentators consider that this does not apply to legal oaths, but only to common and frivolous swearing. But, surprisingly, James does treat this matter as of paramount importance: “above all things, my brethren, swear not” (James 5:12). So, clearly, we ought to try and avoid even legal use of oaths if the law permits it.
The apostle Paul used a simple form of invoking God’s name without swearing a formal oath: “God is my witness” (Rom. 1:9). In a few countries with religious freedom, a follower of Christ can “affirm” the truth of legal testimony without formally swearing an oath. The great majority of the world’s legal systems do not permit affirmation. In our multi-faith and multi-ethnic Caribbean, which in this area of life is relatively tolerant, it is optional to use the Christian Bible, the Jewish Torah, the Rig Veda, the Holy Quran, or the Guru Granth Sahib. In the USA it is quite permissible for an avowed atheist to omit the words “So help me God”, in the oath of allegiance as well as in court. Personally, I feel that it is better for us to invoke God’s name than to be considered as atheists. There are many countries with a considerable number of Christadelphians where the only holy book presented to us is one which we do not accept as divine. What do we do then?
There will be occasions when, as in the early Christian centuries, martyrdom may be the only option. Brother Speck of Leipzig, Germany in 1934 refused to swear by “holy Hitler” and was immediately executed. Brother Feodor Danilchenko, elder of the Christadelphian ecclesia in Tsepeleff, Ukraine, was arrested and ordered to publicly revile the Holy Scriptures as “that vile book” and to destroy the ecclesia’s stock. He refused and was exiled to Siberia, there to die for his Lord. Surely, in democratic societies we can honour our brothers, and marvel at their faith, without needlessly seeking publicity for our own reluctance to swear on the Bible.
“Ordained of God” or “Agents of the Devil”?
It has also been argued that “Brethren of Christ” are somehow above, and not subject to, laws made by “Gentiles” or “the alien”. Are the laws of our land really the laws of the Devil? Legalistically minded ‘Jehovah’s Witnesses’ have always considered states and their governments to be agents of Satan, but the word of God never uses, nor ever implies, such a concept. “Satan’s seat” in Pergamum was not the Roman civil government but a centre of the idolatrous worship of the emperor (Rev. 2:13) [see Editor’s Note]. Is the Constitution of the United States of America really the work of the Devil?
Turning to the Scriptures, we may note that Luke does not present the magistrates in Philippi nor the city clerk of Ephesus as agents of the Devil. In Cyprus, the child of the Devil and an enemy of everything that is right was the sorcerer Elymas (Acts 13:10). He was opposing the Roman governor, who was Paul’s friend and a subsequent convert to the truth. To Felix, Paul could say, “I know that for a number of years you have been a judge over this nation [Israel], so I gladly make my defence” (Acts 24:10). He could address his Roman judge as “most noble Festus” and say to king Agrippa, “I consider myself fortunate to stand before you today” (Acts 26:2,25). It has been suggested that Luke and Paul were being sarcastic or speaking with tongue in cheek, but personally I am not convinced. I prefer to think that they were genuinely being respectful and courteous to rulers, as we are invariably told to be.
Far from being agents of the Devil, in democratic societies with the (mixed) blessing of ‘free speech’, the media are watchdogs for the public good. The post mortem on Hurricane Katrina is a splendid example. However unprincipled the media may sometimes appear to be, they expect high ethical standards from public servants and especially from religious leaders. There has not been a time since Paul wrote Romans 13 when it was as relevant and crucial to accept and practise as the present.
The Balance Between Religious Faith and Civil Order
There is a marvellous passage in Acts 24 which is a good guide to our relationship with the state: “As Paul discoursed on righteousness, self-control and the judgment to come, Felix [the Roman governor of Judaea] was afraid, and said, ‘That’s enough for now! You may leave. When I find it convenient, I will send for you.’ At the same time he was hoping that Paul would offer him a bribe, so he sent for him frequently and talked with him. Luke tells us that Felix became well acquainted with the Way [the Christian faith], and gave Paul some freedom and permitted his friends to take care of his needs” (Acts 24:22-26).
The Scriptures record several cases where bonds of understanding existed between the children of God and statesmen of various nationalities in promoting righteous rule, or at the least tolerance for believers: Joseph and Pharaoh; Mordecai and Ahasuerus; Sheshbazzar and Cyrus (“my shepherd”); the apostles and Gamaliel; the apostle Paul and Sergius Paulus of Cyprus.
In the exciting years of the 1960s, when I was employed in a senior position with the U.S. Congress in the very heart of Washington, a Christadelphian held one of the most important administrative posts in the Federal government, and I know from personal experience that he had immense moral influence, far more than he ever realized. [This was also at a time when the President himself, Lyndon Johnson of Texas, was a descendant and relative of numerous Christadelphians: Editor.] Christadelphians worked through and with the British Parliament in both world wars to ensure that we had a legal right to refuse military service. What a difference that has made to us in every way! A few days ago, the new Governor-General of Jamaica, Dr. Kenneth Hall, stopped me in the street and apologized for not having attended the thanksgiving service for sister Mary a year ago. He said: “I have respected Christadelphians all my life. And I will tell you why. In high school, I was taught by Christadelphians, and I have never forgotten it.”
We all know that from time to time tyrannical political regimes arise. With Nero in the 60s AD, the Holy Roman Empire in 16th century Europe, the Soviet Union, and narco-terrorist regimes in downtown Kingston, cooperation has proved to be impossible. Then is the time for martyrdom, not otherwise.
Alan Eyre, Kingston, Jamaica
Editor’s Note: “Satan’s Throne”, in Pergamon, or Pergamum, is the subject of quite an interesting article in the very latest Biblical Archaeology Review, May/June 2006 (Vol. 32, No. 3, pp. 26-39). The article contains photographs, illustrations, and explanatory text concerning the Great Altar of Pergamon, which was recovered in a 19th-century German excavation, has been reconstructed and now sits in Berlin’s State Museum. Originally built in the first half of the second century BC, the altar was surrounded by a monumental frieze depicting mythical battles between the Greek gods and the Giants, a monstrous-looking race said to be descendants of “marriages” between Earth and Heaven (cp. “the daughters of men” and “the sons of God” in Gen. 6:2). It is not difficult to imagine that the Apostle John, by inspiration, might call this striking monument “Satan’s seat, or throne”, promoting as it did the most foolish pagan ideas about “fallen angels” and the like.