We take promises

Day by day we make promises. Many of these are at the level of ordinary commitments to ordinary things such as “Sure, I’ll collect the kids from soccer”.

At another level, we make promises involving God and other people at events like baptism, marriage, church membership and church leadership. Now we are getting serious! Once we promise things to God or make promises in his name, the stakes are raised. These kinds of promises are often called vows or oaths.

Promises in the Bible

The Bible has a lot to say about making and keeping promises involving God. Truth-telling means not promise something and failing to do it (eg, Ex 20:16; Lev 19:12). Instead, we find repeated urgings to do as we promise (eg, Num 30:2; Deut 23:21-23; Ps 50:14; 76:11). In a context of people making elaborate promises and not keeping them, Jesus comments on Leviticus 19:12: Let what you say simply be ‘yes’ or No’; anything more than this comes from evil. Part of walking worthy of our calling in Christ is to put lies aside and speak truth to others (eg, Eph 4:2, 25). Meaning what we promise and doing what we promise is just one application of our calling in Christ.

Ecclesiastes 5: 4-7 is a classic passage: 

When you vow a vow to God, do not delay paying it, for he has no pleasure in fools. Pay what you vow. It is better that you should not vow than that you should vow and not pay. Let not your mouth lead you into sin, and do not say before the messenger that it was a mistake. Why should God be angry at your voice and destroy the work of your hands? For when dreams increase and words grow many, there is vanity but God is the one you must fear. 

These words are in the context of a passage urging God’s people not to be quick with our words or promises in his presence. They urge us to take vows carefully and keep them. The sad story of Ananias and Saphira (Acts 5:1-11) illustrates what a trap it is to take rash and thoughtless promises (Pvb 20:25).

Why should we keep our vows? For one thing, thankfulness to God for what he has done should move us to keep promises to him (eg, Ps 66:13 & 116:14). Further, God is faithful to all his promises which are all fulfilled in Christ (Josh 23: 14; 2 Cor 1:20). When we are faithful to our word, we reflect his character and show that we are his children rather than children of the father of lies (Jn 8:44). Even further, the faithfulness of God is not only our example of faithfulness but is also its basis. The faithfulness of God means that we are so secure in his promises that we can keep our promises even if circumstances change or others do not keep their promises. We can swear to our hurt and still keep our promises (Ps 15:4b), precisely because he does keep his promises. As Christian people look at the faithfulness of God to his promises, we have every reason for faithfulness in our words.

Promises in the Westminster Confession of Faith

The key Presbyterian doctrinal standard, the Westminster Confession devotes a whole chapter (Ch. 22) to the subject of vows or oaths. In the Reformation context of many vows being taken and broken, and of vows being taken on improper matters, it carefully summarises Biblical teaching in words such as these:

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

3. Whosoever taketh an oath ought duly to consider the weightiness of so solemn an act, and therein to avouch nothing but what he is fully persuaded is the truth. Neither may any man bind himself by oath to anything but what is good and just, and what he believeth so to be, and what he is able and resolved to perform. Yet it is a sin to refuse an oath touching anything that is good and just, being imposed by lawful authority.

4. An oath is to be taken in the plain and common sense of the words, without equivocation or mental reservation. It cannot oblige to sin; but in anything not sinful, being taken, it binds to performance, although to a man’s own hurt: nor is it to be violated, although made to heretics or infidels.

5. A vow is of the like nature with a promissory oath, and ought to be made with the like religious care, and to be performed with the like faithfulness.

6. It is not to be made to any creature, but to God alone: and that it may be accepted, it is to be made voluntarily, out of faith and conscience of duty, in way of thankfulness for mercy received, or for the obtaining of what we want; whereby we more strictly bind ourselves to necessary duties, or to other things, so far and so long as they may fitly conduce thereunto.

Promises in the church

All this brings us to the promises made by church leaders. The Presbyterian Church of Australia (PCA) takes church leadership so seriously that its General Assembly prescribes comprehensive vows to be taken by people entering the key leadership roles of ministers and elders. (There are also set vows for other situations, but they are outside our scope here.)

These vows help align church leaders to the doctrinal standards and values that the Church expects. They give clear indications to prospective leaders of what they are signing up for. They also provide a formal basis for accountability when required. 

Later articles in this will introduce and discuss the PCA vows of office. 

                                                                                                                        – David Burke

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