“Above all, my brothers and sisters, do not swear—not by heaven or by earth or by anything else. All you need to say is a simple ‘Yes’ or ‘No.’ Otherwise you will be condemned.” (James 5:12 TNIV)

When people want to lament the decline in morals in this country, they typically point out upswings in violence (especially to the unborn), promiscuous sex (of both hetero- and homo- varieties), and perhaps our enslavement to greed and consumerism. Without denying any of those trends, I wonder if more attention needs to be paid to being people of integrity—whose word and promises can be trusted. After all, the Ten Commandments include not only prohibitions against murder, adultery, and coveting but also against bearing false witness.

The passage in James 5 is a quotation from the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5:37). The context in both cases is about taking oaths (not about cussing). The point is not so much a prohibition, as our Quaker and Mennonite friends have often thought, against solemnly swearing in a lawcourt that something is true, but rather against the notion that certain kinds of oaths are less binding than others (see Matt. 5:33-36). If that was the problem afflicting some of the Pharisees, Jesus explains, then don’t use oaths at all. Just be so trustworthy that if you say you will do something, then you will do it.

My grandfather was a very successful businessman in a small-to-medium-sized town in Iowa. He died in 1984 at the age of 84, when I was 29. I remember him more than once talking about how back before World War II, in his community, there were few of the elaborate contracts of today, just friends’ words to each other. You promise to buy this land by such-and-such a date and you have the money to the seller on time. You promise to deliver certain goods to a retailer and you never shortchange them. The vast majority of the time the system worked, whether the person was a Christian or not.

After the war, my grandpa would continue, some people started to renege often enough on such deals that now they needed to be sealed with a handshake. Then, somewhere in the mid-60s, as he was getting ready to retire, more and more formal contracts were coming to be written for people to sign, because handshakes weren’t always a reliable guide to people’s follow-through on their commitments. Today, even signatures mean little in some circles, so we have endless litigation by people suing those who have reneged on formal contracts.

I had a disturbing conversation with a group of Christians recently that I led in a case study about a situation in which a Christian job applicant reneged on a promise to accept a job if offered it, in favor of a more attractive offer that had subsequently emerged. About half of the group saw nothing wrong with that, since no contract had yet been signed. Even more disturbing was the fact that some saw nothing wrong with leaving a brand-new job after just having signed a contract and after having made a verbal multi-year commitment (not in the contract), again in favor of a more attractive position.

Is it any wonder so many marriages these days end in divorce, not as they used to after years of struggle and hurt, but at the slightest sign of personal inconvenience? I met a divorcee in her mid-thirties recently who initiated proceedings after only a two-year marriage because her husband failed to keep a tidy home and this showed his “profound disrespect for her,” because she had repeatedly asked him to keep things cleaner. I probed to see if there wasn’t anything more serious than that but there wasn’t. I asked if they had tried counseling and she replied, “Oh yes, as soon as he heard I was talking about divorce, he insisted we go for counseling. We went a few times. But my heart had already checked out, so I didn’t see any point in continuing.”

What I wanted to ask but didn’t was “So why should anyone ever believe you again when you promise to do something for them, especially if it is something much less solemn than a promise to stay in a marriage for life?”

James and Jesus teach us that if we promise to do something and have it within our power to carry it out, then we are to do it, period. End of discussion. Become known as somebody so trustworthy that you don’t even need to shake hands, much less sign a contract. People know you’re a person of your word. And it’s striking how strongly they phrase the alternative: In James: “otherwise you will be condemned.” In Matthew: “anything beyond this comes from the evil one.” Ouch!


Dr. Craig L. Blomberg serves as Distinguished Professor of New Testament at Denver Seminary.