Sunday, June 12, 2016

ET21: Thou shalt not bear false witness or swear falsely in court.

This is the twenty-first post on Christian ethics in my ongoing series, theology in bullet points. The first unit in this series had to do with God and Creation (book here), and the second unit was on Christology and Atonement.

We are now in the third and final unit: The Holy Spirit and the Church. The first set of posts in this final unit was on the Holy Spirit. The second set was on the Church. The third set was on sacraments. This final section is on Christian ethics.
Thou shalt not bear false witness or swear falsely in court.

1. We are generally told as children that the ninth commandment is about not lying (Exod. 20:16; Deut. 5:20). We might paraphrase it as, "Thou shalt not lie" instead of "bear false witness."

But the commandment is worded interestingly if that is really what it was saying. If we take a quick look at this word witness, we find other statements in the Law such as the following:
  • "If anyone kills another, the murderer shall be put to death on the evidence of witnesses; but no one shall be put to death on the testimony of a single witness" (Num. 35:30).
  • "You shall not spread a false report. You shall not join hands with the wicked to act as a malicious witness... when you bear witness in a lawsuit, you shall not side with the majority so as to pervert justice" (Exod. 23:1-2).
  • "A single witness shall not suffice to convict a person of any crime or wrongdoing in connection with any offense that may be committed. Only on the evidence of two or three witnesses shall a charge be sustained" (Deut. 19:15).
  • "If the witness is a false witness, having testified falsely against another, then you shall do to the false witness just as the false witness had meant to do to the other" (Deut. 19:18-19).
Notice that the highlighted phrases use the same words as the ninth command, suggesting that the ninth commandment was not primarily about lying in general, but about giving false testimony at a trial. Indeed, when we go back and look at the commandment, it speaks of false witness "against your neighbor," suggesting that the context the command has in mind is a trial.

2. There is an important point of self-reflection here. You might argue that we have many such interpretations of Scripture that we have learned, often at a very young age. When we speak of "the Bible," we often as much mean these traditions about what the Bible teaches as the real Bible, what it really meant. When confronted with what the Bible really taught or perhaps what it really meant in its original context, we are just as likely to keep with the meanings we learned as a child as with the real Bible.

Much Christian rhetoric and defense of the "Bible" is really nothing more than a defense of our own cultural traditions that we associate with the Bible. There are plenty who would fight for the Bible who have little interest in what it really teaches. We can get very angry indeed when someone "tampers" with our inherited "tradition of the elders." In the end, it is God who must stand at the center, the immortal, invisible, God only wise, from whom and through whom and for whom are all things. The Bible is a witness to God and his Christ, and a tool in the Master's hands.

3. There were no video cameras or DNA tests in the ancient world. The evidence of witnesses, as today, was considered of principal importance. It was thus essential that witnesses to a crime speak truthfully. You can see from Deuteronomy 19:18-19 above that false witness could result in you receiving the punishment you were seeking for the other. One witness also was not considered sufficient, but two or three were needed.

4. Another key element in such instances was an oath. Hebrews 6:16 expresses the importance of this common practice of swearing by a god that you were speaking the truth: "Human beings, of course, swear by someone greater than themselves, and an oath given as confirmation puts an end to all dispute." So a person might swear "by God" that they are telling the truth.

A vow is a particular kind of oath, one that looks to future action, and God's name was often invoked when speaking of future action. Jephthah takes such an oath in Judges 11, when he swears by Yahweh that he will sacrifice the first living thing that comes out of his house if he is victorious in battle (11:30-31). It turns out to be his daughter. So he gives her two months to mourn her untimely death and then he sacrifices her (11:39).

Again, while we are often told as children that the third commandment is about cussing--"Thou shalt not take the name of the LORD in vain"--it was originally about keeping one's vows and the truthfulness of one's oaths. If you swear by the LORD and invoke his name as a guarantee of your word, then you had better do what you say. Jesus summarizes this third command in this way: "you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, 'You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.'" (Matt. 5:33).
5. The next article will ask how the principles behind these practices might play out in relation to ordinary truthtelling. In the remainder of this one, we want to look at how these commandments might translate from "that time" to "this time."

With regard to bearing false witness, the Christian standard is truthfulness well beyond a legal context, as we will see in the next article. In that sense, the command to be truthful in court remains as much in force as it was in ancient Israel. When "sworn in" at a trial, a person is often asked to put their hand on a Bible and swear "to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help me God." We have here an artifact of the ancient practice, involving an oath.

On the other hand, Jesus in Matthew has given us a "fulfilled" perspective on oathkeeping in general. Jesus recounts the third commandment on not swearing falsely and then goes on to say, "But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let your word be 'Yes, Yes' or 'No, No'; anything more than this comes from the evil one" (Matt. 5:34-37).

In other words, if followers of Jesus are truthful in general, they will not need to invoke oaths to convince others of the truthfulness of their words. In Jesus' "fulfilled" interpretation of the Law (cf. Matt. 5:17), there is no need for the third commandment or oaths, because God's people would be known for their truthfulness.

6. So it should not be necessary for Christians to say, "I swear," in order to enhance a sense of truthfulness to what they are saying. And of course modern Western culture is not a particularly oath-taking culture either. That is to say, oaths are not a major feature of our thinking as they were in the ancient biblical context. To say, "I swear," does not have much force today at all. We are not more likely to trust someone if they say, "I swear on my mother's grave."

However, there are three aspects of this question that we should address before we finish this article. Jehovah's Witnesses do not take oaths because of Jesus' words not to swear at all. They thus cannot take an oath in court or take an oath of office or an oath for the military and so forth. A person with a sensitive conscience might thus find this a point of concern.

But Jesus is giving a general principle. He does not say, "make absolutely no exceptions to what I am saying here, even if it means you will have trouble in your social context." He is giving a principle--you should not need to swear because you are a truth-teller. Take the oath in the trial or as a citizen or for the military. You know you are honest enough that the oath is simply an unecessary ceremonial adornment for you. [1]

7. A second concern is for those who might make foolish vows. Are you expected to keep to the same standard as Jephthah? Here we should remember the world in which Jephthah lived, over three thousand years ago. Human sacrifice was practiced in the surrounding environment, and it almost seems as if he vows to commit human sacrifice.

In such cases we have to step back and get a sense of the character of God. Is the God revealed in Jesus Christ a legalistic rule maker? Or is he the father in the Parable of the Prodigal Son? Is he defined more by his love for us or his love of rules? In the end, God is more loving toward us than any human father or mother might be toward their children. Would you as a father or mother expect your child to keep a foolish vow, one they made in ignorance or immaturity? God is a more loving father than we are.

8. Finally, there is the matter of cussing. If there is a verse that relates to cussing, it is not the third commandment but Ephesians 5:4: "Entirely out of place is obscene, silly, and vulgar talk." The underlying dynamic here is that of not shaming Christ or his community by how one speaks. Rather, our way of speaking should gain honor for Christ and his community.

The specifics of what "proper speech" looks like will have much to do with your cultural context. No doubt much of the joking today might have been considered "silly" in other times and places. Similarly, the precise boundaries of the obscene do not stay the same from one context to the next.

So we come back to the intention and purity of one's heart and the honor/shame your words bring to Christ and his church. We are to be a good witness for Christ. If our casual words make people think less of Christ, our hearts should make us want to speak more carefully. If our words express hatred or lust, then we must pray for the Spirit to change our hearts and resolve to speak differently.

There will be some variation from culture to culture and from person to person. The bottom line with our words, as with all our actions, is that "whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him" (Col. 3:17).

Next week: ET22: Truthtelling is almost always the loving thing to do.

[1] Hebrews 6 and 10 also do not have a negative view toward oaths, which suggests that Jesus' statement is not an absolute prohibition without exceptions. Hebrews 6:17 speaks of God taking an oath in Psalm 110:4.

1 comment:

Martin LaBar said...

Another good one. Thanks. I was particularly struck by what you said about the Bible and our culture.