The county clerk in Tennessee facing a possible ruling in June against marriage has personal, moral and religious reasons for denying that opinion as binding.
Even better, he has legal reasons for interposing himself between the federal supreme court’s dictates and the people. These legal reasons bind his oath of office to his state’s constitution and the constitution of the United States. His oath binds his performance in their protection, and if he understand his duty, he will act in a godly way to interpose himself for good in terms of a great biblical doctrine, that of “the lesser magistrate.”
The lesser magistrate interposes himself to protect the right and the good, to prevent evil and wickedness, to defy lawlessness among great ones above him, whose fame, authority and power outweigh his own.
The oath of office, if better understood, brings yet more courage to the clerk’s heart as he puzzles over his duty and what may be coming — pretended claims upon him by members of the gay lobby, demanding the right to marry, demanding that he sanction and license their union and enter it into the public record as a fact.
Oath taking is one of the solemnities of civil government. Swearings-in are not just pomp and ceremony. They are events at the start of one’s term in office that are covenantal and religious in nature.
But first, let’s consider the other sort of oath. It’s when one swears to tell the truth in court, as a witness. The public official oath applies not to the moment only. It is promissory. It looks to guarantee a future performance. These latter are the more dangerous, because they project into the future obedience to a promise made today in which future circumstances are unknown. A county clerk, on taking an oath to uphold the constitution’s marriage amendment, makes such an oath. His oath the day of his swearing-in ceremony now hangs over his head, a threat and a promise, demanding performance.
Oaths are authorized under the third commandment that protects God’s name and attributes. A clerk cannot use, or take up, the name of God in his oath in vain, or unto vanity or a lie. He cannot lift up his soul in the oath, or swear deceitfully. Says a Puritan divine: “Perjury is a sin condemned by the light of nature, as a complication of impiety toward God and injustice toward man, and as rendering a man highly obnoxious to the divine wrath, which was always judged to follow so infallibly upon that sin, that the forms of swearing were commonly turned into execrations or imprecations; as that, God do so to me, and more also; and with us, So help me God; wishing I may never have any help from God, if I swear falsely.”
In taking an oath, the clerk calls upon God to witness his vow to uphold the constitution. “Of those promises made to our brethren,” Matthew Henry says, “to which God was a Witness, he being appealed to concerning our sincerity; these must be performed to the Lord, with an eye to him, and for his sake: for to him, by ratifying the promises with an oath, we have made ourselves debtors; and if we break a promise so ratified, we have not lied unto men only, but unto God.”
God’s strict rules for swearing
Swearing is indeed lawful, though some Christians refuse to make oaths. The modern system in court of “affirmation” accounts for the conscience of these individuals, and that of atheists and heathens who deny God. An affirmation, however, is offering oneself as guarantor of a promise to perform, and is largely worthless.
In the sermon on the mount the Lord Jesus does not forbid oaths, but careless and irreverent swearing making light of God’s name or attributes. “[T]he frequent requiring and using of oaths,” Henry says, “is a reflection upon Christians, who should be of such acknowledged fidelity, as that their sober words should be as sacred as their solemn oaths.”
Light swearing is a sin and a corruption to which are prone those people whose word means little. Men swear careless oaths “because they are distrustful one of another, and think they cannot be believed without them.” If we think our word alone is not believable and if we resort to vain oaths, we render our credulity hollow. “So if we deny a thing, let is suffice to say, No; or if it be requisite, to repeat the denial, and say, No, no; and if our fidelity be known, that will suffice to gain us credit; and if it be questioned, to back what we say with swearing and cursing, is but to render it more suspicious. They who can swallow a profane oath, will not strain at a lie.” If we accept vain oaths we are capable of lying easily, to our discredit.
The scriptures warn against promissory oaths because of the burden they impose. “[W]e must in a special manner avoid promissory oaths, of which Christ more particularly speaks here, for they are oaths that are to be performed. The influence of an affirmative oath immediately ceases, when we have faithfully discovered the truth, and the whole truth; but a promissory oath binds so long, and may be so many ways broken, by the surprise as well as strength of a temptation, that it is not to be used but upon great necessity.”
The prospect of a federal court ruling against marriage is a high challenge — a fierce temptation — to Tennessee clerks of county such as Bill Knowles here in Chattanooga. Such a ruling will tempt Mr. Knowles to dissolve the substance of his oath, to relieve himself of its duty, to remove from his hands the issue the oath was to have settled. That issue is: Does the constitution bind him until he leaves office, or is there a circumstance that absolves him of the oath, with God’s approval?
A pro-gay ruling will tempt him to throw the law aside and take up enforcement of a new regime. Promissory oaths to uphold a constitution or perform a future act of service are lawful and enforced by God, however, the God to whom Mr. Knowles appealed when he swore in His name to uphold the law.