Yes’s and No’s
James has said much about purity of speech throughout this letter warning his readers to guard their tongues. So here is one last admonition about our tongues and it comes straight from James’ half-brother.
“But above all, my brothers,” James begins. He is signaling from the very beginning that what he is going to say next is extremely important. Indeed, the sentence seems to interrupt the flow between verses eleven and thirteen, as if he only just remembered to say this. This is not to say that this line was an after-thought—as shown throughout his letter, the use of the tongue was a crucial matter for the Bishop. But whatever the case, James wanted his readers to be aware of this important point: “Do not swear either by heaven or by earth or by any other oath, but let your ‘yes’ be yes and your ‘no’ be no, so that you may not fall under condemnation.” Jesus said the same in Matthew 5:33-37 and provides us two reasons for not taking oaths: 1) Because we may not be able to fulfill them. Who are we to swear that we will do such and such when we do not even know what tomorrow will bring or whether there will even be a tomorrow (4:13-17)? As Jesus said, we cannot make one of our own hairs white or black; but, even more so, 2) Why is there need? Are we not able to tell the truth without an oath? The taking of an oath assumes that without such we would tell a lie. And so James quotes his brother and Lord: “Anything more than [saying yes and no] comes from evil.” Christians are people of simple and unalloyed speech without deceit and manifesting a pure heart.
Now someone will ask, “Then what about courts of law where we are required to do so?” We must recognize that courts belong to the world and not the Church. Naturally, courts must rely on oaths on account of the people that come through their doors. And there are times Christians must come through those doors as well, usually as witnesses or character references, but on occasion, sadly, for wrong-doing. In such cases, we must comply knowing that government is instituted by God (Romans 13:1-7), and we must live in the world. I believe James is speaking more to swearing as a manner of speaking. This is condemned. It’s unnecessary and communicates that one is a dishonest person.
Christians are simple and sensible people. They do not fuss, they do not gossip, they hold their tongues, they speak a comely and fit word at the right time, and they speak the truth in love.