Robbers Bound By Their Oaths?

September 15, 2007 | 20 comments

How binding are promises to do things that are or later become inconsistent with our moral progress?

I got to thinking about that in a recent thread. Take, for instance, a Mormon-fringe polygamist who wants to join the church. Is ceasing to have sexual relations with his plural wives really consistent with his vows to them? Converts will sometimes have made promises in their prior religion that are inconsistent with leaving it. And we can think of fanciful examples if we wish. Imagine an affecting battlefield scene where a soldier promises his dying comrade that he’ll have a shot of whiskey in his memory each Christmas. Can this man later join the Church?

The Gadiantons and their ilk acted like they were doing something when they made their oaths. And one way of understanding Christ’s sermon against oaths is that he didn’t want us to have the hard choice of sinning if we kept a promise or sinning by breaking it.

We don’t treat these kinds of promises as binding, though, and we never have. Why? Are such promises void by nature from the beginning? Does God release us from the promise? Does Christ take the sin of breaking the promise on himself as part of his atonement?

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20 Responses to Robbers Bound By Their Oaths?

  1. queuno on September 15, 2007 at 2:03 am

    Is it a sin to break a promise that goes against God’s law or a covenant we’ve made with him? I think not.

  2. Questions on September 15, 2007 at 7:34 am

    An interesting question. It immediately brought the following to my mind:

    What about promises made without full “informed consent” taken under some degree of duress? I hesitate to bring this up, but Temple covenants can be seen in this light. We do not understand before hand the nature and implications of the covenants to be made there, and there is no time nor opportunity to discuss them when they are presented. And while there is a single technical opportunity to turn them down, the social context makes this, in my opinion, a form of duress which would invalidate it as a binding “contract.”

    Is it reasonable to condemn, with serious eternal consequences, those who don’t live up to any and all of these covenants, when they’re made under these conditions?

    Again, I hesitate to bring this up, not wanting to offend the sensibilities of the many dedicated members and Temple goers here. But this is a source of significant guilt and concern for some who have been to the Temple, and later leave. You can easily view them as apostates who deserve their fate, but many are conscientious people, whose spiritual journey leads them in other directions, but who are often deeply troubled by their ‘breaking’ of those promises.

  3. Mike on September 15, 2007 at 9:48 am

    I consider promises to be sacred, even if they are not made with God. For this reason I see it as a sin if someone marries outside the temple and then later breaks the promise to be together “Till death do us part”. Even if they God is not involved at all, breaking that promise, in my mind, is still a sin at least to the party or parties that are responsible for the break. Keeping promises goes along with the fact that we should be honest. That is not a covenant only church members make, but a commandment to all mankind.

    That said, I think there are circumstances where breaking a promise is justifiable. I won’t attempt to outline what those circumstances are, because I think that’s a matter between the person who made the promise and God to figure out. But at least it is justifiable if the promise directly conflicts with a commandment of God.

    As for temple covenants, I don’t know anyone who did not understand what they were getting into before begin sealed and be endowed. True, we may not have known the exact content of the covenant, but we understood the general idea. So I don’t accept the argument that “I didn’t know what I was getting into.” I also don’t think being under social duress is an excuse for making a promise you don’t intend to keep. Physical duress is a different matter. Although, I do think promises made without all the information are not valid, but it is the responbility of the promising party to get the information the need before they make the promise. If I were to say, “Will you promise me you’ll buy apples from me only?” and you said, “sure, you live right next door and I like your apples”. And then I said, “OK, they’re $200 a piece.” I don’t think that your promise would be binding, as you must have assumed they would be a reasonable price. Of course we should be careful making promises based on assumptions or incomplete information.

  4. Adam Greenwood on September 15, 2007 at 10:04 am

    Please avoid a threadjack on temple covenants. This thread is about promises to do wrongful things, which temple covenants are not. I will remove comments if necessary.

  5. Seth R. on September 15, 2007 at 10:58 am

    The real question Adam is whether they would later be subject to sanctions from the local Bar Association.

  6. Jack on September 15, 2007 at 11:11 am

    Adam, doesn’t the same moral dilemma exist if, down the road, we must change our “yea, yea” to a “nay, nay?” That is, if one is to take seriously the admonition of Jesus that “yes” or “no” ought to be sufficiently binding?

  7. queuno on September 15, 2007 at 11:20 am

    But if you no longer believe in the premises behind the promise you made, then why be concerned about breaking it?

    Let me use the temple and/or baptism as an example — if you truly no longer believe in the Church and have left, then why should you care that you’re “violating” those covenants? — you longer believe in their authenticity or legitimacy. I have seen a copy of the letter my ward sends when people have their name removed from the records of the Church — it states that their baptism and other covenants have been canceled and they will not receive the blessings therein. Some have criticized it as being too harsh — but if the recipient truly wants to separate from the Saints, then they don’t accept those covenants anymore, right?

    I may promise my dying relative that I will continue to do X-and-Y for the rest of my life. But what I come to the realization that either X or Y is wrong?

  8. queuno on September 15, 2007 at 11:22 am

    (I guess by way of saying — I feel no guilt over breaking promises whose premises or circumstances I no longer consider to be valid or correct. This question gets a bit into actual specifics, I guess, so my answer might change in the face of specific circumstances. But in general, if I don’t believe in it anymore, I’m not going to hold myself to a promise.)

  9. Adam Greenwood on September 15, 2007 at 11:28 am

    Queuno, I think you’re conflating two separate issues: the first is where X and Y aren’t necessarily wrong but the Person you make the promise to doesn’t exist, you think (i.e., some kinds of religious promises) and the second is where the person you make the promise too is a real person but X and Y are wrong. It looks to me like you’d get a different analysis with each issue.

  10. Adam Greenwood on September 15, 2007 at 11:30 am

    Queuno, isn’t the whole point of promising that you will assume an obligation that you will keep even when whatever motivated you to make the promise no longer obtains?

  11. Ray on September 15, 2007 at 11:33 am

    The simple answer: “What queuno said.” (Being me, however, I can’t help but pontificate.)

    First, I believe our society doesn’t put nearly enough emphasis on keeping promises as it should. It is *way* too easy nowadays to justify breaking a promise. As a former high school coach, I look at the example of professional athletes threatening all kinds of actions if their teams do not agree to renegotiate their contracts after an excellent year – without ever doing the same thing with a downward adjustment after a bad year. The Lord, however, speaks of being “bound” by the obedience of the other party to the terms of the mutual promise – the covenant. That is a powerful concept, especially if we are striving to become like Him – and we should not take it lightly or use excuses too liberally.

    Having said all of that, the main difference I see is that we trust Him to set up requirements that are fair and not deceptive or abusive – and that also are determined with full knowledge of all relevant facts. In our dealings with humanity, however, we must set the terms and requirements – and there is no such guarantee that we will be able to understand and establish an ideal agreement. Sometimes, new information arises that prompts us to desire to “renegotiate our contract” and craft a better promise. However, unless there are moral aspects that we feel threaten our character and our eternal reward, and if the other party to the promise doesn’t accept our wishes, I believe we are bound morally to honor the less-than-ideal promise we made.

    With that foundation, to the question of how to handle promises that keep us from drawing closer to God:

    We ask investigators in many situations to do this with multiple promises they made with regard to their religious affiliation. If they have been baptized into another denomination and, as a part of that ceremony promised loyalty to that denomination, we ask them to break that promise in order to be baptized again. If a minister joins the Church, we expect him to leave his congregation and worship with us – even if he promised them he would never do so. If a man or woman wants to join the Church but the spouse threatens to file for divorce if s/he even attends with us, thus breaking the “til death do us part” promise they made (often “before God and man”), the Bible says to place acceptance of the Gospel over family ties – even spousal ones.

    There are way too many examples to list, but the principle, IMO, is:

    Follow every promise you make with exactness, unless you believe doing so will endanger your eternal progression – and don’t make promises lightly. If you are not 100% confident you can keep a promise – perhaps, if you think new information might arise later that will cause you to re-evaluate your decision – don’t make the promise in the first place. Simply say something like, “I will try me best,” or, “I will do this for now. If anything changes that will keep me from doing it, I will talk with you so we can make the necessary changes.” I have lost business on occasion by adding such a disclaimer, but I have gained more than I have lost in the long run by doing so – by being very open about my determination not to promise what I can’t deliver. I think it is much better to make “effort” promises in most cases and “results” promises rarely than to make “promises” that are conditional and subject to change.

    (Also, try to cut others in other religions some slack in how they judge us and our religion. Many of them are very sincere in their belief that they have promised God to try to help preach to and convert the unsaved masses, and, in their minds, that includes us as Mormons. Yes, we get tired of their attacks, especially the ignorant and uninformed ones, but most of them are doing it out of an honest attempt to keep their promises to God – so we of all people should respect them for that effort.)

  12. Ray on September 15, 2007 at 11:36 am

    Clarification: “What queuno said in #1.”

  13. Kaimi Wenger on September 15, 2007 at 11:59 am


    For a related discussion, you may want to look at, from just over a year ago, where I talked about some of these issues. For example,

    Suppose that John’s grandmother asks that he promise to remain Catholic for life. He makes this promise. Years later, he discovers the church, reads the Book of Mormon, receives a testimony of its truth. Should John join the church?

  14. Ray on September 15, 2007 at 12:09 pm

    Kaimi’s example in #13 is not just a hypothetical. I knew a man who joined the Church after 30+ years of marriage to a faithful member, taking her and their 5 kids to church every week, paying for their sons missions, allowing new missionaries to practice teaching the discussions on him (taking the role of different denominations for variety) and supporting his family in the Church in every way imaginable for a non-member. He finally joined after his mother (Catholic) died. I can’t agree 100% with his reasoning, and I would have encouraged him to join when he first gained a testimony, but I respect that man as much as anyone I have ever met.

    My first comment notwithstanding, these are personal, individual questions when they leave the mental clouds and become practical issues. No matter how we feel about the “correct” (ideal) answer, I hope we can respect and not judge those who choose to keep a promise rather than break it and risk serious hurt/harm to the one to whom the promise was made.

  15. greenfrog on September 15, 2007 at 2:40 pm

    Forgive me for penning this from a legalistic perspective, but promises are, in my view, an exercise in legalism — social morality — no matter the context where they come up.

    It seems to me that a promise has two effects — one on those to whom the promise is made, one on the promisor.

    A promise has significance to those to whom the promise is made because it (both because of it’s moral suasion and its societal enforceability) allows the promisee to rely on the subject of the promise in a way that would be more risky (and therefore less valuable to the promisee) in the absence of the promise. This is true whether the promise is to purchase a share of a particular stock 60 days from today at a particular price or whether the promise is not to join the LDS Church or whether the promise is to pick up a dozen eggs at the grocery store.

    We can identify specific subject matters of promises that we, as a society, may choose not to enforce because we want to shape society in a particular way that conflicts with the simple promise enforcement policy, but we do so by reducing the meaning of promises more generally.

    The effect of the promise on the promisor is to let the promisor obtain value from another that the other would not ordinarily extend, due to the risks.

    We’ve developed both the software, through acculturation of various kinds, and the hardware to embed promises in a moral framework. As social mammals with functioning instincts for empathy, I believe we’re hardwired to a significant degree to perceive promise-making and promise-keeping as inherently good and inherently moral activities.

    I think the reason I find Adam G’s questions most interesting is the way that he sets up a question that poses the tension between our instinctive “promising” actions against our acculturated norms of right and wrong.

    FWIW, it seems to me that religious use of promises of various kinds is a peculiar (not to say illegitimate) attempt to harness the subjective empathetic experience associated with the socialization instincts we have and use them to embed more deeply the precept that the religion seeks to promote. I think that’s why for a person who has promised his mother or God not to join the LDS Church, it can feel wrong to join, even if the person believes it to be the right thing to do.

  16. greenfrog on September 15, 2007 at 2:45 pm

    An example of how the conflict can arise in the real world:

    I served a mission in 1981 and 1982. I was called to serve for two years, as was my companion in April of 1982. Shortly after general conference, we got a phone call from mission leaders advising my companion and I that our missions had both been shortened from the 24 months indicated in our mission call letters, to 18 months.

    I wasn’t overly distressed by this change, but my companion was quite shaken by it. An important part of his missionary service related to his promise to the Lord to serve a mission for 24 months. The curtailment of the mission left him with very conflicted feelings. On the one hand, he wanted to conform to the leadership’s instruction; on the other hand, he wanted to fulfill the promise he’d made (and the promise that he’d inferred the Lord had made to him to allow him to serve a 24 month mission).


  17. Mike on September 15, 2007 at 3:40 pm

    What do the scriptures say on the subject?

    One relevant passage that comes to mind (There are probably others that are better) is Matthew 2:1-13. The passage doesn’t explicitly say that the wise men promised Herod they would return, but in my interpretation it implies they agreed to it. Otherwise, it’s hard to imagine Herod would have let them go. However, they were later told not to by revelation and so broke their agreement in favor of God’s command. The scriptures do not indicate that they sinned in any way by doing so.

    This seems to fit the situation you are suggesting: We promise something, and later discover it is against the will of the Lord. It seems to me obeying the Lord takes precedence over keeping promises to people, as important as that is.

  18. Keith on September 16, 2007 at 6:37 pm

    It might be helpful in this discussion to think of a few more circumstances (though perhaps these are similar to those Adam gives initially) where we’d say one ought to break a promise.

    You’ve promised your daughter to take her to take her to some activity — a concert, a game, a visit to some place or another — at a given time on a Thursday afternoon. On the way home you come across an accident in which people need your help. Stopping to help will mean you break your promise. The life and death nature of the accident makes stopping, and therefore breaking the promise, the right thing to do. In this instance, the moral obligation to keep the promise is overridden by the obligation to help in a serious circumstance.

    In anger a person has sworn to himself and to others (made a promise, in other words) that he would avenge the death of his murdered brother by killing those who killed him. In the days or weeks that follow, somehow (perhaps he read something, heard somebody say something, etc.) he has a change of heart and he realizes that he should not seek vengeance. Clearly the right thing to do is not to keep the promise he made. In this instance, what one intended, what one promised, was evil and needed to be rejected.

    In both of these instances, in terms of ethics, I don’t think very few would hold them guilty. Religiously speaking, no one would say the person is sinning or going against God’s will. I’m not certain whether we want to say God releases us from these promises or to say more strongly that in these instances he requires us not to keep the promises — but either way God approves.

    Imagine a child promising a concerned parent (of non-Christian persuasion) that he or she would never accept Christianity, who later comes to find that he or she must break this promise. In this instance it seems the ethical consideration is in conflict with the religious consideration. From a religious perspective, God must be loved first, not one’s parent. I think the atonement is designed to heal the breach caused by the decision (not a sin) to reject the promise made to the parent, or to heal the disappointment in oneself or in one’s daughter for not being able to go to the activity planned. It’s also there to take from one the need for revenge and also to reconcile one to the injustice done. So I don’t think in these instances there are sins, whatever breach may be made would be taken up in the atonement.

    In all of these cases we can say that one should break the promises, but can we do so without throwing the obligation and general good of promise keeping out the window? I think we can. Clearly promise keeping is a virtue. It can and should be valued, but it isn’t the only virtue and it isn’t always an ethical or religious absolute.

    I wonder if Christ’s speaking against oaths isn’t more a matter of one simply standing behind one’s word (Yea or Nay), of being true and transparent, without needing the extra flourish of the oath, rather than an opposition to promise making because you might have to break the promise later. But it’s still an intriguing thought.

  19. Adam Greenwood on September 16, 2007 at 9:57 pm

    Pretty insightful, y’all. Thanks.

  20. greenfrog on September 16, 2007 at 10:15 pm

    Thought of this thread today in sacrament meeting, as the counselor presiding thanked the Aaronic Priesthood holders for administering the sacrament and allowing us to renew our covenants. Renewal of covenants is an interesting concept.

    Is a covenant that is not renewed no longer applicable or binding? While covenants and promises are intended to limit future conduct, there is an interesting temporal element to them. If they are functionally things that we did in the past, we may feel obligated to conform our conduct to them in the future, but the value of renewing them seems entirely focused on the covenant maker, not the promisee. That, in turn, suggests that they’re not really the two-party, reliance-creating arrangement we usually think of as promises, despite their taking that form.


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