What exactly is a pledge? Exploring the types of commitment seen in the Bible

Silver heart bracelet worn by bride. Text: Purity pledges and the Bible, what exactly is a pledge or vow or covenant?

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about purity pledges.

For the uninitiated, these are when Christian teenagers (both male and female, though it seems to be more common for girls) promise to be sexually abstinent until marriage. The promise is made usually around the time they hit puberty and girls sometimes buy or receive a ‘purity ring’, possibly given to them by their parents. In the more extreme forms, you have ‘purity balls’, where young girls go on ‘dates’ with their fathers during which they promise that they will not to have sex or marry against his wishes. Sometimes, they even sign a covenant to that effect.

I’ve read a number of articles and stories about the damaging effects of these pledges and the culture which endorses them (witness the links above).

What I haven’t seen is a theological, Bible-focussed discussion of the concept of pledges, or how they compare to the various kinds of commitments we see in the Bible.

I’m guessing one of the reasons for this is because, at a glance, the Bible seems to paint a confusing picture. Solemn promises are meant to be kept, yet there are many examples where keeping a promise led to death and destruction. We also have Jesus’ teaching that we shouldn’t swear anything at all – which is somewhat puzzling for couples who (like myself) have made wedding vows. So, are promises good or not? And what kind of commitment is a purity pledge?

To answer these questions, I’ll first look at the different types of commitment in the Bible (this post), then I’ll look at what characterises good and bad commitments, and lastly I’ll apply the findings of those two posts to the specific example of purity pledges.

Here we go. (Grab a cuppa, this post has 3,500 words.)

The meaning of pledges

/plɛdʒ/
noun
noun: pledge; plural noun: pledges
1. 
a solemn promise or undertaking.
synonyms: promise, undertaking, vow, word, word of honour, commitment, assurance, oath, covenant, bond, agreement, guarantee, warrant
(Taken from a Google search)

There are lots of different words that can be used for ‘pledge’ and probably ‘commitment’ is the best umbrella term for the various synonyms above. But there are differences in these words and we can guess that people won’t always use them in the same way.

This also applies to the Bible.

Whereas translators will have made efforts to use English words with consistency, we won’t be able to tell what kind of commitment something is just by the translated word alone. We will also have to look at context. Even so, there are definitely trends in what words are seen in the Bible. For the purposes of this post, I’m going to focus on five: oath, vow, pledge, covenant and promise.

These aren’t perfect categories; sometimes the borders between them are blurred and sometimes more than one of them could be used to describe a particular commitment. But I think they’ll work well enough for our purposes here.

Categories of commitment

Already, those of us who are steeped in church culture risk assuming we know more about these words than we do. The idea of ‘covenant’ is elevated in Christian dialogue and often framed as the good, spiritual counterpoint to the worldly, mercenary word ‘contract’.

This doesn’t help us.

Yes, in the Bible, the word ‘covenant’ is used more often to denote something mysterious and good, than something contractual or morally wrong – but it isn’t always. I also have an issue with how often ‘contract’ is viewed as inherently sinful, particularly when there are so many contracts in my life through which I benefit and receive blessing.

My point here is: we shouldn’t infer whether a commitment is good or bad just by considering its form.

Even so, we do need a way of distinguishing between good/wise and bad/unwise commitments. Because the words ‘oath’ and ‘promise’ get used in so many different contexts that I’m going to use them to make moral distinctions. I’m going to say:

  • ‘oath-like’ commitments are bad (see Matthew 5:34), and
  • ‘promise-like’ commitments are good (see Romans 4:16).

Don’t get me wrong – oaths can be good and promises can be bad. However, as we dig into particular examples, we’ll see various characteristics and trends. We’ll see that promises (particularly those made by God – Romans 4:16) tend to be good, and oaths (particularly those made by people – Matthew 5:34) tend to be bad.

I therefore want to look at each of the five different types of commitment (vows, oaths, pledges, covenants and promises) drawing out promise-like and oath-like examples of each.

What makes something oath-like or promise-like will be the subject of the next post.

Vows – when one party wants to make a point through worship

In the Bible, when we read about vows we often see that they:

  • are voluntary – that is, these go ‘above and beyond’ and are not a moral requirement;
  • are made to express something of heartfelt importance;
  • are about a specific, measurable act;
  • involve only one party (that is, nothing is expected in return for the act and nothing can prevent the act);
  • are made in an act of worship.

You therefore often see vows referred to in the discussion of freewill offerings to God.

You also see a lengthy discussion on vows in Numbers chapter 30 which explains that vows are binding upon the person who makes them. However, this passage also sets out what happens if a person ends up with a particular conundrum. In particular, if a person makes a vow (we presume, to God) and someone they’re in a relationship of belonging with forbids them to keep their vow (saying it was unwise for some reason), then God is both able and willing to release vow-maker from their commitment without them incurring guilt.

I’ll be coming back to this principle later in this series.

(Yes, I know my interpretation generalises the passage. Still, I believe that what I’ve set out above is the substance of this passage and that it talks about wives and daughters mainly because it was written for a patriarchal setting.)

Moving on, promise-like vows in the Bible include:

  • Hannah offering to give God her first-born child out of gratitude if God makes her a mother (1 Samuel 1:1-20);
  • Paul cutting off his hair at Ceneae (Acts 18:18) (well, I presume Paul did this for a good reason).

Yes, Hannah’s vow does have a conditional element. But notice how Hannah would have been incapable of giving her first born child unless she had first become a mother. The point is, once Hannah was enabled to fulfil her vow, nothing would have stopped her and she expected nothing in return for what she gave when she gave it. And the conditional element works because it wouldn’t have been sensible for her to commit to something she could not do.

Oath-like vows in the Bible include:

  • Jephthah offering to kill in sacrifice the first living thing that greets him if God gives him victory in battle over the Ammonites (Judges 11:30-40), even though he already knew that God was demonstrably with him (v23). In the event, this cost his daughter’s life;
  • The remnant of Judah living in Egypt after the exile making vows to the Queen of Heaven (as in, a false god) (Jeremiah 44).

Oaths when one party wants to make a point – and it’s not necessarily an act of worship

Oaths are almost the same as vows, except that they aren’t made in an act of worship. So, to recap, this means that oaths:

  • are voluntary;
  • are made to express something of heartfelt importance;
  • are about a specific, measurable act;
  • involve only one party;
  • are NOT made in an act of worship.

Because they don’t involve worship there are two things to observe:

  • we see God making a few oaths; and
  • oaths are sometimes requested of a person by someone else (this doesn’t happen with vows).

Of course, a consequence of (2) there is that sometimes people are pressured or coerced into making oaths, so perhaps ‘voluntary’ doesn’t always strictly apply to oaths either. It’s also fair to say that whereas the oath is about something of heartfelt importance – it may not be of heartfelt importance to the person making the oath, but rather the person who requests the oath be made.

This aspect can lead to a different feel from what we see in vows. Whereas vows can be out of quiet piety, oaths tend to have a theatrical style and declaratory purpose to them. That’s why I say oaths are made when someone wants to make a point.

When God makes oaths

God’s promise to make the descendants of Abraham numerous and give them the land of Canaan is often referred to as an oath. Strictly speaking though, I don’t think these belong in the ‘oath’ category because they are part and parcel of a bigger covenant, so I’ll explore them later.

When God does commit himself to doing something in an oath, we also see both positive and negative forms. For example:

  • Positive: The appointment of Jesus as a priest of the order of the king Melchizedek (Hebrews 7).
  • Negative: Not allowing the Israelites to enter Canaan until the entire generation that had lived in Egypt had died (with the exceptions of Joshua and Caleb) (Numbers 32:10-12).

First thing to notice then is that an oath isn’t wrong or immoral just because it’s not positive. However, we also ought to recognise that God is in a far better place make a negative oath than we are. In particular, when it comes to this specific judgement on the Israelites’ disobedience in the desert:

  1. he was able to judge their actions fairly;
  2. the judgement was limited and specific; and
  3. (most importantly) the judgement was given as a warning to be remembered by future generations, so that they might remain in God’s blessing (1 Corinthians 10:1-13).

As such, it’s fair to say that this negative oath was an expression of God’s faithfulness.

So: don’t try this at home.

Because if you do, you might end up in a pickle – like the 40 men who swore not to eat until they had killed Paul (Acts 23:12-22) …and then weren’t able to kill him.

I know, stupid right?

When people make oaths

It is hard to find any good examples of oaths made by people in the Bible. There are a couple which are sort of reasonable:

  • The treaty at Beersheba (Genesis 21:22-31); though you get the feeling that Abimelek is making it out of fear and it’s possible that Abimelek was actually trying to work against God’s promise to Abraham; we also wonder whether it was actually fulfilled because the Israelites certainly war against the Philistines later down the line;
  • Abraham making his servant swear not to find a wife for his son Isaac from amongst the Canaanites (Genesis 24:1-41); again, you get the feeling that this oath is required out of fear, though on the plus side the servant is told that he will be released from his oath if he finds a suitable young woman but she doesn’t want to come back with him to marry Isaac.

So, in both these examples the oath was requested of a person by someone else and probably out of mixed motives.

Much more significantly, we have:

  • Jacob making Esau swear to give him his birthright (Genesis 25:31-33);
  • the catalogue of oaths made by Saul, one of which nearly meant he killed his son Jonathan (1 Samuel 14);
  • Peter swearing an oath when he denied Jesus (Matthew 26:72).

In fact, in the NIVUK, whenever you see someone say ‘as surely as the LORD lives’, that’s an oath. And, whenever you see someone say ‘may the LORD deal with me, be it ever so severely if…’ that’s a curse. Curses are very, very similar to oaths, they just make it more explicit that something bad will happen if the commitment isn’t met.

Perhaps unsurprisingly then, we also have the following teachings on oaths:

  • Jesus saying that people shouldn’t make oaths because anything more than ‘yes’ or ‘no’ comes “from the evil one” (Matthew 5:38-42);
  • James saying that people shouldn’t make oaths (James 5:12).

Can you see why I’ve chosen to call bad commitments ‘oath-like’?

Pledges – A transaction when something or someone is given in advance

Young women could be pledged in marriage and cloaks could be taken in pledge (though the latter was forbidden in the Old Testament as it denied a person basic dignity – Exodus 22:26-27).

The key point here is that there is an exchange between two parties, or the offering up of collateral as a guarantee. Pledges have a transactional or contractual element to them.

I don’t think this necessarily makes pledges bad.

Although I have much issue with the treatment of women and girls as property, I’m not personally offended by the idea of a person being offered in pledge. Partly this is because I’m a little bit of a romantic and I have a soft spot for the idea of betrothals and being chosen from birth, and partly it’s because I see the Christian life as being about the giving of ourselves to God.

Much more significantly though, I’m not offended because the Holy Spirit is given to the church as a guarantee of what is to come (2 Corinthians 5:5).

This is a pledge.

Covenant – establishing a new relationship and a framework for it

As I’ve said previously, ‘covenant’ has many positive connotations in Christian circles (and there are reasons for this) but doesn’t make them necessarily good.

The way I observe covenants in the Bible, they tend to have three characteristics:

  • They are big commitments that go beyond the specific, even if they are articulated in specific ways;
  • They establish a new relationship between two parties;
  • They establish a framework for how the two parties will relate to each other.

There aren’t many examples of people making covenants in the Bible, but there are some, both good and bad. A promise-like example is the covenant David makes with his friend Jonathan (1 Samuel 18:3). An oath-like example is the treaty the Israelites make with the Gibeonites (Joshua 9, see also Exodus 23:32 – and I appreciate this is a complex example).

When it comes to God though, he makes a whole bundle of covenants:

  • With Noah never to flood the earth again to destroy life (Genesis 9:11; we can infer that this promise also covers other methods of destruction such as earthquakes, meteorite collision, and nuclear war);
  • With Abraham to make his descendants numerous and give them the land of Canaan (Genesis 12-15);
  • With David to give his descendants the throne of Israel forever (1 Chronicles 17:1-15).

We also have the covenant made with Israel through Moses and the covenant made with the church through Jesus; the Bible is split into the Old and New Testaments (as in, covenants) on account of them. Note however that:

  • both of these covenants were established as fulfilments of the covenant previously made with Abraham; and
  • the covenant made through Moses is the only one God makes which he also ends. The reason for this is not because it was bad, but because it was perishable; in contrast, all the other covenants are everlasting (for further reading, see the book of Hebrews).

Meanwhile:

  • all of these covenants were initiated and established voluntarily by God; and
  • none of them required the people to do something or become worthy to enter (no, not even the Mosaic covenant required this).

All that said, if we look at the Abrahamic covenant and the Mosaic covenant, they are characteristically different, even aside from the fact that one is everlasting and the other perishable. The difference is this: the Abrahamic covenant mimics a promissory grant covenant; the Mosaic covenant mimics an obligatory treaty covenant.

My source on this is a paper by René Lopez Israelite Covenants in the Light of Ancient Near Eastern Covenants (for a download click here).

Neither agreement was made between equals. Instead both were made – if we use the terms applied to other Ancient Near Eastern covenants – between a master (God) and a servant (Abraham) or servant state (Israel). However, the agreements differ because the Mosaic (obligatory treaty) covenant, includes stipulations that Israel must fulfil but, in contrast, the Abrahamic (promissory grant) covenant doesn’t include any conditions. Instead, the entire onus is on God.

As for the covenant Jesus established, we might not be able to understand it completely through any other known covenant structure, but we be certain that it’s a lot more like the Abrahamic covenant than the Mosaic one. (For further reading: see Romans 4.)

What this means is there that is mystery around how conditional the Abrahamic and New Testament covenants are. On the one hand people seem to have options for exiting, but on the other hand, we get the very strong impression that God will be unconditionally faithful, even when people are unfaithful.

If that doesn’t all entirely make sense – I’m sorry! I don’t yet know how to explain it any better than this.

The most important thing to observe though is that all of God’s covenants are promise-like and an expression of his loving faithfulness. (Yes, I believe this is even true of the Mosaic covenant, though my reasons are outside the scope of this post.)

I reckon it’s because God’s covenants are promise-like and mysterious in nature, that you have Christians eager to establish relationships that emulate these characteristics and refer to them using the word ‘covenant’. The most obvious example is the commitment made in marriage. I dare say marital relationships have the potential to be worthy of being described as both ‘covenantal’ and promise-like. However, just because this can be the case, that does not mean it always is the case.

And, for the avoidance of any doubt: yes, God never made covenants with equals (because he has no equal), but no, this does not mean that husbands and wives should unequal partners in marriage.

Promise – saying you’re going to give a good thing at a future date

It wasn’t until I read a book about Jürgen Moltmann that I realised just how central the idea of promise is to the Christian faith. It’s fair to say that one of the most important characteristics of God is his faithfulness to his good promises. This is so central to understanding God that if I had to describe what God was like in a simple short sentence, I’d say “God is someone who makes good promises and keeps them.” In fact, without the promises of resurrection and the restoration of creation, the Christian faith would be pretty pointless, as Paul points out (1 Corinthians 15:19).

This is why I choose to describe good commitments as ‘promise-like’.

However, there is no getting away from the fact that the word ‘promise’ is used in a multiplicity of ways in the Bible (or at least, English translations of it). Moreover, it gets used in conjunction with other commitments. For example, God is described as having “promised on oath” to Abraham, to give his descendants the land of Canaan. And, as we’ve already established, that promise was a promissory covenant.

Because of this, the word ‘promise’ is almost as synonymous as ‘commitment’, with the possible difference that God only seems to promise good things. (He didn’t ‘promise’ that the generation of Israelites that left Egypt wouldn’t enter Canaan, he ‘swore’ it.) As such, I don’t think there’s much merit in going through particular examples of promises. But if you want to get a feel for why promise is so important to the Christian faith, then appreciate that this is what Paul is going on about in Romans 4 and Galatians 3-4, as well as Ephesians 2 and 3. It is also the subject matter of Hebrews 6-11.

Concluding thoughts

I hope this post will serve as a useful overview of the different kinds of commitment that are described in the Bible. With these categories, there are questions which readers can use to evaluate what kind of commitments they observe in other contexts, as well as their own lives. In particular:

  • Is it going above-and-beyond?
  • Is it specific or broad?
  • Is it being made to make a point?
  • Is it an act of worship?
  • Does it require action by just one person or by two parties?
  • Is anything exchanged or given in advance?
  • Does it create a new relationship?
  • Does it create a framework for a relationship?

As I’ve said, these give an indication about the form of a commitment, but not about whether a commitment is inherently good or bad, wise or unwise. That will be covered in the next post and, as we’ll see, a large part of what characterises the ethics of a commitment are what happens when the commitment is broken. After that, we’ll apply all this to the specific case of purity pledges.


If you liked this, you might also be interested in my 10 short statements on purity in Always reforming: 95 statements on hope, sexuality and consent.

Meanwhile my personal views about how purity links with virginity are set out in Rethinking virginity: yes, it is about purity, but it’s not like a silk scarf.

Also, in my earlier days of blogging I did a deep dive exploring differences in how commitment and promise are understood in the redemption arcs as portrayed in 50 Shades and Beauty & the Beast. One of insights from that was that abusers are known for making many promises, but redeemers are known for keeping one.

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