Vows and Commitments: Tools for Spiritual Abuse?

For as long as I can remember, I have heard about vows and commitments. Throughout my life, different speakers and teachers encouraged me to make various commitments. Bill Gothard probably pushed me to make more commitments than anyone else. He greatly emphasized vows and commitments to the Lord, explaining that this was how we would receive spiritual power and breakthroughs.

I still remember him teaching in the Basic Seminar: “So you’re having trouble remembering to read your Bible every day? I’ll tell you how to fix that. Make a vow that you will read the Bible every day.”

Then one day, God reminded me of this passage:

Again, ye have heard that it hath been said by them of old time, Thou shalt not forswear thyself, but shalt perform unto the Lord thine oaths: But I say unto you, Swear not at all; neither by heaven; for it is God’s throne… (Matthew 5:33-34)

I always believed that Jesus was talking about swearing that something is true (for example, in court). And I do believe that His words would cover that sort of situation. However, Jesus is specifically talking about an oath that you perform to the Lord.

In order to understand what this means, we need to rewind a few thousand years.

Bargaining with Vows

The Old Testament contains many references to vows. However, they tend to be different than our current understanding of vows.

Many times, in the Old Testament, people made vows as sacrifices to God by promising Him something. Some examples actually take the form of a bargain with God!

For example:

Jacob vowed a vow, saying, “If God will be with me, and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat, and clothing to put on, so that I come again to my father’s house in peace, and the Lord will be my God, then this stone, which I have set up for a pillar, will be God’s house. Of all that you will give me I will surely give a tenth to you.” (Genesis 28:20-22)

Whoever offers a sacrifice of peace offerings to the Lord to accomplish a vow, or for a freewill offering, of the herd or of the flock, it shall be perfect to be accepted. It shall have no defect… Either a bull or a lamb that has any deformity or lacking in his parts, that you may offer for a freewill offering; but for a vow it shall not be accepted. (Leviticus 22:21,23)

Israel vowed a vow to the Lord, and said, “If you will indeed deliver this people into my hand, then I will utterly destroy their cities.” The Lord listened to the voice of Israel, and delivered up the Canaanites; and they utterly destroyed them and their cities. The name of the place was called Hormah. (Numbers 21:2-3)

Jephthah vowed a vow to the Lord, and said, “If you will indeed deliver the children of Ammon into my hand, then it shall be, that whatever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me, when I return in peace from the children of Ammon, it shall be the Lord’s, and I will offer it up for a burnt offering.” (Judges 11:30-31)

Vows in the New Testament

There are only two times that the New Testament specifically mentions vows, at least in the King James Version:

Paul, having stayed after this many more days, took his leave of the brothers, and sailed from there for Syria, together with Priscilla and Aquila. He shaved his head in Cenchreae, for he had a vow. (Acts 18:18)

“Therefore do what we tell you. We have four men who have taken a vow. Take them, and purify yourself with them, and pay their expenses for them, that they may shave their heads. Then all will know that there is no truth in the things that they have been informed about you, but that you yourself also walk keeping the law.” (Acts 21:23-24)

Both of these references imply that it was an Old Testament-style vow. There are no references throughout the New Testament where anyone made a vow to do or not do something specific.

Vows for Christians?

With this background in mind, let’s turn to a passage that some teachers have used to emphasize the seriousness of vows:

When you vow a vow to God, don’t defer to pay it; for he has no pleasure in fools. Pay that which you vow. It is better that you should not vow, than that you should vow and not pay. Don’t allow your mouth to lead you into sin. Don’t protest before the messenger that this was a mistake. Why should God be angry at your voice, and destroy the work of your hands? (Ecclesiastes 5:4-6)

Now, going back to Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount, I want to state that honesty is very important. Jesus went on to say that our “Yes” must be “Yes” and our “No” be “No”. When we make promises to God or others, we should not disregard those promises and break our word.

But because some people have used vows to spiritually abuse others, I want to clear up what the above passage is talking about. It is an Old Testament passage for Old Testament times. If you had vowed to give God a sacrifice, it was important to follow through with your vow.

However, we are no longer offering sacrifices. We are under the New Covenant. Therefore, we should not use this passage to claim that God will “destroy the works of your hands” if, for example, you fail to read your Bible every day.

You may find yourself under a pile of vows and commitments that people encouraged you to make. You may be afraid that if you mess up, or worse yet, forget one of them, that God will ruin your life. Please–that’s not what this passage is talking about. (So what SHOULD you do? Read on.)

Also, when I examined what the Bible says about vows, I found that God has not indicated, in the New Covenant, that we should make vows and commitments that go beyond His Word. On the contrary, He warns us not to allow others to take advantage of us with teachings of men (Col. 2:18). He warns us, too, that such teachings appear Godly, but are worthless against the lusts of the flesh (Col. 2:23).

Beware when someone encourages you to commit to something that God has not commanded.

Filling God’s Place

I came to realize that vows can be a way of displacing God from His Lordship of my life. You see, if I make a vow that I will or will not do something, that is a new command that I have put upon myself, something that God has not commanded me. It is actually a means of taking lordship over myself!

Gothard-style vows set me up as God, to a certain extent. Rather than turning to God for His grace and power for obedience to Him, making vows in the Bill Gothard style substitutes my power for God’s. In essence, Bill’s “commitments” are nothing more than will-power stimulants. For example, going back to the Bible-reading example at the beginning, making a vow does not cause God to give you grace to remember to read your Bible. It only scares you into remembering, lest God punish you for breaking the vow!

Jesus said, “Without Me, you can do nothing” (John 15:5). However, many people deny the all-sufficiency and the all-necessity of Jesus by trying to use rules, vows, commitments, convictions, dress, habits, disciplines, etc., to be victorious in the Christian life and accomplish what God tells them to do. Many deny the total necessity of Jesus by attempting to do things for God that God has not told them to do, or in a way that God has not told them to do, or at a time that He has not told them to act. They act without getting God’s direction for what they are doing, then ask God to bless it. They may actually be doing God’s will—He may have given them the idea—but there’s an excellent chance that they are not doing His will.

Abused and Controlled by Vows

The Catholic Church uses vows to abuse people—their monks and nuns. Part of the monastic life involves making certain vows, such as celibacy and perhaps never leaving the convent or abbey. They are controlled by their vows.

In similar fashion, various churches and teachers control and abuse people with vows. They teach a non-Biblical teaching, then ask people to make a commitment to God to obey that teaching. They tell the people that if they break that vow or commitment, God will punish them for breaking the vow.

In short, they have created a non-Biblical “sin”, complete with threat of punishment from God.

The dangerous thing is that it can be difficult to avoid making these vows or commitments. It may occur at a seminar or conference, with hundreds or thousands of people participating, and peer pressure can push people to make commitments that they would not make otherwise. The people involved may be young and incapable of understanding what they are really committing to, or the consequences of their decision.

When I got baptized at age ten, my Mennonite church also required me to join the church and commit to following their church rules. Baptism is an essential part of salvation—not just symbolic. As Galatians 3:27 tells us, “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.” Because of my church’s requirements, in order for me to put on Christ, I also had to put on the church’s rules.

This, folks, is spiritual abuse.

Escaping Bad “Vows”

What we do when we have been abused into making bad vows or commitments?

Here’s what I did: I went to God. And He showed me a couple things.

First of all, there was a batch of commitments that I had made (daily Bible reading, courtship, modesty, and no rock music) in order to participate in a property cleanup project with our local homeschool group. God showed me that I had not made these commitments to Him, but to the man who had headed up the project and required all the kids to sign these “Memos of Commitment”.

Secondly, I had committed not to look at immodest women. However, God showed me that this was based on false premises, and the commitment was invalid.

There were several other commitments that God told me He was releasing me from. Obviously, as the One I made the promise to, He has the right to cancel the promise.

So I encourage you to do the same thing. Go to your Heavenly Father and ask Him what to do. If my experience is any indicator, He is ready and waiting to set you free.


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4 Replies to “Vows and Commitments: Tools for Spiritual Abuse?”

  1. This is a subject that hits me pretty close to home. During adolescence and young adulthood, I was plagued by the fear of displeasing God and being condemned to hell as a result. I suspect that I was dealing with anxiety, and that my mind tried to explain my feelings of dread by attributing them to my status as a sinner condemned by God. Satan was working in these feelings too.

    At any rate, one way I responded to these feelings was by making spiritual commitments, or even by generating commitments where there weren’t any – there had just been uneasy feelings. These commitments were miserable things.

    Another way I responded was by continuously “repenting” of “sins” I felt I’d committed. One big hang up for me was honesty. I’d gotten to a point where I could barely answer a question out of fear of not answering it truthfully, thus telling a lie, thus sinning, thus going to Hell. I also had to repent of my “sins” “just right”, or else my repentance wouldn’t “count”. If I read the Bible, I had to read it “right”. This led to my devotional time being long, painful ordeals I just wanted to get over with.

    I had developed a solid case of scrupulosity, which is a particular form of obsessive compulsive disorder. I lived in a state of paralyzing dread. It was blinding, numbing, awful stuff. I could not stop the thoughts of uncertainty and condemnation spinning in my head. They wouldn’t even leave me alone in my dreams. My mind was clouded, I couldn’t connect with others, and I just wanted the pain to stop. I didn’t consider suicide – that would be a sin, after all – but I did think about just… disappearing.

    This horrible state is not what God wants for us when He calls us to be holy. I am fortunate. My mother sensed what I was going through and helped me get professional support. She also pointed me to Jesus and the real Gospel. I am in a much better place now, and I’m learning more about Who God really is and what Jesus means for me. The thoughts and feelings are much quieter and less frightening now. I’m taking joy in my life and in my relationships with others. I see and think and feel so much more clearly.

    And you know what? I do still have some of that ritualized thinking and behavior, and I do still find myself responding to those old patterns of guilt and fear and compulsion, and I do still listen to some of those commitments. Perhaps I should ask Our Heavenly Father about those and see what He has to say.

    Thanks for tackling this subject.

    1. Thanks for sharing, Lilian. I remember reading your blog post about scrupulosity some time ago. I think it might have been the first time I heard the term. I can so identify with what you’re talking about. I think that maybe our Mennonite background, with its emphasis on doing the right thing, under threat of being barred from Heaven, certainly feeds such a mindset. Especially when we’re not just told that you could go to Hell for some major offense like murder, but for something as simple as dressing the wrong way.

      I’m very thankful you were able to find help. As you said, learning to know the real Jesus and the real gospel makes a big difference.

      And oh, what you said about painful devotional times… yes!

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