The Testimony of Truthfulness (Matt. 5:33-37)

Text from my sermon June 13, 2010.

This morning we begin our summer long discussion on Quaker testimonies with the testimony of truthfulness,  or what has more typically been called the testimony of truth-telling, honesty, integrity, against oath-taking, etc.

Irregardless of what we call it, listening to, learning, and living the truth are the  central activities to the Quaker tradition of truth. These practices of the truth what we see in God’s own acts: when God speaks, God speaks truth, when God acts (as we see in the life of Jesus), God acts truthfully, and when we build communities based on the Holy Spirit these communities become learning communities of truth.

For Early Friends this testimony developed out of a particular social context that was undergoing a lot of turmoil. One of the main challenges to the truth as Friends saw was the constant demand to take oaths before a judge in order to ensure that people would tell the truth.

Imagine for a moment that you are about to be called to stand in a court of law and requested to place your hand on the Holy Bible and swear to the tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. In our day, this practice of swearing on the Bible, swearing on God, your grandmother’s grave, or to heaven are common occurrences. Because this is so common, we may not think twice about doing it, or about what a practice like oath-taking symbolizes.

When, in the 1600’s, early Friends were called to take an oath they refused. They refused so often, that this is the single biggest reason why thousands of Quakers were imprisoned in the first generation of the movement. Many died in these prisons because they refused to take oaths, many, such as Isaac and Mary Penington,  two wealthy members of the Society of Friends, lost all of their property and belongings to the state under the penalty of praemunire, which was the penalty for those who refused to take the oath of allegiance a second time (the first punishment was imprisonment).

With so many people in prison, so many people dying, and so many losing property why wouldn’t they just take the oath? Was it that they knew they were guilty of something and couldn’t tell the truth? Was it because they had something to hide? Or were they just being stubborn?


Our passage this morning from Matt 5:33ff is found in the larger context of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. The Sermon on the Mount is Jesus’ main sermon, his main outline for the kind of discipleship and practice that he saw shaping his community.  It is his “Gettysburg Address,” his “I Have a Dream.” This is the moment when Jesus stands up on the side of a mountain and lays out his plans for a new future, laying out his vision for community. And ever since then, whenever there is a renewal movement in Christianity it typically begins with people re-reading this document and taking it seriously enough to actually try and work it out in their lives.

For early Quakers, they too believed the Sermon on the Mount was to be lived out, taken at face value and practiced as best as possible. Not as a new law but as an entirely new social order. Their thought was that upon an encounter with God, this is the way you couldn’t help but live. So when we get to Jesus’ words:

“Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one. (Mt. 5:37)

They took that not simply as an act to be done mindlessly but as the result, as the consequence of an encounter with Christ, the realization that God’s kingdom is here with us now. In other words, when you met the Spirit of Truth, you experience truth in its purest form, if you experience that truth for yourself, then the result of your obedience to that experience will also be truth.

Isaac Penington put it like this:

The use of an oath was not for man in innocency, nor for man under the power and virtue of the redemption by Christ…but for fallen man, for man erred from the truth and covenant of God: and it is very manifest to us, that for a disciple of Christ, who hath received the law from his lips against swearing, to be brought back again to swearing…is no less than a denial of Christ, who is his life and redeemer out of the fallen state, and who also is the substance, which ends the oaths.

Once we have come into the power and redemption of Christ, we walk and grow in truth.

To take an oath, to swear that we will speak truth then is to deny that we already have experienced truth. It is a temptation to give into the power of the world, when we already live in the power of the God. To refuse to take an oath is to declare that:

There is a bigger judge.
There is a more powerful reality.
There is a community of people living within that reality.
This kind of refusal is to stand up to the world, and show that, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer says, an oath is the very sign of the fact that we live in a world based in lies.

It is also to tempt us into a double-standard, a standard that suggests there can be two allegiances, one oath to God, and one oath to the world. It creates a double-standard that says, what I do under oath does not need to meet up with how I live when I am not under oath. But we not buy this for even a moment. To live into this kind of double-standard, where there are two allegiances, two ethics,  is to make the self either schizophrenic, or it masks our real allegiances.


The Quaker movement was a renewal movement within the church. George Fox set out to find a community who lived out their faith in authentic ways, and what he found was a church that lived in dis-integration, that was dualistic.

Thus Quakers practiced telling the truth in all manner of ways:

  • By publishing and being vocal for truth
  • By fixing prices rather than bartering
  • By utilizing plain speech such as “thee” and “thou” and no using the names of days of the week because they were based on pagan gods, etc.

Early Friends who had their own businesses were among the first to set fixed prices rather than bargain because they felt it was a more honest way to do business, John Woolman, a taylor, sent people to other taylors who had less business when he got to busy to handle the work load himself, putting into practice a deeply Christ-centered generosity. Friends have sought to speaking plainly, without exaggeration, with honesty and love as the main focus. They found ways of plain-speaking that reflected the equality of humanity, whether rich or poor, black or white, male or female. These are all things we can learn from in our daily practice.

Over against this, the Quaker experience of the church in their time was dismal. The preachers were “hirelings,” basically people who had become pastors more because it seemed like a stable job and less because they had a call to do it. Early Friends said hirelings did not live in the Light and Power of the Risen Lord. The people in the congregations went to worship but did not show any signs of having been transformed or effected by the Holy Spirit of God. There was a split in the self. There was a lack of unity within the church between its words and its deeds. There was dis-integration, rather than integration.

Truthfulness works towards an integration of life and word. That is why Quakerism has always been a way of life, just like early Christianity. It is not a statement of faith, but “an outward testimony of an inner truth” (W. Cooper).

Dis-Integration happens all around us, sometimes we are not even aware of it.

Our society is based on many false images of success, constant lies, and is broken at its very core. We pay lip service to something without knowing for ourselves the truth deeper truth. We say we want truth, yet we look for ways to avoid its gaze. We can put on a good show, but we cannot put on an authentic life.

Ours is a world, a community, a family, in need not of more Christians professing truth while living dis-integrated lives, but rather a people who continue to work out what it means to hold to the testimony of integrity and truthfulness as a central part of our own experiences of God.

Believing that life is not what it ought to be and that it needs to be transformed, Quakers have always had a passion for making the world over. Since the time of George Fox, Friends have had a deep sense that one ought to be able to live as if the kingdom of God were a reality here and now and not some golden age of the past or some blessed event of the future.  (Wilmer Cooper, 129)

In a society of dis-integration, we need to continue to find ways to live as an alternative social community rooted in a life of truthfulness. So then the whys about early Quakers and oaths are answered this way. Oaths are just one symptom of the deep distrust we have of one another. The church is to be that social order, the people of the kingdom now and not yet, who build trust through the way they speak, the way they listen, and the way the live. There was little room in their society, as well as in our own, for people who try to put this into practice.

Living Truthfully

At the beginning of this message I said that listening to, learning, and living the truth are the  central activities to the Quaker tradition of truth.

These are plenty of ways in which truth is not in our world, or is mis-used in our world.

We don’t need more words, we need less.
We don’t need more people touting their truths, their gospels, we need more people living out the good news.

And this is why I think truthfulness will always include practices of listening, learning and living.

So in closing I want to encourage one response: let’s change our focus from truth-telling to truthfulness, that we may become a listening, learning and living community who witnesses to God’s truth. We can trust that out of this will flow authentic speech.

For truth-telling prioritizes speech but we already have plenty of that in our culture. We have speech that creates boundaries, instant information, instant opinion, and often harms others.

It is all around us:

The preacher on the corner.
The pundit.
The politician.
The business man.
The blogger.

But truthfulness is a desire to know, an attitude of the heart and a position to the world. We position ourselves in a way that we listen and learn the truth, we don’t already know in advance what it is.

Therefore, Truthfulness prioritizes Silence, listening, learning, living, accompaniment, friendship.

As Early Quakers said – “let your life speak.”

Part of truthfulness then is recognizing that there are things we cannot know, that the truth exceeds our own understanding, that it is bigger than us and encompasses more than just our views and opinions. That we will sometimes be wrong, that we will sometimes have to repent, and say I am sorry.

Passing blame is never a movement of truthfulness.
Truthfulness seeks to maintain integrity in all of life.

Truth never draws lines because truth is not threatened, it is love. It calls, it accompanies, and slowly works its way in through our hearts and our minds.

A truly Quaker understanding of truthfulness should begin in silence. That we, in order to practice truthfulness, begin in listening rather than speaking. Truth, wisdom tells us, is closer to those who speak little rather than too much. In our listening we will learn to be truthful to ourselves, and before God, and if we attend to that then we will be able to carry out truthful lives.