Is it ever OK for a Christian to Lie?
Simply asking "Is it ever OK for a Christian to lie?" may be a cause for concern to some. Why would I even bring up the question? After all, the Word of the Lord is clear, God hates lying. (Psalm 5:6; Proverbs 6:17; 12:22; Acts 5:3-4) And, like our God, we are to be known as truth-tellers (John 8:44; Ephesians 4:25). Also, there is the crystal clear sixth commandment, "You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor." (Exodus 20:16) Am I diminishing the sin of lying by my inquiry?
Asked a different way, "is all lying forbidden?" Is there a difference between lying and deception? When you leave that light on in your home while you are away, in order to make it look like someone is home, is that lying? Or when you seek to deter burglars by putting up a sign in your front yard that says "beware of the dog" or "beware of gun" when you have neither, is that lying? Should we forbid our children from playing "hide and seek"due to that centuries-old game's employment of deception? And boy, oh boy! How do we categorize that state police car backed into and hidden in that circle of trees with his radar gun? When he pulls me over for speeding do I have a legitimate exuse because of his deception?
There are Biblical narratives that seem to teach descriptively that there are times in which lying is permissible, even affirmed.
Shiphrah and Puah (Exodus 1:15-22) The nameless King of Egypt ordered these two Hebrew midwives to kill the Hebrew male babies as soon as they were born. They feared God and refused. When Pharaoh questioned them why the boys were continuing to be born, they said "Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women, for they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes to them." (v.19) It was obviously a lie. Creative and winsome, for sure, but a lie nonetheless. God's response: "So God dealt well with the midwives." (v.20)
Rahab the Prostitute (Joshua 2) In Jericho, there was a prostitute who lived in the red-light district apartments that were built into the Jericho wall, named Rahab. Two Israeli spies came into here house. She hid them. When the King of Jericho heard, he sent some of his special forces to arrest the spies. When they rang the doorbell to Rahab's apartment and demanded she turn over the spies, she replied, "...True, the men came to me, but I did not know where they were from. And when the gate was about to be closed at dark, the men went out. I do not know where the men went. Pursue them quickly , for you will overtake them." (v.4b-5) That was a whopper of a lie! How does James, the half-brother of Jesus, who emphasized the importance of works validating saving faith view Rahab's lie? "Was not Rahab the prostitute justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way?"(James 2:25) And then, there's the affirmation of Rahab's deception by the writer of Hebrews when she is featured in the "Hall of Faith" saying, "By faith Rahab the prostitute did not perish with those who were disobedient, because she had given a friendly welcome to the spies." (Hebrews 11:31)
Christians have typically held one of two positions on this ethical question: (1) absolutists and (2) the greater good.
Absolutists as their name indicates, believe lying is wrong in every circumstance. Absolutists do not believe that a person is ever in a situation in which they have to or should lie.
For instance, Immanuel Kant, the eighteenth century skeptic (an unbeliever) was an absolutist. He was committed to what he called categorical imperatives. He believed that the truth must always be told. Rather than ever deceive he must always tell the truth. He believed that if one of his friends was being sought after by an axe murderer he should tell the truth about his friends whereabouts. He believed that if the axe murderer ended up killing his friend, that he had no responsibility because he told the truth. Admittedly, that's pretty extreme example, but it is a fair example of an absolutist viewpoint.
Greater good advocates believe there is a difference between lying and deception and that under certain circumstances deception is permitted.
In Nazi Germany during WWII, there were believers like Corrie ten Boom who hid Jews in her home during the Holocaust so that they could eventually escape. There was a secret room in Corrie's bedroom behind a false wall that would hold up to six people. A ventilation system was installed for those that were being hidden. A buzzer could be heard in the house to warn refugees to get into the room as quickly as possible during security sweeps through the neighborhood. Clearly deceptive, but for the greater good.
In the history of interpretation of the Scriptures, most theologians have landed on the absolutists side rather than on the greater good.
For instance, the fifth century theologian, Augustine, wrote a book De Mendacio ("A Treatise on Lying") that concluded that the Hebrew midwives were guilty of deceit. The Reformer John Calvin in his commentary said of Shiphrah and Puah, "the two Hebrew women did a reprehensible and displeasing thing."
Theologians who disagree and see a category for "greater good" see three types of lies:
Malicious Lies: This is a lie that withholds truth from someone who morally and legally deserves the truth. On many occasions the malicious lie brings harm to the one lied to or lied about while it protects the liar. This type of lying and deception is clearly contraband in our lives and is a sin.
Jocular Lies: These are lies or deceptions that are having fun with someone, telling jokes, or games and competition. Jocular lies would include lying to someone so that you can throw them a surprise birthday party, or trying to deceive someone in Chess or a card game, or a head-fake in basketball and a sleeper play in football.
Lies of Necessity : These are lies to protect the life, possessions, and the reputation of others. It includes military strategies, self-defense, concealed carry, and not saying things that might be true which would hurt or soil the reputation of others.
I side with the greater good position. This post may seem somewhat academic, belonging more to a Christian Ethics classroom. However, I believe there is great practical value and clean-conscience blessing in working through one's thoughts on "is it ever ok for a Christian to lie?". While we should be consistent truth tellers, we must also grow in our discernment of moments in which the greater good calls for conscientious, "fear of God"( deception (Exodus 1:17). Yes, I just said that.
Brian Fuller. www.scriptureandplainreason.com
Lead Pastor, East Brandywine Baptist Church, 999 Horseshoe Pike, Downingtown, PA 19335