March 9, 2015

Truth Decay: the ethics of lying

by Clint Archer

contortedI once tried to visit Canada without lying. As a South African citizen I needed a visitor’s visa to set foot on their delightful tundra. I was vacationing in Michigan with a friend who suggested it would be very jet-set of me to add Canada to my menagerie of passport stamps since the border was only a few clicks away.

The plan was to pop into the nearest coffee shop that wasn’t a Starbucks, and pose for a picture with a moose or maple leaf or a live Canuck or something equally exotic.

The visa conundrum only occurred to us en route, but my friend assured me that they seldom ask for passports, and if I sat quietly they probably wouldn’t ask me anything at all.

I rehearsed looking unsuspicious and American. As we pulled up to the border the guard cheerfully asked “Are you both Americans?” We paused as we considered any way to answer this truthfully without letting on that we were not both Americans. The pause became the answer.

I was then interviewed as to why I wanted to enter Canada. The same reason that sounded adventurous a few hours earlier, now sounded implausible and devious: “We just wanted to come get a cup of coffee in Canada and then go back. Really.”

The staff in the office chuckled at my naivety and seemed genuinely flattered at my misguided effort to try sneak in simply to say that I’ve been to Canada. They offered me coffee from a machine and then politely declined my request and scooted us back to America.

The lesson was driven home a few years later when I again tried to enter Canada without lying. This time I did have a visa. I proudly brandished my passport and was preparing to reply jokingly, “It’s a-boat time you let me in” but instead of getting a warm “Welcome to Canada” the border guard shifted his glare between my face and the computer screen a few times and then summoned a guy with a gun to escort me to an interview room.

I waited on tenterhooks until a stern looking uniform asked if had ever attempted to cross the border illegally.

I tearfully bravely recounted my quixotic adventure blow-by-blow. He smiled and said, “Yup, that’s what your file says, we just wanted to know if you would lie a-boat it. Welcome to Canada.”

It’s amazing how in such instances a brain armed with biblical knowledge will do ethical gymnastics and contort passages to try fit lying into the will of God.fingers corssed

The passages that leapt to mind instantaneously were: the story of the Hebrew midwives’ lie, Rahab’s deception, and Samuel’s misdirection of Saul. So, I empathize with those graded and situational ethicists who cite these texts as proof that their systems are compatible with biblical ethics. But are they?

Last week I outlined the three common systems of ethics Christians subscribe to:

1) Graded ethics. E.g. when lying to save a life, a lie is clearly the lesser of two evils.

2) Situational ethics. E.g. when lying to save a life, if the life is an innocent one and the person you are lying to doesn’t deserve the truth, then in that situation the lie is not evil at all, but justified by the situation.

3) Absolutism. E.g. God never permits us to sin, a lie is always a sin, and your only responsibility is to refrain from sinning; thus either refuse to co-operate with the request and deal with the consequences, or tell the truth and deal with the consequences.

I promised I’d address the passages that seem to contradict absolutism. Here goes, briefly…

The Hebrew midwives (Exodus 1:15-20). If you read the account carefully you will notice that Shiphrah and Puah did not lie to save the lives of the Hebrew babies, they lied to save their own skin. They had already saved the boys, and lied only when called to give an account of their actions. When God commends them, it is for choosing to protect the Hebrew babies in godly defiance of Pharaoh’s command to sin.

Rahab (Joshua 2:1-5). This gutsy lady chose on the spot to side with the true God and his people rather than the pagan city in which she lived. She did this by hiding the Israelite spies. When the king demanded she give them up, she lied about seeing them flee the city. We’ll never know if refusing to co-operate would have been rewarded by God’s intervention to spare her… because she chose to lie instead. Rahab is commended for her faith in the true God by hiding the spies (Heb 11:31; James 2:25), but not specifically for the deceptive way she chose to buy them more time.

Samuel (1 Samuel 16:1-5). The prophet’s fear of the sociopathic Saul was preventing him from travelling to anoint David as king of Israel. Technically he’d be staging a coup d’etat and warrant the death penalty for treason. So he was understandably nervous.

God accommodates his jitters by instructing Samuel to take an animal with him as a safety blanket, so that if anyone asks, he could reply “I’m going to sacrifice this animal.” As it turned out, Saul never asked. Why? Because God is omniscient and knew he wouldn’t. But God also knew Samuel needed to feel like he had a safety net. Was this a lie? Obviously not: God is the one who commands it; and Samuel did sacrifice the animal. All he would have done is omitted the full purpose of the sacrifice, because God did not authorize Saul to be privy to that revelation.

In conclusion, none of these three scenarios presents an argument against absolute ethics.

Just remember that if you absolutely disagree with me in the comments, you are borrowing from my viewpoint to do so!


Clint Archer

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Clint has been the pastor of Hillcrest Baptist Church since 2005. He lives in Durban, South Africa with his wife and four kids.
  • Love the comments on the other post. I wonder how many sins are OK to justify something good. Sinful man will do anything to justify sin, and hiding it as a form of righteousness is maybe the ugliest form. At least open liars aren’t denying it and pretending it’s actually a godly humility.

    Where do we draw the line? How about “Deny Christ and I won’t kill this Jew!” I wonder what the non-absolutists would do there? How about “Fornicate with this woman who is not your wife and I won’t hurt these other people.” There are any number of sinful acts with which evil people could try to force us into to create moral a dilemma. I submit to you that your articles answer the question the best way and the Biblical way.

    The question is, what is the heart of the man making the choice? A heart bent on sin will find an excuse; a heart bent toward God will seek how to not sin and understand the contexts whereby what may seem like it could be sin is really not (like David with the shewbread, doing good on the Sabbath, etc).

    The question is, do people have the desire to pour over the Word daily in study so that they will be ready to know God’s thoughts in every possible circumstance? Most do not, so they come up with situational ethics whereby THEY get to be the authority if the hypothetical ever comes true.

    Thanks for taking a stand on what is a more important issue than most people think. Yeah, there’s no Nazi’s at the door today, but there are other “mild compromises” which “Christians” are committing daily using the justifications you’ve refuted above.

    • As you say, it’s not only bout lying versus saving; it’s the idea that God permits sin in some cases, rather than saying there is always a way of escape.

      • Yes, I thought the 1 Cor reference was astute and worthy of inclusion in this post as well.

    • Sir Aaron

      Michael: I’m happy you’ve worked this dilemma out in your mind so conclusively. Unfortunately, there are some of us that have to wrestle with this issue a bit longer.
      I agree with you on one point. Most, especially Americans, will never face the kind of situation that would justify a lie of any sort. If there is an exception which permits a lie, then it would be exactly that. A rare exception. Having said that, there are people, some of whom you probably know, who hold occupations which require lying on occasion (intelligence, law enforcement, military, etc.). For some, this isn’t a mere hypothetical exercise.
      I also find it a bit disconcerting that the theological argument put forward by those in your camp, seems to define “lie” down to the narrowest of meaning so as to avoid the really sticky situations. It’s pretty easy to say you don’t lie when you allow all manners of deception including misleading impressions and deliberate omissions so long as you don’t utter a false statement out load. And that is exactly the argument put forth by men in your camp.

      • Sir Aaron – I’ve always appreciated your comments on other sites. Greetings, brother!

        I believe 1 of 2 things must be occurring. Either I am wrong, and I’m applying a standard for other Christians to live up to which is not Biblical in which case I am in sin, acting pharisaical and, hopefully, as I mature and understand better will repent. Or, I am correct in which case you require a deeper understanding of the Scripture and appreciation for what God has told us. Either way, we are each required to seek God through His Word and be charitable one to another.

        I would like to challenge you to think through your rebuttal a bit and I’ll gladly read your reply.

        1. Provide Scriptural reasoning for a Christian to hold an occupation which requires lying. I don’t see it, and my Christian LE friends don’t see it either. They instead believe they should trust the Lord with all their heart and not do things the way that seems right to man.

        2. Uttering a false statement out loud is one way to lie. And as you say, that sometimes becomes the focus. But I would go so far as to say there are other forms of deception which are also lying. Like Clint crossing the border when he shouldn’t, but hoping he wouldn’t be asked. But the problem with this starts with his attempt to do that which he ought not…the deception was ancillary in this case. Nevertheless, I do not believe the Biblical proscription of lying means “always tell everyone the whole truth and all the truth all time.” Nor does it mean “never let anyone continue to believe a falsehood.”

        I submit to you this is exactly what the Lamb who opened not his mouth but was led like a sheep to the slaughter did. The God who CANNOT LIE will send a delusion (Thessalonians) and is quite pleased to keep secrets and allow people to believe falsehoods without intervention. What he does not do is LIE, so by that fact alone I find no basis to justify my own.

        What I see in every case is a man having a choice to do what seems right in his eyes or to try to follow the letter of the law and trust God. I don’t see anyone commended in scripture for sinning every, for lying or any type.

        Thanks be to God I continually see God work even through sinful acts of His people.

        Finally, let’s say there is a profession which requires lying…do you think Christians must take on that occupation? Being a porn star requires one to act in a way contrary to God…I’m not sure that means Christians may to select that for their job.

        3. I do believe there is a context for certain levels of deception where we are not lying against God. Like faking left and going right in Basketball. Maybe you are right and there are contexts for other forms of deception, but I don’t see it.

        4. Where do you draw the line? For example, you’d lie to save a life, right? How about deny Christ? Would you do that if it meant the bad guys would spare your wife and children? What level of sin are you willing to go to?

        Looking forward to your answers.

        • Sir Aaron


          I can’t speak directly to your LE friends since I don’t know them. However, I find it difficult to believe that a LEO has not directly or indirectly participated in an undercover operation, which on its face, is a lie. You also didn’t mention spies, military intelligence, or other positions that routinely use undercover identities. Maybe Christians ought not to hold these positions. (I agree with your stripper example just don’t think the analogy is a good comparison here). But to say that it isn’t a necessary facet of the job is to deny reality.

          One on hand a deception is a lie. On the other it’s not. your position allows me to do everything that a lie entails up to the actual verbal utterance of untruth. I can lead others to believe a lie (or omit the truth with the same effect) so long as I don’t actually say it out loud. You try to parse such deception through the context of the situation which leads you back to the problem at hand. how do you draw the line? You are faced with the very same question you asked me.

          My position is probably closer to John Frame’s.

          However, I will tell you my mind is not firmly planted on any position. Which is why I spend so much time considering the issue and why I tell you I struggle with the issue. I also believe you and I are not terribly far apart. We have different ways of dealing with the edges.

          As a total aside, Funny enough, I had this conversation with Phil Johnson. My respect for him jumped tenfold, if that were possible. He spoke with such amazing humility and genuine understanding on the topic.

    • Alex

      Could you explain why David and the shewbread was not sin? I’ve always considered it as a “God using for good what was done in sin” kinda thing.

      • Clint?? Can you help us out?

        • Alex

          Just for clarification, I was specifically meaning David’s decision to lie to Ahimelech. I think Jesus gives David sufficient reason for actually eating the bread (Matt 12).

  • David

    I’ve always considered myself in the absolute camp, but there’s one thing that bugs me about all of these examples. We are treating the commandment as simply don’t say something that’s untrue, yet all of these situations are inherently deceptive.

    When we teach children to be truthful, often we explain that it’s not just about not telling a boldfaced lie, but that witholding information with the intent to deceive is just as bad. Timmy breaks the lamp, you ask him and he says his sister was playing with a ball but forgets to mention she was in another room and he knocked it over with a stick.

    You didn’t lie to the border guard, but you were completely fine with him assuming you’re American. The midwives hid the children, which most certainly involved less than straightforward behavior. We smuggle Bibles into countries, and organize the christian gatherings so as to not be caught by the authorities. Not saying I have an answer, but just find the line of absolutism a little grey, not in when to lie, but rather what the sin of lying (or being deceptive in Leviticus 19:11) entails.

    • Good points, all. Let me clear about my illustration: what I did was wrong. For sure. But in the case of the midwives hiding the babies, that was not sin; the lying about it was sin, but the protection of innocent lives in disobedience to an ungodly command is not sin. John and Peter kept preaching the gospel as God told them to, rather than obey the instruction from authorities to disobey God. When we organize covert Christian gathering, that may be illegal, but is its not sin. Just like when Daniel’s refusal to stop praying was illegal in Babylon, but it was not sinful. We obey the law until it tells us to sin; then we disobey. Hope that makes sense.

      • Persio David López

        Hmm… I agree with the fact that we must obey God before obeying men, and that if we ever encounter a collision between God’s will and men’s laws there’s no doubt about which path to choose.

        However, I don’t think the original question is answered. Certainly, the midwives preferred to go in accordance to God’s will (cf. Gn. 9) rather than Pharaoh’s ungodly law. However, by hiding information, they were lying –just as much as you acknowledge it would’ve been wrong for you to have the border patrol assume you were American.

        Moreover, was God instructing Samuel to speak a half-truth? The fact that Saul never asked doesn’t change the reality: a certain instruction was given. In a similar way, would it be, really, an act of love towards God and my Jew neighbor to refuse to answer to a Nazi officer and get us both killed, while knowing the Jew I’m keeping in my house will most certainly awake in hell as a consequence?

        I believe Bonhoeffer makes a good case for what you could call a middle ground between absolutism and a graded ethic. A very practical, horizontal, not-mentioning-all-the-inner-details-of-the-heart vision of this middle ground is given by Solomon in Eccl. 7:16-18.

    • I do believe that there is a context for hidden things. I don’t see any problem with keeping a secret, unless revealing the secret is somehow required.

      Like, if I have a surprise birthday party for someone…I don’t think it’s wrong to keep that hidden. But if directly asked about it, I think I’d fail to keep the secret!

      Another question is this, what about joking? So for April Fool’s Day is it OK to set all the clocks in your house forward 1 hour before the rest of the family awakes? Is that bearing false witness in the same sense as what God intends in the moral law?

      • Surely if you plan to reveal the truth it’s not deception. On the other hand, my wife and I have a policy of no surprise parties in order to avoid lying to each other. We just say “not telling’ and that means, “you’ll find out soon enough”

        • Sir Aaron

          If you say or do something that is designed to deceive, even if you plan to reveal the truth later, is still a deception.

        • Planning to reveal the truth is an interesting phrase. So what do you say about lying to kids about Santa, planning to tell them within 5 or 10 years?

    • Sir Aaron

      David, I’m with you here. This is a point that has perplexed me because those in the absolutist camps seems to be saying that deception is perfectly fine so long as one does not say something that is false on its face. Your example is a great one to make this point. In your example with Timmy, you and I would probably call what Timmy said, a lie by omission. Yet according to absolutism, that is not a lie because then we are stuck with God giving Samuel permission to lie.
      I also have questions about law enforcement, spies, military, or other occupations where lying is sometimes a necessary job requirement.

  • Dan Freeman

    Thanks for this concise response. I have not firmly held to any of the views, although I have always leaned toward the absolutist view.

    One question I do have with regard to that view is this. Every action we take while still in the body, even just existing, is always tainted to some extent with sin, no matter how pure the motives and how progressed we are in the school of Christ. Thus, in every case, it would be properly said that rather than trying to do the most good, we are trying to do the least amount of evil, right? It seems to be that this fits best in the graded position of choosing the lesser of available evils.

    Again, I have always tended to the absolute view, but this question has always prevented me from holding it “absolutely”.

  • SP

    As one of those Canadian border guards this post made my day. Thanks!

    • Awesome! I was impressed by your politeness and geniality considering I was a sneaky foreigner.

  • MR

    Is it sin to work for a business that you know for certain is dishonest with their clients?

  • Still Waters

    Great story about a border crossing. My border-crossing (it wasn’t in Canada) tale is the exact opposite – they wouldn’t believe that I wasn’t lying because the truth I told was rather fantastic. Very frustrating position, although they eventually believed me on outside proof and let me pass.

    Your responses are ones that I have read elsewhere and I do not absolutely disagree with you. However, the thing that stands out to me about the midwives and Rahab is that they are blessed by God for their faith and obedience – not for their lying, I concede that point – in spite of the fact that they were, arguably, faithless and disobedient enough to lie. Their lies are related as a matter of fact in Scripture, never commended, yet also, never condemned. In the past, I have heard the argument that those who are completely honest will receive greater blessing for that honesty, yet what greater blessing could there be than to be given husbands and children and, in Rahab’s case, be the ancestor of Christ and praised by the apostles for her faith?