The Justified Lie?
In Sunday school this morning at Kosmosdale Baptist Church, Tim Scott led our class in considering the question of whether, from a Christian perspective, a person is ever justified in telling a lie.
This question is hotly debated within Christian circles. The question is raised due to both exegesis [we were studying 1 Samuel 20 today in class, in which Jonathan lies to King Saul concerning David’s whereabouts; Michal had similarly lied in the previous chapter] and experience [the practice of some Christians– sadly few in number– hiding Jews from the Nazis during the WWII era is regularly considered].
My own position on this issue is simple: Christians do not lie.
A few things to note:
1. There is no instance of God commanding a person to lie in Scripture.
2. In no didactic passages– where a prophet, apostle, or Christ Himself is giving teaching– are the followers of God taught to lie.
3. In the historical narratives of Scripture in which people who are otherwise presented as righteous engage in lying to those who seek to persecute God’s chosen people, and they are they afterward commended, what Scripture commends is faith and fear of God rather than fear of men: lying is never directly commended.
4. We must be careful as to what conclusions we infer from historical narrative passages, letting the prophetic or didactic passages interpret the inspired narratives; otherwise, we can draw wrong conclusions: for example, we could imagine that the Bible affirms bigamy because Jacob and his family are blessed after he marries both Leah and Rachel, but the direct teaching from Jesus concerning monogamy should govern our understanding of the OT.
1. God Himself never lies, it is– in fact– impossible for God to lie (Num 23:19; Heb 6:18), and Christ– who is one Person, having the nature of both God and Man– is named the Truth (John 14:6).
2. The Christian life is to consist in sanctification, in which we are being ever more conformed to the image of Christ (cf. Rom 8:29).
3. Therefore, the Christian must not lie– no matter the circumstance– for in choosing to lie, the Christian would become not more, but less like God, who does not lie: no matter the circumstance.
In general, a Christian does not kill nor wound, and a Christian lives in obedience to parents and governing authorities. But a Christian who is a soldier in the army may kill or wound an enemy soldier in a just war situation; a Christian government official may execute a criminal who has committed a capital offense, justly exercising the ‘power of the sword’ (Rom 13:4). Christians may need to disobey parents or governing authorities if those authority figures command them to engage in sin (Acts 5:29).
Some would argue that there is a category for a ‘justified lie’ that would be similar to the categories for ‘just war’ or ‘justified disobedience.’ But I would argue that lying is fundamentally different. A Christian incurs no guilt in engaging in just war or disobeying an authority that commands sin. In these actions, a Christian is reflecting– rather than rejecting– the character of God. Killing in itself does not violate the character of God: God Himself is recorded as directly killing people on occasion (Lev 10:2; 1 Chron 13:10; Acts 5:5,10, etc.). Obviously, God honors Himself as the highest authority and is not beholden to obey any human authority, so there is no question of disobedience being fundamentally– in itself– against God’s character. But lying is different. God never lies; it is impossible for Him to lie; He is the Truth. And so lying is ALWAYS– in itself– against the character of God.
Not a justified lie, but justified disobedience:
So, if there is no such thing as a ‘justified lie,’ what is a Christian to do in a situation similar to the one mentioned above, in which some Christians hid their Jewish neighbors from the Nazis in WWII? Notice the example of the Church within the New Testament. The government officials were not on their side. And yet– besides having no command from Christ nor His apostles to tell a lie when facing persecution– we have no example of someone in the early new covenant community telling a justifiable lie. We do have teaching and example concerning believers practicing ‘justified disobedience’ without lying (Acts 5:29), and that is what I would counsel. If the Nazis were to ask you where you are hiding the Jews [to conclude this illustration], then you should respond: ‘I will not tell you, I must serve God rather than men.’ It is no sin to suffer persecution, as Christ Himself did; it is no sin to suffer death, as Christ Himself did. But it is a sin to lie, as Christ NEVER did: “He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in His mouth” (1 Peter 2:22 ESV). You may think: ‘But unless I lie, and not just refuse to answer, then the results will be tragic.’ But if I am correct, and lying is always a sin, then even when it seems that lying is the most reasonable option you must, “Trust in the LORD with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding” (Prov 3:5 ESV).