A lot of ink has been spilled over the subject of lying and whether or not a lie is justified. It’s an important topic, but not one that is as controversial as some folks would like you to think. My thoughts here are after the fashion of Corrie Ten Boom and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I make the argument with a contrite and prayerful spirit all the while using what I view is a very commonsensical approach. I acknowledge first and foremost that this issue is complex and even harder to live out.
I was having a conversation on this very topic at one of our Reasonable Faith meetings here in Birmingham. This has been several years ago now, but at the time, one of the participants was making the argument that lying was explicitly condemned under the Law, and as such, there was never justification for lying to anyone. This struck several people in the group as being unreasonable, as well as unbiblical. As we sipped our coffee we explored this idea in a completely abstract and safe environment. No one was holding a gun to our heads demanding that we give the names of those we were hiding. There were no spies on the rooftop while the city officials questioned us. We were safe, sipping our Americano’s from the local coffee shop. We had nothing to fear.
But fear of death and imprisonment is precisely what many people have had to choose if their little ruse was found out. Corrie Ten Boom is one of many Christians who was willing to lay down their life in order to protect the innocent. She was even willing to lie to the authorities when asked direct questions about who they were aiding and abetting. Christians in the 21st century also have to deal with issues like this. There are underground house churches all over China. Christians in the Middle East who would hide Yazidi girls from thugs and brutes. Christian missionaries in the east, who have to protect those who leave their religion that they were born into. So, while abstract in a coffee shop in Birmingham, this is a very real question at present to many all over the world.
So, on the face of it, I would disagree with my fundamentalist friend about his interpretation of Exodus 20:16. I double checked the King James version to make sure it didn’t flatly say “Thou shalt not lie”, but even the KJV is more nuanced than this. The commandment is “Don’t bear false witness”. Now is “Bearing false witness” the same thing as “Lying”. I think they are for the most part talking about the same thing. Now, to be sure, there is the issue of motive. Maybe this is where someone like Dietrich Bonhoeffer starts to inform my thinking. In his magnum opus “Ethics” Bonhoeffer continually refers to the “will of God” as being preeminent, thus the highest authority in which we as Christians have to answer too. And how do we know what this will is? Well, if we apply the Golden Rule to any one of the situations above, then we find ourselves looking the answer straight in the face. To do unto others as you would have them do unto you seems to answer all my questions about what the will of God is in situations like that. If I am on the other side of the line I would not want myself to be given over to evil men. I would also not quarrel or condemn my protectors, concerning the mode in which they chose to protect me, even if that meant lying about my whereabouts.
Is it a sin though? Whether or not I condemn anyone is not to say the act was sinful or not. I am not the arbiter of righteousness. Speaking plainly, I might retort that even if this is a sin before God, so what? Would God not forgive a person who was honestly trying to protect someone else. This kind of protection is not without its liabilities. Typically the threat of imprisonment or sometimes death is not only multiplied to the individual, but also to their family members. This motive for protection is in line with the commandment to love your neighbor as yourself. There is not ill gotten gain achieved when a lie like this is conceived on the lips of the protector. No one becomes pregnant with further evil motives at the behest of safeguarding the innocent. So, even if I believed that lying to protect the innocent was a sin, which I do not, I do believe it would be a pardonable sin and one which would not result in a habitual sinful act being perpetuated for selfish motives in the future. The prohibition to lie is to restrict the individual from using falsehoods for personal gain. And in such a case, there is no personal gain for those risking their own neck for someone else. Hence, my argument for a sinless lie comes to fruition.
For me this is a fairly open and shut case. I would have no problem whatsoever in lying to evil men or even to good magistrates if it meant protecting an innocent person from being imprisoned by an unjust or corrupt law or system. In my mind, some men don’t deserve the truth. And as for biblical examples, Rahab seems like a good place to start.