The goal of this regular feature is to provide our readers with opposing arguments on topics pertinent to the Christian life. Due to the power of party spirit, personal credibility, credentials, etc., we have asked all the authors writing for this feature to publish their brief statements anonymously. By doing this, we hope to encourage the reader, in some small way, to focus on the arguments involved in each position rather than on personal factors.
The authors selected for the respective sides in the debate outspoken supporters of their viewpoints.
The burden of proof in the interchange is placed on Advocate One. For that reason, Advocate One opens and closes the debate.
One foundational principle in support of this view of deception is drawn from the ninth commandment. This commandment appears at first to rule out any legitimate use of deception. But given the fact that rules of similar form are summary rules and not binding in every particular case, we may conclude that there may be circumstances where we are permitted to deceive. For example, we find a parallel rule in the commandment not to kill. This norm obligates us to protect life, sometimes at great personal cost, yet we know that Scripture permits and, at times, obligates us to take a life (to kill) in some cases of self-defense (Ex. 22:2), capital punishment (Ex. 21:12-14), and warfare (Deut. 20). Yet such cases do not nullify the general obligation to protect life. In similar manner, then, though we are generally obligated to maintain the highest standard of truth, there may be circumstances in which we may be permitted and/or obligated to willfully deceive another.
With this foundation in mind, we may focus on positive Biblical passages which condone certain uses of deception. We find one telling example in the case of the prophet Jeremiah. The Lord had consecrated Jeremiah from birth as a prophet to declare His words to the nations (Jer. 1:5, 10) and promised Jeremiah that he need not fear any man "for I am with you to deliver you" (Jer. 1:8). If Jeremiah were to rebel against God's calling and promises, he would face the judgment of God, as Jonah discovered. Yet at one point King Zedekiah instructs Jeremiah to deceive some officials regarding the content of a conversation so that Jeremiah "will not die" (Jer. 38:24), and Jeremiah goes ahead and blatantly deceives these men. In other words, he affirms a claim which he knows is contrary to the facts and spares his life from unjust aggressors. The Lord does not rebuke Jeremiah for turning against His command as He does Jonah, but rather, the Lord immediately protects and uses Jeremiah again. Jeremiah deceived to protect life from unjust aggression, and he was justified in doing so.
We see similar deceptions in David's life. When Saul's men pursue David to his wife Michal's house, he secretly flees, and Michal deceives Saul's men with a mock body in David's bed (I Sam. 19:12-17). David life is thus spared from unjust aggressors. David also deceives Achish king of Gath by feigning insanity (I Sam. 21:13). The ploy works and Achish's servants fail in their efforts to aggress against David.
Then of course there are the classic cases to prove this point. In Exodus 1:15ff we learn that Pharaoh commands the Egyptian midwives to kill any sons born to Hebrew women. The midwives disobey, and when Pharaoh inquires why they failed to follow his command, they consciously distort the facts; they in fact "let the boys live" (Ex. 1:17), but they claim that they weren't even at the births in time (Ex. 1:19). Immediately following this deception, we read "So God was good to the midwives..." (Ex. 1:20). The fruit of fearing God was deception. They too deceived in order to protect against unjust aggression.
In another classic case, we find that God Himself directs Samuel to deceive Saul's informants. The Lord calls Samuel to go and anoint one of Jesse's sons as king in the place of Saul. Samuel openly expresses his fear that Saul will kill him if he discovers what his mission is, and so the Lord directs Samuel to deceive the informants by concealing his true mission: "And the Lord said, Take a heifer with you, and say, I have come to sacrifice to the Lord'" (I Sam. 16:2). Samuel does this and spares his own life.
Finally, the most prominent case is Rahab's deception. Joshua sends spies to Jericho, and the king of Jericho calls on Rahab, who is harboring the spies, to "Bring out the men who have come to you" (Josh. 2:3). Though at that moment they were in fact in her home, she claims, contrary to fact, that "the men went out; I do not know where the men went." (Josh. 2:5). When the potential aggressors left, Joshua's spies made an oath to protect her and her family from the coming destruction "for she hid the messengers whom Joshua sent" (Josh. 6:25). She is blessed for her deception. Hebrews 11:31 and James 2:25 continue to praise Rahab for her righteous work of deception. Hence, once again, deception is justified when one is protecting life against the threat of unjust aggressors.
But Scripture does not limit cases of legitimate deception to imminent danger alone. Deception is also justified in times of war. The general principle is drawn from the protection of life, but the cases go beyond those discussed above. Joshua deceptively attacks Ai by means of an ambush. This is not on the surface a defensive maneuver or protection against imminent unjust aggression, but it is condoned. Similarly, Elisha deceives the army of Syria who seek him. God blinds the army at Elisha's request, and they then petition Elisha to lead them to Elisha in Dothan. Elisha replies that "This is not the way, nor is this the city; follow me, and I will bring you to the man whom you seek" (II Kings 6:19). He conceals his identity and leads the invading army right into the hands of the king of Israel. One other instance of wartime deception is noteworthy. God had punished Israel for its rebellion by using Canaan to oppress it. Under Judge Deborah, Israel attempts to route the Canaanites, whose army was led by Sisera. Sisera does finally flee and hides in the tent of Jael the wife of Heber. She promises to protect him from death and hides him in her tent (Judg. 4:18). But this is not to be the case, for she instead drives a tent peg through his temples. The whole army was subsequently subdued, and Jael is praised as "the most blessed of women" (Judg. 5:24).
Thus Scripture permits the use of deception in these two types of circumstances: protection of life against unjust aggressors and wartime. We need to specify the aggressors as "unjust" in order to rule out lying in cases where the person ought to have his or her life taken. For example, Scripture does not justify a murderer who deceives civil authorities in order to protect him or herself from execution. But we are permitted to lie brilliantly to protect life against unjust aggressors whether they be rapists or Nazi tyrants searching for Jews. Moreover, as we've seen, a nation or militia is justified in its use of deception against enemies in war situations. Among other things, we may use spy networks, camouflage, and false confessions. But note, contrary to the practice of many modern nations, the deception is to be used against the enemy not a nation's own citizens. We would not be justified in deceiving our own citizens by fabricating facts in order to rally the people behind some military cause or offer systematic propaganda programs after the manner of WWI allies.
Finally, there is one other category of justified deception, but it is so unlike the first two cases that is not proper to label it as deception at all; this is the category of accepted cultural deceptions: the surprise party, false comedic claims, fake moves in sports, and others. None of these are truly deceptions since they are part of a cultural fabric which all accept and expect. True deception assumes that one side of the party is ignorant and would be an unwilling partner. Yet this is not the case with these cultural "deceptions," and so they are justified forms of deception, only if we are willing to strain the term beyond normal usage.
Given all of the above, we are not only permitted, but at times, obligated to deceive others. We are, of course, focusing on very rare circumstances. None of the above should be used as a license for sin. Truth telling is the Christian's norm.
Indeed, the identity in relation between God's thinking and the truth is so significant that even inadvertently passing on of false information involves one in sin, as John Murray pointed out with great acumen. If we accept a job because of the heartfelt assurance on the part of the recruiter that "he is sure a promotion will occur within the first year," and that proves not to pan out, do we not then feel violated on account of the false information, regardless of the "sincerity" of the person who gave the false information? It is enough to simply observe the far-reaching and accumulating effects of inadvertently erroneous communications in one's workplace, to become convinced of the great evil this entails.
AWL hopes to sidestep the crushing force of the relation between truth-telling and the character of God by being the first to mention it, then quickly moving on to prove the "exceptions" which Scripture seems to allow. To these we now turn.
The analogy to the sixth commandment is doubly flawed. First, the language is technically not "thou shalt not kill" but more precisely "thou shalt not murder." The apparent "exceptions" to the command (self-defense, capital punishment, etc.) are therefore not exceptions at all, but rather disjunctive to the commandment. But even if they were true exceptions, they would still differ from the case of deception in that they are positively commanded by the same code of law which prohibits murder. We do not find analogous commands in the case of the ninth commandment ("thou shalt not bear false witness.")
The greatest pitfall in AWL's subsequent argumentation is the fallacy of reasoning from historical narration to ethical norm. Indeed, the actions of men often are mentioned in Scripture, as it were, by way of erecting a scarecrow before a path which ought not to be followed: "These things were our examples, to the intent we should not lust after evil things, as they also lusted" (I Cor.10:6). But caution is required in drawing ethical conclusions even from the lives of godly men. For example, is the "lesson" to be drawn from the narration of Abraham's deception of Abimelech (Gen.20:2) -- (1) that lying is justifiable to extract oneself from a predicted eventuality that is distressing, or (2) that Abraham's lie was foolish and unnecessary in addition to being, quite simply, unlawful? Or is the narration unconcerned with making an ethical point along these lines at all? The most painstaking exegesis is called for in drawing normative conclusions from historical examples.
In order to make a prima facie case for white lies, it would be necessary for AWL to show both that an historical example was a case where a positive presentation of a falsehood is made, and that the specific act was given inspired approbation. AWL's examples fail one or the other of these tests.
In several of the examples, it is frankly difficult, if not impossible, to define where the lie was. In the case of the Hebrew mid-wives, it is first of all not clear that their statement to Pharaoh was a falsehood. It could indeed have been the case that the Hebrew women were "livelier" than the Egyptians, and that as a result they (often) were done delivering before the mid-wives could reach them. Directly to the point, however, is that the apposition of God's approval of the midwives in verse 20 is most likely not verse 19 but rather verse 17: "the midwives feared God, and did not as the king of Egypt commanded them, but saved the men children alive." That is, they are commended for disobeying an unlawful order at great personal risk; not for the words spoken thereafter to Pharaoh.
The case of Samuel in I Sam.16:2 (The Lord said, "say I am come to sacrifice") is also not a falsehood, as is clear from reading the immediately following verse: "call Jesse to the sacrifice."
As to Rahab: whether or not her lie was necessary for ensuring the safety of the spies is unclear. She had, after all, hidden them on the roof, which implies she was expecting the premises to be searched. Very possibly, then, when the soldiers arrived at her door, she lost her nerve and blurted out the lie. Significantly, the NT passages cited do not single out her lie as a praiseworthy act, contrary to AWL's assertion. Heb.11:31, emphasizing the faith of each cited individual, refers simply to Rahab's having "received the spies with peace" -- no mention of the deception. Similarly, James 2:25, emphasizing the life of action which follows from regeneration, only mentions that "she had received the messengers, and had sent them out another way."
The words of Jael to Sisera are simply "turn in, my lord; fear not." As with so many of the alleged instances of justifiable lying, we need to ask, where is the lie? Telling a quivering, cowardly, self-pitying enemy of God to "fear not" can only be construed as a "promise to protect him from death" if that reprobate's own shaky mental condition is to be taken as the standard for judging the soundness of inferences. By any normal standard, however, where is the lie?
The same critical evaluation applies to Elisha's beautiful statement, "This is not the way, neither is this the city: follow me, and I will bring you to the man whom ye seek." His statement proved to be absolutely true, though in a surprising and gracious way quite different from what the Syrians expected. The Syrians were mercifully delivered from the evil they intended. As they would then reflect back on Elisha's words and the subsequent events, where would they localize the lie? What fault could they possibly find with their treatment at Elisha's hands?
Another serious problem with AWL's idea is that the proposed criteria for determining when lying is acceptable is read into, not out of, the text. Others, with equal plausibility, have suggested that the godly man may deceive whenever the opponent, by his ungodliness, "has no right to the truth." The problem with all of these solutions is subjectivism: the same person that determines that a lie would be justifiable, is the one who is also tempted to lie.
Inevitably, the people who practice this theory begin the descent down the slippery slope. After all, my property represents a portion of my life; therefore, to preserve my property, which is my life, I may lie. Suddenly, it becomes okay to lie to a bureaucrat. After a while, any pesky person that seems to be infringing on my domain may be lied to. In the other direction, the call by a superior to "give an account", which might be threatening to my position, becomes the occasion for excuse-giving, which is a subtle form of a lie. Finally, the deceiver's own mind goes soft: the distinction between truth and falsehood becomes ever more a grayish blur. Categorical answers all start to seem too "simplistic," not because of his subtlety of thought, but because the mental edge has been dulled. We paraphrase Patrick Henry: is life so dear or breath so sweet, as to be purchased at such a price? Forbid it Almighty God!
Advocate Two worries that I have used his Biblical support for my case. My position's strong commitment to the God of truth is not in the slightest embarrassed by God's holy direction to protect life by deceiving potential murderers. The two lines of thought coalesce like love and justice.
I've argued that the ninth commandment parallels the sixth in that both are summary norms which allow clarifying exceptions. Advocate Two attempts to undercut this by arguing that "kill" technically should read "murder," but this is simply false. On the one hand, Advocate Two's reading would produce a confused statement at Deut. 4:42, namely, "unintentionally murdered" instead of "unintentionally killed" his neighbor; but even granting "murder," his interpretation would still produce an exception, given the term's use at Numbers 35:27.
The "greatest pitfall" in my case, according to Advocate Two, is that I infer approval from mere historical narration. I couldn't agree more that such an inference would be fallacious, but I haven't fallen into that simple error. In all of the passages cited, God approves the deception.
Advocate Two fails to respond to the main case I offer, namely, Jeremiah's deception of the murderous officials, and so this case still stands.
Midwife Crisis: Advocate Two claims that he cannot determine whether the Hebrew midwives deceived Pharoah since their report about the Hebrew women may be true. But this misses the point. The midwives determined to "let the boys live" and then claimed, contrary to that fact, that they could not be involved with the birth (Ex. 1:19). This is deception. The only move Advocate Two tries to use to deflect the approval which immediately follows the deception is that the it "most likely" refers to an earlier attitude, but note that he must ignore v. 20's inferential connective to v.19.
Samuel's Sacrifice: Advocate Two appears to use Murray's distinction between withholding information and offering a falsehood. This distinction has merit is some cases, but Samuel knowingly (and by divine direction!) withholds information in order to foster a false impression. This certainly is a form of deception, and it is justified. Moreover, if, as Advocate Two himself admits in his opening, a person deceives by passing on even inadvertent falsehoods, then how much more so if, as Samuel, a person deliberately creates false impressions.
Rahab's Blurt? Advocate Two agrees that Rahab lies but attempts to justify the subsequent approval of her act by claiming that "possibly...she lost her nerve and blurted out the lie." Where is a hint of this in the text? Such a loss of nerve is inconsistent with her place in the "Hall of faith" at Heb. 11:31. Nevertheless, even Advocate Two admits that she is commended for receiving "spies." In other words, she is at least blessed for receiving official deceivers! But the Scriptural commendation is much stronger than that. James 2:25 does not "only mention" her deception in passing, but it cites her deception as the very work which demonstrated her faith -- "she sent them out another way."
Jael's Point: Advocate Two claims that he is unable to find the lie in Jael's execution of Sisera. In order to make his case though, he suggests that we believe that Jael's "fear not" exhortation to Sisera is a warning of her impending execution. I think not.
Elisha's Misdirection: Once again, Advocate Two attempts to deny that a deception occurs, but he also admits that Elisha's directions were "quite different from what the Syrians expected." This is an understatement; they were not seeking to be captured by their enemy. Elisha deceives them by concealing his identity and taking them where he knew they did not want to go. Again, Advocate Two himself concedes that this is deception in his opening statements.
Advocate Two closes his discussion with two claims: first, that the justified deception position is read into the text, and second, that this position "inevitably" leads "down a slippery slope." Both claims are misguided. The first claim begs-the-question against all of the cases discussed above. The second claim is a blatant example of the "slippery slope" fallacy in that he assumes his slope of horrendous consequences will follow without further argument from my position. Bob Hope once committed a similar fallacy by claiming that if we lost the war in Vietnam, we would soon have Communists invading California. Moreover, all I need is one case to disprove Advocate Two's claim that all those who use deception against an unjust aggressor "inevitably" begin lying to everyone... I'll choose Jeremiah.
I showed before that the historical examples in the Bible cited to justify the notion of non-culpable deception fail, either because no lie can be identified, or because divine approval is dubious.
Perhaps the significance of not being able to point to a lie in many of the cases can be made more clear by illustrating in terms of the following principle. Where a questioner has no right to the truth (to which my duty to fully reveal the truth would correspond), then it is not wrong to seek to conceal the truth. The intent must not be to deceive, but conceal. The nineteenth century theologian Dick (as cited by Thornwell) stated it well: "We are not bound to answer every question which may be proposed to us. In such cases we may be silent, or we may give as much information as we please and suppress the rest. If the person afterward discovers that the information was partial, he has no title to complain, because he had not a right even to what he obtained; and we are not guilty of a falsehood unless we made him believe, by something which we said, that the information was complete. We are at liberty to put off with an evasive answer the man who attempts to draw from us what we ought to conceal."
The distinction is recognized by Scripture in the case of Jeremiah (who disclosed only the petition that the king would not remand him to Jonathan's house), and Samuel (who disclosed to Saul only the upcoming sacrifice). Indeed, the notion that men harboring evil intent should be entitled to full disclosure of the truth on any subject which they demand is absurd. It is absurd whether the evil intent is murderous in nature, or simply prurient meddlesomeness. The fallacious conclusion, however, would be that the only alternative is to deceive, and that, therefore, deception must be righteous in such circumstances.
Rahab seems to be a strong example because of being cited favorably in the New Testament. There is no question that her action of protecting the spies, seen in the "big picture," was a righteous one; this does not mean that every facet of her behavior was without fault, as Calvin pointed out: "as to the falsehood, we must admit that though it was done for a good purpose, it was not free from fault. For those who hold what is called a dutiful lie to be altogether excusable, do not sufficiently consider how precious truth is in the sight of God...It can never be lawful to lie, because that cannot be right which is contrary to the nature of God...On the whole, it was the will of God that the spies should be delivered, but he did not approve of saving their life by falsehood."
At first glance, it might appear that James commends Rahab for her lie, when he lauds her for "sending them out another way." It might be thought that this description of her act would only have religious significance if the implied completion of the thought were "...another way from the way she told the king's men." But in view of what has been said, it is more plausible to conclude that she is commended for sending them out "...another way from the normal way of entering and leaving the house." Someone saw the spies enter the house, and the rumor spread quickly. Rahab, at great personal risk, sent them out by lowering them from the back window on the city wall (Joshua 2:18). For this risky act of evasion she is commended.
The Hebrew midwives, again, are commended for fearing God (Ex.1:17) and letting the boys live. When their story ends, this commendation is repeated (verse 20). To suppose that the thing they are commended for is lying to Pharaoh is absurd, for that would imply that if they had saved the boys and then "taken their lumps," their deed might not have been commendable. Clearly, the praiseworthy act was the determination, at great personal risk, not to obey Pharaoh's unlawful command; their subsequent statement to Pharaoh is incidental.
As a point of speculative interest (but not to establish the principle), I point out that their statement may not even have been a lie anyway. Calvin, however, concedes that the statement was a lie and comments: "though these women were too pusillanimous and timid in their answers, yet because they had acted in reality with heartiness and courage, God endured in them the sin which he would have deservedly condemned. This doctrine gives us alacrity in our desire to do rightly, since God so graciously pardons our infirmities; and, at the same time, it warns us most carefully to be on our guard, lest, when we are desirous of doing well, some sin should creep in to obscure, and thus to contaminate our good work; since it not unfrequently happens that those whose aim is right, halt or stumble or wander in the way to it. In fine, whosoever honestly examines himself, will find some defect even in his best endeavours."
The case for a strict proscription against telling falsehoods is grounded in the nature of God and commanded in His law. The apparent examples to the contrary are seen not to be decisive. Having established the ethic of truth-telling from solid principles, it is then perfectly legitimate to point out pastorally, that there are real dangers in the disobedience of these principles. It has been my observation that most of the Christians I have known who have adopted a theory of non-culpable deception, in fact have had their mental edge dulled in consequence of it. This is not proof, but it is a brotherly word to the wise.
1) I argued that the ninth commandment does not prohibit all forms of deception in the same way that the sixth commandment does not prohibit all forms of killing (the location of the qualifications are irrelevant). Advocate Two attempted to rebut this foundational consideration by arguing that Scripture does not grant exceptions to the sixth commandment. In my previous response I offered non-technical proof from Deuteronomy 4:42 and Numbers 35:27 that his interpretation was incorrect. He chose not to respond to my Biblical arguments and instead appealed to the authority of the NASB and NIV. Hence, because my initial consideration still stands, Advocate Two may not appeal to the ninth commandment to buttress his case.
2) Advocate Two also attempted to show that several of the cases I cited were simply not deceptions in the first place (i.e. the cases of Jeremiah, Samuel, Jael, and Elisha).
In his latest response, however, he chooses either to simply reassert his position or ignore my previous refutations of his claims regarding the cases of Elisha, Jael, and Samuel. Advocate Two now claims that Jeremiah only disclosed part of the truth, but I challenge the reader to find this so-called partial truth in the relevant discussion. The king never did what Jeremiah claims he did; this is pure deception.
Finally on this concern, Advocate Two again attempts to draw a distinction between deceiving and concealing. We are playing with words at this point. I previously argued that one who deliberately conceals information in order to create a false impression (Samuel, Elisha, etc.) is deceiving. In these cases the distinction between concealment and deception collapses. Advocate Two chooses not to defend his case from this objection in his latest response. Hence, these cases still stand.
3) Advocate Two alternatively claimed that Scripture does not show divine approval for some of the cases.
In regard to the Hebrew midwives, Advocate Two reasserts his prior claims but does not interact with my previous argument. Therefore, this case still stands.
He thinks Rahab's deception was not approved because James 2:25 commends her for a "risky act of evasion." But no matter how we read this case, we find deception. Remember she receives spies. If Advocate Two is going to stick to his position, then Israel sinned for having such deceivers in its army, and Rahab sinned by protecting them.
But beyond these concerns, Rahab receives divine approval for her deception whether "another way" in James 2:25 refers to an abnormal secretive escape or to an alternate route -- both are deceptive, and Advocate Two maintains that all such falsehood is impermissible.
Advocate Two closes by offering the pastoral advice that most people he knows who hold my position "have had their mental edge dulled." One could offer similar sincere advice to the opposition. I truly want to receive all the pastoral advice I can get, but Advocate Two has simply failed to counter the Biblical arguments I have offered. Therefore, we do have clear divine direction to deceive others in those, hopefully, rare circumstances where life is threatened.