Is it ever morally right to tell someone something that is not the truth? Is it ever right to give misinformation? These questions arise when considering the biblical commandments against lying and deception (Ps. 34:13; 119:163; Prov 12:22; Mk 7:22, Eph 4:22; Col 3:9; 1 Pet 3:10), juxtaposed with certain instances where deceptive strategies were employed (Josh 8:2, 6; Ex 3:8, 18; 1 Sam 16:2). To arrive at a conclusion that aligns with the entirety of Scripture, we must delve into the complexities of lying, deception, and dishonesty. In this brief article, we will explore various scenarios, biblical principles, and ethical considerations to shed light on the moral obligations we have in matters of communication.
Lying, Deception, and Dishonesty: Interchangeable Terms
To embark on this exploration, it is essential to understand that lying, deception, and dishonesty should be regarded as synonymous terms when debating their moral rightness. While some may argue for a distinction between verbal lies and nonverbal deception (i.e “misleading”), there is no fair reason to delineate the two categories. Both verbal and nonverbal communication, as well as the intentional omission of information, can be means of lying, deceiving, or misleading others.
Illustrating the Complexity
Consider the following fictional illustration involving a pastor engaged in adultery and the interactions he has with his spouse.
- He was out late one night, and his wife didn't know where he was. He had been committing adultery. When he arrived home his wife asked him where he had been. He told her a completely untrue story of a car accident, causing huge traffic jams. Did he deceive and mislead her?
- In the same situation another night, he told his wife that he was late because of a last-minute hospital visit. It was true that he had made a visit, but he also had committed adultery. Did he deceive and mislead her?
- Another time, when his wife asked where he had been he didn't give any verbal answer, but he skillfully changed the subject to avoid answering. Did he deceive and mislead her?
- What if his wife had never asked any questions? He was never challenged about his life of sin. Did he deceive and mislead her? The common statement made of this situation is that he was "living a lie." Which will ultimately have devastating consequences when the truth is revealed.
In each scenario, the husband's responses vary—ranging from providing a completely untrue story to skillfully avoiding the question. Regardless of the specific tactics employed, it becomes evident that one can lie, deceive, or mislead by telling things that are not true, telling part of the truth, avoiding the question, or remaining silent. The act of "living a lie" can have devastating consequences when the truth is eventually revealed.
When Truth is Owed
The husband's sinful dishonesty in the aforementioned scenarios stems from his wife's right to know the truth about his unfaithfulness. The core reason for the husband's guilt is not solely based on what he said or did not say but rather the fact that his wife deserved the truth. Christians must dispel the notion that deception may become necessary as the "lesser of two evils," as in situations like hiding Jews from the Nazis. However, it is essential to recognize that all strategies of deception, whether milder or more blatant, can be dishonest. The critical distinction lies in determining when the truth is owed.
Possible Exceptions to Truth-Telling
While the Bible consistently emphasizes the importance of honesty, there appear to be three potential exceptions: when an innocent life is in danger (1 Sam 16:1-5; 21:13), when people are held unjustly in slavery (Ex 1:15-21; 3:18), and in war situations (Josh 8:2-8; 2 Sam 5:22-25; 2 Kings 6:18-20; 2 Chron 20:22; [also ref. Josh 6:2-6] ). These examples from Scripture demonstrate instances where deception was employed to protect innocent lives or combat oppression. However, the unfaithful husband does not fit any of these exceptions, and thus the clear biblical commands to honesty must be followed. On the other hand, although the Nazi German soldier represents a government power, his government has violated its role to punish evil doers and reward the good (Rom 13:3-4). In this situation they are not owed anything. They are to be treated as what they are: a gang of murderers. This situation would fit the exceptions of war and innocent life in danger.
Navigating the Moral Landscape
Some may argue that these nuanced perspectives on deception water down the biblical absolute against lying. However, it is crucial to recognize that other biblical absolutes, such as stealing or killing, also have contextual exceptions. As an example, most agree that deception was involved in the battle strategies in the Old Testament. Does one really believe that it was okay to pretend defeat at Ai and flee as if they were in trouble, yet it would have been sin for a general to shout, "We are in trouble, retreat!" Does one really believe that uttering the untrue words to enhance believability would have been sin, while it was okay to act them out?
Biblical ethical guidelines often require qualification to account for various circumstances. Though this may seem like a watering down of Scriptural absolutes, one should look at some other Scriptural "absolutes" to get a perspective. Is it accurate to say you can never steal (take something that is not yours)? No, in light of the Biblical commands in the Old Testament to take from enemies (Josh 8:2) the “absolute” will actually have to be stated (i.e., qualified) with the inclusion of an exception. It is more accurate to state that we should not take something that is not ours unless we are in a war-like situation. Similarly, telling the truth should generally be upheld unless specific exceptions apply.
The Struggle for Moral Clarity
As with most ethical issues, the question of whether misinformation is ever permissible entails ongoing struggle rather than straightforward answers. The majority of situations demand truthfulness, but biblical examples suggest that there are instances where the truth is not owed.
Christians tend to prefer absolutes and struggle with situations where the truth may not be owed. However, there are exceptions where withholding the truth is justified, such as when lives are in danger (1 Sam 16:1-2), people are unjustly enslaved (Ex 3:8 and 18), or in times of war (Josh 8:2). Similarly, justifications for deception and misinformation can be seen on a continuum, with clear ends and a murky middle.
For example, revealing the truth about infidelity is owed in personal relationships, while providing misinformation to soldiers from oppressive governments may align with biblical cases where partial information was not considered wrong. Smuggling Bibles into countries like China or North Korea presents a gray area, where the government's violation of its biblical role to punish evil and protect lives raises additional questions. Determining whether oppressive regimes are owed the truth becomes complex.
In navigating these complexities, Christians face the challenge of balancing truthfulness with other biblical moral considerations – especially when the obligation to truth is not straightforward. The task involves weighing the circumstances and discerning when the truth is owed and when exceptions may be justified biblically.
One can see that the application of this view (that misinformation is sometimes acceptable) is at some points stronger than views that do not see exceptions to the Christian's responsibility to always verbally tell accurate information. If the truth is owed, there is no room in the view presented in this study for deceptive silence, deceptive partial answers, or evasive tactics. In turn, if a situation fits one of the rare exceptions exemplified in Scripture, no type of misinformation appears to be wrong; the truth is not owed.
For more discussions on Christian Ethics, sign up for the 2023 Shepherds 360 Conference, taking place on October 16-19, 2023. Dr. Burggraff's workshop session for last year's conference may be found below: