Echo Zoe Answers, Episode 3

November 16, 2017

Christine asks, via email:

Is it ever not a sin to lie?

This question came up in my Bible Study when we talked about the midwives lying to Paroah about why they didn’t kill the babies born to the Hebrew women. Some have said they weren’t lying, but Exodus 1:17 says they didn’t kill them because they feared God. They gave Pharoah a different reason which indicates to me that was lying.

There’s also the lie that Rahab told when she hid the spies.

This is an age-old question, and not an easy one to answer. I'll do my best, but much better theologians than I will disagree.

The question of whether there are exceptions to a specific deed always being a sin can apply to almost anything, but lying is probably the most common. I think this is because we can all dream up situations when lying genuinely seems like the right thing to do. Christine named two instances in Scripture, but a more modern example would be the Christian in Europe hiding Jews from the Nazis during World War II.

Though we all know that lying is sinful, let's take a look at the Scriptures that establish that lying is, in fact sinful.

First is the 9th Commandment. Exodus 20:16 is the clear place to start:

You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor

There is a similar passage just three chapters later:

You shall not spread a false report. You shall not join hands with a wicked man to be a malicious witness. – Exodus 23:1

A handful of Proverbs use similar language. All are judicial in nature, forbidding the false testimony that can destroy lives.

But false testimony in a court of law is not the only type of lie that is clearly laid out as sin. Leviticus 6:2-3 forbid defrauding people, as does Leviticus 19:11. Colossians 3:8 forbids us from lying to one another, and Ephesians 4:25 commands us to speak the truth.

As with any of these questions that I've sought to answer, I did some digging to see what others have to say about this issue. There really are a wide variety of answers.

One particular answer I found interesting was from Bodie Hodge of Answers in Genesis, who argued that lying is, in fact, always a sin. Most of the time, this isn't controversial. Hodge argued, however, that even in the case of the Christian hiding a Jew from Nazis in Europe during the Second World War, lying would be a sin because it does not reflect God's nature to lie. We are all sinners, and are all sentenced to die; lying to delay a person's death, Hodge argues, is not worth committing treason against our Creator.

Also, the note for Joshua 2:5 in the MacArthur Study Bible states that Rahab was commended for her faithfulness, though her lie was a sin, and MacArthur states that lies are always sin.

While I can understand, and even respect Hodge's argument, I can't say I completely agree. This means I must also disagree with MacArthur.

I want to take a look at something our Lord said that, in my opinion, is very important to consider. Let's look at Mark 17:28-31

28 And one of the scribes came up and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, asked him, “Which commandment is the most important of all?” 29 Jesus answered, “The most important is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. 30 And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ 31 The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”

This, in my opinion, is key to discussion of whether a particular deed is always a sin, or might sometimes be permissible. The two tablets of the Decalogue are summed in this passage. The first tablet is summed in loving God, and the second in loving neighbor. In the vast majority of cases, violating one of the Ten Commandment is to also violate these two ‘Greatest Commandments.' To steal is to violate love of neighbor, as is murder. Adultery robs from both the person adultery is committed with and the spouses of the adulterers. Coveting puts love of neighbor's possessions above love of the neighbor himself.

Does a lie always violate the command to love neighbor, though? I don't think so, and I think you can argue both sides; the reason for the lie, and the person being lied to. Let's just consider the often used hypothetical (which wasn't so hypothetical to many of our European brothers and sisters in the 1940s), the Nazi soldier going door-to-door looking for hidden Jews to round up. Does lying to the soldier violate the command to love neighbor? It would be very difficult to argue that the loving thing to do in regards to the Jew would be to respond honestly to the soldier. Doing so is most likely a death sentence. But what about the soldier himself? Is it loving to him to turn over the hidden Jew? I would argue the answer to that is also ‘No.' He is working under orders to engage in unloving acts toward his Jewish neighbor. Even if he is happy to carry out such orders, assisting him in doing so only heaps further judgment upon him when he ultimately stands before God. Sure, he will have plenty of judgment heaped upon him already, even conspiring to commit crimes against his neighbors is enough to deserve judgment according to Jesus in Matthew 5.

Also, going back to the example Christine gave from Exodus, the scriptures say that the Egyptian midwives didn't kill the Hebrew babies because they feared God. Fearing God is one of the most righteous things that can be said of a person. In fact, just 4 verses after the verse Christine cited, it says:

And because the midwives feared God, he gave them families. – Exodus 1:21

So we see that the lie the midwives told Pharoah was not only not a sin, God rewarded them for it. It was done out of love for their Hebrew neighbors and respect for God.

We see this also in Proverbs:

By steadfast love and faithfulness iniquity is atoned for,
and by the fear of the LORD one turns away from evil. – Proverbs 16:6

Also mentioned by Christine is the story of Rahab, the harlot of Jericho that hid the spies sent by Joshua to scope out the land. When the king of Jericho came looking for them, she told him they had already fled, when in reality she hid them on her rooftop. (See Joshua 2)

While MacArthur, in his Study Bible notes, says that Rahab's righteousness comes from her faithfulness, and that her lie was a sin, I don't see how a sinful deed can be described as faithful, or how a person would need to sin in order to express faith. Either she was right to lie in order to protect the spies or she wasn't. If her lie was sinful, it would stand to reason she would have died like everyone else in Jericho when the city was destroyed by God.

It feels wrong to disagree with John MacArthur, but in this instance I feel I must.

There are many verses in scripture that denounce the “lying tongue.” I just think that there are exceptions. Most lies are meant to defraud or to deceive for nefarious reasons, or even to cover for other evil deeds. A lie told to protect innocent blood from being shed is not done with malice, and I believe is not sinful.

The argument for lies always being sinful rests upon God's nature, and that He never lies. However, God has no need to ever lie. He is also omniscient. He can protect or hide His people such that they'll never be discovered. He would never need to lie to a wicked person to protect anyone.

As I mentioned at the beginning though, there are reasonable people who make a different case. However, my digging has me personally convinced that not all lies are sinful.

Posted at 12:14 pm in: Echo Zoe Answers

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