In a world where the truth is often tainted and an occasional white lie may seem more ethical than telling a brutally honest truth, many believers may wonder if exceptions exist to the Ten Commandments’ prohibition on lying — or bearings a false witness.
Throughout Scripture, many biblical figures have found themselves neck-deep in lies. Some were apparent lies, while others were more subtly withholding the truth. Adam and Eve sinned and tried to hide from God by temporarily withholding the truth. The couple did not immediately admit their faults before God — which occurs in Genesis 3.
In 1 Samuel, David lied out of fear as he was running for his life from King Saul. And in the New Testament Book of Acts, Ananias and Sapphira infamously lied about how much of their wealth they had given to the Church.
In the modern-day, many believers face conundrums surrounding the ethics of lying, especially in scenarios where dishonesty, deception or withholding the truth seem to be the better moral option from a human perspective.
For example, would it have been OK for those who sheltered Jews during the Holocaust to withhold the truth or lie if Nazi police knocked on their door? Would telling the truth have pleased God in that situation?
Are there times when it’s OK to lie or withhold the truth if it protects that person or someone else from emotional, physical, psychological or financial hardships or suffering?
The Christian Post interviewed pastors and religious scholars from different denominational backgrounds (Baptist, Episcopal, nondenominational and Catholic) about their thoughts on lying and if there are ever scenarios where doing so is acceptable.
Some interviewees said lying is never OK in any scenario. But others believe that a gray area exists in which the liar’s motives should be taken into account.
‘Some things are best we don’t know’
The Rev. Steven McKeown of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Steubenville, Ohio, said he believes God takes into account the complexities surrounding the ethics and morality of lying or withholding information.
“There are some things that are best we don’t know and don’t share. Sometimes the complete facts of certain situations can be very painful. And it could be something someone’s family is involved in or something of that nature,” said McKeown, who is in his late 70s and has served as the head pastor of his Episcopalian church for the past 17 years.
McKeown believes that the morality of lying, withholding the truth and white lies should be determined on a case-by-case basis if it means protecting someone else’s feelings, saving lives or keeping minors from being exposed to information too early to handle emotionally, mentally, physically or psychologically.
“In a situation where a person is an adopted child, is it good for them to know who their father was or who their mother was? And that’s where this can get very awkward, especially if there was a negative or painful background with that. And sometimes, it’s best not to be the person that will reveal that,” McKeown said.
McKeown said some women face tough decisions if they decide to raise their baby conceived as a result of rape or incest. Should they tell their child they were conceived by rape or incest at an early age or keep that from them until they are mature enough to know the truth?
“It’s not mandatory to tell the truth in this scenario because the mother might not want to put that category or label on their child for the rest of that child’s life,” McKeown rationalized.
McKeown believes God looks at the heart of every person.
“I think He knows us all. We believe in the principle that He created us all. So, therefore, He knows us back and front,” McKeown said.
“At the end of the day, from a Christian faith, He wants us to know Jesus, who took on the form of a human being. And from that, He thought we could relate better and that we could better understand God through His Son Jesus. So, I think there’s nothing done in secret as far as God is concerned.”
‘Not all lies are created equal’
John Grabowski, a Roman Catholic theologian and a professor of moral theology and ethics at Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., firmly believes Christians should obey the Ten Commandments and refrain from lying whenever possible.
“I think honesty is a biblical mandate. That’s what we should strive for, to be honest all the time. Obviously, we all know from experience that we’re not. And then, there are different reasons in different circumstances why we’re not,” said the professor, who has been on the teaching staff at Catholic University for the past three decades.
“But given that this is a biblical mandate, and we’re called to speak the truth to one another and to others, I think honesty is a responsibility of Christians and something we ought to strive to live for as best we can.”
Grabowski said his approach to honesty was inspired by the viewpoints of Saint Thomas Aquinas, the Catholic theologian and philosopher. There are three main distinctions of the types of lies that people typically commit, according to Aquinas’ perspective: jocose lies, officious lies and malicious lies.
According to Grabowski, jocose lies are when someone bends the truth, usually for the sake of satire or comedy, as in a joke, or in telling exaggerated stories.
Officious lies are when a person tells a lie to spare someone else’s feelings or avoid saying a truth that could potentially be hurtful to someone else.
Malicious lies are when someone lies to do damage to another person by distorting and withholding the truth from them.
In Aquinas’ perspective, Grabowski said, the first two kinds of lies — jocose and officious — are wrong, but not gravely wrong.
“Jocose lies or humorous lies and officious lies are what people tend to refer to as white lies, which are lies where you’re not intending to harm someone else but you’re intending the opposite. You’re trying to help someone else in some way,” Grabowski said.
“Whereas with malicious lies, you’re actually seeking to do damage to another person. … Those are seriously wrong. That’s more seriously sinful. So while all of those are wrong, not all lies are of equal gravity or equal malice. I agree with Aquinas because I think all lying is wrong, but not all lies are created equal. Not all lies do the same kind of harm.”
If he were faced with such a situation, the professor said he would lie to Nazi police if he were hiding Jews.
“That’s an officious lie. A person who is lying in that scenario is lying in order to try to protect the life of an innocent person from incarceration and death,” Grabowski said. “So in and of itself, that’s the wrong thing to do. But, their motivation is trying to save another person’s life and putting their own life in danger by doing so. Their motivation shows that they have very little moral culpability for what they’re doing there. They’re really trying to help another person. That’s their aim in withholding the truth.”
“The person who’s hiding his Jewish neighbors from certain death is, in a sense, willing to lay down his or her own life in order to protect them. So the motivation is an act of love, even though they’re technically doing something that’s wrong if they say no to the officer,” Grabowski added, citing John 15:13.
The verse says: “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”
However, Grabowski doesn’t believe it’s ever OK for a parent to lie to their child who was conceived by rape about who the child’s father is, categorizing that as a malicious lie.
“I think when a child is young and not in a position to process that information, I think parents probably should withhold the information from a child who’s not in a position to understand and process that because they’re too young,” Grabowski said.
“But I think if the child is older, a young adult perhaps, and is asking questions about who their father is, I think that child does have a right to the truth.”
Parents of young children may be tempted to lie to their kids for various reasons, telling simple lies to make their job easier. Grabowski does not think a parent should ever lie to their children to make their own parental role less difficult.
“For example, if a child wants to go to the toy store and a parent lies to them and tells them the toy store is closed, but the store is not actually closed, that is not OK. That’s a parent just not wanting to be a parent in that moment,” Grabowski noted.
“The parent just thinks it would be easier to tell a lie in order to silence the kid. I don’t think that’s a good approach for a Christian parent to get in the habit of lying to their child to try to make parenting easier.”
Nicole Alcindor is a reporter for The Christian Post.