Imagine for a moment that you are a Christian in 1943 Germany. In obedience to Christ’s command to love your neighbor as yourself, you decide to hide your Jewish neighbors in your home, when suddenly, the Nazis pay you a surprise visit. When you open the door, they tell you there is a rumor going around that you’ve been sheltering Jews, and they ask you point blank, “Are you currently hiding Jews in your home?” As a Christian, how do you answer this question? Do you lie?
I am sure you have heard this thought experiment before. How does a Christian, who is commanded not to lie, respond to a situation like this? My answer to the question, as a Christian pastor, is to lie your little heart out.
No matter how offensive to the sensibilities of the most pious among us this may be, the Bible actually permits “lying” under certain circumstances. Though, I would not call it a “lie” then, but I (along with many others) instead refer to this notion as “righteous deception.” This may be a shock to some, but no fair reading of the Bible can hide its blatant witness a righteous deception. There is a time and a place for us to deceive. More than that, the Bible gives us basic parameters as to when deception is considered righteous by God. It’s not a free-for-all, nor is it entirely subjective – based solely on the purity of the liar’s intentions. Even a lie with the best of intentions is sin. I maintain the Bible gives objective parameters for when one can speak a lie; or better yet, when one can righteously deceive.
The Biblical Data
Space does not permit a full, systematic treatment of the parameters for righteous deception here. But there is one important element to address, the relevancy of which will be made apparent soon enough. One of the objective standards of when deception is not the sinful bearing of false witness is when it is used to save innocent life.
Almost every time the Bible endorses deception is in the context of saving innocent life.
“Now there arose a new king over Egypt, who did not know Joseph. And he said to his people, “Behold, the people of Israel are too many and too mighty for us… Then the king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shiphrah and the other Puah, “When you serve as midwife to the Hebrew women and see them on the birthstool, if it is a son, you shall kill him, but if it is a daughter, she shall live.” But the midwives feared God and did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but let the male children live. So the king of Egypt called the midwives and said to them, “Why have you done this, and let the male children live?” The midwives said to Pharaoh, “Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women, for they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes to them.” So God dealt well with the midwives. And the people multiplied and grew very strong. And because the midwives feared God, he gave them families.”–Exodus 1:8-9, 15-21 ESV
Here the Hebrew midwives refused to perform state-mandated abortions. But when Pharaoh noticed a bunch of young Hebrew boys continuing to fill the streets, he had them report at once to give an account for the incompetence, and there the midwives deceived him. They led him to think they were trying to perform the abortions, but that the workload was too much to keep up with, which we know was far from the truth. Yes, they lied to Pharaoh.
The Smothermon Affair, 7/20/2022
Most likely Smothermon was simply trying to assuage pro-lifers about Ronchetti’s nuanced view on abortion and therefore promised, on Ronchetti’s behalf, what Smothermon and his congregation want Ronchetti to say.
And how did God react to this? He blessed them. And why specifically did He bless them? Because they feared God. This means that not only did God bless their lie, but that their lie was born from fear of God. In other words, their deception, which saved innocent children from death, was righteous.
Take just one more example:
“And in the same way was not also Rahab the prostitute justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way? For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead.”–James 2:25-26
Here James is commenting on a story from Joshua 2. In the narrative, Joshua sends two spies into Jericho. The king of Jericho hears rumors of spies and sends out police to find them. The spies, on the precipice of sure torture and death, are sheltered by a prostitute named Rahab who is loyal to the God of Israel. Rahab hid the men on her rood, and then when the police showed up to her house, she deceived them. She told the authorities that she sent the spies out toward the city gate and encouraged them to chase after the spies. When the authorities left, she eventually helped the spies escape out her window.
And the inspired author James take this story up, not as an example of a wicked liar, but as an example of how we justify our sincere faith. James calls her deception a good work which proves faith is alive and not dead!
These two examples alone should lead one to see how deception can be done to the glory of God when saving innocent life.
Ronchetti’s Alleged Abortion Deception
This all becomes relevant for us in light of the news that an Albuquerque pastor apparently claimed behind closed doors that Mark Ronchetti has secret intentions to ban abortion wholesale in New Mexico in spite of his public claims to take a more compromising approach.
More commentary on that situation belongs in another post. I am not here to discuss the propriety of the pastor’s remarks, nor even attempt to evaluate whether Ronchetti really said what he is accused of saying. But we can make application on a hypothetical basis.
Assume hypothetically that Pastor Smothermon is telling the truth, that Ronchetti is being deceptive. He is claiming to allow some abortions, but actually has plans to ban them all. The question can be raised: is he a liar? Is he sinning?
Many Christians will disagree with me, but I would argue he is not.
Abortion is the murder of innocent life, and therefore, our fight against it may merit some righteous deception. But I encourage those Christians who do disagree to at least be open to the possibility that there may be a time and a place for politicians to be less than honest if it helps save innocent children from the slaughter, even if I am wrong about the application of righteous deception in this particular case. And if you’re not open to that, I eagerly await your exegesis of Exodus 1 and James 2.
Wisdom & Innocence
My pastoral advice to Ronchetti, assuming the allegations of his intentions are true, would be something like this:
“Mark, fear God and then go get your Hebrew midwivery on. Go get your Rahab on. But do so under the counsel and leadership of a faithful local church, and maybe pick more reliable friends to tell your secrets to.”
Or Perhaps it would be simpler to just give him Jesus’ advice: “Be wise as a serpent and innocent as dove” (Matthew 10:16).