How are we to understand the Ninth Commandment?
I have written before about deception and how Scripture warns about how easy it is to be deceived, and how we all must be careful that we do not fall into deception. But here I have something different in mind. And it involves a long-standing biblical, theological and philosophical question: Is it ever morally right to seek to deceive another person, at least for a good end?
Some Christians believe that we can never do this, simply because it is a violation of the Ninth Commandment – end of story. As the KJV puts it in Exodus 20:16 (see also Deuteronomy 5:20): “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour.”
Others believe that there can indeed be cases of morally licit lies or deception to bring about greater good. One obvious biblical example used here would be that of Rahab the harlot who lied to the king of Jericho to protect the Israelite spies (Joshua 2 and 6). She is commended in Hebrews 11:31 as one of the great champions of faith.
The issue of whether there can be a hierarchy in moral absolutes is a rather large discussion, and would be the backdrop to an issue like this. While I cannot here get into all this in detail, this view (known as graded absolutism) states that when there is a conflict between two absolutes, obligation to a lesser duty may be exempted in order to obey a higher duty. Thus for Rahab the duty to tell truth was superseded by the duty to protect life – in this case, to protect God’s people.
It is a very big debate and a whole lot more can be said about it. I will add further thoughts on this in a moment, but let me first offer the reason as to why this topic is now of interest to me. As many of you will know by now, I have been cancelled by Facebook. My entire output there has been taken down, and it looks like I will not be seen there anymore.
A number of folks have suggested that a common way to proceed here is to just submit another name and set up a new account. It happens all the time. I said that while this was possible, having an altered name might make it hard for others to find me, or know who I am.
One thoughtful and well-meaning person offered this comment to that particular discussion: “Surely there’s some sort of perverse and dangerous irony about trying to deceive FaceBook in order to be able to broadcast the truth? My advice, for what it’s worth – don’t go there! God will make sure that the people that need them will find your messages.”
My reply to this person was as follows:
Thanks ****. That was a suggestion made by others of course. And while I have no plans at this point to try to get back on to FB with a slightly altered name (something millions of people do as a matter of course in all sorts of areas to simply protect themselves and their identity, and do not see it as necessarily being about ‘deceiving’ anyone), if I were to head down that path, I would recognise that standing against evil often can involve morally licit subterfuge. Simply think of Rahab sheltering the Israelite spies for example, or Corrie ten Boom hiding the Jews from the Nazis in her home. Both were rightly praised for their actions which involved ‘deception’. While the situation here is of course a bit different, the idea of not recklessly submitting to evil is still valid it seems to me.
And while some folks will still be able to find my articles, I have now lost a main means by which they used to be able to do so. And soon enough this website may well be removed by those with evil agendas. We need not be fatalists here, but work to promote truth in the public arena as best we can. Yes, we trust God, but we also seek to be “wise as serpents, and harmless as doves” as Jesus put it. But thanks for your thoughts. Others may have some thoughts on this matter as well.
Because this person’s comment raised some important issues, it is worth looking at further. In doing so I could appeal to philosophers, ethicists and theologians, and I could drag out my commentaries that cover the story of Rahab, and so on. But here I will mainly rely on some books on the Ten Commandments that I have pulled from my shelves.
But first, let me say – as most commentators remind us – that the original specific setting of the commandment is to give truthful testimony in a court of law. But it obviously has to do with the broader matter of not telling lies in general. But questions arise. Just what is a lie or a falsehood? And what role if any does motivation and intent play in this?
An obvious example would be: Your wife tries on a new dress and asks, “Do I look good in this?” Most husbands will say, “You look great dear.” They may well have some misgivings, but saying encouraging words seems the better path to take than offering various critiques at this point! Such “white lies” – if they really are lies – are told all the time, and not with malicious intent, but usually with quite good motivation.
And of course deception plays a crucial role in things like warfare. Trying to deceive the enemy as to your position, your intentions, your capabilities, your movements, etc., is a basic part of military strategy. And if such deceptions helped the Allies in defeating Hitler for example, most folks would argue that they were morally justifiable.
In his important volume The Doctrine of the Christian Life John Frame has a lengthy discussion about such matters. As to his definition of a lie, he says it is “a word or act that intentionally deceives a neighbor in order to hurt him. It is false witness against a neighbor.” He also discusses what a lie is not:
A lie is not simply an untrue statement. A mistake is not a lie. A parable is not a lie, even though it may describe events that did not happen historically. A fictional story is not a lie unless the author pretends it is factual.… A hyperbolic statement (e.g., “It took me forever to get here”) is not a lie, but a regular linguistic convention. The same is true for the flatteries that are part of normal social discourse…. In these ways and others, statements that are literally untrue may be means of communicating truth, and nobody would claim that they are lies. In games (whether board games or athletic contests) strategy often dictates deception. Everyone understands this and participates with that understanding….
But the issue of deception – be it by withholding information or seeking to mislead others for a greater good – is certainly a complex matter. In Al Mohler’s 2009 book on the Ten Commandments, Words From the Fire, he has a section called “What About Deception?” in his discussion of this commandment. He begins:
Indeed, this is an old question. What about the Hebrew midwives? What about Rahab the harlot (Joshua 2)? Augustine said, when forced into such a situation, one should respond with silence. Certainly, the Bible depicts deception. In fact, God actually commands deception at some points. In Joshua 8:1 and 2 Samuel 5:22 God commands Israel in its military operations to deceive.
You can lie in more than one way. As theologian Charles Hodge said, you lie by leaving the lights on in your home as if you are there so that no robber will enter. By the way, Hodge said that is an advisable lie. In other words, it is not the kind of lie envisioned by the Ninth Commandment.
He goes on to say that this is not an easy matter, and great care is needed. It is too easy to justify lying for selfish reasons. But is deception always amiss? He continues: “When an elderly man is facing his last days, do you tell him just how awful his physical predicament is? Does the doctor always owe the patient the absolute truth? Or, if that is settled as a matter of medical ethics, do family members owe each other the truth in that situation?”
In his book on the Ten Commandments Michael Horton says this:
Martin Luther, following Augustine, distinguished between three classes of lies: the humorous, the helpful, and the harmful. The humorous lie was nothing more than a joke, such as “Two men were walking down the street and one said to another . . .” when the conversation never took place in reality. Actors, especially good ones, can be said to deceive their audiences by their performances. But of course, these are not sinful “lies,” since they are not meant to be taken seriously as truth. The second class, the helpful lie, is told for the benefit of one’s neighbor. Rahab’s lie fits into this category. Other examples could be cited from 2 Samuel 15:34 and 17:20. Luther said, “Therefore, it is improperly called a lie. It is rather a virtue and remarkable prudence by which the fury of Satan is hindered, and the honor, life, and interests of others are served as well….
Frame, in his discussion, lists 16 such biblical cases “in which someone misleads an enemy, without incurring any condemnation, and sometimes even being commended.” He also cites Hodge and goes on to say this:
In Hodge’s view, we are not obligated to tell the truth in certain specifically defined relationships and situations. He mentions military strategy, for example, as one area in which there is no such obligation: we are not required to tell the truth to the enemy. Just as the sixth commandment does not rule out all killing, but forces us to look elsewhere in Scripture to find out what killing is legitimate, so the ninth commandment requires us to look elsewhere to determine when we are and are not obligated to tell the truth.
That is the line often used by theologians and ethicists when discussions about things like deceiving the Nazis are raised. In those sorts of situations people cease to have the right to the truth. It is argued that those with clearly evil aims and intentions (to take innocent life, eg.) have forfeited the right to receive truth. Thus when the Gestapo knocked on doors asking folks if they were harbouring Jews, people like ten Boom were not morally obliged to tell them.
As mentioned, Christians can and do differ here. Some argue that in certain situations these are not lies. But others argue that while they may be justified, they are nonetheless still lies. That debate will not here be settled. But the point is, there can indeed be a place for deception in various circumstances, and it is not always morally wrong to deceive.
One last word on all this. As to all the biblical examples of when folks withheld truth or used deception, but were not condemned for doing so, and whether this is sinful or not, Philip Graham Ryken says this in his book Written In Stone:
The Bible does not condemn these falsehoods. However, each of them was told to prevent evil men from committing even greater sins, such as murder. But we should not use these extreme cases to justify falsehood when we are in a tight spot or when we think the end justifies our means. Even in those rare cases when a lie seems necessary to protect others, it is still wrong in itself.