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The good lie? Calvin vs. Luther

During World War II, when my dad was just three, the Nazis came to his house looking for my grandfather. My grandmother, in a very convincing fashion, told them they had just missed him, and that he had headed out to the next house a quarter mile or so away. Well, my dad knew this simply wasn’t true and so he tried to be helpful and let everyone know where my grandfather really was. All he got for his efforts was a hard cuff to the head from my grandmother who, fortunately, cut him off in time.

But that left him confused, as he realized my grandmother wasn’t just mistaken but was actually lying to the Nazis. And as every little kid knows, lying is always wrong.

Or is it?

Is there ever a time when lying can be the right thing to do? Most people seem to think so, and would, like my grandmother, lie shamelessly in a similar situation. At first glance, Scripture seems to back up this position.

Rahab and the midwives

In Exodus 1:15-22, for example, Pharaoh commands the Hebrew midwives to kill all the male Israelite babies as they’re being born. The midwives refuse. When Pharaoh asks them why they disobeyed they lie to him and tell him that the Hebrew women were so strong they gave birth before the midwives even got there. The midwives are then rewarded by the Lord with families of their own.

Another relevant passage occurs in Joshua 2. Two Israelite spies hide on the roof of Rahab the harlot’s house. When the king of Jericho asks her if she knows where the spies are, Rahab lies to him and tells him that he just missed the spies. She too, is rewarded by the Lord.

So the midwives lied, and Rahab lied, and they were both rewarded. Case closed? Not so fast!

Calvin vs. Luther

In his commentaries, John Calvin writes about both these passages and insists the women were rewarded despite their lies, not for them. As he puts it, “those who hold what is called a dutiful lie to be altogether excusable, do not sufficiently consider how precious truth is in the sight of God…..God is truth.”

While it might seem the women are rewarded for their lies that isn’t actually what the Bible says. In Exodus 1:21 it states that: “because the midwives feared God he gave them families.” Their fear of God was the basis for their reward. In Hebrews 11:31 Rahab is praised for giving “friendly welcome to the spies” and for her faith, but her lie is not mentioned. James 2:25 similarly praises Rahab for receiving the spies and sending them back another way, and again her lie is not mentioned. In fact, nowhere in Scripture does it ever say the women were rewarded for their lies.

It’s worth noting, however, that nowhere in Scripture are the women ever admonished for their lies either.

And while Calvin thinks lying is always wrong, another Reformation heavyweight disagreed.

Martin Luther once told a supporter, “What harm could it do, if a man told a good lusty lie in a worthy cause and for the sake of the Christian Church?” Now, the context of this statement was a messy, complicated situation, and, Luther’s political and religious battles also made it pressure-packed. So Luther was dealing with a lot and it might not represent the man at his best. A key supporter had pressed Luther to sanction his bigamous marriage and Luther agreed, justifying it on the basis of there being no explicit condemnation of bigamy in the Bible. But the law of the time made it a capital crime. So when this second marriage was discovered, Luther urged the man, Philip of Hesse, to lie about it…for the sake of the Church.

This is quite the contrast to Calvin’s hard-line stance.

Two thoughts

So can lying ever be good? We can say confidently that 99 percent of the time it will not be. Luther’s lying certainly wasn’t and got him in a lot of trouble. Though this lie was supposed to do no harm, it cost him supporters and credibility. We can learn from Luther’s life and see his approach to lying is not one we want to imitate.

At the same time, I think lying might sometimes be necessary and my grandmother did the right thing. There are two different reasons.

First, the Ninth Commandment forbids bearing false witness against our neighbor, and I do wonder if God stated it just so for a reason. My grandmother was lying, yes, but not to the harm of her neighbor – she was, in fact, bearing false witness for her neighbor. This, too, was what the Hebrew midwives and Rahab did. They lied, but in the service of their neighbor. A more current example of this would be the undercover work of the Center for Medical Progress (CMP), where they exposed that Planned Parenthood clinics were selling aborted babies’ body parts. This undercover work involved CMP members posing as interested buyers and secretly videotaping the conversations. Lying was involved, but this was also done, not against, but for their unborn neighbors.

Of course, the Ninth Commandment isn’t the only condemnation of lying in the Bible. But if we read the others in the context of the specific wording of the Ninth Commandment, then there is an argument to be made for this type of lying done in service to our neighbor, and, in the case of the CMP, even done in the service of uncovering the truth.

(Luther justified his lie as being in the service of something good – the good of the Church. But this was very different; this was only an excuse. Hesse had done wrong and Luther was involved in it. The lying here would be done, not in service of the neighbor, or truth, but simply to cover-up evil done.)

Second, I think there is an argument to be made that when my grandmother lied it was the Nazis who were at fault. They put her in a situation in which she had to break one of God’s commands. She had to choose between either her husband’s life or the truth, between God’s command to love her neighbor as herself, or God’s admonishment not to lie. One of God’s laws was going to be broken. And by putting her in that situation, the Nazis were the ones sinning.

We said earlier that Rahab and the midwives were never commended for their lies, nor admonished for them. You’d almost expect something to be said, one way or the other, and yet there is nothing. Could that be because the lies weren’t really theirs? Will Pharaoh have to bear the responsibility for the midwives’ lie, and will the King of Jericho pay the penalty for Rahab’s lie?

Maybe Calvin was right and lying is always sinful…but God may not always hold the liar responsible for the lie. If there was sin involved when my grandmother misdirected the Nazis, then I think it is these Germans soldiers who will be called to account for the lie.

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