Brendan Case: Should a Christian leader ever lie?

Augustine says no.

Should Christian leaders ever lie?

For most, the answer is obvious: Yes. There are all kinds of scenarios in which a lie seems plenty appropriate: The child who asks whether God really killed all those people in the Old Testament. The grandmother inviting commentary on her new hat. The Nazi who asks if there are Jews hiding in the basement. Surely Christians are bound to shield the truth with duplicity at times.

Augustine didn’t think so, stubborn church father that he was. Even limited, well-intentioned lies were out of bounds. Christians, he thought, are bound to an exclusive, agonizing commitment to speaking only the truth.

Consider the scene of Jesus’ interrogation by Pontius Pilate. Asked about his kingdom, Jesus says, “For this I was born, and for this I have come into the world, to bear witness to the truth.” (Jn. 18:37). Indeed, earlier in the Gospel, Jesus declares that he simply is “the truth” (Jn. 14:6). As the Father’s perfectly true word made flesh (Jn 1:14), Jesus can say, “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father” (Jn 14:9). But although the truth stands before him, Pilate, the ignorant cog in the wheels of worldly might, can only respond mockingly: “What is truth?” (Jn 18:39) Jesus dies, not because the Father had not revealed himself clearly, but because men blinded by sin could not discern his radiance in the Son.

Augustine insisted that this was the basic structure of all Christian speech: like God, our word must be perfect truth, even if it means suffering at the hands of an uncomprehending world. When we use the gift of speech to bare our thoughts to the world, we image the eternal Father’s perfect self-revelation in the Son; but when our speech belies our thoughts, we mar that image which we were created to manifest (Gen 1:26). Augustine insisted that no cause -- neither redeeming souls nor saving lives -- could justify such a sin. After all, shall we do evil that good may come (Rom. 3:8)?

Augustine’s absolute commitment to truthfulness was not necessarily a ban on deception, oddly enough. Corrie ten Boom told the Nazis that there were Jews in her basement -- and there were. But she deceived them nonetheless. In a society premised on lies, what could be more unbelievable than the truth?

But there is still this question: Should a Christian, even one burdened with the cares of shepherding great causes or leading churches or organizations, ever speak a sentence she knows to be false? And if we insist on the duty of occasional lying, what will be the cost to our witness before a world that so desperately needs the truth?

It’s an unfashionable question, I know.

Brendan Case is a staff blogger and assistant at Leadership Education.