Is It Ever Okay To Lie?

Is It Ever Okay To Lie? January 24, 2019

Editor’s Note: I’ve learned that non-believing clergy are very good at lying. They lie to themselves, as their beliefs start to fade.  They lie to their families and congregations while they try to figure out how to respond to their changed beliefs.  They lie to their colleagues, presuming they won’t be sympathetic to their situation. But really, lying is very common, even among religious people who believe that it’s sinful. But is it always sinful? /Linda LaScola, Editor

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By Bruce Gerencser

I grew up in a religious culture where lying (bearing false witness) was always considered sin. It was never, ever right to tell a lie, even if the ends justified the means. This was more of an ideal than anything else. Pastors and congregants alike lied. I quickly learned that despite all their talk about moral/ethical absolutes, my pastors and other church leaders would lie if the situation demanded it. Despite frequent condemnations of situational morality/ethics, the Christians I looked up to would, on occasion, lie. One example that vividly comes to mind happened when I was fifteen and attended Trinity Baptist Church in Findlay, Ohio. As many Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) churches of the 1970s did, Trinity Baptist had a large bus ministry. Each week the church’s buses brought hundreds of people to church. Many of these buses were rambling wrecks, yet parents rarely gave a second thought to letting their children ride the buses. Most parents, I suspect, saw the three or so hours their children were at church as a respite from caring for them.

Church buses had to be annually inspected by the Ohio State Highway Patrol. Each bus had to pass a mechanical and safety inspection. One item of importance was the tires. Trinity Baptist was a fast-growing church that always seemed to be short of money. Properly outfitting each bus with safe tires would require a lot of money, so the church decided, instead, to lie about the tires. In the spring of 1972, it was once again time to have the buses inspected. Several of them needed to have their tires replaced. Instead of replacing the tires, the church outfitted one bus with new tires and took it to the Patrol Post for inspection. After passing inspection, the bus was driven to a garage owned by a church member so the new tires could be removed and put on the next bus needing inspection. This was done for every bus that had tires that would not pass inspection. What church leaders were doing, of course, was a lie. This particular lie was justified by arguing that running the buses and winning souls for Jesus were more important than following Caesar’s law. Over the next thirty-five years, I would see similar lies told time and again, with the justification always being that God’s work must go on and souls needed saving. But what about not bearing false witness? I learned that for all their preaching on situational morality/ethics, Evangelical pastors and church leaders were willing to tell a fib if it advanced their cause. In their minds, the end indeed justified the means.

Years ago, I pastored one man who believed it was ALWAYS wrong to lie. One time, a woman asked him if he liked her new hat. Wanting to always tell the truth, the man told her that he didn’t like the hat and thought it was ugly. Needless to say, he hurt his friend’s feelings. When asked by his wife whether an outfit looked nice on her or made her look fat, he would never consider what his wife was actually asking. Fundamentalist to the core, all that mattered to him was telling the truth. However, all his wife wanted to know is whether he accepted and loved her, as-is. Instead of understanding this, he dished out what he called “brutal honesty.” Needless to say, this man routinely offended his family and friends.

One time, after a blow-up over his truth telling, I asked him,

“Suppose you lived in Germany in World War II and harbored Jews in your home. One day, the Nazis come to your door and ask if you are harboring any Jews. Knowing that answering YES would lead to their deaths, what would you say? Would you lie to protect them?”

Astoundingly, he told me that he would either tell the truth (“yes”) or say nothing at all. In his mind, always telling the truth was paramount even if it meant the death of others. I knew, then, that I had no hope of getting him to see that there might be circumstances where telling a lie was acceptable; that sometimes a lie serves the greater good.

Bruce, did you ever lie as a pastor?  Of course, I did. Let me give you one example. The churches I pastored dedicated babies — the Baptist version of baptizing infants. Couples would stand before the congregation and promise before the church and God that they would raise their newborn up in the fear and admonition of God. Most of these parents lied, but then so did I. I would hold their babies in my arms and present them to the church, saying, isn’t he or she beautiful? What I believed then, and still do, is that most newborns are ugly. Our firstborn came forth with wrinkly, scaly skin and a cone-shaped head — thanks to the doctor’s use of forceps. “Beautiful,” he was not!  I lied to the parents about their babies because I knew no parent wanted to hear the “truth.” The parents lied about their commitment to church and God because that’s what everyone in attendance wanted to hear — especially grandparents.

While I generally believe that telling the truth is a good idea, I don’t think this is an absolute. There are times when telling a lie is preferable to telling the truth.

Let me share an example of when I should have lied and didn’t. The church I co-pastored in Texas held an annual preaching conference. I preached at this conference the year before the church hired me as their co-pastor. When discussing whom we were going to have preach at the upcoming conference, I suggested a preacher friend of mine from Ohio. I thought it would be a great opportunity for him. He gladly accepted our invitation. One night after he preached, my friend asked me to critique his preaching. I thought, 

“Oh don’t ask me to do this.”           

My friend had several annoying habits, one of which was failing to make eye contact with those to whom he was preaching. He insisted on me telling him what I thought of his preaching, so with great hesitation, I did. After I was done, I could tell that I had deeply wounded my friend, so much so that he talked very little to me the rest of the conference. Sadly, our friendship did not survive my honesty. Yes, he asked for it, but I really should have pondered whether he would benefit from me telling the truth. I should have, instead, recommended several books on preaching or encouraged him to use the gifts God had given him. Instead, I psychologically wounded him by being “brutally honest.” Later, I tried to reestablish a connection with him. I sent him an email, asking him how he was doing.  He replied with a one word, FINE.  ….

Are you an “absolute” truth-teller? Do you believe it is ALWAYS wrong to lie, or do you believe there are circumstances when lying serves the greater good or causes the least harm? If you are a pastor/former clergy person, did you ever lie? Don’t lie!  Please share your thoughts in the comment section.

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Bio: Bruce Gerencser lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 40 years. He and his wife have six grown children and 12 grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for 25 years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. He left the ministry in 2005 and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist. He is also one of the original members of The Clergy Project, which began in 2011. He blogs at The Life and Times of Bruce Gerencser, where the above post originally appears.  It is slightly abridged and reposted with permission.

>>>By Walt Disney – Original Trailer (1940), Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=12786158  ; Bruce Gerencser

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Raging Bee

    I’ve learned that non-believing clergy are very good at lying.

    And that separates them from believing clergy…how?

    • Linda_LaScola

      I didn’t say that it separates them from believing clergy. Certainly some believing clergy are also lying to themselves. And like people in general, they may lie about all sorts of other things.

    • mason lane

      To survive as a non-believing clergy for any time at all, they must be a very skilled liar and actor.

  • Graham Heron

    I’m closer to absolute honesty than many I know. I’m not as adept at greasing the social wheels as most.
    Those in my life who are most adept are also those who are most untrustworthy however.
    A slippery slope perhaps?
    For those of us, like myself, who are naturally clumsy at socialising (I may be high on the IQ, PQ scale, but my EQ is definitely lacking), it’s difficult to determine the ‘rules of the game’. It’s more of an art and I’m more science inclined (be flexible on the interpretation, I realise it’s complex). Give me a more structured environment and I can thrive.

  • HematitePersuasion

    I try not to lie; I find it simplifies my life tremendously. But I also try to answer the real question — not the question that was asked. One can be honest without being brutal; veracity is not a license for cruelty or abuse.

  • Jim Jones

    > This was done for every bus that had tires that would not pass inspection. What church leaders were doing, of course, was a lie.

    Actually, a criminal (and dangerous) fraud.

    > “Beautiful,” he was not! I lied to the parents about their babies because I knew no parent wanted to hear the “truth.”

    Shania Twain 1979

    http://www.whiskeyriff.com/2015/10/19/shania-twain-a-timeline-of-her-rise-to-fame/shania-twain-1979/

    Shania Twain now

    https://allstarbio.com/shania-twain-age-children-wiki-bio-net-worth-husband/

    You were just anticipating!

    As for parishioners, ISTM that many (or most) know their religion is bullshit but choose to not investigate.

  • skl

    Do you believe it is ALWAYS wrong
    to lie, or do you believe there are circumstances when lying serves the greater
    good or causes the least harm?

    There is no “wrong”. There is only what people don’t like.
    There is no “good” and no “greater good”. There is only what people like.

    • Geoff Benson

      I agree that your absolutes of ‘wrong’ and ‘good’ are hard to define, but you oversimplify by saying it’s just what ‘people like’. I like watching rugby, and I don’t like peanut butter. That’s where ‘like’ is the right word.

      • skl

        No, it’s all the same thing.

        • Geoff Benson

          No it isn’t. There are lots of things I don’t personally like, such as gay sex, but acknowledge that there’s a much wider perspective than simply ‘I don’t like’.

          Anyhow, in whatever way it all comes together it is what it is. Have you an alternative hypothesis?

          • skl

            No, it’s all the same thing.
            I’ll just add that the powers that be determine which likes are legal.

  • Geoff Benson

    I think that it’s nothing more than fooling ourselves (and oneself is the easiest person to fool in the first place!) to think we don’t lie most of the time. No matter how much we deny it, it’s lying that enables us to go from day to day.

    I’m not suggesting that big time lying is good, especially where it leads to others being harmed, but casual lying happens all the time. It’s inevitable. Our minds contain our thoughts, and so are invisible. When we speak, or in any other way communicate, we are only ever to a greater or lesser extent attempting to put our thoughts into words, and that inevitably leads, at the very least, to economy of truth. In reality, we hardly ever say what we feel and those who do, far from being respected, are treated with suspicion, because that’s not ‘normal’ behaviour. Essentially, when we speak, however well intentioned we mean to be, we are compromising between what we actually think and what result we want to achieve from what we say. And this ignores outright, deliberate, untruths, in circumstances where lying is probably justified.

    • Bruce Gerencser

      Great explanation, Geoff.

      I tend to be quite polite in public — deference being the norm. I live in rural northwest Ohio —the land of God, guns, and right-wing politics. As I interact with my neighbors, I find that I must, at times, lie to maintain my polite demeanor. Sometimes, I lie without saying a word. I want to tell the truth or give my opinion, but doing so would cause offense. So I smile and say nothing.

  • carolyntclark

    in the social context of civility, kindness and good manners frequently require filtering our words.

  • mason lane

    Lies occupy a very wide continuum, from kindness, empathetic, exaggeration, survival, deceit, criminal, vicious, deadly. Anyone who says they are always truthful is the most dangerous of liars. Lying is as human as laughter. Our primate cousin gorillas began telling lies as soon as they had enough signs. Lying is our heritage. Fortunately, https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/22e04c0519cd233ab42f9d9e11214d70a8d4b23cfa481b99b760a22008f69f5d.png we don’t have sentitive wooden noses. Sociopathic liars, like our fellow primate in the Oval Office, are another subject.

  • Cynthia

    There are times that I am required to tell the truth – I can’t commit perjury or mislead the court, for example. I take those duties very seriously.

    If something could potentially involve health or safety, same. If someone is asking about ingredients, don’t lie. They may want to know if a sauce is kosher because they have a deadly shellfish allergy, or they may be asking about gluten because even a small amount will result in 24 hours of intestinal agony (giving nasty look to server who gave wrong information to Girl 1 – yes she is skinny, no it isn’t a fad diet, it is a medical condition that is made worse when bad information leads to severe diarrhea).

    I don’t think that random people have the right to demand 100% accurate information, esp if something is none of their business. I have a responsibility to respect people’s privacy, and sometimes omission, distraction or a white lie are necessary to do so.