Does the story of Rahab’s lie provide a biblical basis for situation ethics? Must Christians always tell the truth? Or is it sometimes right to lie?
Years ago Joseph Fletcher wrote a book called “Situation Ethics: The New Morality” ((Westminster Press, 1966). Fletcher died in 1991, but his “new morality” is still embraced by many Christians today. Fletcher proposed that it was sometimes right to break the moral law of God to accomplish a higher purpose. If someone comes to your door with a gun intending to kill your wife and kids, you should rightly lie about their location to protect them, placing the sanctity of truth below the higher value, the sanctity of life.
Following Fletcher’s thinking some Christians have appealed to the story of Rahab in defense of a righteous lie. After hiding the two spies under stalks of flax on her roof, Rahab told the king’s men that the Israelites had left the city and she did not know where they went (Josh. 2:5). Rahab knowingly lied. Does her lying provide us with biblical justification for lying? This question never fails to generate lively discussion in the seminary classroom!
Several key hermeneutical principles are helpful in responding to this question. First, it is important to remember that the Bible often records what God does not necessarily approve. Second, divine approval of an individual in one aspect or area of life does not mean there is divine approval in all aspects of character or conduct. Third, application should be made on the basis of what the Bible obviously blesses or commends, not every detail of the passage.
Putting these principles into application, is it possible that the Bible recorded the story of Rahab without implicit approval of her lying? There is no evidence in the text that God approved or blessed her lie. Yes, Rahab’s life was spared because she protected the spies. But does that mean that God blessed her lie?
What the Bible clearly commends is Rahab’s faith, not her falsehood! Hebrews 11:31 records that it was “by faith” that Rahab did not perish along with the rest of the Canaanites at Jericho. We shouldn’t be surprised that Rahab lied, she whose very occupation centered on immoral behavior. She must have lied regularly to the men she entertained in her bed. But what the story of Rahab and the spies highlights is that although she was a Canaanite harlot, Rahab came to believe in Yahweh, the God of Israel! She declared her faith to the Israelite spies when she said, “Yahweh, your God, He is God in heaven above and on earth beneath (Josh. 2:11).
As a new believer from a very immoral background, Rahab told a lie. But her example at this point does not provide a legitimate ethical basis for telling a lie. We serve a “God of truth” (Psa. 31:5) who exhorts us to “speak the truth” (Zech. 8:16, Eph. 4:15,25). To justify lying in order to save a life implies that God has so few resources at his disposal that He needs our lie to rescue someone from a difficult situation. Did God need Rahab to lie in order to protect the spies? Could He have protected them in some other way? God does not need our lies in order to accomplish His good and sovereign purposes. Certainly our God is greater than that!
Jesus called for constant honesty, without hedging or modifying the truth (Matt. 5:33-37). This does not mean that we must tell all that we know. I need not tell a crazed man with a gun that my wife and children are hiding in the closet! At the same time, there does not appear to be a biblical justification for lying. Joseph Fletcher got it wrong. Because God is truth, He regards all lies as sinful–contrary to His character. Believers should speak the truth always and trust in God’s protective care.
About J. Carl Laney
J. Carl Laney teaches Biblical Literature at Western Seminary and is an instructor for Western's Israel Study Program. Carl has authored numerous books, including most recently, “Loving Your Enemy: A Biblical Alternative to Revenge” (Ministry: International Journal for Pastors, July 2011).