This is a paper that is specifically about a topic of ethics in missions. I wanted to disagree with something that Dr. Magnuson said earlier this semester in class, namely that not telling the total truth is unethical on the missions field. I have been living in China for eight years. Everything I do in China is illegal as a missionary. Dr. Magnuson mentioned his brother having conversations with authorities in Muslim countries where he is able to clearly say that he’s there as a Christian and part of being a Christian is sharing with people about his faith. This is a good example, but this is not usually what I have experienced. For me, each year I have to sign a work contract at our university in China where I teach. On the contract it says that I will not take part in any missionary activity. So each year I sign the contract that I will not do any missionary activity and each year I continue to do missionary activity in China. In fact, if I did not sign this contract, I could not work at the school and I would not be able to have a Visa and a platform in the city. This paper is about this idea of ‘righteous deceit’, that there are circumstances when it is acceptable to tell a lie, especially in regards to serving as a missionary in a closed country that opposes the gospel. First, we will look at a couple examples from the Scriptures. Then we will read what other folks have written about the subject. Then I will give my conclusion on the matter.
Scriptural Example 1: Rahab Declared Righteous
In Joshua chapter two, Joshua sends two spies to spy out the land near Jericho. The spies entered the home of Rahab. The king of Jericho is notified that the spies are staying in the home of Rahab. So the king of Jericho asks Rahab to bring the spies to him. But Rahab had hidden the spies. She tells the king of Jericho that the two spies had already left and are no longer at her house. Later Rahab says that the Lord has given this land to [the Israelites] and the fear of the Lord has fallen on all the people (2:9). So in this story Rahab tells a direct lie to the king, and thus the spies are able to escape. The spies vow that they will spare Rahab’s life when the Jews conquer the city, and that is exactly what happens.
This story shows that Rahab is blessed as a direct result of her not telling the truth to the king. If she had told the king that the spies were at her home, the spies would have been caught and probably immediately executed. We cannot begin to speculate what would have happened to Israel had Rahab told the truth. She saved the Jews by her lying. And as we know, this is not the end of the story for Rahab. In the New Testament Rahab is declared righteous for her actions: “By faith the prostitute Rahab, because she welcomed the spies, was not killed with those who were disobedient” (Hebrews 11:31). All of this chapter in Hebrews 11 is talking about how people in the Old Testament displayed their faith through their actions. Rahab is listed among that great list of godly people because of her dishonesty with the king of Jericho, that the spies of Israel might be spared. Her heart to save the Jews sprung from her faith in the true God that was leading them. And her lying to the king was the only way that the Jews could be saved. James goes into this again, as he mentions that Rahab was “considered righteous when she gave lodging to the spies and sent them off in a different direction” (James 2:25). So here James is not simply saying that Rahab was declared righteous by her faith in God, but rather that her righteousness is associated with her displaying her faith in God by hiding the spies from the king of Jericho.
So in conclusion, we can see not only that Rahab helped deliver the Jews by hiding the spies from the king of Jericho, but also that the authors of the New Testament declare her righteous by her actions. They do not condemn her or mention that she sinned in lying to the king, but rather they praise her for her actions.
Scriptural Example 2: David and Achish
It seems that the only example in the Scriptures of ‘righteous deceit’ is not just Rahab being declared righteous through her faith, but also showed a little in the story of David and Achish in 1 Samuel 21:10-15. David was fleeing from Saul. He goes to Achish king of Gath. The servants of Achish warn him that before him is the David that songs were sung about that tells of his great military conquests. So David became very afraid of the king. So “he pretended to be insane in their presence, acting like a madman by making marks on the door of the gate and letting saliva run down his beard” (21:13). David’s tactic of escape worked as the king responded by declaring that David was certainly insane and he let David go. In this story David is saved by lying about his mental condition (and desperately trying to save his own life) by pretending to be crazy. If he had not done this, it can be guessed that he may have been killed or detained by the king of Gath.
This is not the end of the story, though. In Psalm 34 David is celebrating God’s deliverance and provision for him as he escaped the grasp of King Achish by acting like a madman. On his account of the story, David says, “I sought the Lord, and he answered me; he delivered me from all my fears” (34:4). He continues, “This poor man called, and the Lord heard him; he saved him out of all his troubles” (34:6). So in commenting on his deliverance from Achish, his main praise is that it was not David’s own cleverness that saved him, but it was the Lord who delivered him. If David’s actions of not being honest were condemned by the Lord, it seems David would not have spoken as it being the Lord who delivered him. Later in the Psalms David says, “Keep your tongue from evil and your lips from speaking lies” (Ps. 34:13). This is very interesting that David, in celebrating what happened from him seemingly lying to the king of Gath, says to “keep your lips from speaking lies”. The conclusion must be that David does not consider that what he did was a lie. I think David would say that there was dishonesty of course, and maybe deceit in his actions. But the point is that David does not consider himself to have sinned in this deceitfulness, that he could still tell others to “keep their lips from speaking lies” without being a hypocrite. This means that there must be some kind of dishonesty that is not a sin, just like Rahab lying to the spies and David deceiving Achish. This kind of dishonesty is what I am referring to as ‘righteous deceit’.
Application to Missionaries
I am using these stories about Rahab and David, and particularly them not being condemned by God and other writers of Scripture but rather praised and blessed, to show that such dishonesty, though not 100% honest and even considered deceitful, is not necessarily a sin. In addition to not being a sin, I would venture to say that it is necessary behavior for missionaries who must disguise themselves in order to proclaim the gospel and live in countries that are hostile to the gospel. I have friends that want to serve in China, but once they realize that it is officially illegal in China for foreigners to teach about Jesus to the Chinese, their conscience attacks them and they say that they must not serve in China because they would be lying and thus sinning against God. This seems to me to just be a lack of understanding of the Scriptures on the topic.
There are many missiologists or pastors who agree with this idea. An article on the 9Marks website agrees with this idea. The author says that some think “Christian workers who enter a restricted country by doing a secular job are somehow lying if their basic motivation for going is to share the gospel.” Then the writer goes on to say, “If a Christian worker never actually does what the visa application said he or she would do, then the charge of dishonesty would be accurate.” The author then uses the example from the Old Testament when God tells Samuel to not reveal the whole truth to Saul in order to protect David (1 Sam. 16:1-5). Bill Commons agrees also when he writes in ABWE that if we only went to countries where missionary Visas where granted, then we would be missing out on reaching the part of the world that needs the gospel the most. Involved with that is that it is not dishonest as long as the missionary does have a legitimate job in that country that they are actually doing with integrity. If this is the case, then the missionary does not necessarily need to reveal all the reasons why he is there. Keith Parks, former president of the International Mission Board, said that as long as you are doing what you are supposed to be doing there are no ethical problems being a missionary in a closed country. In an article by Greg Livingstone in Mission Frontiers about thirty years ago, he said that Jesus did not include in the Great Commission that we should only go to nations that will grant us a missionary Visa. Livingstone says, “Is it ethical to go into a country to preach Christ without declaring it as your primary purpose? Of course!” Livingstone is the founder of a missions organization named Frontiers that specifically targets Muslims. In his article on Rick Love’s Frontiers’ training sessions several years ago, Barry Yeoman says that Love taught that Jesus did not tell all the truth all the time. Love says, “There are lots of ways to camouflage yourself [in serving in a Muslim context].” He was teaching the students about how to have other platforms to make themselves legitimate in a Muslim context, understanding that they cannot enter the area as an open missionary. Former director of Global Opportunities Dave English notes that there certainly are ethical issues in this topic, but he says that he “praises God for the determination and courage of missionaries to find another way into closed countries.”
In an interview with John Piper, this very question was asked, if it is ethical for a missionary to lie by signing a work contract that says he will not be sharing the gospel while working there. Piper’s response was surprising to me. He said that he thinks it would not be appropriate to sign a contract in a closed country to work that says that you will not share the gospel while there. He said that missionaries do not always need to tell the whole truth in every situation, but that they should not have to sign any contracts that make it a breach of their contract if they share the gospel. In an article by Steven Haught in the Global Missions Network, he goes through many Scriptures that people use to support lying as a missionary. Basically his conclusion is that all of these are just attempted ‘loopholes’ through the system, but should not allow missionaries to lie in any circumstances. In a blog about Baptist missions efforts in closed countries, one blogger writes that being a ‘stealth’ missionary “gives people in these countries the wrong idea that it’s okay to break the law as long as it’s for Jesus.” In a secular article for Baylor University Liz Foreman says that laws in a country are made so that there may be order in the country. Therefore it is unethical for a missionary to go secretly into a country. She says, “Missionaries who preach Jesus Christ’s ultimate message of truth, while simultaneously sidestepping laws and cultural values, send the wrong message.”
I think the understanding of Dr. Magnuson, John Piper and many others is that we should not hide the fact that we are Christians if we are living in a closed country. I would agree with that as a general rule. However, it is not always as simple as that. Previously, I stated that every year to teach in our school in China we must sign a contract with the university. Included in the contract is the acknowledgement that we will not do any missionary activity while in China. So the only way that we can have the job is if we sign the contract. If we refuse to sign the contract, we cannot work there. This is the general contract that all higher education foreign teachers in China must sign. Here are the options: Either the potential missionary follows his conscience to not lie and thus tells the Chinese government that he is there for missionary purposes, which obviously will lead to the person not having a job or Visa in the country anymore and not being able to live in the country. Or the potential missionary refuses to serve in the closed country because it would require lying and sinning against God, so he decides not to serve in the closed country or decides to go home if he is already there. Or finally, the missionary understands that there is another way, which is that, though there is some dishonesty in hiding our purpose from the government that we are there for spreading the gospel, we are not condemned by God in this. We see the examples of Rahab and David, and declare that there must be instances in which being dishonest is not only not condemned by God, but is actually praised by God and brings glory to him.
Also, the very nature of the Scriptures is that we are not even bound by the letter of the Law, but rather by the Spirit. This is what Jesus is saying in Mark 2:23-28 about David being able to enter the temple and eat the bread he was not supposed to eat. And Uzziah is condemned for entering the forbidden room to burn incense. So it seems that the Lord looks at our heart first, and if we are obeying what the Spirit is guiding us to do, which may be different in different circumstances. It seems in this day and age that many governments are officially closed to missionaries. It is not like centuries ago when William Carey did not need a Visa to serve in India. Hudson Taylor did not need a Visa to live in China. May no one have a weak conscience and not be prevented from serving the Lord in a foreign country just because he feels guilty in signing a work contract that says he will not share the gospel with anyone while there. These things are often necessary in completing the Great Commission, and also can bring blessing from God.