By Ruth Siemens
The answer seems obvious–of course, they must tell the truth! But some mission leaders are arguing that there are situations in which it may be right for Christians to evade the truth or to tell half-truths. This is the subject of some training papers used by mission leaders. What if you are a tentmaker working in a spiritually hostile country, and an honest answer could get you imprisoned, or ordered out of the country in 24 hours–with your family and all your goods? What if your honest answer could also jeopardize all your Christian colleagues and their families and even your handful of local converts?
This is a serious dilemma, and leaders are trying to grapple with it. The temptation is to say that in this case the end does justify the means, and that being less than totally truthful is acceptable as long as one is not blatantly lying. The training papers on my desk list Bible passages that seem to allow this kind of a loophole. But we should be suspicious because they are all proof texts. They are verses taken out of context. It is always dangerous to begin with experience and then seek justification from Scripture. (Cults do this.) We must always begin with Scripture and then bring experience in line with it.
One popular loophole passage is Jesus’ story of the unjust steward in Luke. Knowing his boss would fire him, he quickly reduced all the accounts receivable to ingratiate himself with the boss’s debtors. Jesus commended his prudence. But not his dishonesty. In the very next verse Jesus says, “He that is dishonest in little is also dishonest in much.” (That must apply also so tentmakers. This is a Pandora’s box we should not open!)
Another example given is Rahab, who lied to protect the Hebrew spies. She is commended three times in the New Testament. For her faith in God. But not for her lies. Are we supposed to derive our ethical teaching from a newly converted pagan prostitute in the O.T.? That is a misuse of Scripture.
More disturbing is the omission from the list of many passages that clearly forbid lying. Even a half truth is a whole lie. We need to consider exactly when the perceived need to lie occurs, and ask if there is an underlying problem that needs to be dealt with.
Regular missionaries do not often feel this problem–they are who they say they are–missionaries. True tentmakers, with significant jobs for which they are well qualified, also seem to have little problem, even when they have effective ministry in hostile countries. This is especially true if they do not evangelize indiscriminately, but use their attractive, loving, godly lifestyle as bait to fish out seekers, answering their questions. Both Paul and Peter taught this kind of evangelism for the workplace and for hostile countries. (See GO Paper — Workplace Evangelism. ) This kind of tentmaker has nothing to hide. He can be transparent when asked personal questions.
The need for dishonesty seems most acute for tentmakers who are fully (or largely) supported from home. Between the fully self-supporting tentmaker and the fully supported missionary is a continuum of combinations of the two–all of which are legitimate, as long as they are honest. Many of these people are doing excellent tentmaking, with integrity. But most Christians in these hybrid situations get minimal jobs abroad, pretending self-support. They try to do regular missionary work under the guise of tentmaking. Many develop a clandestine mentality which leads them to hide their real identity, to be evasive and to do the very things that make them suspect. Their half-truths are inconsistent, and their credibility with the local people is quickly damaged. There is something wrong if a Christian has to “seek a secular identity for himself,” a disguise for who he really is. Leaders talk about the need for workers to live with a certain ambiguity.
Why not get a proper job where no pretense is necessary? Partly, many Christians do not qualify for the level of jobs that can provide an adequate living. They usually do their job-hunting overseas, and are paid poorly, like local hires.
But a bigger problem is our whole evangelical attitude toward lay ministry. At home, most church members are spectator Christians. To mobilize the laity means to get everyone on some kind of church committee! Yet Paul says in Ephesians 4 that the main job of pastors and teachers is to equip members for effective evangelism in their neighborhoods and places of employment (or campuses). Some Christians with exciting evangelistic ministries go unnoticed by the church. There is no commendation, no opportunity to share with the congregation or to ask for prayer. This same warped view of home ministry warps our missionary enterprise.
Many pastors and missionaries have never held adult secular jobs, or if they did, they had no on-the-job ministry. Tentmakers with serious jobs are looked down upon by the mission community, because “they have too little time and energy left over from their jobs to do anything for the Lord.” There is no understanding that true tentmakers are in full-time ministry even when they have full-time jobs, because they integrate work and witness–as the Apostle Paul did.
What effect will the lying by Christian workers have on their converts? On their own children? Will they be able to draw the same fine line between half-truths and lies? Will a watching world understand “Christian” as synonymous with “liar”?
We need greater trust in God. No one can ever touch us without his permission! If he allows us to get arrested it may be he wants to evangelize authorities! Jesus promises that the Holy Spirit will coach Christians how to answer in such a situation. He would never encourage lies! If the early Christians had lied to the persecutor, Saul of Tarsus, he would never have become “our beloved brother Paul.”
For further discussion of these points you may want to read the following GO Papers:
- Tentmakers: When is it Right to Lie?
- Why did Paul Make Tents? Practical Rationale and Biblical Basis for Tentmaking
- Workplace Evangelism: Fishing out Seekers