Telling the Truth vs Spreading the Truth

First published on 1 September 2007, updated on 1 March 2010

Is it ever OK to live a lie in order to tell the Truth?

Yesterday, 19 South Korean missionaries who had been held hostage by the Taliban in Afghanistan were freed after a 6 week ordeal. If you haven’t been following the story, and the controversy around the reported $ 2 million ransom paid, then read the New York Times article here or the Reuters report here.

This has brought to bear a HUGE issue that has been bubbling away just below the surface for many years. The Emerging Church has not quite wanted to touch this topic publicly, although many coffee shop discussions have spoken about it. The issue is now in stark relief. As part of the negotiations between the South Korean government and the Taliban, the Koreans promised to send no more missionaries to Afghanistan (South Korea has more missionaries abroad than any country other than the USA). I am guessing that not every church in Korea was complicit with that decision, but it is nevertheless a binding international public promise. (Read a Korean newspaper report on this issue).

Will the church comply? Those churches that have no intention of stopping sending missionaries surely have a duty to the truth to immediately come public and say, “We will not stop. We don’t agree with the decision.”

The issue that lies at the heart of this situation is the conflict between telling the truth and spreading the Truth.

More recently, in 2010, we have seen the case of some American church workers who went to Haiti to help in the aftermath of their terrible earthquake. But they tried to help by attempting to smuggle 30 or so children out of the country. They initially claimed that these children were orphans. It later emerged that many were not, but that their parents had consented to them being taken away by the church workers in order to live better lives in the USA. Besides the cultural imperialism going on in this story, there is an underlying current of dishonesty and lying that appeared to pervade the situation.

Doing good, but being deceitful in order to do so! Is that ever OK?


In the ongoing debates between evangelicals and the Emerging Church, it is the contention of the evangelicals that EC Christians are subverting the Truth, are ashamed of the Gospel, etc. Yet, when these same evangelicals send out their missionaries to countries that do not allow Christians to worship openly, they very happily create massive fabrications (OK, let’s call them what they are: LIES) to get their missionaries into these countries under the cover of “tent making” opportunities.

Of course, if you want to be Biblical (and these evangelicals at least SAY that they want to be Biblical in everything), Paul did “tent making” (technically, sail repairing) by day, and preached up a storm by night! He was stoned, beaten, harrassed and evicted numerous times. So, tent making as it is practiced today is about as unBiblical as it gets.

Is it ever OK to live a lie in order to tell the Truth?

Becoming a little emergent / missional minded would help this situation. If you are going to go to another nation and “pretend” to do good works so that you can create opportunities to share the Good News, why not understand that the actual good news you’re bringing is the good news that the Kingdom of God has come, and that means that poor will be uplifted, the illiterate educated, the naked clothed, the hungry fed, the thirsty given drink, the sick healed and helped, etc? Isn’t THAT good news in itself?

Sure, there’s more to the Gospel than that. The Gospel is about Jesus the Saviour. But it’s also about Jesus the Lord. And it’s about Jesus the King. And it’s about the proclamation of his kingdom. His kingdom come. His kingdom HAS come.

So, why not tell the truth about your motives? That would, of course, mean that your motives would need to be to bring God’s Kingdom to the people’s of the earth. And that is a lot more than just telling people about Jesus and creating a remnant ready for evacuation.

The hostage release and the promise made by the South Korean government should cause some real soul searching for evangelical Christians, who work under the cloak of subterfuge in order to bring the truth to a darkened world. That has never made sense to me. Now, we need to talk about it.

3 thoughts on “Telling the Truth vs Spreading the Truth”

  1. I received this comment in an email from a friend of mine who is doing mission’s work in a Muslim country. I am putting it in anonymously, because of the sensitivity of his position.

    COMMENT:

    These are very good questions you are raising and are often discussed and worked through. As someone who is sent out this is always in our mind. Are you really telling the truth to people when they ask what you are doing in their country. I have found 1 Samuel 16: 1-13 helpful in this. Samuel was tasked by God to go and anoint David as King. However his life was at risk as Saul was still alive. He let God know this and so God gave him a good reason for going to the village of David and his family. He was to say that he was coming to offer a sacrifice. When he arrives in the village the elders ask what he is doing there. He tells them he has come to sacrifice and not tell them that he has come to anoint David as King. However he does go onto anoint David as king. So in our context we don’t work under cover but rather we say what we are doing. We have an NGO and we are actually doing what we say we are doing as with Samuel. However our primary goal is to announce the Kingdom of God to the folk around us. We live incarnational lives among the people looking for third places to spread the good news whether this be at coffee shops, playing dominoes, hanging out near the Mosque etc. As you know we also want to see what I would also call an emergent church or term that we use is an indigenous church. A church belonging to the people. A church that will not look like a western church but rather one that emerges from within the culture. I was sitting again in a pre fasting month meeting of our community where they were eating together, praying together and reciting the Quran together and again thinking that should these people come to faith this is what church would look like except that for all be follows of Jesus the Messiah, reciting and studying the gospels, taurat and psalms.

    I must admit that having a mission sending organization that you are also affiliated with could be perceived as not telling the truth. What would it look like to be sent out by an NGO or something else? Is this necessary? Or do we need to understand what it means to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Telling the truth in different cultural context means different things. The whole idea of shame based verse guilt based cultures.

    It is also interesting that there are examples of people hiding their faith and then God using it at just the right time for his purpose and glory. I think of Nicodemus (John 3:1-15, 7:45-52, 19:38-42) & Joseph of Arimathea (Mark 15:43, Luke 23: 50-54, John 19:38-42, Matthew 27:57-61). Jesus himself often never responded to questions and at times kept his identity secret until just the right time.

    Your thoughts on doing good works is spreading the gospel and bringing the Kingdom of God is a debate that has been going on for years as one looks at liberal verse evangelical. I think whether we are evangelical, liberal, emergent, or whatever we need to keep in mind that both need to happen and need to happen with integrity. We need to be spreading the Kingdom of God and inviting people into this kingdom both through our lifestyle and our words. Of course in our Muslim context it is often hard to out do your neighbor in good works because that is what they live for. The more they do good works the more points they get and so opportunity to get to heaven. One needs to have dialogue in the midst of being a follower of Jesus, living an incarnational lifestyle which includes doing good works.

    Just as an aside and if I may say so, interesting that you choose to make the distinction between EC and evangelicals. As I think emergent church and a new community of faith I think that creating boxes of varying camps of thought is not helpful. I thought we are trying to create a community that does not want to put people in a box but rather help to break down these walls. I liked Brian McLaren’s statement in his book where he calls himself an evangelical, Pentecostal, charismatic, liberal etc. I can’t remember the exact quote.

  2. Nice points… even nicer because you’re a “been there, done that” guy in this space. You know you have my respect and support. Thanks for not getting defensive. My post was not intended to question your mission or purpose – nor the mission and purpose of many missionaries who risk life, and give up so much, for the Gospel. I also happen to know you are doing genuine work in the community, and that this is a passion of yours (as you describe above). So, thanks.

    As to your last point. You are right. I have maybe become a bit defensive in the past few weeks.

    However, I don’t that the EC is just about including everyone and hugs and kisses for all. We may be open to more conversations, and embracing of diversity. But that doesn’t mean we accept everything. We are as keen to find truth as anyone is.

  3. I would like to give a couple comments (as a layman)

    Graeme I appreciate your article in discussing this matter in an open way. I think it is so important (and often very challenging) to always tell the truth about ourselves and our motives. I think sometimes the question is do we always have to tell the whole truth or just part of the truth (but still that part is true)

    Also I appreciate the comments of your friend who is doing mission’s work in a Muslim country. His comments on 1 Samuel 16: 1-13 and also “Jesus himself often never responded to questions and at times kept his identity secret until just the right time.”

    have picked three verses from the bible: –

    1. I think 1 Corinthians 9:22 may have some relevance “To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some.” (New International Version)

    2. And I think as per Romans 14 : 1-23, it can be a matter of conscience.

    3. And Acts 4 v 15-20. (speaks for itself)

    I will comment on why I think 1 and 2 above may have something to say on this subject: –

    1. – 1 Corinthians 9:22 let me give an example: – I am aware that lots of Christians (individuals and groups) like to visit a certain country and hold gospel meetings or preach the gospel. When applying for a VISA (effectively permission to enter the country) those people who apply for permission to preach the gospel don’t get permission (believe me I have seen it on several occaisions). Those who apply for a tourist VISA do get permission. However when these peolpe go they are also tourists…. they look around a few places and do tourist things. If the Country Government allows tourists, OK (per 1 Corinthians 9:22) we will be tourists.

    2. Romans 14 : 1-23 Some Christians may have a conscience to smuggle bibles into a Country, some may not. I am sure if the customs ask ‘what are you bringing into the country’ these smugglers will answer “clothes …etc..etc” and don’t say bibles.

    – Nick

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