Can Christians lie? Yes.
Are there extreme situations where lying may be preferable to telling the truth? Perhaps.
Should Christians lie? No.
The Scripture itself is pretty straight forward. Let your yes be yes and your no be no, and one is not to bear false witness against a neighbor.
The latter excludes lying about other people. But, I can see how legalists can bend this to mean as long as they don’t lie about someone else, it is “fine” if they totally misportray how they feel about something, their motivations, what they are thinking, or what they plan on doing.
In fact, a legalistic rendering of “thou shalt not bear false witness” essentially would allow a whole array of lying, such as in business deals. Would you like if your mechanic lied to you about what your car needed? Obviously, we don’t need the Law to let us know how often we fall short in this category.
However, God in His wisdom decided to elaborate more upon how He feels about truth telling:
But let your statement be, ‘Yes, yes’ or ‘No, no’; anything beyond these is of evil. (Matthew 5:37)
God cannot get any plainer with this one. If we don’t mean what we say, then what we are saying is evil. And, it is not one goes into a man’s mouth that makes him unclean, but what goes out of his mouth (Matthew 15:11).
God warns us through the Apostle:
But above all, my brethren, do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or with any other oath; but your yes is to be yes, and your no, no, so that you may not fall under judgment. (James 5:12)
Blessed are those who wash their robes, so that they may have the right to the tree of life, and may enter by the gates into the city. Outside are the dogs and the sorcerers and the immoral persons and the murderers and the idolaters, and everyone who loves and practices lying. (Revelation 22:14-15)
It would appear to me that we should be very cautious how we think about this subject, because telling the truth is a good reflection of one’s obedience to God and that the Spirit is at work in an individual. Someone who goes about justifying their habitual lying is missing the mark entirely.
“Oh, you’re taking that all too seriously,” someone might say. “God just wants us to know how we all fall short and need his mercy, we all lie sometimes.”
This is when we all need to take stock of our sin and also be careful not to judge others. We are quick to think that someone who is in jail for murder, a woman that had two affairs, or a medical-biller that essentially makes a living stealing sometimes are all going to hell. Also, if they repent of those sins, we expect that they never ever do them again.
Yet, Christians feel that they can fall into the sin of lying again and again, and this is somehow not as bad than a wife falling into adultery again and again. We would call a woman who has three affairs in 20 years a “serial adulterer.” What is a person called when, their conscience so seared, makes a practice of telling white lies and practicing deception on not only a monthly or weekly basis, but a daily basis?
For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles in one point, he has become guilty of all. (James 2:10)
A couple of times I have heard from men who have graduated from seminaries that lying is at times okay. Now, if we were to maintain a consistent hermeneutic this would be very hard to argue with what we laid out just previously, but this is essentially what they argue:
Rahab is commended for her faith and she lied! The Hebrew midwives that protected the baby males born in Egypt were commended for their deception!
Now, there are other other cases (such as the prophets lying to King Ahab so that he would get killed in battle), but they are a little more complicated so we can avoid these for now.
We can start with the the Hebrew midwives. They are not commended for lying, but for preserving life. This is sort of like the dutch employees of Otto Frank protecting him and his family, including Anne Frank.
Nazi: Are you hiding any Juden in ‘der?
Dutch resistance: Uh, no…
If you notice, no one ever commends people who lie in such extreme situations for lying, for we know lying to be wrong. Rather, the fact that they risk their lives to protect another life is what is commendable. Ultimately, we are going to stand before God and have to give an account for all of our idle words (Matthew 12:36) and in real life we are sometimes posed with situations where nothing we can do is fully good in of itself and we have to do what we know to be most obedient to God and commend ourselves to His mercy.
Now, I don’t see the preceding criteria as applicable to lying to your kids about Santa Claus “because it is fun” or telling your wife untrue things just so she doesn’t pester you about how she looks.
Then we have the example of the “faith of Rahab.” In Joshua 2:8-13 her faith is portrayed as follows:
Now before they lay down, she came up to them on the roof, and said to the men, “I know that the Lord has given you the land, and that the terror of you has fallen on us, and that all the inhabitants of the land have melted away before you. For we have heard how the Lord dried up the water of the Red Sea before you when you came out of Egypt, and what you did to the two kings of the Amorites who were beyond the Jordan, to Sihon and Og, whom you utterly destroyed. When we heard it, our hearts melted and no courage remained in any man any longer because of you; for the Lord your God, He is God in heaven above and on earth beneath. Now therefore, please swear to me by the Lord, since I have dealt kindly with you, that you also will deal kindly with my father’s household, and give me a pledge of truth, and spare my father and my mother and my brothers and my sisters, with all who belong to them, and deliver our lives from death.”
So, Rahab believed in God’s power and she knew that He could not be thwarted. However, her compatriots were afraid but stuck to their guns and doubled down. Everyone else was defeated by the God of Jacob, but they would take a shot at resisting Him and His people. Rahab’s faith, when thought of in the proper context is very obvious and in contrast to the faithlessness of her own people.
When Rahab is commended for her faith, lying never comes up:
By faith Rahab the harlot did not perish along with those who were disobedient, after she had welcomed the spies in peace. (Hebrews 11:31)
In the same way, was not Rahab the harlot also justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way? (James 2:25)
It is the quote from James that really illustrates Rahab’s righteousness, because preceding it he puts it simply: “You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone” (James 2:24). When Rahab received the messengers and preserved their lives, it wasn’t a nominal faith of that of the others in Jericho that lost their courage, but went on living their lives the same way. When she heard word of the Lord and what He had done, she reacted in full knowledge of the fact, so that her faith worked itself out in deeds.
Granted, it did include a lie, but lying in of itself is wrong. She reacted out of her conviction that the God of Jacob was real. And this is what she is commended for.
To sum it all up, don’t use Rahab as an excuse to hide from your husband that it was you who scratched the car’s door or to make your wife not nag you about the new dress she bought. Let your yes be yes and your no be no.