Is Ethical Deception a Fiction? (Part 1 of 3)

By Mac Deaver

Gary Summers of Winter Park, Florida, in September 2014 responded in a three part series in his church bulletin, “Spiritual Perspectives,” to my article, “Ethical Deception.” Summers thinks that I do greatly err in contending that some deception is authorized by the Bible. If the reader wants Summers’ three part series, he can call the church office at (407) 657-0657. Let us see if Summers has proved me wrong.

In his first article, “Authorized Ethical Deception?” (September 8), Summers in his second paragraph informs the readers that I, Mac Deaver, have already taken “several positions that are contrary to what the Scriptures teach on the subject of the new birth, Holy Spirit baptism, spiritual gifts, and related matters.” Of course, Summers is merely asserting rather than proving anything, but it can well serve the purpose of prejudicing the reader against what I do teach about ethical deception. I have already been in four public debates on the Holy Spirit. I am quite satisfied with what I believe and teach regarding such. I know that Summers has not and cannot overcome what I teach. I have tried to get him to attempt it in public debate. But he has been unwilling. He was willing to engage me in a written debate, and I was unwilling. He would not engage me in a public debate, and that is what I wanted. So, there has never been a debate between us on the Holy Spirit.

But has he found something about “deception” that I have written that he can use to expose me as a taker of positions contrary to Scripture? To be fair, Summers in paragraph two does say that my position on authorized deception is merely “questionable” rather than his saying that it is downright and clearly false. However, he does link it to the other alleged “troubling” views of mine that he asserts “cannot be successfully defended.” I beg to differ.

Accurately, Summers points out that what I am arguing for in authorized ethical deception is to be distinguished from lying. The Bible makes it plain that all lying is sinful. Liars will not enter heaven (Rev. 21:8). And, as Summers rightly points out, I do distinguish between ethical and unethical deception. But Summers takes issue with my word choice. Since the word “deception” is linked with other words such as “Imposture, trickery, double dealing, dissimulation, craft, artifice, treachery, subtleness, wiliness, cunning…,” Summers thinks that perhaps the word “deception” is not the word that I need to use. However, my dictionary does tell me that the word “may or may not imply blameworthiness, since it may suggest cheating or merely tactical resource” (Webster’s Seventh New Collegiate Dictionary, p. 213). I think I’ll retain the word.

And Summers notes that I correctly point out that there are times when we are not under obligation to reveal everything we know. There is a time for proper concealment of certain facts. Summers readily grants this point. And he observes that one can conceal information without intending to deceive. That is certainly true. But it is also equally true that one can conceal information in order to deceive. And this latter point is what Summers calls into question.

Summers rightly declares that I am not trying to justify “situation ethics,” but he finds fault with me in my use of 1 Samuel 16:1-5 as supporting my claim. This is the passage where God assigns Samuel the task of going to Bethlehem to anoint a new king (even though Saul, the current king, is very much alive). God had rejected Saul, but at Bethlehem, the person to be the next king, will be located. Samuel is reluctant because of the danger involved in such a mission. “And Samuel said, How can I go? If Saul hear it, he will kill me. And the Lord said, Take an heifer with thee, and say, I am come to sacrifice to the Lord. And call Jesse to the sacrifice, and I will shew thee what thou shalt do: and thou shalt anoint unto me him whom I name unto thee” (1 Sam. 16:2, 3). Summers claims that my “interpretation” of the text is “slanted.”

In my own article I took the position that the basic purpose for Samuel’s trip to Bethlehem was to anoint the next king. But a secondary purpose was contrived to camouflage the real purpose and so to deceive Saul if Saul became aware of Samuel’s presence and was curious as to the reason for his visit. Summers says, “One could put this kind of ‘spin’ on the situation, but there is another way to look at it.”

Summers’ attempt at a different angle of “interpretation” is to emphasize God’s omniscience. Of course, I was all the while aware of and basing my remarks on my awareness of God’s omniscience. I never thought that God was simply “working something out” as he went along in his conversation with Samuel. I well knew that God already knew everything about what he and Samuel and Saul were going to do.

Summers then suggests that God already had the sacrifice in mind before telling Samuel to go anoint a king. Yes, that is certainly true and granted. But it changes nothing about what I claimed in my article. Listen to Summers:

Second, as it related to 1 Samuel 16:1-5, He addressed Samuel on the basis of his mourning for King Saul’s disobedience and let him in on the rest of the plan only when he objected to Saul’s likely reaction. God could just have easily spoken to Samuel in this way: “I want you to go to Bethlehem and offer a sacrifice.” Samuel might have responded by asking: “How will that do any good or change anything?” The Lord may have answered, “While you are there engaged in that task, I want you to anoint a new king.” “Oh, I see,” the prophet says, as the entire plan dawns on him.”

Yes, God could have told Samuel to go to Bethlehem in order to offer a sacrifice as the primary purpose of his visit, and that, by the way, while he was there already he might as well go ahead and anoint a new king since he could do so conveniently. But, while Summers is willing to rewrite Scripture in support of his theory, the way that it is written affirms unmistakably that the real point of the trip was not the sacrifice at all, but rather the anointing of a new king! And Summers knows this. Summers has no right whatever to rewrite the Bible in order to uphold a point of view that he already has developed! One simply cannot do that with an Old Testament passage any more than he can with one in the New.

Then, Summers says that when the people of Bethlehem asked Samuel the purpose of his visit, he simply mentioned the sacrifice because they didn’t need to know about the other purpose. So, Samuel simply withheld information (he concealed it), which both Summers and I both agree is ethical in that situation. And Saul did not inquire. Summers concludes that information was merely and rightly concealed from those who did inquire and that since Saul never asked, he was never intentionally deceived. But that is not the whole account.

We have already been told that God had said to Samuel that if Saul did get wind of Samuel’s visit that Samuel could keep Saul “in the dark” by saying, “I am come to sacrifice to the Lord” (v. 2). God told Samuel that he had rejected Saul (v. 1). This was the topic that God was addressing. Samuel was to get over his mourning for Saul and get to Bethlehem to anoint a new king. God was not, as the text clearly shows, concerned with Samuel making a sacrifice at Bethlehem to him. The priority of the moment was to anoint a new king. The secondary reason for going was one clearly to camouflage the real purpose. And if Saul did ask Samuel as to why he did come to Bethlehem, Samuel can then rightly and with a clear conscience say that he was “come to sacrifice to the Lord” (v. 2). The sacrifice was never the basic or most important reason for the trip! Summers’ twisting the passage cannot make it say what it clearly does not say!

So, if Saul had confronted Samuel and had asked him, “Samuel, why are you here?” Samuel, with God’s authority, could have responded, “I am come to sacrifice to the Lord” (v. 2). That was what he was told that he was to say! And since it was not the real or basic or fundamental reason for the trip (though it was one of the purposes of the trip), such would have been an authorized ethical deception presented to Saul. It would not have been a simple withholding of information to which he had no actual relevant interest, but rather a deception as to the main or real purpose of Samuel’s being there, so that he would be intentionally deceived by the words (which were true but not exhaustive). It was not mere concealment, but deception, since the words authorized were intended to mislead. God can conceal by silence (Deut. 29:29) or as in this case by misleading. God was authorizing Samuel to say such things to Saul as would “throw him off the track” or prevent suspicion and prevent further inquiry. Both silence and misleading are kinds of concealment (Prov. 25:2). Summers grants the first kind but denies that the second kind is ethical. But here we have it authorized in 1 Samuel 16.

Summers leaves off responding to what I say about Abraham and Sarah till later and so takes up my use of the battle of Ai where I stated that God authorized military deception by means of the ambush that he arranged. Basically, Summers’ response to my position is that “When a nation is at war, normal rules of conduct do not apply, such as ‘Love thy neighbor.’” Again, “The point is that the ethics of war are different than those by which we normally operate.” So, we have Summers’ brand of “situation ethics” now on display. What is unethical in peacetime can become ethical, according to Summers, in wartime. He doesn’t prove his case; he merely asserts his case. But even given what Summers asserts, I do not think that he would claim that “lying” is acceptable behavior even in wartime. I do not think that Summers would contend that adultery or fornication entailed in wartime in espionage work would be forms of acceptable behavior. His response to what I said about God’s authorization of deception by means of the ambush is not adequate at all.

Then Summers takes us to 2 Kings 6:8-23 where we find the account of Elisha’s encounter with the Syrian army, and in my article I had taken the position that Elisha used authorized ethical deception in dealing with that army. And what does Summers do? He goes to the Pulpit Commentary and finds where the commentator on this text claims that Elisha lied, and then Summers attacks that position, a position that I never took and one that I deny is true.

The king of Syria sends spies to find Elisha (v. 12, 13). Summers says that the Syrians were not truly trying to find Elisha, though the text says that they plainly were. It is certainly true that the king of Syria wants to find the king of Israel, and that is why he is trying to locate Elisha. This is another instance where Summers tries to rewrite the text to support his position.

When the king was told that Elisha was the one who had been warning the king of Israel, the king of Syria then said that he wanted Elisha found. He was then told that Elisha was in Dothan, and that is the place to which the king of Syria then sent his army. And that is where Elisha was found. The king of Syria evidently assumed that the king would be found where Elisha was. So, in verse 19, when Elisha says, “This is not the way, neither is this the city: follow me, and I will bring you to the man whom ye seek,” though Elisha was the secondary man of concern (second to the king of Israel whom the king of Syria was fighting), Elisha was still the primary person of concern on this specific visit since the king knew he was in Dothan and did not and could not know for sure that the king of Israel was there. Elisha’s speech does seem to refer to the king of Israel and Samaria, though the Syrian army would not necessarily take it that way, given the person they were at the moment trying to find. They would be thinking of Elisha and Dothan; he was speaking of the king of Israel and Samaria. I take it as a case of authorized deception. But whether it is or not, Elisha tells no lie!

Summers rejects the Pulpit Commentary’s claiming that Elisha lied in deceiving “the public enemy.” I do, too. However, Summers had already told us that in wartime, ethical conduct rightfully changes! So, since this account of action is in an historical context of wartime (and it is, v. 8), why won’t Summers allow for a situational lie? This is curious, isn’t it?

However, again I say that my position in my previous article was never that Elisha lied, but that he in a justified way, attempted with words to deceive the Syrian army. Yet, Summers spent the bulk of this section of his article trying to refute the claim that Elisha lied, a position that was never mine! Was Gary paying attention?

Summers ends his first article by referring to my comment in my earlier article that before preachers assail the concept of authorized ethical deception, they should first give up carrying their sermon outlines into the pulpit and attempting to leave the audience with the impression that they are not using outlines. Summers says of me,

First he accuses all preachers who carry such outlines as being dishonest in their motives, which is an assumption, not a fact. Second, even if it were true, it is the tu quoque fallacy of logic. All that this Latin phrase means is: “Likewise you” or “you, too.” In other words, “I’m guilty but you are, too.” The application would be: “Elisha was guilty of lying, but you are, too. We all use Authorized Ethical Deceit.” No, all of us do not.

In response, let it be noted that I never said—

(1) that a preacher’s merely carrying a sermon outline into the pulpit constituted any kind of deception, period or

(2) that using a sermon outline constituted by itself deception or dishonesty.

What I said was that if a preacher uses a sermon outline while attempting to leave the impression that he is not using an outline, that such is a form of deception. Furthermore, Summers has no way to successfully deny that fact! I now use a sermon outline all the time, but I am not trying to leave the impression that I’m not. But I have used a sermon outline trying to leave the impression that I was not or at least not using it as much as I was. If my attempt at concealment is coupled with my intention that the audience thinks that I am speaking without looking at all at a written outline, such constitutes a deception. It is certainly no sin. But, in looking at the situation of a preacher’s using a written outline, we face two possibilities:

(1) A preacher uses a sermon outline without trying to conceal the fact that he is, or

(2) A preacher uses a sermon outline trying to conceal the fact that he is so that his audience does not know that he is using it and thinks that he is not.

This second case is a form of deception because we have not only (1) concealment, but we have (2) the preacher’s intention that a certain impression is made on the audience which impression is an impression out of harmony with fact.

Regarding Summers’ second claim of my allegedly committing the tu quoque fallacy, such is really quite pathetic. Summers says, the application of his reference to the fallacy as having been committed by me would be that “Elisha was guilty of lying, but you are, too. We all use Authorized Ethical Deceit.” This is really pitiful. I never accused Elisha of lying! So the alleged likeness disappears. Elisha didn’t lie, and a preacher’s use of notes constitutes no lie either. This was not Gary’s finest moment. Please notice—

(1) One can conceal information from others without intending to leave an erroneous impression.

(2) One can conceal information from others while intending to leave an erroneous impression.

The second case allows for authorized ethical deception. I say “allows for” instead of “is equivalent to” ethical deception because of the following:

(1) One can conceal information from others while intending to leave an erroneous impression, the intention itself being immoral; or

(2) One can conceal information from others while intending to leave an erroneous impression, the intention itself being moral.

I contend that neither God nor man has a right to act ever from an immoral will. A man’s intention always has to be with love of God and man (Matt. 22:37-40). And even in wartime, one does not have the right to hate his fellowman, to commit adultery, to lie, or to murder. It is possible for the one responsible for warfare to “murder” in wartime, but such is still wrong (2 Sam. 12:9). I do not agree with Summers’ handling of ethics within the context of war, and his confusion regarding wartime ethics may help us to consider that he may not be as clear as he needs to be regarding ethics within the time of peace.