When a pastor misrepresents himself, is it lying?

“Lie not one to another, seeing that you have put off the old man with his deeds, and have put on the new man, which is renewed in knowledge after the image of Him that created Him….” (Colossians 3:9-10).

I hate to admit this, but it needs to be done.

Preachers sometimes misrepresent themselves. 

Some claim to have degrees that sound authentic but were bought on the sly somewhere for the simple reason that they have learned laypeople in our churches are unsophisticated about that sort of thing but are impressed by high-sounding degrees. Some ministers claim to have been places they merely flew over, to know people they shook hands with, and to be more than they are.  Some give the appearance that they know the original languages when they are merely quoting something they picked up in a book.

There is no substitute for integrity in those called to preach the Word and lead the Lord’s flock.

A surgeon must have cleanliness in all he does; a teacher must have a love for the students at the heart of all she does; a carpenter must have the blueprint at the heart of all he does; and a pastor must have integrity at the heart of all he does.

Integrity. Truth. Honesty.  No deception. No embellishment. No twisting of the fact. No irresponsible reporting.  No claiming what is not so, no declaring what we do not know, and no using what belongs to another.

The temptation is ever with us to do otherwise.

I once sat in a large civic center for several hours listening to a debate between the notorious atheist Madalyn Murray O’Hair and a Church of Christ minister, wishing they would hurry and get to the Q&A time.  For the rest of my life, I wanted to be able to insert into sermons, “I once asked Madalyn Murray O’Hair….”  something. It hardly mattered what I asked and mattered not at all how she answered. I just wanted to be able to say it.  (Disclaimer:  This was half in jest, but still true.)

You ask why I would want to do such a thing.  Short answer: I have no clue.  Mostly it was just a fun thing, but I still wanted to do it.  I finally gave up about 11 pm and went back to the hotel.

And, just so you’ll know, I never did misrepresent myself in a sermon as having done this.

It’s actually very easy to misrepresent things.  Take my athletic career in college for instance….

Have I ever told you that I played football in college?  I did.  Really.

Have I ever told you that I played soccer in college?  I did that, too.

No joke.

And did I tell you that I played tennis and swam, I wrestled and played basketball in college?

I did all of those things.

The way it happened was that the college required all freshmen to take the same activities in PE, six weeks of football followed by six weeks of soccer, and similar periods of basketball, wrestling, even trampoline.  The tennis and swimming were several semesters I took in another college to learn those skills.

Now, it would be completely wrong to say I played football for the college team. Or did any of the other sports competitively.  And I would never have claimed that.

Question: So long as I used this as an illustration for a sermon and said something like, “Back when I was playing football in college…” that would not be lying, would it?  It would, however, be misrepresenting things.

That’s why no one has ever heard me do that.

Well, maybe my sons when I was teasing them.  “Hey, don’t argue with your dad! I know this game! Remember, I played football in college.” And we all laughed.

If someone had actually challenged me and said, “What position did you play in soccer or football,” my truthful answer would have been, “Oh, somewhere out there in the middle of the field somewhere.”

I hope you’re smiling.

An athlete I was not. I was a farm boy and in great shape physically (walking 20 miles a day behind a mule will do that for you!), but because we lived so far out from town, I played on none of the school teams.

Well, that plus I was a nerd (back before the word was invented). My leisure time was spent reading, cartooning, and watching television.

We’re discussing the business of misrepresenting matters.  As a minister of the Lord Jesus Christ, this is almost as serious a subject as it’s possible to find.

If people find we are stretching the truth in one area, they’re justified in questioning when we speak in another.  Our Lord said, He who is faithful in a very small thing is faithful also in much; and he who is unrighteous in a very small thing is unrighteous in much (Luke 16:10).  It’s an infallible guide.

Now, just as the truth about my short-lived athletic career could have been uncovered by a key question or two (“What position did you play?” “Tell me about your college soccer.”), the preacher who is shading the truth or embellishing the facts can be nabbed red-handed in the same way.

Someone who thinks his pastor is embellishing his resume’ or padding his credentials or claiming experience he does not have should simply ask him  about it.

“Pastor, I see you attended Gordon Cornwell Seminary.  I’d love to hear about it.”  (There is a Gordon-Conwell, but not Gordon Cornwell.  I’m being facetious here.)

“Pastor, did I understand you to say you were boyhood friends with Justin Bieber?  Where was this? How interesting.”

In this day of IT–we’ve always had technology but this is information with a capital I!–almost everything you want to know about someone is out there, if you know where to look. This is how more than one seminary professor and numerous celebrity preachers have been caught stretching the  truth.  Their words painted them into corners from which they could not escape.

Truth is a wonderful thing.  You don’t have to remember what you said the last time. You have nothing to hide.

Our Lord Jesus, on trial and asked to tell what He had been preaching to the masses, said, I have spoken openly to the world; I always taught in synagogues and in the temple, where all the Jews come together. I spoke nothing in secret.  (John 18:20).

I can hear someone protesting, “What difference does it make whether a minister went to a seminary or not, or spent time in Singapore with missionaries?” Answer: Probably very little difference–unless he’s claiming to have done it and actually hasn’t. Then the issue becomes whether he is a liar.

A pastor who is a liar should be confronted and challenged.

If it turns out the pastor has made a natural mistake, that’s one thing.  Likewise, if this is a trivial matter and does not represent a pattern of deception, it should be dropped.

When it should be dealt with harshly is when a) serious matters are at stake and b)  a pattern of chronic deception and coverup exists.

I fear for any church that puts so little value on truth and integrity that they retain a pastor in place who has been found to be a liar of grand proportions.

This article is not intended to nor could it possibly cover every facet of this issue or to suggest ways to deal with and subsequently restore such an unfaithful brother.

Rather, consider this a call to ministers to get this right.  To claim nothing for themselves which is not rightfully theirs.  To be a model of faithfulness and integrity.  And humility even.

When in doubt about a story or whether to include something on his resume, a minister should ask his mentor, some veteran servant of God.  In most cases, the friend’s counsel should settle the matter.

“He that doeth wrong shall receive for the wrong which he hath done; and there is no respect of persons” (Colossians 3:25).

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