A famous visiting preacher, the Rev. Johnson, is wrapping up his message on sacrificial love. He concludes with a story:
In the church where I used to be the pastor, there was a boy named Jimmy, 10 years old. He was good-hearted and liked by everyone in the neighborhood. One day Jimmy saw the little girl next door run out into the street after a lost ball, just when a truck came barreling towards her. Jimmy didn’t have to think twice – he dove into the street and pushed the girl out of the way, but not quickly enough so he could escape; the truck knocked Jimmy flat. The driver jumped down and held Jimmy while he was dying. Later, choking back the tears, he told the boy’s parents: “The last thing he said was, ‘Mister, tell my folks it’s okay; I just did what Jesus would have done.’”
The preacher’s voice catches as he tells the story; he concludes his message, and there is not a dry eye in the house.
You are so taken with this story that you try to track down more information. To your disappointment, you find out that the newspaper in that town had never run a story about anyone even resembling “Jimmy.” What’s more, the local police have no record of such an accident. So, you find out, Jimmy never said those words; he never saved that little girl; in fact, Jimmy never existed. It was all made-up; a gripping story, but untrue.  (For our purposes, we will use the word “untruth” rather than “lie”, since untruth is a broader category).
Given that the story had its desired effect – people left the building, dedicated to be more loving – was the preacher justified in inventing the story, even giving a name and composing the lad’s final words? Does the end justify the means? I will argue that he does not. Even further, can Rev. Johnson fall back on the defense, “Wellll now, it was just an illustration to make a point”? A news reporter would be fired for taking that same liberty.
Whether in sermons, political speeches or motivational talks I have sometimes sensed that a “true story” that “really happened” sounded just a little too perfect. I’ve wondered how come some preachers seem to have experiences that lend themselves neatly to sermon illustrations, while the events of my life don’t come out so tidy. I suspect I might be hearing a fiction or, as Hollywood assures us, a tale “based on a real story”.
To have your book recommended by Oprah’s Book Club is virtually a guarantee that sales will skyrocket. That’s what happened in 2005, when she announced that James Frey’s autobiography, A Million Little Pieces, was a must-read. The publisher advertised it as a “brutally honest” report. Frey wrote how he had been an outlaw, wanted in three states, in prison multiple times, on drugs, in a train accident, that is, he was living proof of what goes wrong when young people go astray. He sold millions of copies; but then much to Oprah’s chagrin, it turned out that the publisher had not properly verified the facts. Many of the key events were simply made-up: his only jail time was a few hours he spent in the local lockup while a friend arranged bail. 
As with defenders of fishy sermon illustrations, supporters of Frey have objected that a story doesn’t need to be accurate in order to be “true.” Post-modernists defended the book as “true for him” if not for others. Some argued that if A Million Little Pieces keeps just one kid off drugs – or if little Jimmy makes us more loving – well then, isn’t that what really matters? I say no: the truth does matter, and we cannot bend the facts or invent history for a justifiable end. More on this later.
Let’s award the blue ribbon for “Outstanding Phony Christian Life Story” to Mike Warnke. When I was 15 I bought a copy of The Satan Seller (1972). I had already read Bill Sands’ amazing crime-to-success autobiography My Shadow Ran Fast, and so naturally I assumed that Warnke’s story was true in the same way. In fact, didn’t it say right in the front of the book that, “The events are absolutely as described”? Warnke told of his time as a highly-placed Satanic priest and how he was saved out of darkness to follow the light. Finally, here was an exposé of the underground Satanist movement in California and around the world. Christians read the titillating details of his drug use, his live-in sex slaves, the blood sacrifices. They rejoiced to hear that God saved him from darkness.
Well, apparently he was not converted quite far emough: it turns out that most of his story was a fabrication. Other “exaggerations” were the fake PhD he claimed to have, his heroic deeds in Vietnam and cover-ups of his multiple marriages and affairs and financial misdeeds. When Warnke was supposedly palling around with Charles Manson, Manson himself was already behind bars. 
Was Warnke justified in concocting his tale of the Dark Side? Can we rationalize, “If his story helps certain people come to the Lord, then isn’t it worth it?” No, and for several important reasons. First, let’s begin with the simple issue of credibility. When The Satan Seller broke sales records, plenty of neo-pagans and Wiccans stepped forward and declared the story simply did not ring true. Warnke and many Christians responded, “Well of course, that’s exactly what they would say, isn’t it!” Others blamed the anti-Warnke backlash on the “left-wing media.”
The non-Christians kept insisting, and in the end they were vindicated. Let’s fully appreciate what happened: Satanists and Wiccans (they are different groups entirely) turned out to be in the right; Christians turned out to have been duped. Any further attempt to present Christ to these people is tainted by a man who lusted after money or fame or some special power to win over lost people.
That’s one fatal result, less of credibility with people, to whom we are supposedly telling the truth. If they identify this story as a fake, won’t they suspect that Christians in general are gullible? Maybe the resurrection of Jesus is a fish tale as well.
It is no good trying to lift up the broken wings of discredited preachers with, “Well, God is a God of forgiveness, we all make mistakes, let’s just move on.” When false teachers told untruths, Paul exposed their teaching in detail (2 Thess 2:1-2, for example) and even named names (1 Tim 1:20, 2 Tim 1:15). Teachers have a greater responsibility than do rank-and-file Christians to speak rightly (James 3:1-5). Not only is it permitted to expose falsehood, it’s our duty.
But beyond the human level, there is a second, more profound issue: God has forbidden us to “bear false witness” (Exod 20:16). The ninth commandment has to do in the first instance with speaking under oath in judicial proceedings. Then as now, the Israelites had to remember that “they were under oath” when they spoke about what they had seen with their own eyes. One of the things God hates most is “a lying witness who testifies falsely” (Prov 6:19). In God’s kingdom, the truth will out.
Okay, so a preacher does not speak “under oath” when he tells a white lie or an exaggerated or invented story. Nevertheless, we can make a good case that the rule about false testimony applies equally. When a preacher is in the pulpit, he does not put his hand on the Bible and swear to tell the truth, but does that differ much from opening the Bible and claiming to tell God’s truth? I’ve never seen a preacher struck down in mid-sermon, but given the sloppy handling of truth that goes on, that’s probabably due only to divine mercy. The Scripture tells us that “every idle word that men shall speak, they shall give account thereof in the day of judgment” (Matt 12:36). If that verse applies to everyday conversation, how much more should it apply to those who claim to be truth-tellers on God’s behalf. When we use untruth to support God’s message, we imply that God hasn’t given us enough material, and we have to make up stuff in order to make a compelling story.
Let’s make sure the Bible hasn’t left us with an out. First, Jesus told stories that hadn’t really happened. Once he told his followers about a father with two sons; the younger one cashed in his inheritance and spent it wickedly (Luke 15:11-32). So far as we know, this was not a real-life family that Jesus knew from back in Nazareth. It was fiction; yet he didn’t start off with, “Now, this didn’t really happen, but it’s a good illustration anyway.” Was Jesus telling a “whopper” in order to make a point about forgiveness? Not at all: he taught in a culture where religious teachers commonly invented little stories to make a point. My favorite Jewish parable goes like this:
Some men go out in a small boat. Once they’re out over deep water, one man takes out a drill and starts to make a hole in the bottom of the boat. His friends tell him to stop, since they’re starting to sink. He responds, “What does it matter to you? I’m only making a hole in my part of the boat.” They respond, “Because the water will come up and flood the boat for us all.” 
The point of the story is, one person’s actions affect the whole nation of Israel. In the same way, Jesus’ audience would “hear” a parable as fiction, with or without a label. When he told about how the Good Samaritan stopped at an inn to leave the wounded man, it’s unlikely that anyone would call out, “Sir, which hotel did he go to?” The audience would have known that it was just a story. You will forgive the parallel: a parable in Jesus’ day would have been as recognizable as a story today that begins, “Okay, so a priest, a minister and a rabbi go into a bar…” No-one thinks to ask, “Oh, which bar?” Likewise, in this blog, I wrote assuming that readers would get that “Rev. Johnson” is not a real person.
I suspect that a preacher with a whopper assumes that his story wouldn’t be so gripping unless it’s labeled “now this really happened.” It’s a doubtful assumption: I will remember the Good Samaritan long after the Little Jimmy story is forgotten.
A second example is the apostle Paul. He made a habit of telling his testimony as part of his gospel presentation.  Paul had done some heavy things in his life, but God saved him from them all. Each time, the details of his life story are a little different, though not contradictory. There is no indication that Paul ever “pulled a Warnke,” making his story more lurid in order to show the gospel’s power. We also have a hard time imagining Paul doing as so many preachers do – telling about the hundreds who were healed or saved, always “in the last city we visited.” Nor can I picture him doing what some folks of my acquaintance have done – wrongly claimed to have advanced theological degrees so that as “Doctor” So-and-So they will have more credibility.
It’s a temptation to polish events when the reality doesn’t make a good story, making it zippier for dramatic puposes. One Facebook posting I just ran into involved a “snippy” cashier; the person who posted the blog added “So, I said to her…” and reported how she gave quite the speech of several long and nicely-polished paragraphs. Apparently our friend really put the girl in her place! Or did she? If we interviewed the cashier, would she report, “Sure, I remember that that lady told me something just like that.” Or would she say, “Yeah, she mumbled something, but I’m not sure what.” A lot of our “So I sez to him” stories are really in the category of “I shoulda said – but, well, I didn’t say.” There are plenty of “I really gave him a piece of my mind” accounts in Christian sermons.
I don’t know what measure my fellow-preachers use to decide whether a story, testimony or record of a conversation is True. My own way to apply “don’t bear false witness” is three-fold:
1. If someone who had full knowledge of the details of my story were in the congregation, would I be inhibited from telling it as if it were fact? Then I should be ashamed to tell it, period.
2. If I have to rewrite some experience to make it fit my sermon, then do I really need it in order to prove my point, or am I coveting an illustration so much so that I’m willing to invent one? If it’s the latter, it gets X-ed out.
3. If I, conscious that God hears me and evaluates my words, have the slightest doubt that I’d want to tell this thing in this way in God’s presence, then overboard it goes.
Untruth comes in many flavors. It can be a straight lie; or an exaggeration; or information given without its necessary context; or a statement that the speaker consciously allows the audience to misunderstand.
If some event did not truthfully provide the anecdote for a sermon, then God did not intend for it to be that rhetorical nugget we all yearn for. Better to chuck a good story than to alienate the God of truth.
 In our days of digital communication, stories circulate overnight and establish themselves as fact. The most popular one as I write is the story of the racist airline passenger (http://www.snopes.com/travel/airline/obnoxious.asp). Supposedly a white woman does not want to sit next to a black man. The flight attendant says the airline does not want anyone to feel uncomfortable, so off she goes to find a better seat, in first class. When the attendant comes back, shockingly, it’s the black man whom she takes forward, leaving the racist fuming. The story is newly circulating, but it has been around at least since 1998. It plays better as “this really happened” and on such and such airline (the details change with the telling), and its popularity is due to our desire to see snooty people get their comeuppance.
 The Smoking Gun” uncovered the falsehoods in an article available here: http://www.thesmokinggun.com/documents/celebrity/million-little-lies In 2006, Oprah blasted Frey and his publisher on her show for lying to millions of fans, although she later apologized for being so harsh.
 See Selling Satan: The Evangelical Media and the Mike Warnke Scandal, Mike Hertenstein and Jon Trotthttp://www.amazon.com/Selling-Satan-Evangelical-Warnke-Scandal/dp/0940895072/ref=sr_1_2?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1329348004&sr=1-2
 “The Parable of the Foolish Shipmate” is found in the midrashic Leviticus Rabbah 4:6, and is attributed to a rabbi of the 2nd century AD. I’ve paraphrased, but the story is as cited.
 See Acts 22:2-21, Acts 26:4-23, 1 Cor 15:8-10, Gal 1:11-24, Phil 3:4-7, 1 Tim 1:12-16.
“‘So I once knew a guy who…’ Preachers who stretch the truth,” by Gary Shogren, PhD, Professor of New Testament, Seminario ESEPA, San Jose, Costa Rica