Pious fraud is a term used to refer to a person who uses deceit to advance religious ends or belief or to attain what he considers a noble or good end. Pious fraud can also refer to the deception itself.
History is full of pious frauds: people who fake miracles, forge religious documents, invent spiritual encounters, etc. Dealing in relics and selling indulgences would also be examples of pious fraud. Sometimes, the motive may have been to increase spiritual awareness or bring people closer to God. More often, and more likely, the motive was to enrich the fraudster.
Pious fraud still exists today. When a church puts gold-colored dust in its ventilation system so congregants can witness a “glory cloud,” that church is practicing pious fraud. When a pastor manipulates Scripture from the pulpit to prompt his hearers to give to a bigger offering, that pastor is dealing in pious fraud. When a religious person relates an emotional story in the media, tweaking it to be more dramatic and draw a desired response from the audience, that person is a pious fraud. Deceit is often subtle, but it is still deceit.
God’s Word is clear that any kind of deceit is sin. Colossians 3:9 says, “Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices.” See also 1 Timothy 1:9–11, Titus 1:2, and Revelation 21:8. Lying is against the very nature of God (Numbers 23:9; 1 Peter 2:1). Fraud is fraud, “pious” or otherwise.
Pious fraud can never be honoring to God because of its deceitful nature. The ends never justify the means, especially in God’s kingdom. Paul countered the pious frauds of his day in Romans 3:7–8: “Someone might argue, ‘If my falsehood enhances God’s truthfulness and so increases his glory, why am I still condemned as a sinner?’ Why not say . . . ‘Let us do evil that good may result’? Their condemnation is just!” Paul is making his point that good ends never justify evil means.
Jesus had to deal with pious frauds, too. Mark 12:38–40 says, “As he taught, Jesus said, ‘Watch out for the teachers of the law. They like to walk around in flowing robes and be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and have the most important seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at banquets. They devour widows’ houses and for a show make lengthy prayers. These men will be punished most severely.’” It was clear to everyone that Jesus valued truth, not just in outer appearance but in the inner life (also see Matthew 22:16).
Jude described false teachers this way: “They are clouds without rain, blown along by the wind; autumn trees, without fruit and uprooted—twice dead” (Jude 1:12). As clouds that promised rain but never delivered it and trees that promised fruit but never grew it, false teachers are fraudulent. The fact that they purvey their lies in religious circles makes them pious frauds.
The world is full of falsehood, and fraud of all kinds exists: accounting fraud, insurance fraud, payroll fraud, medical fraud, mail fraud, bank fraud, identity fraud—and pious fraud. Fraud of any type should never happen in the church, and pious fraud is especially heinous because it preys on religious commitment. We can avoid being deceived by pious fraud by abiding in God’s Word and learning what it says (Psalm 25:5; 2 Timothy 3:16; Romans 12:2).