Christian Apologetics Week Post #4: Hypocrisy in the Church

The Problem: Hypocriscy

You cannot read a book on evangelism or apologetics, listen to a sermon about speaking to our culture, or here yet one more teacher elucidate the 'problems' of post-modernity without hearing an opinion on the number one obstacle to the gospel in our culture.  Consensus seems to be that a huge problem is the generally low opinion our culture has of Christians.  This encompasses a broad spectrum of criticisms: Christians are hate mongers, they are judgmental, they are stupid, bigoted, and so on.  I think, though, that the biggest complain is that Christians are hypocrites.

* Side-note: Scott McKnight has done an interesting series going through the book Christians are Hate-Filled Hypocrites and Other Lies You've Been Told.  You can find his first post here, and then click on the "filed under link" at the bottom of the post to find the rest. They are filled with interesting statistics providing a more accurate picture of the current state of the church in the U.S.A. 

Why Hypocrisy?

Why, of all of our failings, does hypocrisy draw such criticism?

The answer to this question has to do with our societies lack of moral norms and guidelines.  We live in a world which, officially anyway, declares that each person has the right, within certain limits, to define their own standards of right and wrong.  We also live in a society which views judging others as wrong (Note the deep contradiction between this sentence and the last.  They are both still true of our culture).  Taken together, this makes it very difficult to accuse people of moral failures while still having any solid ground from which to make such accusations.  However, of all sins and failures, there is one which can always be leveled in judgment: Hypocrisy.  

It does not matter if you and I agree on moral standards, we can still accuse each other of this sin and neither one of us can attack the others grounds for doing so.  To accuse an other of hypocrisy is not to accuse them of breaking your moral code; rather, it is to accuse them of breaking their own moral code. And, regardless of how loudly, or quietly, we announce our standards, we all have them, and we all break them.  So, not only can anyone make this accusation regardless of common ground, this accusation can be accurately leveled at anyone who claims a consistent moral standard.  Thus, it is inevitable in a sinless society that hypocrisy becomes the 'worst' sin.

Two Kinds of Hypocrisy

Please understand, I am not saying hypocrisy is not a problem.  After all, Jesus frequently accused the pharisees of being hypocrites, along with some of his harshest imagery (see Matthew 23:13-39). But, perhaps, we can distinguish between two types of hypocrisy.

In the first case, there is the hypocrisy which is, from a Christian perspective, unavoidable.  This is the simple failure to consistently practice the high ideals we preach and believe.  No Christ-follower would deny this level of hypocrisy.  First of all, we are all sinful, and thus inevitably fall short of the goal of following Jesus.  Secondly, we do not believe we will be made perfect until after we are raised at the final judgment. Our goal is to live now, with the power of the Holy Spirit, in the same way we will live in the future.  However, we know this is never fully accomplished.

To be honest, however, I am not sure how much of this type of hypocrisy has contributed to the church's current reputation, and how much it has just become a convenient target of a public, and especially a media, which is content to be anti-Christian because being anti-anything else is considered prejudiced.

The second kind of hypocrisy is that Jesus was so angry about: the practice of regularly living in flagrant contradiction to one's stated beliefs and goals.  Thus the examples, from the sermon on the mount, of those who fast, pray, and give in order to receive recognition from men rather than as acts of worship to God.  They are doing the 'right' things, but for all the wrong reasons.  Even here, however, we are all full of mixed motives and unavoidably cross this line at times because the only real difference between this type of hypocrisy and the first is the regularity of its practice.

A Deeper Problem?

Perhaps a much deeper problem facing the church as it tries to reach (post)modern western cultures with the gospel message is not our hypocrisy, our reputation, or our sin, but rather our attitude of superiority and attendant lack of repentance.  We all know we sin, we all know that hypocrisy of varying levels is unavoidably present in all our lives, and we all give lip service (at least) to the knowledge that we ought to confess and ask forgiveness.  But, the church is rightly not known for its quickness to repent, its eagerness to admit mistakes, nor its constant requests for forgiveness.  We have failed, perhaps, not so much in following the larger vision of Jesus call to the Kingdom of God (though heaven knows we have failed here as well) as we have in the more preliminary and 'smaller' call to simply be humble.  

This post is part of Christian Apologetics Week.  You can find the introduction with links to all the posts here.


Roger Hui said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Roger Hui said...

> We have failed, perhaps, not so much in following
> the larger vision of Jesus call to the Kingdom of God
> (though heaven knows we have failed here as well)
> as we have in the more preliminary and 'smaller'
> call to simply be humble.

The mathematician Raymond Smullyan tells the parable of a man named John who signed his letters "He who is modest". Someone pointed out to the sage what a self-falsifying statement this was. The sage replied, "No, you don't understand. John is completely modest. Modesty has so pervaded his soul that he no longer regards it as a virtue."

Andrew said...

Thanks for the story; I like that :)