The Church is Full of Hypocrites
Lately I've been asking strangers if they are Christians, and if they are not, I've followed up with the question: “Why not?” Last week I sat down across from Zedekiah (not his real name) and, as we ate McDonald's together, I asked him some of these questions.
Zedekiah is a big man, a bit rough looking, dressed for the winter in the middle of summer, and had a look of disinterest on his face. He is in his mid-twenties and had just finished two-and-a half years in jail. The day before he was released he received divorce papers from his wife, and has no contact with his three children. Zedekiah said that he was a Christian, but has no church and hadn't been to church in six years. “Why not?” He answered: “The church is full of hypocrites.”
This is not a strange implication of the Church and the Lord's people, and I'm sure most of you have heard it from family or friends. In the eyes of the unbelieving world, hypocrisy is the cardinal sin of the Church.
The world sees the church as hypocritical when what we do doesn't match what we say. In other words, we act as hypocrites when we talk like we are holy and righteous, but live in sin. We talk about the love of Jesus, but we despise our neighbors, we talk about family values but cheat on our spouse or mistreat our children.
The Bible certainly speaks of hypocrisy. Jesus especially criticized the Pharisees as hypocrites. His six-fold accusations are found in Matthew 23 (see verses 13, 15, 23, 25-26, 27-28, 29-31). Especially important are Jesus' words in Matthew 23:27-28: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people's bones and all uncleanness. 28 So you also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.”
In the Scriptures hypocrisy means play-acting, pretending, deceiving. “They preach, but do not practice.” [Matthew 23:3] This is true of the Pharisees and their outward shows of piety, their carnivals of external goodness. They Pharisees wanted people to see them and say, “My, look at how holy Jim-Pharisee is.” The Pharisees did everything, even their praying and fasting, so that they would be seen by men, and this is the mark of hypocrisy. The hypocrite works and strives to maintain the illusion of perfection.
The Christian Difference
There are two things at work behind the accusation of hypocrisy, one true, the other false. The first is the sad reality that the church is often marred with shameful sin. More on this later. But, the second thing behind the accusation of hypocrisy is a wrong assumption about what Christianity is. Those that accuse the church of hypocrisy often assume that the whole point of the Church is to make people good, moral. “You're a Christian: you're supposed to be good and holy and all that stuff.” The world sees the church as a place where people go to learn about God's rules, and to talk about how they are keeping them and the world is not.
Here we must be clear that the main point of Christianity is not our morality and goodness. This is, to be sure, the thing driving every other world religion from Judaism to Hinduism, Islam to Mormonism and even Atheism! All of these “ism's” are pointing mankind to achieve more and be better, to climb the ladder of moral success and be a good person. But Christianity is different, it begins not with man's goodness or potential goodness but rather with man's wickedness. From the first chapters of Genesis until the Revelation given to St John the Bible is a record of mankind's failure; it is a testimony of his sin.
Rather than trying to pull man out of sin, the Scriptures begin by pushing us deeper in. We are sunk in sin, dead in trespasses and sin [Ephesians 2:1], completely unable to free ourselves. The Law comes to reveal original sin and all its fruits; it comes to show us how bad we are. The law brings us to the end of ourselves; it ends all hope we have of being good through our own resources.
This is what St. Paul is talking about in Romans 7, that the law came along and made him “exceedingly sinful.”
7 What then shall we say? That the law is sin? By no means! Yet if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin. I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, "You shall not covet." 8 But sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, produced in me all kinds of covetousness. Apart from the law, sin lies dead. 9 I was once alive apart from the law, but when the commandment came, sin came alive and I died. 10 The very commandment that promised life proved to be death to me. 11 For sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, deceived me and through it killed me. 12 So the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good. 13 Did that which is good, then, bring death to me? By no means! It was sin, producing death in me through what is good, in order that sin might be shown to be sin, and through the commandment might become sinful beyond measure. 14 For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am of the flesh, sold under sin. [Romans 7:7-14]
Sin is like a sleeping dog, and the law comes along and kicks it. Was the sin there before the law came? Yes, but the law, in a way, made sin worse, exceedingly sinful. This is the purpose of the law: to kill us, or better, to show us how dead we are. Apart from the preaching of God's law we are free to live in the delusion of our own goodness, the haze of self-assured holiness. This is why, when you ask Joe-Unbeliever if he is a good person the answer is almost always “Yes.” But when the law comes we know better. “No, I'm not a good person, I am a poor, miserable sinner.”
In this way Christianity is different, it does not begins with man's goodness but with his sinfulness. We hear first not of our own abilities, but our inability to do anything good. “10 None is righteous, no, not one; 11 no one understands; no one seeks for God. 12 All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.” [Romans 3:10-12, quoting Psalm 14:1-4; 53:1-3]
Rather than being another system of morality, another teaching about how to live, the Scriptures first put us to death, condemn us, and removes any possibility of attaining holiness by our own efforts.
It is then that the good news of Jesus comes to the rescue. He Himself says, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.” [Mark 2:17] To be a Christian is not first to be well, but to be sick, and then to be made well by Jesus. We are not first righteous, but sinners who are forgiven by Jesus. We despair of ourself and then trust in Christ, in Christ alone, for our salvation. We know the we are unholy in ourselves, and that Jesus has called us holy in Him.
The Lord's people, then, do not speak of themselves as if they had no sin. Every Sunday we make the public declaration of our wretchedness, “I have sinned against Thee in thought, word and deed.” We know that we are sinners, and we know that Jesus died for sinners. Jesus forgives sinners.
Putting Away Hypocrisy
This is how, in the Lord's way, we avoid hypocrisy: we continue to confess our sins. We acknowledge that we are sinners always in need of the Lord's forgiveness. Rather than speaking like we're holy and acting like we are not, Christians confess their own sinfulness, and then rejoicing the Lord's forgiveness we begin to act and do good works of love for our neighbor. Rather than living in a puffed-up piety, we live humbly before our God and our neighbors, we consider others better than ourselves [Philippians 2:3]. And when we fail to love and act as we ought, then we again confess our sins, rejoice in the Lord's forgiveness, and pray that the Lord would grant us opportunities to love and care for our neighbors. We live as we are: forgiven sinners, undeserving children of our gracious heavenly Father.
And how do we react when the Lord's Church is accused of hypocrisy? This accusation is an opportunity to speak of our need for and the Lord's provision of His goodness. Perhaps the conversation would should like this:
"Are you a Christian?”
“No, the church is full of hypocrites.”
“What do you mean? What do you think a hypocrite looks like?”
“You know, these Christians who talk like their so holy and righteous, like they're better than everyone else, and then, you know, they end up getting drunk at night and yelling at his wife. That's a shame.”
“Yes, you're right. That's a terrible sin. No man should do these things, no matter if they call themselves a Christian or a pagan.”
“Yeah, but Christians are always talking about how they have family values and all this.”
“That's true, the Lord has given us commands about how to live, ten of them. But do you think Christians are holy because of how they live?”
“Well, yeah. How else could you be holy?”
“Either by doing or by believing, and we say that no one can be holy by doing and keeping the law. Do you know what the first thing I say about myself when I go to church? I don't thank God that I'm holier than everyone else, that I've kept His commandments. I say, with everyone else in the Church, 'I, a poor miserable sinner, confess unto Thee all my sins and iniquities with which I have ever offended Thee and Justly deserved Thy temporal and eternal punishment. But I am heartily sorry for them.' Being a Christian is not being free from sin, its about being forgiven of sin. We are holy no by what we do, but by believing and trusting what Christ has done.”
“But look, it really doesn't matter if the Church is full of hypocrites. What it the Church is full of ducks? What if the church is full of broken toilets? So what. What matters is what is being said, what's being preached, and what we hear in the Church is that we are all sinners, and that Jesus died for sinners. Do you think that you are a sinner?”
“Well, I'm not that bad...” [or whatever the unbeliever would say, and the conversation might continue down the law or the Gospel depending on the persons awareness of their own sin or need for the Lord's saving work.]
When the Lord's Church is accused of hypocrisy we respond not defensively, but with humility we put before the accuser the Lord's law and Gospel. We fix our eyes not on our own failures, but on Christ the Author and Perfecter of our faith, and in Him we find our life and salvation.
St Peter instructs the Lord's church: “So put away all malice and all deceit and hypocrisy and envy and all slander. Like newborn infants, long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up to salvation.” [1 Peter 2:1-2]
May the Lord grant us sincere and humble hearts and trust in Him alone, and may He continue to send His kingdom into our midst so that those who do not know His love would rejoice together with us.
The Lord's Blessings,