17 Apr (#23) ARE MANY CHRISTIANS HYPOCRITES?
By now you’re probably familiar with the cycle. Some Christian supposedly says or does something that someone somewhere finds scandalous. Whether or not the report is accurate, we rarely know and don’t really care. Why? There’s no time for truth when the world wide web of weird commences the now daily sacrament of rotten tomato flinging. Immediately, a mob also begins their sprint to the hardware store for ceremonial pitchforks, torches, and enough spray paint to spell hypocrite in letters big enough for Jesus to see from heaven.
Almost half of our survey participants (45%) agreed with the statement, “Most Christians are hypocrites.” One woman said it so plainly that even the thickest among us can understand her criticism: “They are telling me I need to live a certain way, and yet they’re not.” Across the country we heard intense conversations about what looks like phony faith. One guy complained about Christians parading on social media. He wondered, “Are you living the life, or are you just tooting the horn?”
One fact became obvious as I studied the responses of people who volunteered their thoughts in our groups. Many had no clue what a Christian actually is. I felt bad for these non-Christians trying to sort us out. One focus group was arguing, “Well, who are the Christians?” Pretty soon they had lumped together Catholics, evangelicals, Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Hindus, and Wiccans. That’s not our team.
Maybe more surprisingly, some of the participants had no firsthand experience with a Christian or a Christian church. A woman in Phoenix said, “I’ve never known an evangelical Christian personally.” A guy in San Francisco also said, “In terms of actual memory in a church, I can’t really think of any.”
This lack of contact between Christians and non-Christians is only increasing. Missiologist Todd M. Johnson and his team at the Center for the Study of Global Christianity at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary says that one in five non-Christians in North America does not personally know a Christian.15 Where do folks learn about Christianity?
Yep. The media which favors the negative and the nutty. So if that is the case, where else do people get a feel for authentic, biblical Christianity? “Other people and TV and movies, things like that,” noted one person. And then proceeded to list Exorcism of Emily Rose, Religulous (the Bill Maher movie), and Steve Martin’s Leap of Faith as examples. Scandalous and sensationalistic media are not the best way to get acquainted with a group. Imagine basing your whole view of the United States on television shows where eccentric Americans make moonshine, catch fish barehanded, and shoot gators in the head. Not exactly the image an All-American tourism board wants to project.
WHAT IS A HYPOCRITE?
A Christian is someone who is undergoing a theological, moral, and social transformation—a radical change in thoughts, actions, and relationships. A Christian is someone who holds tight to the Good News— the truth that Jesus died in our place for our sins, a fact proven by His resurrection from the dead. In contrast, a hypocrite is a person who does not preach what they practice or practice what they preach. A hypocrite is someone who wears a mask and plays a role, pretending to be someone they are not.
Bible scholar Larry Richards explains the concept of hypocrisy in the New Testament. He says:
The Greek words hypokrinomai (appears once in the NT), hypokrisis (6 times in the NT), and hypokritēs (20 times in the NT) denote someone acting out the part of a character in a play. In Greek drama the actors held over their faces oversized masks painted to represent the character they were portraying. In life, the hypocrite is a person who masks his real self while he plays a part for his audience.16
That background of the word hypocrite in Greek theater makes for an amazingly concrete definition. Richards goes on to explain what it looks like when someone “masks his real self” and “plays a part for his audience”: What characterizes the religious hypocrite? In Matthew’s Gospel (where 16 of the 27 occurrences of these Greek words occur) we note these things:
- A hypocrite does not act spontaneously from the heart but with calculation, to impress observers (Matt. 6:1–3).
- A hypocrite thinks only of the external trappings of religion, ignoring the central, heart issues of love for God and others (Matt.15:1–21).
- A hypocrite uses spiritual talk to hide base motives (Matt. 22:18–22).
- Jesus gives this warning that to the hypocrites of every age: “Woe to you” (Matt. 23:13, 15, 16, 23, 25, 27, 29).17
I had an interesting discussion about hypocrisy with Greg Koukl, co-author with Francis Beckwith of the book Relativism: Feet Firmly Planted in Mid-Air. He says that whenever someone throws around a loaded word like tolerance or hypocrisy, he asks for clarification. He says, “When somebody says, ‘Well, you’re intolerant. You’re a hypocrite,’ maybe I am, maybe I’m not. It kind of depends on what you mean. So I ask, ‘What is it that you’re seeing in my life that you think is an example of hypocrisy?’ That is, ‘What is your definition of hypocrisy that you’d think I’m one of those?’”
In the real-world setting of the New Testament, Jesus called out the religious leaders as fakers. Koukl explains, “On the outside, they were putting on a religious display, but on the inside, they were deeply corrupt and evil.”
There is no doubt that there were religious hypocrites in the New Testament. They had a sizable role in the unfolding drama as a foil to Jesus. But we are wondering about believers today. A sizeable chunk of people in our survey and focus group agreed with the statement “Most Christians are hypocrites.” But that raises a very big question: Does that shoe really fit most Christians? Like Koukl says, “I actually don’t think so. The reason I can say that is because I know a lot of Christians. When someone makes the charge, ‘The church is filled with hypocrites,’ I have what I think is a fair question, ‘When was the last time you were in a church?’”
Koukl points out that many people who throw around that accusation never darken the doors of a church, but they still have no problem drawing conclusions about what the people inside are like. No surprise there. That’s just human nature. But that doesn’t make their accusations factually true. Koukl says, “Most of the Christians I know are real human beings deeply committed to their values, and they are not fakers. Are they perfect Christians? No. Nobody is. I’m not. You’re not. The only perfect ‘Christian’ was Jesus. The rest of us are struggling.”
I agree with Koukl when he concludes, “I think it’s fair to make a distinction between somebody who is inconsistent and someone who is a hypocrite.” As we try to answer whether Christians are by and large a bunch of hypocrites, I want to suggest we attempt to wrap our heads around three interrelated truths that grow out of biblical teaching:
All human beings are sinners. All hypocrites are sinners. Not all sinners are hypocrites.
One of the core convictions in Christianity is that everyone is a sinner who needs Jesus as their sinless Savior. The Bible could not be clearer that everyone is a sinner—me and you included. Romans 3:23 says, “For everyone has sinned; we all fall short of God’s glorious standard” (NLT). And 1 John 1:8 and 10 says, “If we claim we have no sin, we are only fooling ourselves and not living in the truth…. If we claim we have not sinned, we are calling God a liar and showing that his word has no place in our hearts” (NLT).
The Bible is filled with villains, scoundrels, and sinners—and a God who loves them in spite of who they are. The entire story of the Bible is that God loves us not because we are good but because He is good.
My guess is that you—like me—would admit you are a sinner. In fact, the more people admit their imperfections the more likely we are to consider them honest, trustworthy, and even holy. We are sinners by disposition who prove that by our sinful action. In the words of a classic Christian confession, we sin “in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what
we have left undone.” In our moments of reflection, most of us also admit to seasons and circumstances when we were not just a sinner but also a hypocrite who violated our code of right and wrong.
ALL HYPOCRITES ARE SINNERS
People who only know a Jesus who is meek and mild must be unaware of the ferocity He unleashes on true hypocrisy. Pretty much every time He speaks of hypocrisy it comes as a stinging indictment of religious leaders (e.g., Matt. 6:2, 6:5, 6:16, 15:7, 22:18, 23:13, 23:15, 23:23, 23:25, 23:27, 23:29, 24:51; Mark 7:6; Luke 13:15). He saw where only God can see, past their external show and into their empty hearts. Jesus said, “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 pall uncleanness. So you also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness” (Matt. 23:27–28 ESV). Hypocrisy is all about wearing a mask, and the religious leaders of Jesus’ day were masters of playing a part.
NOT ALL SINNERS ARE HYPOCRITES
Most Christians are not as great as they should be but not as bad as they would be without Jesus in their life. They have changed… are changing… and will continue to change by God’s grace. So I come back to what I stated above: All human beings are sinners. All hypocrites are sinners. But not all sinners are hypocrites. There is a vital distinction between a hypocrite and a sinner. One puts on a mask and pretends to be what they are not. The other peels off the mask and strives to be more than they are. Most of us are just plain old sinners making the most of God’s grace to grow to be more like Jesus.
IMPOSTERS AND TOUR GUIDES
The Bible’s prime example of a hypocrite is Judas Iscariot. Jesus taught him, loved him, and invested in him for three years. One day Jesus even took the role of the lowliest servant and washed Judas’ feet that stank of road dirt and man sweat. Judas was in ministry with Jesus but did not love Jesus, and all the while he pretended to be a friend of Jesus. Long before he betrayed Jesus with the kiss that led to the crucifixion (Matt. 26:16), Judas was on the path to act as Satan’s agent.
If the life of Judas played out today, the headlines would read that he was a hypocrite. And that would be true. But Judas was not a Christian hypocrite. He was a non-Christian hypocrite.
I was a non-Christian hypocrite. My mother was a Catholic Christian, but as I entered my teen years I had no interest in mimicking her Christian faith. Because I didn’t want to upset my mom, I attended church with her on holidays and was careful to never fully disclose that my disinterest sometimes bordered on disdain. Then in high school I met a pastor’s daughter who asked if I was a Christian. She would only go out with me if I was. She was cute. I told her what she wanted to hear. It took a while for me to come around to authentic faith. In the meantime, I was a non-Christian hypocrite.