Is the Church Full of Hypocrites? Part 1

You can read part 2 here.

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You’ve heard it before.

One reason people give for not being a Christian is that the “church is full of hypocrites.” Why believe the message about Jesus Christ, the argument goes, when that message has no obvious power in the lives of his followers? If Jesus’ professed followers don’t really seem to believe his message, why should we?

The Church is Full of Hypocrites?
Some churches and professing Christians have tried to capitalize on or counter this accusation by simply embracing it. You might even see the following statement on a banner outside a local congregation:

hypocrites-poster

The statement is meant to be inviting and, by dealing with the self-righteousness problem up front, disarm those who typically use the church-is-full-of-hypocrites excuse to avoid Christians and the claims of Christ. I admire the motives behind these statements, inasmuch as those who say them are humbly confessing their unrighteousness and need for grace. But as we all know, good intentions are never enough. We have to ask: Is this true? Is the church really full of hypocrites?

Hypocrite in the New Testament
The Greek word translated hypocrite in the New Testament was used in the first century to refer to play-actors who used masks in their different roles on stage. Who they  were in their true personhood was disguised by a mask that could be exchanged for another mask when the script called for it. A hypocrite, spiritually speaking, is one whose outward life does not match their inward life–who they really are.

More specifically, a hypocrite is one who actively seeks to appear righteous to others–with their words, deeds, and religious activity–for the sake of man’s praise (Matt 6:1ff). The hypocrite is characterized by this incongruence between their inward and outward life (Matt 23:25), between their affections and their actions (Matt 15:7-9), and they are dominated by their desire for man’s praise (Matt 23:1-7; John 5:44). In other words, a hypocrite is a person who is walking in unregenerate, self-righteous religiosity.

A Distinction Between Hypocrite and Hypocrisy
Born-again Christians, by definition, are not hypocrites.Yes, true believers will wrestle with glory-seeking motives and find that their inward lives do not always match their outward actions. But this is called hypocrisy, a sin Christians are called to “put away” in the language of 1 Peter 2:1. Nevertheless, Christians are no longer characterized by these inconsistencies or dominated by them.

Reformation and post-reformation theologians followed this distinction between hypocrite and hypocrisy. It was common among the Puritans, for example, to speak of hypocrites who, despite their religious connection with Christianity, were deluded about their inward spiritual condition, having never really tasted of true godliness. These people possessed the form, but not the power of religion (see 1 Tim 3:1-8). Biblically and historically, the use of the word hypocrite is used to classify someone who is outwardly religious but inwardly dead in sin.

When Christians embrace a kind of language or posture toward unbelievers that implies that the church is replete with hypocrites, we are not only misleading people, we are blunting the sharp contours of the gospel. Jesus saves us from being religious hypocrites and transforms us into those who really do love God, love people, love Scripture, love worship, and so on. By claiming that the church is full of hypocrites–or that it could use some more–we are telling the world that Christians really are, by and large, faking it.

To put it as plainly as possible: according to the New Testament, if you are a hypocrite, then you are not a Christian. Again, this is not meant to imply that Christians will never be found guilty of hypocrisy. Even the apostle Peter garnered a rebuke from Paul for acting contrary to the truth he professed (Gal 2:13). But this hypocrisy was not characteristic for Peter, and neither will it be for any true believer.

But what about Jesus’ command to remove the log from our own eye? Doesn’t this command imply that Christians can be hypocrites? Excellent questions. I will deal with these important issues in tomorrow’s post.

Photo: Garry Knight

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