the message of Christian hypocrisy

A couple years ago, I read a book called unChristian by David Kinnaman. I had just come on staff at a church and it was very helpful, though unsettling, to see what honest research had produced to inform the Church of its general reputation among those who didn’t believe in Jesus. After reading Luke 12 this week, I was reminded of that book’s research and curiously asked my roommate, who is also a Christ follower, to guess the main descriptor used by non-church goers to label Christians. He got it with his first guess: “hypocrites.”

The strangest part for me, I think, was my personal reaction when I first read unChristian. I read all these statements by non-Christians, and I remember often raising my eyebrows and subtly nodding my head in agreement with the negative labels. I wasn’t surprised to read how only a small percentage of survey participants who personally knew a “Christian” said the person they were thinking of acted differently than someone who didn’t have faith in Christ.

The hypocritical label was nothing new for me to read about. I had even outwardly admitted, almost boastfully, that I was guilty of being a hypocrite at times when defending my faith and witnessing to others. I figured I might as well be honest with them, and hoped that it would reveal my own desperate need for a savior to this person who may have been thinking that Christians always thought they were better than everyone else. I wanted their negative perceptions to be corrected. I wanted to help them become crystal clear on the fact that Christians are still sinners, but what makes us different is how we have embraced God’s plan to replace the consequences of that sin with radical, unending grace.

That’s where I usually decided to leave the discussion. I thought I was helping by affirming people’s beliefs that, yes, Christians are hypocrites, but that hypocrisy was entirely the point. It was simply evidence of our sin. But I realize now that I wasn’t giving them the genuine gospel message.

Within the modern church, hypocrisy seems to have become universally accepted. We will be the first to say, “Yes, we are hypocrites. But we love Jesus!” I even saw a church sign (oh, those church signs) that said, “The Church isn’t full of hypocrites. There’s plenty of room for more.” How inviting.

The more I think about this, the more I realize that this was not what Jesus had in mind for His followers. Not then, not now, not ever. Hopefully, that’s not a novel idea. One of the universally accepted goals of life, regardless of faith or worldview, is to avoid hypocrisy. So it makes sense that Jesus spent so much time campaigning against it.

Luke 12, the chapter that sparked this whole train of thought, opens with a description of a time when an overwhelming and slightly-rowdy crowd had gathered to hear Jesus teach. We can guess that His disciples had the closest seats because Jesus addressed them first, telling them to be on guard against “the yeast of the Pharisees, which is (drumroll please…) hypocrisy.”

The Pharisees were the group that received probably the harshest public criticism by Jesus. Ironically, they were also the ones who held a reputation among the common folk and “the sinners” for knowing God the best. They were famous for memorizing the most scripture and having their own congregations of disciples. And yet many of them were utterly disgusting to Jesus, who knew their hearts were actually very far from loving God. He went so far as to compare the Pharisees to decomposing bodies within elaborately adorned tombs. He basically did everything but give these guys the bird whenever He saw them.

Let me be clear: yes, we are all sinners. Perfection is a title we will not receive until we are officially restored to God’s kingdom and Jesus’ sacrifice has officially been substituted for our train-wreck-of-a-life. That’s coming. No matter who we are, our sins will continue racking up until that time, making none of us eligible to be called “perfect” just yet. But even so, hypocrisy was never meant to be some sort of unfortunate yet unavoidable part of being a Christian.

Jesus gave us the Holy Spirit, which serves the purpose of guiding and convicting us so we can know how to love God more and ourselves less. Occurrences of hypocrisy are simply the spotlights that the Holy Spirit uses to show us where we still have work to do–where change is still needed. It’s not an opportunity to admit our faults and show how sinful Christians are allowed to be. It’s a resource for sanctification, with a response required.

Jesus held His disciples to a higher standard than what most modern churches teach. He demanded that His followers deny themselves. He expected total trust and commitment, which is something he knew would start small and grow larger, like a seed. We see the example of that in the spiritual maturity and commitment of the apostles. They didn’t have it all figured out right away, but their purpose was to steadily make progress, actively rooting out hypocritical sin from their lives. To them, it was an unavoidable byproduct of trusting Jesus more than they trusted themselves.

We cannot be satisfied with hypocrisy in our lives. It’s one of the reasons why Christ-centered community and relationships are so important, because sometimes we need help from others to see our hypocrisy. Hopefully they point it out with a touch of grace and love. But in every instance, it should lead to introspection and honest repentance. When our response is, instead, a shrug of the shoulders and a memorized verse about how Jesus loves us, we’re entirely missing the point.

Today’s consumerism and materialistic society isn’t all that different from the polytheistic spiritual environment of Rome and Athens when Paul was working to share the gospel. The single defining characteristic of new Christians was that they no longer pursued what they worshiped and put their trust in before. The moment they started drifting, a letter arrived in the mail that rebuked them and called them to a higher standard. That’s what the entire first letter to the Corinthian church was about–calling out hypocrisy. At no point do we see Paul or any of the first leaders in the Church accepting anything hypocritical in their lives as commonplace or unavoidable. On the contrary, they’re goal was to recognize and then rid themselves of hypocrisy–to run the other way. Their faith in Jesus was the motivation they needed to reject that passive stance and actively pursue a life that looked more and more like His.

When we refuse to repent after acknowledging an area of our lives isn’t centered on loving and serving God, what we are actually telling God is that He comes second to that area. Even as we say we believe Jesus died and was resurrected, if we aren’t willing to change in any other area to openly display that trust, we are denying Him. Luke 12 has something pretty terrifying to say about that as well.

Hypocrisy, in essence, says this: “God is good. But ___________ is better.”

Fill in the blank with any number of things. Pornography. Relationships driven by hormones and convenience. My own desires. We can give a testimony to anyone on the planet and talk about how we believe self-control, purity, faithfulness, sacrificial love, and generosity are all great things, but that doesn’t make us followers of Christ. I know someone who went on a mission trip to minister to young adults about following Christ. Great intentions, except she lives with her boyfriend and to my knowledge still has no intentions to accept God’s standards of purity for her relationship. She was representing Christ without actually trusting Him with a major area of her life. I’ll let my other articles about dating handle the can of worms that may have just opened with you, but there are countless other examples of how blatant hypocrisy on the mission field is a problem.

I’m not sure when the church reached the point when we decided to cheerfully send missionaries out without making sure they believe and actively trust in the message they are traveling to tell. Maybe we just didn’t want to seem judgmental, but if the Church can’t hold our own members accountable to the faith, who will? That’s not to say missionaries should be perfect. No one would be qualified if that was the standard. Even Paul the Apostle called himself a sinner. But people openly representing Christ should at least want to be perfect–trusting God’s design and earnestly wanting it for their lives because they believe it’s better than their own way; giving their honest best effort to try and live by it rather than giving excuses for why they’re exempt from the principles taught by the Lord they claim to be surrendered to.

Following requires more than good intentions. If intentions were the standard, I can safely say I’m a marathon runner simply because I intended to wake up early and run five miles yesterday morning. It wouldn’t matter in the least that I decided to give myself another hour of sleep. But let me assure you, my intentions were most definitely there. I think I even dreamed about running during that extra hour of snoozing.

What makes us Christ followers is trusting and admiring God’s design for our life and relationships enough to pursue them, even despite our selfish desires. Even if it’s a never-ending journey and we never fully arrive at perfection. A defining characteristic of Christians is supposed to be honestly wanting and wishing to be like Christ. The reason we want or wish for anything else, like a new car or a pair of shoes, is because we think our lives will be better with them in it. We think it will be beneficial to us. Following Jesus is the same thing. We think what Jesus taught, as foreign as it is to our egos and hormones at times, would make our lives better mainly because they would be more pleasing to our Creator who knows how to provide for everything our hearts are searching for. We’re willing to work and save for other things. So if we want to follow Jesus–if we think the result of following Him would be good–why aren’t we willing to work and do what’s necessary to actually follow Him?

Knowing what a God-centered response would be and stubbornly choosing the opposite is unfortunately human. But continuing to make that choice and telling ourselves that we don’t have to change because we’re not perfect–that’s foolish. Faith in Jesus has always been recognized, outwardly at least, by life change. And life change requires our willingness to change–constantly. It has always intended to help us grow closer to God by trusting more in Him and less in ourselves; by desiring His way more than our own.

God didn’t sacrifice Himself on the cross so that we could feel better about our ongoing sin. He did it so we could become closer to Him and not be held responsible for our past selfishness. As Christians, what used to be can no longer be. Something tells me that’s what it means to die to our old selves and let Christ raise us, remaking us more like Him. If only that were the case more often with the Church, just think of what our reputation would be.

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