Christian Hypocrisy and Unbelief

The problem of Christian hypocrisy is a major reason for unbelief. As Ghandi perceptively noted, “If Christians would really live according to the teachings of Christ, as found in the Bible, all of India would be Christian today.” In the same line of thought, one of the animating themes of the New Atheism is their distaste for how arrogant Christians are or how many religious people have treated others terribly. And in America, according to the book unChristian, 85% of young outsiders have a perception of Christians as hypocrites.

If you are not a Christian, and one of the main reasons for your unbelief is how hurtful Christians have been (to you, to others, or more generally speaking), I want to affirm the rationality behind this component of your avoidance of God. In fact, I want to explain how you and Jesus are actually in agreement that Christian hypocrisy is a serious problem.

In doing so, I hope you will find it remarkable, as I do, that you and Jesus are in greater agreement with one another than Jesus is with some of his purported followers. As strange and unlikely as this may seem, your moral radar has actually led you quite close to the kingdom of God.

To that end, I’d like to examine three questions in this article.

  1. Who am I to write about Christian hypocrisy?
  2. What about Jesus?
  3. So what?

Who am I?

As the Goo Goo Dolls sang, “Every time you point your finger / 3 more point right back at you.” So, let’s start with the obvious: who am I to write about the problem of Christian hypocrisy? It seems like an impossible question to answer. If I answer it ‘well’ then I set myself up as nothing more than a particularly self-aware, ‘authentic,’ and posturing hypocrite. If I answer the question poorly, then I disqualify myself from any moral standing to speak against hypocrisy.

The best I can say is that sometimes I try to live according to my beliefs. The odd thing here is that my beliefs are based on the idea of grace, the radical concept that I am accepted, loved and valued independently of – and in spite of – how I live. Sometimes, yes, the idea of grace motivates laziness, apathy, and unchristian behavior. However, though grace sometimes and crazily encourages me to further disobedience, there is a quiet revolution going on underneath that is reworking me into a person who joyfully and self-forgetfully seeks to love God and others.

To pretend I’m a saint overflowing with godly cheer in the service of others is of course a gross mischaracterization of myself. What I’m trying to say about grace is that I know I’ve failed, am currently failing, and will continue to fail, but I’m still happy and energized and devoted to a purposeful life, where the main ambition is to love. The hardest thing about grace is how unusual it is, how it neutralizes and detoxifies my truly embarrassing failures, and how it even turns these glaring weaknesses into a never-ending source of gratitude and motivation for a new life empowered by God’s love.

In other words, I am not particularly qualified to write about hypocrisy, except perhaps to admit that I am one. Which brings me to my next point.

What about Jesus?

First: can we disqualify Jesus as a hypocrite?

For instance, didn’t he say we should be loving, but then he would get angry? Yes, he did get angry at the religious leaders of his day. But why? It was because of their hardened hearts, and their opposition to seeing someone healed on the Sabbath (Mark 3:1-6). And the occasion where he overturned the tables of the money-changers in the temple? It was because they had turned a house of prayer into a place that ripped off the sincerely pious (Matthew 21:12-13).

This is the kind of anger that flows out of a total commitment to love – love for truth, love for the victims, and yes, even love for the perpetrators, by calling them to account. This isn’t hypocrisy; it is integrity made visible in his response to gross injustice.

But didn’t he socialize with the wealthy? Yes, but not to ignore the needy. He did so because it is more effective to confront someone’s neglect of the poor when you’re having dinner in their home (Luke 7:36-50, 16:14-31)!

The reality is that wherever cherry picking of words might lead us to accuse Jesus of hypocrisy, a slightly deeper examination shows that Jesus did what he said was right. He consistently took risks to serve the best interests of the needy, the sick, the outcasts, and the untouchables.

Jesus was the same person, in public and in private, with the rich and the poor, always unflinchingly good and committed to serving others, staying true to His promises.

Second: did Jesus criticize hypocrites?

Like with all other sin, Jesus was fearless in exposing hypocrisy. The wealthy theocrats of his day were so outraged by the truths Jesus told that they entered into an alliance with the Roman leaders – the same leaders whom they fiercely hated and wished to overthrow. It’s an exaggeration, but imagine the Taliban making peace with the U.S. army so as to more effectively deal with an internal dissident. Jesus was so honest he drove the bad people to be plain crazy.

Consider what he said on one occasion, and not just to his inner circle, but quite publicly, to all the crowds that followed him:

The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat, so do and observe whatever they tell you, but not the works they do. For they preach, but do not practice. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger. They do all their deeds to be seen by others. For they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long, and they love the place of honor at feasts and the best seats in the synagogues and greetings in the marketplaces and being called rabbi by others.

But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all brothers. And call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven. Neither be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Christ.

The greatest among you shall be your servant. Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted (Matthew 23:1-12, ESV).

Jesus affirmed true religion, but he sharply criticized the ugly religious nonsense that masquerades as spiritual maturity.

What does this mean? It means that when you think religious people really need to hear a good sermon about hypocrisy, Jesus has given them one. He stands with you – or, rather, perhaps you are standing with him, in calling out hypocrisy for what it is: a deceitful, harmful lifestyle. Hypocrisy is becoming a contradiction of yourself. This was anathema to the total integrity of Jesus. You and Jesus agree: hypocrisy is seriously wrong.

Third: according to Jesus, how does hypocrisy affect others?

When we see hypocrisy, what is a sensible response? Maybe we should shrug it off. Religious people are just like that. As long as there are moralistic groups there will be hypocrites. Being good is harder than pretending to be good, so people are going to fake it.

But this is ultimately a path of despair. Imagine refusing to attend a symphony because you can’t stand the annoying squeaking of the local subway musician. Why kill our own longing for the divine because of others’ mistakes? Hypocrites are people who desperately need to experience grace all the way down. Their striving to look good shows how much they long for acceptance, a thirst that can only be slaked in the presence of a holy God who embraces them with love.

Jesus once told a parable about people who start off strong, but slowly become spiritually dead. He says of them, yes, they hear the word, “but the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches and the desires for other things enter in and choke the word, and it proves unfruitful” (Mark 4:19). By ‘unfruitful’ he means that, because they personally don’t enter into a life of love, they cannot help but fall short of influencing others to love God and others.

So if you’re surrounded by “Christians” who are more devoted to money than to God, it makes sense if you aren’t inspired to join their social club. Jesus is saying that it is rational to look at people’s lives and see if you are interested enough to inquire about what they believe.

In other words, Jesus predicted that you’d be turned off by the hypocrisy of those who claimed to follow him.

Which leads to my final question:

So what?

When you’re feeling jaded by the hypocrisy of Christians, isn’t it surprising to find yourself siding with the Christ? There he is, doing what he said he would do. We find him calling out hypocrisy time and time again. He predicts that this spiritual rot will discourage others from seeking after him.

That’s attractive. “Thank God!” we might cry out, and only then recognize the irony of what we’ve said.

The point is, don’t let the hypocrisy of other people remain a personal barrier that keeps youfrom encountering God. Jesus remains an enormously compelling person. Who else embodied such perfect integrity? Who else spoke and acted with total conviction to do what is right? And yet – who else so befriended and accepted those who were hurting, needy, and utterly discouraged?

The followers of Jesus are all over the map. Some are definitely overwhelmed by love, shaken to their core by the great news of God’s triumph in the death and resurrection of Jesus, and can’t keep themselves from passionately doing all the good they can for others. Others are burnt out, tired, weary, and feeling spiritually abandoned. Some have been faking it for so long that they no longer know what it means to be real.

I obviously don’t know where you would place yourself. I hope it is encouraging to see a Christian not defending the indefensible. When Christians are hypocrites, that is wrong. Also, I am a hypocrite, and that is wrong too.

As I write this, I know my need for mercy, and this drives me to Jesus, who doesn’t believe the resumes of the so-called righteous, and doesn’t judge sinners, but still welcomes those who humbly come in a desperate bid for help and transformation. If we’re going to avoid being hypocrites ourselves, that’s the only realistic path left.