A good friend asked me to address this topic, and it’s one worth discussing. How many times have you heard (or said), “I’d go to church if it wasn’t for all the hypocrites there”? How should we respond? I think we need to look at two aspects of this issue.
What do we mean by hypocrites?
When people say there are hypocrites in the church, they’re often referring to the fact that Christians sometimes fail to live up to their own standards. Maybe they talk about love, but then act in an unloving way to a neighbor or coworker. They’re committed to telling the truth, but are caught being dishonest. They claim to have high moral convictions, but fall short in observing their convictions.
Of course, this isn’t hypocrisy. Hypocrisy isn’t failing to be what I aspire to; hypocrisy is pretending to be something I’m not. If I personally have a specific ethical code, or I’m committed to the standards of a particular creed or religion, and I sometimes fall from my path—this makes me imperfect, not a hypocrite. Actually, I would hope that we’re all striving for something that is, at times, beyond us! What would make me a hypocrite is if I pretend that I perfectly observe these standards.
If I loudly harangue the teenagers in our church that they should never so much as touch a drop of alcohol, that I would never lower myself to such a base habit—all the while polishing off a fifth of bourbon each night—I’m a hypocrite. And this is hypocrisy, not because I may sometimes fail to meet my own standards, but because I’m pretending to be a person that has certain convictions when I really don’t.
So, my first question is usually something like: “How do you define hypocrisy? What does a hypocrite look like to you?” But then once we’ve clarified exactly what we mean, this leads to my next point, which can be a little surprising.
We want hypocrites in the church!
I guess I need to explain what I mean by that. It’s not that we want people in the church to be hypocritical. But if there are any hypocrites out there, we want them to come to church—just as we would welcome addicts, adulterers, liars, cheats, gossips, people who have a problem with anger, etc., etc. Sometimes we get an entirely wrong idea of what the church is. That’s why I love the old saying: The church isn’t a museum for saints; it’s a hospital for sinners.
Obviously, this doesn’t completely express what the church is to be, but it does convey something true about the church nonetheless. We aren’t expecting people to get their lives straightened out and then come to church to display their piety. One doesn’t wash up in order to take a bath, after all. The church is here to help hurting, struggling people get their lives on track. More importantly, we’re here to help them come to truly know Jesus and grow closer to him—the only one who is qualified to bring about real, lasting change at the very core of who we are. Only God can transform us into the people he created us to be. Our job as believers is to help each other to learn of him and to grow in authentic, vibrant relationship with our Creator and each other.
So we want to make sure that we’re real—real with God, real with each other, real with ourselves. We don’t want to pressure people into trying to act like something they’re not. And we don’t want to be wearing masks ourselves. We should make sure that our rhetoric matches our true convictions. If we don’t really believe it, we shouldn’t be spouting it. But we also need to strive to live consistent lives, lives that are true to the beliefs we profess. We must readily acknowledge that we are not perfect and that we make mistakes. But we also must not use our fallibility as an excuse for complacency. We need to be daily growing more and more like Christ, living in the love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control that only come from the Spirit of God. And we must be welcoming to anyone who is hungry and thirsty for this life from God—even hypocrites. God graciously loved us when we didn’t deserve it. Jesus seemed to specialize in the ones others saw as a lost cause. We’re called to be like him.
So let’s all stop pretending to be something we’re not. And if you’re beginning to realize that you live your life in a hypocritical way—welcome! Let’s confess our failings and allow God to heal us and transform us. After all, he’s the only one who can.