Its probably no surprise that many people associate the word “Christian” with the word “hypocrite.” Christians have developed a reputation for saying one thing and doing another. Anton LaVey, founder of the church of Satan and the author of The Satanic Bible, attributes his philosophic origins to his early exposure to Christian duplicity. While playing the calliope for traveling carnivals and organ for subsequent tent-revival meetings, he watched it play out every weekend.
“On Saturday night, I would see men lusting after half-naked girls dancing at the carnival, and on Sunday morning when I was playing organ for tent-show evangelists at the other end of the carnival lot, I would see these same men sitting in the pews with their wives and children, asking God to forgive them and purge them of carnal desires. And the next Saturday they’d be back at the carnival or some other place of indulgence. I knew then that the Christian church thrives on hypocrisy, and that man’s carnal nature will out no matter how much it is purged or scoured by any white-light religion.”
I recognize the truth in those words. I live in a small town that excels in Saturday night drunkenness and Sunday morning church attendance. In the news, we’re regularly confronted with embezzlements, affairs, abuses of power, and worse from high-profile Christians. We all have Christian we consider frauds in our lives. And if we’re being honest, hypocrites stare back at us while we brush our teeth.
I’m convinced that some form hypocrisy is nearly inevitable. Our ability to live up to our aspirational virtues is impossible without spiritual empowerment. As hymnist Robert Robinson wrote in “Come Thou Font of Every Blessing,” we’re all “prone to wander.”
I think we need to look at the ways that the church reinforces or rewards hypocrisy—and why the world’s so giddy when it’s exposed. When we stand at the intersection of these points, we’ll benefit from a less fraudulent faith.
Behavioral monitoring enables Christian hypocrisy
I’m not much of a drinker, but I enjoy an occasional adult beverage. One year, I made the mistake of commemorating an exceptional pumpkin ale with a Instagram/Facebook post. A couple weeks later I found myself having a conversation with a dear woman who felt the need to share her disappointment with me.
I lead worship in a Nazarene church, and although the denomination has made huge strides in it’s philosophy and practice, it has a strong “holiness” background. Not too many decades ago, you couldn’t be a member in good standing and dance, play cards, or see a movie. This woman, who was brought up by a strict holiness pastor, saw my beer and was instantly trying to figure out if I needed to be relieved of my church responsibilities. Even though this conversation had a positive outcome, I found myself thinking carefully about what I posted, worrying that things I was comfortable with would be used to incriminate me.
While the threat of disapproval may get us to change or hide our behavior, it doesn’t change our beliefs—it simply drives them underground. This woman’s strong and negative reaction to my beer didn’t change how I felt about pumpkin ale. It just made me question how forthright I could be about who I am, and how much I could trust my community.
This is always the outcome of behavioral watchdogs. I know many people raised in holiness churches who’d load their kids up and take them three towns over to see a forbidden movie so that no one in their church would find out. The message that gets reinforced is: If people are going to get upset at you, just hide it. It greatly undermined the ability for the children in those families to be honest in churches when they grew up.
While this kind of suppressive behavior starts because we want to avoid the hassle of nosy, judgmental Christians, it eventually paves the way for abuse. Once we learn to avoid problems by compartmentalizing areas of our lives, we become way too comfortable with duplicity. What starts out as simply hiding the fact that we enjoy an occasional beer or listen to secular music can comfortably morph into hiding more disastrous behavior like affairs or addiction.
I have finally come to the conclusion that it’s okay for me to have different convictions or beliefs than other people in my faith community. In the past, I tended to downplay or hide those differences in order to make other people happy. But that was terrible for everyone involved because:
- I wasn’t being open and transparent
- I couldn’t be confronted in areas I was wrong
- I wasn’t giving judgmental people the opportunity to learn to be good neighbors
- I was enabling my own dishonesy
I no longer worry about whether people agree with me. I don’t hide my politics, opinions, or the things that I’m into, and it all stems from a desire to live a more integrated, holistic inner life. I’m open to dialog with people who question my preferences, but I don’t feel the driving need to make them agree with me. . . I do, however, recognize my need to be open to correction.
I have found that the church is full of people who are concealing feelings or perspectives they think will get them ostracized. Sometimes living transparently gives permission for people around you to do the same.
Behavioral modification creates Christian hypocrisy
I recently ran into this quote from Christian writer and theobrogian, Jarrid Wilson. It comes from his book Jesus Swagger:
“The way you walk, talk, and present yourself to others matters when it comes to your faith. Why? Because if you claim to be a Christian, then people are going to expect you to act like one. Simple. Your swagger truly matters. No matter how long or how briefly you’ve known Jesus as your Lord, you are held to a higher standard of accountability by those around you.”
This quote is a typical evangelical response to the problem of Christian duplicity. I’ve attended too many youth and men’s groups where this was the underlying message of a gathering. “The world is watching you, so for the sake of your Christian testimony, quit doing stupid and/or bad stuff.”
The problem is that this kind of image-oriented swagger actually hurts Christians more than it helps them. Is it possible to be a Christian by simply “acting like one?” Is Christianity a fake-it-till-you-make-it religion? In the end, is it like 50 Cent telling the bankruptcy court judge that the fat stacks of cash in his Instagram pictures are phony props to give him credibility. What are you really supposed to believe about holiness?
A lot of this misunderstanding stems from our turning Christian evangelism into an emotional appeal followed by a “repeat this prayer after me” response. Instantly someone who hasn’t really given Christianity much thought or counted its costs finds themselves on the inside. After they’ve already made the purchase, they’re given a bill featuring all the things that their new, free faith is going to cost them. It’s no wonder that they want to hold on to the religious perks and their personal preferences.
It’s kind of amazing how many people in the first-century wanted to follow Jesus but were sent away frustrated. (Mark 10:17–27, Luke 9:57–62) I think we need to present Christianity in a way that encourages people wrestle with its claims and sacrifices. We’re so set on getting people “saved” that we end up packaging the gospel with a complimentary set of Ginsu knives—anything to get them to buy now. Unfortunately, Jesus encouraged us to make disciples, not just “save” people. (Matt. 28:16-20)
Teaching the pursuit of Christ
I really wish behavior modification worked, but it doesn’t. I understand the draw of focusing on conduct change. After all, it’s measurable and quantifiable. On the other hand, true spirituality is a mess and there’s no way to really know for certain how someone is progressing. Being the pragmatists that we are, it’s no wonder that we’re drawn to to-do-list Christianity. We want progress to be easily quantitative and reproducible.
But if we’re pushing an agenda focused on outward appearances, we’re creating hypocrites—a glittering image of godliness. Eventually people are going to get tired of keeping up appearances, or they’re going to get careless, believing that they’re more spiritually advanced than they truly are.
But as Blaise Pascal said:
“We have established and developed admirable rules of polity, ethics, and justice, but at the root, the evil root of man, this evil stuff of which we are made is only concealed; it is not pulled up.”
The only way we can get at the root of someone’s spiritual sickness is to expect, encourage, and equip them to pursue Christ—not good behavior, not approval, and not theology. We need to realize that people might display all the behaviors we expect of “good” Christians, and still have unrepentant and unchanged hearts. Adversely, their life might appear to be an ungodly mess and the Spirit might be hard at work on them.
We are just not equipped to look at someone’s life and easily dictate who is and who isn’t “acting like a Christian.” Sometimes the people closest to God, are the people we would least expect.
And the minute we think the gospel’s credibility rests on how good we are doing Christianity, we’ve completely lost the plot.
The worst thing about falling for appearance-oriented Christianity is that the first person you fool is yourself. Once you start mastering the church’s language, rules, and expectations, it’s easy to believe that you’re making spiritual progress. But the true signs of your spirituality are largely invisible to others. And if you really want to be genuine, you need to spend more time focused on your secret acts of devotion and your growing awareness to God’s constant empowering presence. This pursuit is your true Christian testimony. Everything else is window dressing.
Being honest with yourself can be difficult, but it’s important. If you find that you’re making changes in your life, you need to ask yourself whether those changes are for the approval of others or in order to facilitate a more spiritual awareness. If you’re doing it to impress others, don’t bother.
Culture’s outrage at our condescending hypocrisy
One reason the culture loves to point out every terrible thing Christians do is because we spend so much time lecturing them. Who doesn’t love to watch holier-than-thou people get their comeuppance? For some reason, the people with the most to hide are so good at pointing fingers at others.
Instead of serving others and pointing them toward the cross, we think Jesus conscripts us into service as Old Testament prophets. Our job is to go around the countryside shouting at people about their sins. Of course, we’re doing all of this browbeating while struggling with our own piety.
But when we’ve been trained to see Christian obedience as an act of our will, then—even though our theology says the world incapable of responding to God without his enabling grace (whether prevenient or irresistible)—we blame them for their faults and shortcomings. When it becomes obvious to them that we haven’t dealt with our own baggage and we’re no better than they are, then of course the world ‘s going to call us out on our bullshit.
In the end, it’s not our blamelessness and self-righteousness that draws people to Christ. It’s our our manifestation of Christ’s sacrificial nature, and even that christlikeness comes through Spirit empowerment and cannot be manufactured, coerced, or willed into existence.
The only way we’ll truly beat hypocrisy is by being willing to recognize that every single one of us is a spiritual novice. Christianity doesn’t make us better, smarter, righter, or happier than anyone else. It re-aligns us with God and allows him to begin the messy, mysterious, and often brutalizing work of untangling our twisted spirits.
And even though it can feel disastrously slow or even entirely imaginary, there’s no reason to pretend that it’s happening any faster or more dramatically than it is.
The effort we waste on appearing more godly to others and ourselves is wasted, and only the effort poured into pursuing Christ matters.