According to one of my favorite authors, Brennan Manning, "The single greatest cause of atheism in the world today is Christians, who acknowledge Jesus with their lips, then walk out the door and deny Him by their lifestyle. That is what an unbelieving world simply finds unbelievable." It is just a much more eloquent way of saying that the world thinks we’re a bunch of hypocrites.
To be quite honest, most of the time, the claim is warranted. I have a friend who wants nothing to do with Jesus because his father, a very religious man, was active in the local church but was abusive behind closed doors. Another friend continues to distance herself from anyone associated with the church because of their judgmental glares about her lifestyle choices.
Whatever their reasoning, I understand. I, too, have personally encountered the hypocrisy they see in our communities of faith. And if I'm at all honest, the number of times I have been the hypocrite who has turned others away are too numerous to count. I lead a small group at my church where I talk about the importance of community, and yet I find myself too busy to make time for others, bear their burdens, or enjoy their company. I am part of accountability groups, stressing the importance of authenticity, all the while keeping my own secrets tucked away in the darkest corners of my heart. I preach sermons about denying yourself to follow Christ, yet I own two vehicles, have multiple televisions, and a closet full of clothes. I stress the importance of being a good steward (with everything, not just money), yet I have been known to enjoy a $5 cup of coffee. Many Sundays I haphazardly recite the lyrics to numerous worship songs about giving God my all, while simultaneously creating a mental checklist of everything I need to accomplish once service is over.
Does that make my a hypocrite?
Obviously, Jesus has a great disdain for hypocrites. Reading between the lines isn't necessary, because he makes his angst for them quite apparent. He says things like: "You hypocrites!" "You whitewashed tombs!" And my personal favorite, "You brood of Vipers!"
But how do we define hypocrisy? Is this the same manner Jesus defines it? Or, when Jesus uses the term, to address the religious elite, is there a nuance we don't quite see? And of course, the question that begs to be answered, are all Christians really hypocrites?
I would make the case that doing what we don't want to do doesn't make us a hypocrite. It makes us sinners! Sinners in need of a savior. And therein lies the confusion. We have blurred the lines between the two. They are not entirely synonymous. And it is of utmost importance we make a clear distinction between a sinner and a hypocrite. After all, Jesus didn't necessarily equate sinning with hypocrisy; because he knew all of us would sin. But he clarified that we don't all have to be hypocrites!
You see, a sinner is a person who falls short from time to time, all the while striving to be more Christlike. On occasion, we all act in contradiction to what we truly believe. None of us will ever perfectly live out each and every one of our beliefs, on a consistent basis, in any arena of life; especially when it comes to issues of faith.
A hypocrite, on the other hand is a person who purposely deceives others, a person who attempts to live two lives simultaneously — one in public and one in private. They practice sins on a routine basis and remain unrepentant. They appear holy, all the while disregarding the reality of their own sinfulness. They deny the grace that has been extended them to those they encounter. This, it seems to me, is the way Jesus defines hypocrisy.
The moment we, as sinners, downplay our own sinfulness, in order to emphasize our own righteousness is the moment we become hypocrites.
In Matthew 7, Jesus makes an important clarification: “Not all people who sound religious are really godly. They may refer to me as ‘Lord,’ but they still won’t enter the Kingdom of Heaven. The decisive issue is whether they obey my Father in heaven.” Their failure to recognize their own inadequacy to save themselves through outward obedience, sets themselves against true followers of his and exempts them from the Kingdom of Heaven.
So by all means, hold Christians accountable. Call us out. But offer us the chance to own our faults and seek out forgiveness. On behalf of those of us that have failed to exemplify the life of Jesus, I apologize. For the times our actions and attitudes have turned you away from God, I am sorry. We will stumble. And we will fall — sometimes flat on our faces. But to label all of us hypocrites isn't entirely accurate. Even Jesus didn't hold his disciples to that standard of perfection. It is my hope that you will no longer take the actions of a few to judge the whole. Furthermore, I hope you have gained some insight into the difficulty it is to follow the only man to have walked this Earth without sinning.
Jordan Davis is an aspiring writer, aspiring preacher, and aspiring pastor. Every day, he is trying to figure out what it means to follow in the footsteps of an itinerant Rabbi. He graduated from Oklahoma Wesleyan University in 2005 with a degree in Pastoral Ministry and now resides in Sioux Falls, S.D. He blogs at http://jordanddavis.blogspot.com/.