Ever since the Roman Catholic leadership decided to kill Moslems and Jews for the glory of Rome, Christians have had to face daily reminders of the injustices perpetrated by people in the name of Christian religion. And even when these two atrocities aren’t mentioned, believers nevertheless face the accusation that the church is filled with hypocrites. How can we respond?
No doubt about it. I know of lots of churches filled with hypocrites. But they are generally the least Christian of the churches I’ve seen. I’ve never known a group of people madly in love with Jesus that was characterized by hypocrisy. Hypocrisy, like all sin, is present to some degree in everybody. But the closer people draw to Jesus, the less power hypocrisy seems to have in their lives. This isn’t my argument; this is my experience.
The reason churches that focus on Jesus seem to be in less bondage to the sin of hypocrisy is because Jesus—the Lord of the church—so strongly opposes hypocrisy. While Jesus welcomed those enslaved to sexual sin and greed, he reserved his harshest words for religious hypocrites. Notice his warning about the clergy of his day—the Pharisees: “Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy. There is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed, or hidden that will not be made known” (Luke 12:1-2).
And Christians are commanded not only to oppose hypocrisy in their own lives, but in their churches as well. Paul bears apostolic authority from Jesus when he commands the church in Corinth to cast out of their church a hypocrite who was living in sexual sin while professing faith in Christ: “Expel the wicked man from among you” (1 Corinthians 5:13). When churches fail to expel hypocrites, Jesus closes them down. Remember—he judged the church Thyatira for tolerating the woman Jezebel (Revelation 2:20). Paul again follows Jesus in warning about “hypocritical lairs” who teach false doctrine and live unrepentant lives in 1 Timothy 4: 1-4.
The essence of man-made religion is its desire to establish a righteousness of its own. This self-righteousness is antithetical to biblical Christianity. Human religion does not throw itself on Jesus for mercy, but works to establish a worthy life in God’s eyes. Such religion is a flight from the true God. No one can truly follow Jesus—knowing the depth and power of sin—and think himself righteous by any of his or her own actions.
A righteous standing from God, given freely to those who have no righteousness of their own—this is the promise of the gospel of Christ (Romans 3:21). When this gospel has been forgotten—as in Medieval Catholicism—self-righteousness has flared up and overflowed in violence against others—the Crusades and Inquisition being just the tip of the iceberg. Self-righteousness begins with a denial of one’s own sin and leads onward then to still greater sin. “If we claim we have not sinned, we make God out to be a liar and his word has no place in our lives” (1 John 1:10).
The Christian Church is the only institution on earth whose first requirement of its members is that they be failures that have offended God and deserve his judgment. Jesus, when asked why he spent so much time with “tax collectors and sinners” stressed, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick.... For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners” (Matthew 9:12-13). Is Christianity a crutch? Sure. A badly needed crutch given by God for spiritually crippled people like us—people who need to be reconciled to our Father in heaven.
I once spoke with a guy who was gay, who said he thought God would accept his lifestyle. A former boyfriend of his had been a pastor’s son, and this liberal pastor had told him that it was okay to be gay. I was put in the awkward position of having to explain that gay sex is not okay in God’s sight, that it’s not what God designed us to engage in. At the same time, though, I stressed that I was the last person in the world to judge him as a person, since I’m a sinner too and deserve God’s wrath as much as the rest of us. This had a big impact on this man, and after some thought he chose to leave the gay lifestyle—which he admitted had never truly satisfied him—and eventually he began attending an evangelical church. Our culture doesn’t understand how believers can strongly oppose someone’s sins while loving them nonetheless. But we are a people who have been separated from our sins, and so it comes (super-)naturally to us to love sinners without compromising God’s truth. It is not hypocrisy to say that sin is sin—even sins we ourselves fall into. We call sin sin, but we love all people as ourselves.
Critics think they can avoid having to seriously consider the claims of Christ by simply attacking his followers instead. But the real standard for the truthfulness of Christianity is not whether there are Christians who are hypocrites, but whether Christ was a hypocrite. Christ’s influence upon human history has been overwhelmingly positive (see Lesson 8), and his life can be weighed through the historical accounts—the four gospels—that testify to his life and work.
The real question is not “Have Christians failed.” The real question is this: What are you going to do with Jesus? Christ’s followers aren’t the ones demanding that you follow them. Jesus is the one demanding that you follow him. If you evade this question, you have already decided against him—to your own peril. For the one who lived the perfect life to save us also earned the right to judge us when he returns to us in glory.