Recently, a friend of mine linked to the article Is the Church Full of Hypocrites? by R.C. Sproul. The article talks about how there's a common perception outside the church that the church is full of hypocrites, and comes to the conclusion that much of this is a misunderstanding—that people see Christians sinning (because we aren't perfect) and assume that they are hypocrites, when that's not necessarily the case. We sin (hypocrisy being one of these sins), but we aren't necessarily a bunch of hypocrites.
I understand where he's going here, and I agree with his point…to an extent.
I've been reading the book UnChristian off and on lately. The book looks at a large body of research about how people outside the church view Christians, which is often unfavorable. It explores whether or not these are good things (just because “unchristians” view us unfavorably in some area doesn't necessarily mean that we are doing something wrong), and the areas in which these are bad things (whether based on fact or fiction).
The most common complaint raised by outsiders is that of hypocrisy. With such a widespread perception, we can't just immediately brush it off as being based on fiction. There has to be something we are doing that is giving people this idea.
There is one thing that has stuck out to me so far in the book.
While we tell ourselves that we practice what we preach (and we very well may, at least to a large degree), we tend to have one major flaw: we act towards outsiders as if their behavior is what needs to change for God to be happy with them.
Here's a quote from the book along these lines:
The only way this will be addressed is if Christians themselves get a grip on what it means to follow Christ, and then convey that authentically to the world. What is behind many—not all, but many—charges and accusations against the character and integrity of Christians is the demand for perfection in the life of anyone who claims to be a Christian and urges others to consider Christianity as well. This is not, of course, the true meaning of a hypocrite, but even more to the point, it is not an accurate understanding of what it means to enter into the Christian life.
Yet the world holds us to it, because we hold ourselves—and others—to it. We fall prey to the charge of hypocrisy because we have reduced spirituality to a list of moral benchmarks coupled with a good dose of judgmentalism.
I cannot overstate how completely antithetical to the gospel this is. This is the attitude that the Pharisees had, and which Christ condemned them for. When people come into our midst who don't meet what we consider to be minimum standards of behavior, they are often shunned or treated poorly in other ways.
This is hypocrisy. A true understanding of the gospel will look at people and realize that there is nothing in us that is any better than anything in them, but we look down our noses at them. We may be mostly practicing what we preach in our personal behavior, but we are being hypocrites in how we expect others to relate to the gospel.
We have set ourselves up as moral examples to the world—a roll at which we fail miserably. Then we wonder why the world thinks we are hypocrites. What makes a Christian a Christian? Grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. Where does moral behavior fit into that picture? Yes, it's true that the power of Christ enables us to live more moral lives to a degree over time. But we still fail. Why, then should we expect those who haven't yet come to faith in Christ to live up to moral standards that we can't even attain? God hasn't called us to be shining examples of perfection. He has called us to be shining examples of his love and grace in the midst of our sin.
The Pharisees had this attitude. They had moral rules that they kept, and expected everyone else to live up to them. But how did that turn out?
Luke 18:10-14: “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”
How did Jesus deal with those whom the Pharisees condemned? He loved them unconditionally, spent time with them, and called them to himself. He put no requirements on them other than to come to him.
The book goes on to quote Leo Tolstoy, who wrote the following in a personal letter:
Attack me, I do this myself, but attack me rather than the path I follow and which I point out to anyone who asks me where I think it lies. If I know the way home and am walking along it drunkenly, is it any less the right way because I am staggering from side to side!
The point is this: the outside world has plenty of reasons to look at us and see hypocrisy. We have been living as if we are the message. How conceited! We are sinners who look with pride at what Christ has accomplished in us and think that somehow it gives us a right to lord it over those who haven't achieved this moralistic “high ground.” How foolish!
The message that we have for the world has nothing to do with our behavior. It has nothing to do with how good we think we are.
How much more glorious the true message is than the moralistic judgmentalism we try to turn it into! God has chosen wicked sinners on which to pour out his grace. There is no standard which you must reach before you can come to Jesus!
We need to stop trying to justify ourselves and repent. We need to love as Jesus loved. We need to realize that we are just as undeserving of God's grace as the most wicked sinners we come in contact with and treat them with the attitude of love and grace that Jesus would.