Please explain: How can I be a Christian when there are so many hypocrites in the church?

Please explain: How can I be a Christian when there are so many hypocrites in the church?

Jesus described the kingdom of God like a field in which weeds grow together with the wheat. The suggestion to pull up the weeds would also mean to uproot the wheat. So the farmer in the parable decides to let the weeds and the wheat grow side by side until they are separated at the harvest (Matthew 13:24-30).

Jesus also described the kingdom of God like a net that catches good and bad fish alike. Because fishermen don’t have the luxury of preselecting what they haul up from the waters, they instead must sort out the keepers only after they bring up the net with the day’s catch (Matthew 13:47-51).

A distressing reality

There’s no escaping the clear point of these parables: The kingdom of God on earth is a remarkably messy affair. What is true and noble and right will exist side by side with what is false and coarse and wrong.

God’s Word requires that we face the distressing reality that God’s church is full of sinful people, including some who have little interest in living by the commands of Jesus Christ. We are among those sinful people, plagued with a sinful flesh and a new self. Few of us inside the church have gone for long without enduring painful harm from the people with whom we share the Lord’s Table. And those outside the church, including those we hope to evangelize, commonly see unsavory conduct in the church and even among its leaders.

A natural question among those inside and those outside becomes, “How can I become or remain a Christian when there are so many hypocrites in the church?”

A needed rebuke

At this point Christians must resist the well-intentioned instinct to mount too vigorous a defense. A series of tortured arguments beginning with the phrase, “Yeah, but . . .,” will likely do more harm than good. We earn no credibility by defending the indefensible and excusing the inexcusable. People fail to live as God directs.

We are wise to admit quickly to the sadly obvious mismatch between the moral rigor of Christian teaching and the frequent rate at which Christians fail to live a life in keeping with the commands of God. It is not our job to ride to the rescue of the church—that’s the vocation of our Lord Jesus. Our calling is not to save but to be saved, not to redeem but to repent—and we all surely have great need to repent.

When we live as those who have received the righteousness of God as a gift, we have the resources it takes to reform our conduct.

But we do need to oppose sin. Sinful conduct left unchecked and undisciplined by negligent church leaders has caused tremendous harm in far too many Christian lives. The Lord will hold accountable those who harm the flock. To make matters worse, believers often cultivate arbitrary boundary markers between themselves and others, like who serves more, who gives more, who is more traditional, who is more progressive, and so on. Christians who wage civil wars should hardly be surprised when such religion provokes rebellion against it. It is worth considering the possibility that those who raise questions about Christian hypocrisy may be seeing genuine hypocrisy in the church.

To be sure, many outside the church who complain of Christian hypocrisy are simply looking for a way to avoid the exclusive claim of Jesus Christ over their lives. But some see the real problems of Christians doing what is unchristian. We need to handle these problems as Christians—with repentance. Then we increase the likelihood that such questions become gracious opportunities to testify to the difference the gospel makes.

A gracious opportunity

If the law of God were the only force at work in the church, then hypocrisy would, in fact, be a deal-breaker. Few people continue to patronize businesses that do not follow through on their core promises. This is the danger that law-saturated preaching and teaching poses to the church. If the message the community receives is primarily, “Clean up your life—and here’s how Jesus helps you do it,” then they will naturally react with revulsion when they discover how little has been cleaned up—even “with God’s help.”

Thankfully, the gospel of God is also at work in the church. Indeed, the gospel is the primary work of God in the church. The gospel alone is the power of God for the redemption and restoration of all people. God took on human flesh and offered his life to release mankind from its slavery to sin. We are free from the impossible obligation of somehow saving ourselves because God has done the work for us. We are also changed to do better even when we have stumbled and failed.

In the light of God’s grace, it becomes safe to admit our sin because we know our standing does not depend on our moral performance. On the contrary, our eternity is staked on whether the shed blood of Jesus Christ saves sinners. And this is a sure bet because the resurrection of Jesus is the tangible firstfruit of the resurrection that God will one day deliver to all who believe. He now lives, which means his death, in fact, did the trick. What a difference this makes for life now!

In Jesus Christ we have relinquished what the apostle Paul called “a righteousness of my own that comes from the law,” that is, a righteousness that we achieve by living in a certain way. Instead, we have what the apostle called “a righteousness . . . which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith” (Philippians 3:9). In this new economy we don’t live a certain way to earn God’s approval; we have already received God’s approval in Christ, so we live a certain way as a result.

This truth is directly relevant to the matter of hypocrisy. When we come face-to-face with the ugliness of sin in the church we are tempted to conclude, “If I could just get away from this church of hypocrites, then everything would be fine.” But those who have relinquished self-righteousness recognize this as a critical mistake. In fact, such a perspective assumes that the problem of sin is in others and not in me. But if I leave one church for another—or leave the church entirely—I take myself with me. The core problem has been relocated but remains, and I have cleverly avoided the need for genuine rebuke, repentance, and reform.

But when we live as those who have received the righteousness of God as a gift, we have the resources it takes to reform our conduct in keeping with God’s Word. When we are guilty of hypocrisy, we repent and make amends. When we are harmed by hypocrisy, we flee to Christ and not ourselves. When we renew our reliance on the gospel and leave the final sorting to Jesus, we find that the same Jesus who holds the universe together at every moment is more than able to hold us together as well.

Author: Caleb Bassett
Volume 107, Number 08
Issue: August 2020

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Caleb Bassett

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