James Spiegel shares an incident that happened to him as a teenager. He was one who would go and mow neighbors lawns to get extra cash. So he went to inquire about some business, the man said that he would be gone over the weekend, but if they mowed his grass, he would pay them $25 on Monday.
The lawn was rather large, and they could not finish it on Saturday, so they had to take time on Sunday to finish up. On Monday when the man returned, they informed him that it took them two days to finish his large lawn. “Two days?” he inquired. “You mean you mowed on Sunday?” They nodded in the affirmative. “Well boys, I don’t allow work to be done at my house on Sundays. I can’t pay you.” They watched him dig out about $2 in change from his pocket. When he handed it to them, he said, “I’m doing this out of the kindness of my heart.”
When he and his friend went home, the friend told Spiegel’s father (rather irately), “Hypocrites . . . Lousy hypocrites! They smile so sweetly and look so righteous at church, but in the real world they’re nothing but swindlers and cheats!”
One of the questions the culture often lobs at the church is this in its various forms: “Why are Christians such hypocrites?” One book I read in dealing with the subject of the questions the culture asks the church is put even more starkly: “Why are Christians such jerks?”
Immediately someone who is a consistent Christian sees a story like this, the immediate reaction is to grow defensive: “Why do they lump us all into the same batch of dough?” Then we risk dismissing them out of hand. We must however dig deeper out of love for Christ and love for those whom He made and dig into what fuels these questions to begin with.
It must be said that Jesus was never a big fan of hypocrisy, either. This we see abundantly in John 7:53-8:11. Those who have the majority of versions will have this section bracketed with a small note that says, “The earliest manuscripts do not include 7:53-8:11.” This is true, and has caused some concern. But do not let it. This account was preserved by the Holy Spirit who sought to include this—and it does nothing to contradict any other teachings or doctrines found in Scripture. Let’s read this now, as we stand:
They went each to his own house, but Jesus went to the Mount of Olives. 2 Early in the morning he came again to the temple. All the people came to him, and he sat down and taught them. 3 The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery, and placing her in the midst 4 they said to him, “Teacher, this woman has been caught in the act of adultery. 5 Now in the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. So what do you say?” 6 This they said to test him, that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. 7 And as they continued to ask him, he stood up and said to them, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.” 8 And once more he bent down and wrote on the ground. 9 But when they heard it, they went away one by one, beginning with the older ones, and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. 10 Jesus stood up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” 11 She said, “No one, Lord.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more.”
Hypocrisy was nothing new—and Jesus hated it. But God reveals these hypocrisies in others and ourselves to eventually lead us to holiness.
A little background to this story. Jesus is in the Temple teaching, when the scribes and Pharisees in a rather sanctimonious and animated fashion. Why all the fuss? Verses 4-5 bring this to light: “Teacher, this woman has been caught in the act of adultery. Now in the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. So what do you say?” The motive is clear “This they said to test him, that they might have some charge to bring against him” (8:6).
As we step back, we notice a number of things that tip off their hypocrisy. The first and most obvious is that they were not interested in justice—they were interested in Jesus being trapped! And they simply used this woman as leverage!
Secondly, notice that they caught her “in the act of adultery.” How did they happen upon that?
Thirdly, if they caught her in the act of adultery, then where was the man? Did he get away? Did they let him get away? Was he an unnecessary part to their plot? Was he a member of the scribes and the Pharisees and they wished to protect him?
Nathaniel Hawthorne once noted,
“No man can for any considerable time wear one face to himself, and another to the multitude, without finally getting bewildered as to which is the true one.” Jesus would leave them even more bewildered.
This leads us to the first way we must answer the question of “Why are there so many religious hypocrites?” by answering it this way: “You are right—and so is everyone else!” If you answer in this way, please make sure you say this in the correct tone! Don’t answer with that defensive tone with finger pointed, saying, “Well, maybe I am, but so are you.” No, no, no!
Acknowledge that there are hypocrites in the church. Acknowledge that you are a hypocrite as well. Why is this important? Because:
(1) it demonstrates a humility rather than a moral superiority over someone else.
(2) You acknowledge what is obvious to everyone—even churches are filled with hypocrites.
(3) You make people take stock that they do not always follow through on even their own self-imposed standards.
The world is watching. They hear on the news of a cop who misbehaves and deep down they recognize that this is not how it should be. They hear, as we heard, of a group of teachers who changed the grades of the tests their students took, deleting their bad grades. The world watches us as well—and the world knows what we stand for to some degree or another knows some of what we believe. The world also notices when we mess up. And we must acknowledge that we mess up as well. If we don’t, then we are just as blind as those who don’t see their own hypocrisy. Churches are littered with hypocrites, from the infighting and party spirit to moral failures by leaders. Tim Keller brings out another point: “At the same time there are many formally irreligious people who live morally exemplary lives. If Christianity is all it claims to be, shouldn’t Christians on the whole be much better people than everyone else?”
Yet, as we will see more at the end, we are not saved by our morality—we are not saved by what we did or didn’t do, or what sins we’ve committed intentionally or otherwise. We are saved by God’s grace in what Christ has accomplished on our behalf. Recognizing the deception of our hypocrisy is actually an amazing part of God’s grace toward us.
James S. Spiegel, Hypocrisy: Moral Fraud and Other Vices (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1999), 25. Quoted in Randy Newman, Questioning Evangelism (Grand Rapids, Kregel, 2004), 192.
Timothy S. Keller, The Reason for God p. 53.