Photo by scottchan. Courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net
Photo by scottchan. Courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net

Christians are mostly a bunch of hypocrites. Everybody knows that, right?

Well, let’s see.

Originally, the word hypocrite referred to a stage actor, someone who artfully plays a role that is not his or her own. We use it to refer to someone who claims to believe something, but behaves in a way that suggests it’s nothing but pretense.

And many people have experienced Christians in this way. In their much discussed book unChristian, for example, Dave Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons argue that the reason twenty-somethings want nothing to do with the church isn’t because they know nothing about it. On the contrary: most of them have been in church, know the basics of the gospel message, and have been around Christians. But they tire of hearing Christians talk the talk while not walking the walk: how can believers preach so much about God’s love and yet be so narrow-minded and negative?

And then comes the H-word.

You’ve seen it and I’ve seen it: Christians can be proud and combative; congregations can be cold and rejecting. And let’s be honest — it’s not just about “those” Christians, but about us. We can be heartless and clueless, blind to the ways we are turning others away from the faith. For that we should rightly repent, and none too soon.

But I want to go carefully here. The charge of hypocrisy can be bandied about too cavalierly.  For one so inclined, a single negative experience with a thoughtless believer may be reason enough to blow off the church entirely (though not necessarily Jesus, because we like him).

Moreover, Christians who know their own fallibility may be too quick to beat a guilty retreat before the H-word. It never ceases to astound me that Paul could consider the Corinthians to be a “letter of reference” for the success of his ministry — indeed, more than that, a letter from Christ to the world, there for all to read (2 Cor 3:2-3). This is a congregation full of divisive, confused, promiscuous, stuck-up people. And yet Paul sees in them something that the casual observer would miss: the presence of the Holy Spirit.

As it was in Corinth, any congregation can be an unholy mess which God nevertheless declares to be holy. Not because they’re always loving toward one another. Not because they always do the right thing. Not because they’re always warm and welcoming to strangers.

But because of Christ, and Christ alone.

None of that means complacency: it must always be our goal to live in the manner that befits our status in Christ, knowing that we will often fail, perhaps spectacularly. But that failure in itself doesn’t make us hypocrites, not unless we claim to be sinless.

Hypocrisy happens when we cling, sometimes unconsciously, to a false ecclesiology, one in which it’s our job to maintain a façade of goodness. But if we can humbly acknowledge our dependence on God’s Spirit, if we can take off the masks behind which we’ve learned to hide, then we needn’t fear the H-bomb.

Instead, we can invite people to meet the Jesus who dares to list such imperfect people as references.