Aren’t Christians Just a Bunch of Hypocrites?

When you hear the word hypocrisy, what comes to mind? A power-hungry pastor, a corrupt cop, or an abusive spouse? How about an actor in a play? In ancient Greece, actors (hypokritēs) wore large masks to depict the characters they played on stage. Over time, the word came to represent a person who acts one way but lives another. Today we call a person who pretends to be moral while living deceptively a hypocrite.

Sadly, one high-profile example of this was Carl Lentz, former pastor of Hillsong NYC, who passed himself off as a sports agent to have an affair with a woman he had met in a city park. When Vanity Fair, the New York Post, People, Glamour, the New York Times, and Variety all published articles about Lentz, the world got a front-row seat in the theater of his unmasking. More bad news for the church—and when news like this breaks, so does some people’s trust in the church.

The people who are affected by hypocrisy deserve a response when their trust is shattered. But what can we possibly convey to those who have been disillusioned by the church? Here are some thoughts:

1. Hypocrisy must be met by acknowledging the problem for what it is. This is our opportunity to concede the truth, to show humility, and to refrain from jumping on the defensive. It’s here that we must validate the critics’ concerns. The importance of validation—that is, acknowledging that the other person’s emotions and experiences are meaningful—has been underscored by neuroscience. Studies have shown that people cannot fully heal without validation. That’s why it is so important to listen to, corroborate, and express remorse to people who have been wounded by hypocrisy. We’ve all seen relationships remain stuck because one person was unable or unwilling to validate the other person’s pain. When we attempt to justify the unjustifiable, we paralyze relational progress. Acknowledging the hypocrisy should be a simple and obvious first step.

2. We can remind the disillusioned that Jesus reserved his sharpest criticism for hypocrites. We catch a glimpse of Jesus’ disdain for hypocrisy in his interactions with the Pharisees and scribes: “Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites; as it is written: ‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.’” With one zinger, he unmasked their religious duplicity.

3. We can’t allow bad examples to negate the influence of good examples. Before we get tied up in knots about some people’s hypocrisy, would do well to remind ourselves of the abundant examples of integrity in church history, such as Polycarp, Susanna Wesley, D. L. Moody, William Wilberforce, Billy Graham, Joni Eareckson Tada, and many, many others. It would be unfair and shortsighted to discredit the full package of Christianity based on the examples of hypocrites, especially considering the testimony of exemplary Christians throughout the centuries whose lives were on splendid display for Christ.

Nevertheless, we must address the underlying question: Does hypocrisy in the church discredit the truth of Christianity? Simple answer: Not in the least. A person’s failure to live up to the standards of their belief system doesn’t undermine the entire system; it simply shows that the person has fallen short of whatever ideal they set for themselves.

The moral standards for Christians are revealed in Scripture for all to see. And it seems as if there are many people who are ready to pounce on us the moment we come up short. Not that we want to play gotcha, but it’s not quite as easy to call out people with other beliefs—such as atheism—where there are no objective standards of right and wrong.

Just as you’ll find scandals wherever you find humans, you’ll also find hypocrisy. But what we’re aiming to discern is whether the standards on which people build their lives are true and valid. Rejecting Christianity because some Christians are hypocrites would be like not buying a certain brand of shoes because the only people you’ve ever seen wearing them were troublemakers. It would be silly to reject the brand because of your limited observations of people who wear them.

If anything, the concern about hypocrisy among Christians points to a standard—a high and holy standard we all have broken. This standard exists apart from us and is grounded in God’s good and holy nature. God’s moral commands flow from his character; and the more we keep his standards, the more we become like him. Even when we fall short, we can get back up and keep going.

Now let’s consider how the contention of Christian hypocrisy shapes up in argument form, so we can either prove it or detect the fallacy. The argument could be framed as follows:

Premise 1: If there are hypocrites in the church, then Christianity is false.

Premise 2: There are hypocrites in the church.

Conclusion: Therefore, Christianity is false.

The problem with this argument is easy to detect. The truth of Christianity rises and falls on the resurrection of Jesus Christ, not on whether his followers have completely and faithfully upheld his standards. Examining a person’s hypocrisy is not enough to invalidate his or her beliefs. We must look at the beliefs themselves.

What makes Christianity unique is that it recognizes the problem of hypocrisy, that humans are morally disadvantaged, and it points us to Jesus, who never suffered from hypocrisy, and reveals him as the only one suited to address the sin behind our hypocrisy—which he did by offering his life as a substitute on our behalf. Therefore, Christianity both recognizes the problem of hypocrisy and offers the solution to it. When we as Christians fall into hypocrisy, we don’t invalidate Christianity; if anything, we reveal through our actions that we’re broken and we need Jesus.

Adapted from Does Christianity Still Make Sense?: A Former Skeptic Responds to Today’s Toughest Objections to Christianity by Bobby Conway. Copyright © 2024. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, a division of Tyndale House Ministries. All rights reserved.

Bobby Conway
Bobby Conway

Bobby Conway is lead pastor of Life Fellowship Church in Charlotte, North Carolina, and the founder and host of the web ministry Christianity Still Makes Sense, formerly known as One Minute Apologist. His latest book is Does Christianity Still Make Sense?: A Former Skeptic Responds to Today’s Toughest Objections to Christianity (Tyndale Elevate).