The Problem of Hypocrisy



A chapter in James Spiegel's book, Hypocrisy: Moral Fraud & Other Vices, was the inspiration for this article. In the chapter entitled, "At Least I'm Not a Hypocrite," Spiegel notes that many apologists fail to recognize the importance of addressing this particular objection. Non-Christians often object to Christianity on the grounds that "Christians are hypocrites." This is a serious allegation, which, if true, would invalidate Christianity. Hopefully, with Spiegel's help, I can show that the allegation is not true.

John Hick once said,
Christianity...has generated savage wars of religion and supported innumerable 'just wars'; has tortured and burned multitudes of heretics and witches in the name of God; has motivated and authorized the persecution of the Jews; has validated systematic racism; and has tolerated the Western capitalist 'rape of the earth,' the misuse of nuclear energy, and the basic injustice of the North-South division into rich and poor nations. (Spiegel 129)
Spiegel rightly pointed out that Hick's accusation is misdirected. Is it really Christianity that is to blame, or misguided "Christians?" Surely a religion that calls us to "turn the other cheek" (Luke 6:29); teaches us to "love one another" (Romans 13:8); was founded by a Jew; makes it clear that God has "made of one blood all nations of the earth" (Acts 17:26); calls humans to be good stewards of earth's resources(Genesis 1:28); and informs us that "God is no respecter of persons" (Acts 10:34) could not be to blame for the injustices Hick describes.

Spiegel presents us with four versions of the skeptic's claims. Version 1 states the following:
1. An essential teaching of Christian theism is that Christians gain moral redemption through faith in Jesus Christ.
2. Some Christians act immorally.
3. To act immorally demonstrates that one is not morally redeemed.
4. Therefore, Christianity is essentially false. (Spiegel 135)
The problem with this version is found in premise number 3. Moral redemption does not mean moral perfection, but moral justification, moral repentance, and a process of moral improvement or sanctification. (Spiegel 135) None of these aspects of redemption preclude one from occasional failures morally. Therefore, Version 1 is refuted.

So we move on to Version 2.
1. An essential teaching of Christian theism is that Christians gain moral redemption through faith in Jesus Christ which is manifested in moral improvement.
2. Some Christians are guilty of gross moral misconduct.
3. To commit gross moral misconduct is to prove that one is not morally improving.
4. Therefore, Christianity is essentially false. (Spiegel 137)
Once again, premise 3 is flawed. Moral improvement is necessarily a relative notion: relative to a moral career, and relative to a person's natural constitution. (Spiegel 137) A person may commit gross moral misconduct, but if we look at this conduct relative to his conduct a year ago, we may find that his moral behavior is, in deed, improving, even if he is still guilty of gross misconduct. Similarly, a person may be pre-dispositioned to lower moral behavior. This person may be worse morally than others, but he must not be compared to people with high morals. Rather, he should be compared to someone with a similar disposition to his own. The Christian who commits gross moral misconduct may be improving, we just need to look at his life as a whole.

Which brings us to Version 3:
1. An essential teaching of Christian theism is that Christians gain moral redemption through faith in Jesus Christ which is manifested in moral improvement.
2. Some Christians display moral regression by performing acts of gross moral misconduct on a regular basis.
3. Anyone who morally regresses is not morally improving.
4. Therefore, Christianity is essentially false. (Spiegel 139)
Here, premise 3 is without flaw. Instead, we look at premise 2. In this case, the Christian must become the skeptic. In I John 3:9, we read that "God's children cannot keep on being sinful. His life-giving power lives in them and makes them his children, so that they cannot keep on sinning." Based on the Scriptures, Christians must doubt whether those who continue in sin are truly saved. This does not eliminate the occasional sin, but we must be skeptical of those who continue to commit the same sin without being remorseful.

Version 4 is slightly different than the first 3. In this version, we examine the hypocrisy of which most non-Christians consider Christians to be guilty. This version is stated as follows:
1. If Christians are morally redeemed through their faith in Christ, then they should be more likely than most to be forthright about their moral condition.
2. Christians are not more likely than most to be forthright about their moral condition (in fact, they are more likely than most to deceive others about their true piety).
3. Therefore, Christians are not really morally redeemed through their faith in Christ. (Spiegel 140)
Here again, both sides agree upon premise 1. As a Christian, I must object to premise 2. I have found in my experience that most Christians are forthright about their moral condition. This is evidenced by the popularity of bumper stickers and other such paraphernalia that say, "Christians aren't perfect, just forgiven," and other similar messages. Nevertheless, there are some Christians who are deceptive about their moral condition. In such cases, we must remember a point that was brought up by Spiegel in his book: Deception is sometimes symptomatic of two positive characteristics, namely, shame for one's sin, and the desire to avoid being a stumbling block to others. (Spiegel 140) Self-deception is not addressed here, because one of the requisites for becoming a Christian is to admit that one is a sinner and is in need of forgiveness.

The last section in Spiegel's book addresses the question of why Christians are so often accused of hypocrisy. This will be the conclusion to my article as well. There are three reasons why Christians are perceived to be guilty of hypocrisy. First, the Christian moral ideal is moral perfection as seen in Christ. We are called to "grow in every way and be more like Christ, the head of the body." (Ephesians 4:15) It is impossible for fallen humans to become perfect. This in no way means that we shouldn't try. On the contrary, you must set high goals to realize your full potential. Just because Christians cannot be just like Christ does not mean we should not attempt to be. Second, Christians are sinners. Becoming a Christian, as noted in Version 1 of the argument, does not make one immune to sin. When a Christian sins, it need not be seen as hypocrisy, but moral weakness. The difference between a hypocrite and a morally weak person is that the morally weak person regrets his failure, while the hypocrite does not. Last, Christians believe in salvation by grace rather than by human merit. This last point is an important one.

Because Christianity teaches salvation by grace, it is easy for non-believers to masquerade as Christians. To be a Christian, all one needs to do is believe on the Lord Jesus Christ. There are no public prayers to be said at certain times of the day, nor is one required to forsake possessions, nor is he required to perform other such acts which indicate involvement in a particular religion. The Christian church will always welcome sinners, so there will always be unrepentant persons in the church. When a non-Christian "Christian" fails, the illusion of Christian hypocrisy is fostered.

Christians need not be accused of hypocrisy. Christians need to be honest about their moral condition, and non-Christians need to realize that to live the Christian life perfectly is impossible. I would encourage everyone who is interested in this subject to get a copy of James Spiegel's book. It addresses not only this problem, but also the whole subject of hypocrisy: what causes it, how it is recognized, how to avoid it, etc. The information for the book can be found below.


 




Spiegel, James S., Hypocrisy: Moral Fraud & Other Vices, (Michigan: Baker Books), 1999. Click here to buy it from Amazon.com.