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Christianity has both the resources to critique hypocrisy and provide the remedy for it, writes Mark Smith.
Religious people are often accused of hypocrisy: professing one thing and doing another. Some years ago, I worked for someone who claimed to be an atheist. Over time, he gave several reasons why he chose this position.
Most were because of the hypocritical behaviour of Christians.
There are plenty of examples of moral, sexual and financial abuses in the churches, or unjustly cruel things done in the name of Christianity. One common example is the Crusades of the Middle Ages. In the name of Christ, armies went to forcibly liberate the Holy Land from Muslim occupation. They committed shameful atrocities that violated numerous Christian principles.
But this was not a one-sided affair. Muslim armies captured Jerusalem, Egypt and Armenia, invaded Spain and sent raiding parties into France. However, this did not excuse the ''unchristian'' response.
Looking on, we may conclude that religion is the problem. If we didn't have religion, the issue would be solved. But even those who reject religion can't be too quick to point the finger. Atheists, too, have hypocritical skeletons in the closet. In an attempt to bring a ''better'' society, Joseph Stalin, Mao Zedong and Pol Pot all committed horrendous atrocities.
But hypocrisy can be disguised in religious garb. As one story goes, a gang of youths in Belfast apprehended a man, and inquired if he was Catholic or Protestant. He answered that he was an atheist. They then asked, ''Are you a Catholic atheist or a Protestant one?'' It was clear that the label was more important than the belief behind it. This raises the question: ''Is this hypocrisy or a poorly placed label?''
Sadly, every religion and/or world view has its hypocrites.
I believe, however, that Christianity has both the resources to critique hypocrisy and provide the remedy for it. Christianity's own ethical standard brings the harshest critique of its charlatans.
When Martin Luther King confronted the racial abuses of the ''white'' church in America, he didn't call them to relax their Christian commitment. He used the Bible as a plumbline for self-analysis and called them to a more authentic Christianity. Dr King quoted the Old Testament prophets who challenged their own generation for their continuous inconsistencies, injustice and oppression.
Dr King also saw that one could ''be self-centred in self-denial and self-righteous in self-sacrifice''. People ''may be generous in order to feed their ego and pious in order to feed their pride''. He said, ''Man has the tragic capacity to relegate a heightening virtue to a tragic vice''.
Jesus himself directed His greatest condemnation at the religious leaders of His day when He saw their inconsistencies. He called them ''white-washed tombs'' - beautiful on the outside but decaying corpses within. He also charged them with being hypocrites who didn't practice what they preached, reserving His harshest denunciation for them.
But He went further. He challenged not just their actions, but inconsistent attitudes, motives and desires. It was not just the act of murder but also the hatred that caused it. It was not just the act of adultery, but the lust and adultery of the heart.
Jesus then intensified the focus on His listeners and readers.
His evaluation was not based on the fluctuating opinions of contemporary society, but on God's unchanging perfection.
Effectively, He exposes us all. It is often easier to see the flaws in others, but be blind to our own faults.
Hypocrisy is actually closer to home than we care to think.
Often we say one thing and do another.
Our lives are frequently riddled with inconsistencies. We denounce gossip yet spread it liberally.
We plead for honesty; yet tell innumerable ''white lies''. We condemn judgemental people in the process of demonstrating a judgemental attitude!
The central message of Christianity not only shows us our failure or hypocrisy, but also gives the remedy.
God takes any sin, hypocrisy included, seriously.
The remedy involves His own Son taking the penalty on Himself. He offers forgiveness to those who accept this.
Then He begins the process of renewing them from the inside out, so that, by God's grace, a true confession is reflected more and more in authentic character.
Even the most genuine Christian is still a work in progress.
As a quote from Pinterest says, ''I would rather be known in life as an honest sinner than a lying hypocrite''.
- Mark Smith is pastor at Grace Bible Church, Dunedin.