“Even so ye also outwardly appear righteous unto men,” Jesus condemned the scribes and the Pharisees, “but within ye are full of hypocrisy and iniquity.”
As in every other year, lots of scribes and Pharisees around in 2020. Lots of hypocrisy.
Two groups of 2020 hypocrites come to mind immediately. In the first camp are politicians who preach fidelity to public health restrictions but then transgress them when they think no one is looking. Examples are legion. There are the travelers, the mayors who tell their constituents not to visit extra-household gatherings and then hop a flight across the country or to Cabo. There are the eaters, the governor and the mayor who shut down in-person dining but host dinners at swanky restaurants. Particularly egregious in my book is the superintendent who keeps his district’s public schools closed but sends his child to an in-person private school. That makes me mad.
Most numerous in 2020 were the protesters, the many politicians who forbade or discouraged gatherings but then not only endorsed but even marched in mass protests. Such actions became a key prong in congregational lawsuits against government-imposed limitations on worship services.
That’s one group of 2020 hypocrites. The second group is sadly familiar, the evangelical leaders who preached adherence to certain standards of sexual morality and then fell from grace. David French has a useful and depressing summary at The Dispatch. Here’s a recent list: Carl Lentz, Ravi Zacharias (posthumously), and Jerry Falwell, Jr. My goodness. The salacious details of these cases are already old news.
Nothing new here, it seems, from a religious subculture that produced Jim Bakker, Jimmy Swaggart, Ted Haggard.
Evangelicals don’t have a corner on this sort of hypocrisy, of course. They are just especially prolific nowadays. Why?
French partly attributes the regular recurrence of these shocking stories to the evangelical culture of celebrity. In her Jesus and John Wayne, my co-blogger Kristin Du Mez details many instances of evangelical hypocrisy and also identifies a toxic masculinity that has enabled irresponsible, abusive, immoral, and even violent forms of male behavior.
As Americans, we often respond to public hypocrisy in one of two ways. When public figures we disagree with reveal themselves to be hypocrites, we respond with scorn and feel confirmed in our rejection of their preached values. Witness the glee with which other Americans consume stories about evangelical sex scandals. And witness the glee with which Republicans greeted public-health lapses by Democratic governors and mayors.
On the other hand, when people we generally agree with engage in hypocrisy, we tend to either wince or shrug. If we take a closer look, we both lament transgressions but also lament that they might damage a beloved cause.
The Greek word hypokrites means a stage player, literally to “interpret from underneath [a mask].” Accordingly, Jesus saved many of his harshest words for individuals who put on certain outward masks of piety and righteousness but were “within full of dead men’s bones, and of all uncleanness.” In the above instances, officials and preachers assume and advocate certain behaviors in public while doing very different things in private.
The reality is that human beings are hypocrites. We put on masks of various sorts constantly, whether in the meeting house, classroom, or family room. We generally want other people to think well of us. We keep our sins out of sight and do want other people to recognize our good deeds, even though Jesus warned against that. Contrary to Paul’s advice, we all clothe ourselves with many things other than the Lord Jesus Christ.
This problem is compounded for those who aspire to positions of power, whether in politics or within the church. My old adage was that Democratic politicians pretend to care about the poor, whereas Republican politicians pretend to care about family values. I had to retire the second half of that adage in 2016. Regardless, politicians have to persuade people to vote for them in order to get elected. That almost necessitates a certain amount of hypocrisy, in that one has to pretend to care about one’s constituents whether one does or not, and one has to adopt party positions with which one may disagree personally.
The structure of American evangelicalism is also a breeding ground for hypocrisy. The celebrity culture that French decries has its structural roots in the parachurch organizations and non-denominational church networks that have been the engine of evangelicalism over the past hundred years. There are many bright spots of integrity within this world. Billy Graham and Bill Bright are two examples, but this structure has made it especially easy for many other men to escape accountability.
How should Christians respond to shocking examples of public hypocrisy?
First, we should avoid schadenfreude. We should not revel in the hypocrisy and sins of others. Instead, we should begin by repenting of the inconsistency between our own public masks and our own inward reality. We also should remember that we shouldn’t be surprised by hypocrisy and other forms of human sinfulness.
Second, we should recognize that values and policies are not invalidated by hypocrisy. Whether or not a governor eats with eight donors and lobbyists in a swanky restaurant has no bearing on whether or not eating with eight people in a restaurant is a wise idea at the present time. Similarly, if an evangelical leader betrays his wife and children it doesn’t invalidate the general evangelical insistence on fidelity within marriage. Also, even if all men and women are hypocrites to some degree, the lapses of some evangelical leaders do not make all evangelicals hypocritical in the way. As my co-blogger Daniel Williams wrote recently, “neither the Bible nor the early Protestant confessions suggest that we can determine the truth of the Christian message by the effects that it has on a person’s life.” The same holds for politicians.
I don’t know whether evangelical leaders engage in hypocrisy, sexual sin, or abusive behavior at greater rates than other Americans. But when one can easily rattle off dozens of high-profile scandals from the past several decades, there’s clearly a big problem here. What can we do about it? Many churches and ministries need more transparency and more accountability. There are also structural and cultural areas that sorely need reexamination and fixing. We need fewer celebrity leaders. We need to uphold different models of leadership.
Finally, we should remember that the future of our churches and our society does not rest on any particular institution, leader, or set of leaders. They are all expendable in that sense! Not that the effect of transgressions on institutions is inconsequential, or that we should be indifferent to them, but God’s kingdom does not hinge on their perpetuation.