Being a Hypocrite

Who's a hypocrite and who isn't? Hypocrisy is a charge sometimes leveled at religious people, particularly when one or another high-profile person gets caught doing something he ought not to.

But what is hypocrisy? The word comes from the Greek, hypokrisis, which at the time of the New Testament was always used negatively and meant "play acting" or "dissembling." Hypocrites pretend to be something they are not.

On that score, most of us are hypocrites. I, for example, am all in favor of not allowing mind to be more important than body. In my teaching, I insist on the equal importance of the temporal, physical dimension of our lives. To my mind it is at least as important as the mental and what we call the spiritual.

In spite of that, I don't live a life that exemplifies that equality of body, mind, and spirit. I'm a university professor, so I think about things, talk about things, write about them, and recommend them. But I'm not much of a doer. I've spent the last day or so building boxes for our garden, and I can hardly wait to get back to my books and thoughts.

Doctrinally Mormonism insists on that equality of things mental, spiritual, and physical. Ultimately there is no division between the temporal and the spiritual. One result has been the Church's emphasis on the temporal welfare of its members. Early on that meant experiments in shared wealth and communal living.

Today the belief that our eternal salvation includes the requirement that we be "equal in earthly things" is manifest in the LDS Church's welfare system, a system that requires not only financial contributions, but for many of us, physical work. My congregation (a "ward" in Mormon language), for example, is part of a larger group of congregations that operates a church-owned cannery. We can fruits, mostly, and then those cans are made available to people in need through the welfare system.

As a result, several times a year my ward will receive a call for some specific number of volunteers: "We need six people to work at the church cannery next Tuesday from 8:00 a.m. until noon." When the cannery assignment comes, I often agree to take a turn.

But I admit that if I look more carefully at my soul I probably do so as much out of guilt as out of a desire to help. "I ought to help," I say to myself, and I know that if I don't help I'll feel guilty. So, I volunteer. To a degree I'm pretending to be more committed than I am.

Unfortunately that's not the only way in which I'm not the person I believe I should be. It's among the ways thatI will publicly confess to sometimes acting hypocritically. The rest I'll leave for my spouse and the rest of my family to know all too well. Sometimes, were someone, even perhaps a member of my family, to push me about those failures, uncovering some that are examples of genuine hypocrisy, I might get defensive and respond with bluster to try to hide them.

I don't have any church authority right now, but when I have had it, I might have abused it, particularly if I felt threatened or concerned that I didn't know what to do. Abuse of authority almost always involves hypocrisy. I hope I didn't abuse authority when I've had it, but it wouldn't shock me to learn that I had. It is hard not to recognize that I am sometimes a pretender. I dissemble myself.

There are any number of reasons that I might be accused of hypocrisy. But if I read Matthew 6:5 correctly, being a hypocrite in the sense that Jesus so roundly condemns means more than dissembling. It means doing so "that they may be seen of men." So the question is not only whether I dissemble, but whether I do so in order to be glorified by others, to flatter my ego, to give me the false authority of admiration.

That's a harder question. Since the danger of self-deception is so great, especially when it comes to thinking about myself, I ought not to presume my innocence. I should assume that, at least sometimes, I am a hypocrite in the stronger sense.

And if it is difficult for me to decide when I am being a hypocrite in the New Testament sense, then it is even harder for me to decide about others. I see a back-slapping, loud guy who welcomes me to church Sunday morning, and my immediate reaction, a gut-level rather than a conscious one, is that he's insincere.

If I think about it, making a judgment about my gut-level response, it is easy to go from "He's insincere" to "He's doing what he does so that others will see him in a positive light." It's easy to decide that he's a hypocrite. 

12/2/2022 9:09:19 PM
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  • James Faulconer
    About James Faulconer
    James Faulconer is a Richard L. Evans Professor of Religious Understanding at Brigham Young University, where he has taught philosophy since 1975.