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‘The church is full of hypocrites.’ ‘I’ll come to church when you get rid of all the hypocrites.’ So far in this sermon series, the ‘reasons for rejection,’ have all been directed at the Bible or the doctrines that come from the bible. But now this morning, we come to a ‘reason for rejection’ that is aimed directly at the people who call themselves Christian. That’s you and me. In other words, this one gets pretty personal.
Let’s begin by getting a grip on the meaning of the word, ‘hypocrite.’ The English word is taken directly from the New Testament Greek word which is ‘hupokritais.’ The Greeks were famous for their love of theater and drama. An actor was called ‘hupokritais,’ literally, ‘one who wears a mask.’ An actor pretends to be someone whom he is not.
In our own day, actors perform on TV and in the movies and on stage. And people go to the theater and watch TV to see actors pretend to be someone they’re not. But the same people who appreciate good actors on the screen or stage, refuse to step foot in a church because they feel that the church is full of actors. If there is one role in all of life that we insist there be no acting, no ‘wearing a mask,’ no ‘hypocrisy,’ it is the roll of being a Christian.
Christians are expected to be ‘sincere’ about their Christianity. One dictionary defines ‘sincerity’ like this: to be ‘free from pretense or deceit. There is a heavy expectation that Christians, maybe more than any other vocation in life, be ‘genuine’ Christians.
B. Two reasons for the charge of hypocrisy.
So, why is it that many people feel that the ‘church is full of hypocrites’? Why do people feel that there is too much ‘acting’ going on where it doesn’t belong? Let me suggest two possible reasons.
1. Confusion of terms.
First of all, there is some confusion over what it means to be a Christian. The misunderstanding goes like this. ‘Christians are not supposed to sin.’ ‘This person says he’s a Christian.’ ‘I see that this person sins.’ ‘Therefore, this person is a hypocrite.’
The truth of course is, for a person to be a Christian he must first be a sinner. If someone came to me and said, ‘I want to join the church but I really don’t need any of the forgiveness for sins that you give out through Baptism and absolution and the Lord’s Supper. I want to join the church because it’ll be good for my children or it’ll be good for my business, or I’m looking for a potential spouse,’ (not that anyone would ever join a church for those reasons), we would say, ‘sorry, that’s not what church membership is about.’
In fact, the very first thing that we do when we gather together is confess that we are ‘sinners.’ The warning against hypocrisy is sounded loud and clear. ‘If we DECIEVE OURSELVES and the truth is not in us.’ And then we spell out our sinfulness in great detail.
2. Hypocrites are in the church.
That leads directly to the second reason why people say that the Church is full of hypocrites. The truth is, people do join a church for the wrong reasons. There actually are hypocrites in the church. The church may not be FULL of hypocrites, but it’s not EMPTY of them either.
Jesus confirms the word of the prophet Isaiah in His own day saying, ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me.’ (Matthew 15:8).
Here’s just one example of how it happens. In the rite of Confirmation, prospective member are asked to solemnly vow before God and the congregation to the following: 1) faithful attendance in worship; 2) faithful financial support of the congregation; 3) to strive to live a godly life according to God’s Word and submission to Church discipline when it’s needed; and 4) ‘do you intend to continue steadfast in this confession and Church and to suffer all, even death, rather than fall away from it’? You can find all of this in writing on page #272 of the hymnal.
Needless to say, there are some who make these solemn vows with no real intention of actually holding to them. That’s ‘hypocritical.’ Even those who don’t know anything about the Confirmation vows that we all take to become members of the Church, have a basic idea of what the Church stands for. And when they see a professing Christian who’s Christianity seems to have little or no impact on their habits or morality, or attitude towards others, they’re able to identify a ‘hypocrite’ when they see one.
So, sometimes the charge of ‘hypocrisy’ is a false charge and sometimes it’s true.
D. Seriousness of hypocrisy.
To be sure, ‘hypocrisy’ is a sin that has the potential of doing great harm to the mission of the Church. When the deceit of hypocrisy comes to light, people who are not members of the church become even more turned off to the message of the gospel. And those who are members of the church but who are new or weak in their faith are filled with confusion and doubt and may leave.
And just to lay this issue before us squarely on the table, nowhere is the damage done by hypocrisy more harmful than when it is done by the clergy of the church. Whether the incidence of hypocrisy among the clergy is significantly higher than among the laity or not I’m not sure. But the fact that when a pastor’s deceitfulness is exposed, it makes the news, and that the news rarely reports on a parishioner who has betrayed his vows, tells you that the expectations of clergy sincerity are a lot higher than for laity.
You may find it interesting, I find it frightening, that whenever Jesus jumps all over hypocrites, it’s always, without exception, the clergy that He’s rebuking. ‘Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you shut the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. For you neither enter yourselves nor allow those who would enter to go in.’ “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness. (Matthew 23:13, 27)
Insofar as our hypocrisy endangers those who are new or whose faith is weak, Jesus says, ‘whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea. (Matthew 18:6)
II. The Church
So, what should the church do about it’s internal problems of hypocrisy within its membership? Should we institute some sort of program to root out all hypocrites? Should we administer some kind of test to determine what’s really in a person’s heart before we let them join the church? Should we require prospective members to take a ‘sincerity pledge’ before admitting them as members? Lot’s of churches over the course of history have tried this kind of approach.
Coincidentally, our gospel reading for this morning speaks directly to this issue. Jesus’ parable is about a field where there are weeds growing right alongside of the wheat. Jesus is describing the church on earth. The servants want to know if they should weed out the weeds. Jesus says, absolutely not. ‘No, lest in gathering the weeds you root up the wheat along with them. Let both grow together until the harvest, and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Gather the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.’ ” (Matthew 13:29,30)
The nature of the church on earth is that true believers and hypocrites are mixed together in the same field. And we are to leave the identification and separation of one from another to Jesus. This is what we confess when we say, ‘I believe in Jesus Christ, who will come again to judge between the living and the dead.’
Our problem is the same as the servants working the field. We can’t tell the difference between a believer and a hypocrite. And that’s because the difference between the two is internal. And all that we can see is the external.
Jesus responds to the Pharisees like this, “The kingdom of God is not coming with signs to be observed, nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There!’ for behold, the kingdom of God is in within you.” (Luke 17:20-21) True faith resides in the heart. And only God can see the heart of a person. And make no mistake about it, He surely does. So here on earth, the church is made up of true believers and hypocrites. The church in heaven is pure. No weeds in the congregation there. But here it’s a bloody mess.
We talk about the Christian Church here on earth in two ways: narrowly and broadly.
1. Narrow Sense of Church
The Church in the narrow sense includes all those who believe in the Word and promises of God as they are fulfilled in the person of Jesus Christ. Since God alone can see who the true believers are, the church in the ‘narrow sense’ is sometimes called the ‘invisible church.’ It’s invisible to you and me. We’re never really sure who’s a true believer and who isn’t. But it is visible to God. Jesus says, ‘I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me.’ (John 10:14)
Even though true faith is invisible to us, there are certain things that true believers will do which are visible. Paul writes to the Romans saying, ‘For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved.’ (Romans 10:10). True believers will profess the Christian faith.
True believers will also strive to live a godly life according to God’s Word. Jesus says, ‘Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.’ (Matthew 5:16)
True believers will also be seen nursing the faith that they have been given by making diligent use of the means of grace as often as possible. Jesus puts it like this, ‘Whoever is of God hears the words of God. The reason why you do not hear them is that you are not of God.” (John 8:47)
The church in the ‘narrow sense’ contains plenty of sinners, but no hypocrites.
2. Broad Sense of Church
But here’s where it gets confusing. Unbelievers can do all of the same things that true believers do. Paul writes to Timothy, ‘But understand this, that in the last days there will come times of difficulty. For people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, heartless, unappeasable, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not loving good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, HAVING THE APPEARANCE OF GODLINESS, but denying its power.’ (2 Tim. 3:1-5).
They have the ‘APPEARANCE OF GODLINESS.’ They belong to the Christian congregation and they go through all of the motions right along with the true believers. But they’re just pretending, just wearing a mask. They’re members of the church, they attend worship, receive the Sacraments, participate in the activities, even though in their hearts, they really don’t believe the Scriptures and the gospel it presents.
When we talk about the number of members on the roster of the congregation, we’re talking about the Church in the ‘broad sense.’ The church in the ‘broad sense’ is the ‘visible membership’ and it is made up of both believers and hypocrites.
To summarize what we’ve said, the ‘narrow church’ is the total number of those who HAVE true faith in their hearts; the ‘broad’ church is the total number of those who PROFESS the faith.
The ‘invisible church’ is hidden in the ‘visible church.’
So how shall we answer someone who rejects the Christian faith because, ‘the church is full of hypocrites’?
We might begin by saying that we agree that there are hypocrites in the Church. It may not be ‘full’ of them but it is certainly not empty of them. And we may also agree that hypocrisy in the church is a bad thing.
But in the end, the final judgment about the integrity of the Christian religion doesn’t rest upon the performance of its members. In fact, its membership is it’s weakest part. To evaluate Christianity on the basis of its Christians is a terrible mistake. Augustine once said, ‘a philosophy must never be judged by its abuse.’
Rather, the Christian faith must be judged on the basis of its founder, Jesus Christ. The real question you should be asking yourself is this one, ‘was Jesus Christ a hypocrite’? Was He just an actor who merely pretended to be someone He really wasn’t? There have been lots of people who have come to that conclusion. And if that is true, then there’s really is no reason for anyone to embrace this faith let alone join it.
But if Jesus Christ was not a hypocrite, if He is everything that He says He is, if He is the genuine article, then you must evaluate the Christian faith based on His life and His Word.
In fact, the Christian religion is based upon the sinless Christ who came into this world to save sinful men and women, even hypocrites.