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"There are hypocrites in the church."

Jesus calls his church a city on a hill that can’t be hidden. But we’re shown in Revelation that an earthquake will strike the city. One tenth of it will collapse. What this seems to mean is that merely being within the walls won’t help certain people on the day the ground shakes.

Jesus told a story in which a fisherman examines his net. Flopping around in it are not only the good fish but some bad ones too. They’re all mixed up together. Soon enough the net is pulled up into the boat. Then the sorting comes.

In another parable a farmer plants good seed in his field, but when the workers go and check on the field, they find weeds growing up with the wheat. “Master, how could this be? You planted good seed!” The master surveys his field, fists forming at his side. Angry tears well up. “An enemy did this.” “Well, what should we do? Should we start pulling up the weeds?” “No,” he sighs, “no, don’t do that. You’ll only end up pulling up wheat as well. We’ll wait until harvest. We’ll sort it out then.”

(Please read Matthew 13:24-30,47-52.)

A crumbling corner of the holy city, bad fish among the “keepers,” weeds that sure look like wheat—different ways of saying the same thing. There are hypocrites sitting within the brick and mortar of the visible church. There are those who take up space in the building but are not part of Christ. We only need to remember the circle of 12 that Jesus himself had gathered. Within that circle was Judas, “one of the Twelve . . . who would betray him.” We agree with this particular objection—that there are hypocrites in the visible church—as a matter of doctrine.

Therefore, let it not be beneath the church to apologize to the world if it has failed to represent Christ. There is little to say but that the church is sorry. It is a shame when we, the people of the church, cannot point confidently to our love as the irrefutable proof of our teachings. It is a disgrace when we, the body of Christ, are unresponsive to the impulses of humility and grace that come from our Head, when our gatherings lose that quality that distinguished us from the start. What quality? The church is prodigal sons and daughters enjoying a banquet of grace, brokenhearted sinners for whom the mystery of forgiveness in the blood of the Lamb never wears off. The overwhelming emotions of the gathering are those of quiet gratitude and relief. Repentance is the inhale and exhale of this body, the perpetual breathing out of heartfelt confessions of blame and breathing in of his Word of sweet absolution. The mood is worship. What we learn when we’re together is love.

Sadly, this is not what everyone will find in his or her nearest church, because all churches are not the same. A church whose whole message is, “If you keep these rules and follow these principles, God will bless you,” does become something of a hypocrite factory. People feel compelled to measure up, knowing full well they had better look happy doing it. If they can’t manage it, they have two options: Leave in despair or stay and pretend. Yet even within the church that has its eyes fixed on Christ crucified are those who sit there Sunday after Sunday not taking him to heart. And the fault is certainly not with Jesus or his Word, even with the church, per se. But then where does it lie?

The fault lies in what we call the sinful nature. The sinful nature refers to the way we naturally are, both those of us within the church and those who stay outside. All of us share a certain common ground overgrown with thorns. Let me take you back to the Garden of Eden, where Adam stood naked and pink before God, having done the inexcusable. It was the first time a human being ever had that experience, which is now entirely common, the experience we call shame. It’s the horror of knowing yourself to be, in a word, unacceptable. When Adam said, “I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid,” he was, in a sense, Everyman. What he feared, with good reason, was being seen as he was. His strategy was to hide, and we’ve been hiding ever since. Observe the gap between who we really are and the way we present ourselves to the world. Our masks, our “false fronts,” are the words and manners we use to win approval or at least avoid rejection. Because if anyone would see us, they surely would reject us.

The point is that our shared sinful nature causes us to become incredibly adept at hypocrisy. We’re remarkably predictable at the one great talent of our fallen personalities— perpetually putting ourselves in the best possible light. Watch yourself the next time someone questions your heart. We’re so used to pretending that our true intentions are noble and good that we don’t even realize we’re doing it. We even fool ourselves.

Only a personal bias against the church sees hypocrisy as a particular problem in the church and not in people in general. It is a matter of Christian dogma that any human being can be false. And once you see that there’s a problem with people in general, well, you’re not far from understanding our Savior.

Rather than dismissing the church because of its “false sons,” consider instead how it is only in a faithful church, where God’s powerful Word resounds, that there is any hope of setting the masks aside. Even if some found within the church’s walls don’t take the Word to heart, the relevant question is this, What about those who do? What happens to those who embrace the message of Christ in sincerity?

The harsher words of the Bible, the really terrifying ones, are designed to show us ourselves, to shake us awake to the disease of sin raging out of control within us, to burst the bubble of our vain conceit and our sense of superiority based on nothing—until we stand with Adam, bracing ourselves for the cold flood of God’s rejection that ought to wash over us in waves. Instead, what God sends is . . . Jesus.

This is the message that reaches our ears and washes over us: “I forgive you.” God’s own Son took our place under God’s righteous wrath, as if the Son was the unacceptable one. He went there because of us, for us, instead of us, period. This is how he died. But see, he is alive, and the gates of paradise are pushed wide open.

By this faith we find ourselves welcomed into the gracious presence of God for Jesus’ sake alone. We find ourselves thoroughly known and, somehow, just as thoroughly loved. This grace penetrates the fear we hide within, and the mask falls away. When we sit in a pew under the dynamic ministry of law and gospel, we see hypocrisy for the wretched silliness it is. There is neither need nor reason to pretend anymore. We are what we are. Everyone here knows it. Taking ourselves so seriously and needing to cast ourselves in a favorable light becomes appropriately laughable, and giving up the game becomes oddly liberating. We have the unconditional acceptance of God himself in Jesus. We have the love that cannot be lost, unless we choose to walk away. God has seen us as we are and hasn’t turned his face away. In Christ, he has spread his garment of grace over our nakedness. There is forgiveness here for you, just as you are.

This is the love of Christ, the love that changes us. It’s the only thing that does. I don’t look like much. But even when I’m a disappointment to myself, there is that something new crying within me, that something of Christ born in me, dying to be released. And one day the part you don’t like about me, the part that I despise even more, will just fall away. I will see Jesus face-to-face, and I’ll be like him.

May I gently suggest that it is too easy to hear and repeat the old saw, “The church is full of hypocrites.” Yes, there are some who fake it. However, I cannot leave this issue behind without telling you that I would be a poor man without the people I’ve known in Christ. I don’t want you to miss them. They are worth knowing—gracious, Christian people who don’t think they’re anything at all . . . just forgiven.

In a spiritually intimate moment, a man said about the congregation I was privileged to pastor, “This church is my harbor.” It was mine too. Christ is still found in every word of grace spoken by a brother or sister. We believers meet one another as bringers of salvation. It is this sweet absolution that we hunger for. We talk news and shop, weather and sports. And yet, in the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “the one vital thing between us . . . is Jesus”—what he’s done for me and what he’s done for you.

I suppose what I’m really saying is this: What I love most about the Christian church is Christ.

“For where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them.”

***

“One of you will betray me,” Jesus tells the Twelve. But not one of them points to another to ask, “Lord, is it he?” Looking for hypocrisy in others is a dubious practice that is best left to God. You are just as likely to kill the wheat as to pull the weeds.

The disciples are sure enough of Jesus, and unsure enough of themselves, that each one asks, “Lord, is it I?” They are afraid of themselves, of their own natures and of what they are capable of. They look to Jesus: “If it is I, dear Lord, forgive me. Bring me back.”

Of all the things those men got wrong, it seems to me this is one thing they got right.


Prepared to AnswerFrom Prepared To Answer, by Mark A. Paustian © 2004 Northwestern Publishing House. All rights reserved.

Image courtesy of fisag, licensed under CC0 1.0.