David French (The Dispatch), How Hypocrisy Drives Unbelief:
This newsletter is a bit ambitious. I want to explore a question that’s pervasive in American Christian discourse. If we all know that Christians aren’t perfect, why does Christian sin and hypocrisy drive so many people from the faith? After all, many of the giants of the faith committed dreadful acts. Can we demand that our pastors be better than, say, Peter or Paul?
To answer as best as I can, I want to tie together two seemingly unrelated strands of news. Last month, Lifeway Research and Ligonier Ministries published their biannual theological survey of American Evangelicals. The results were sobering. While an overwhelming percentage of Evangelicals believe in traditional Christian sexual morality (for example, 94 percent agree that sex outside of traditional marriage is wrong, and 91 percent say that abortion is a sin), a majority also misunderstand the nature of Jesus Christ himself, believing that he is “the first and greatest being created by God.” In fact, a surprising 43 percent of Evangelicals say that Jesus was a great teacher, but not God at all.
Both of these assertions flatly contradict scripture, which unambiguously states in John 1 that “In the beginning was the Word [Jesus], and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” The Nicene creed is likewise clear: “We believe in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father; God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God; begotten not made, one in being with the Father. Through Him all things were made.”
Second, as I referenced in my newsletter last week, a fascinating study of 57,000 American undergraduates at 159 top universities found that “Homeschooled and parochial schooled undergraduates are as or more likely to identify as LGBT or non-binary as those from public or private school backgrounds.” ...
This finding is interesting in part because many families homeschool (or send their kids to parochial schools) precisely because they want to insulate their children from the influence of contemporary sexual norms.
This all leads me to the complex relationship between theology, morality, and hypocrisy—and to how hypocrisy is particularly damaging when Christians are clearer about their moral stands than they are about even the identity of Jesus. When religion is primarily experienced as a moral code, moral failure undermines the faith itself.
To understand how this process works, I want to turn to one of the most famous passages in scripture, in which Christ contrasts the prayers of two individuals—a Pharisee (a religious leader in ancient Israel) and a tax collector (a hated agent of the Jews’ Roman oppressors):
The Pharisee was standing and praying like this about himself: ‘God, I thank you that I’m not like other people—greedy, unrighteous, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of everything I get.’
But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even raise his eyes to heaven but kept striking his chest and saying, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this one went down to his house justified rather than the other, because everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”
Note the different emphases. The Pharisee defines himself in contrast to the rest of the world. He lines up his righteousness next to others and is grateful for his own goodness. He’s inviting people to draw contrasts based on his personal example.
When Christians know their morality better than they know their savior, they run the risk of making the Pharisee’s mistake. They start to define themselves and their church by their righteousness.
Yet the tax collector has the firmer grasp on reality. He sees himself the way that Isaiah saw himself when he glimpsed the glory of God. “Woe is me,” Isaiah said, “for I am ruined because I am a man of unclean lips and live among a people of unclean lips.” Any encounter with God—or even the faintest understanding of who God is—leaves us humbled, bereft of pride. ...
Let’s make this practical. When Christians define themselves by their morality, their immorality discredits their faith—sometimes even to their own kids. ...
Is it any wonder that young adults would see the version of the faith they were taught as empty and false? If morality was the core, and there was no morality, then what was left?
It’s not just that all Christians sin. Of course we do. It’s that Christians can sometimes sin so brazenly and grotesquely that the non-Christian world can serve as an actual refuge for victims of spiritual or physical abuse. Young people can feel more loved outside the church. This is a terrible tragedy, and one that’s utterly contrary to the message of the cross.
We can never believe “we are better than them.” In fact, “they” are often better than “us.” Instead, we should be both humbled and hopeful. We’re humbled in the same way that the tax collector was humbled, the same way Isaiah was humbled. By encountering Jesus we’ve encountered God himself, and we know that we’re wanting.
At the same time, we’re hopeful. We know the answer to the tax collector’s cry, “Have mercy on me, a sinner!” Grace overflows. That’s why it matters so much to know exactly who Jesus is. That knowledge strips us of pretense. It strips us of pride. It allows us to see ourselves as we truly are. But it also allows us to see an even greater truth: who He is, the God who loved us enough to die for our sin.
The lesson is consistent. Time and again, when our commitment to morality collides with our self-interest, then our self-interest wins. A religion of morality devolves to a religion of self. It’s powerless against our pride. But when a commitment to self collides with Jesus, then it’s our pride that’s powerless. We know exactly where our hope lies.
Editor's Note: If you would like to receive a weekly email each Sunday with links to the faith posts on TaxProf Blog, email me here.