Probably nothing galls non-Christians, and many Christians also, quite so much as the hypocrisy of the pious—be it real, exaggerated, or imagined. If one were to take a survey of the average person on the street regarding what is least liked about religious people in general, this attribute would doubtless make the top of the list.
I’ll never forget a conversation I once had with a lady on a bus in southern California, as we were discussing the problem of homelessness. I mentioned I belonged to a church in Loma Linda that was building a shelter for the homeless. She replied, “Then you must be a Seventh-day Adventist.” When I responded that I was, she said, “I should have known. You Adventists are the only folks around here who practice what they preach.”
I couldn’t help smiling inwardly as she said this; while one is always happy for such observations from the outside, one also fears what might happen if such a person looks too closely! Interestingly, that wasn’t the only such comment I heard from a non-Adventist during the years I spent in that community. But the unpleasant fact still remains that a good many who have participated in our fellowship as a people, or been exposed to it in some way, have encountered significant demonstrations of hypocrisy.
Hypocrite hunting is an old sport. In antebellum America, it was common for Southern apologists to denounce as hypocrites those who attacked the injustices of slavery while apparently finding no fault with the often-horrific mistreatment of paid workers in the mills and factories of the North. In her in-depth history of America’s internal strife from 1848 to 1877, Brenda Wineapple describes the Pemberton Mill collapse in Lawrence, Massachusetts, on January 10, 1860, a catastrophe which cost hundreds of lives and was largely if not solely the fault of lax building standards on the part of owners who cared more for easy profits than the safety of workers (1). Describing the South’s reaction to the disaster, Wineapple writes:
Was the Free North then, really so free? Wasn’t its labor system a system of bondage, with the worker subjected to conditions far more horrible than that of the Southern slave, who was cared for, protected, even loved? (2).
We can easily get distracted by the demonstrable absurdity of this argument, but it helps underscore the extent to which defenders of evil can try to justify their actions or ideas on the basis of others’ wrongdoing. Among certain of the young (and not so young) during the 1960s, this phenomenon was also evident. Many at that time couldn’t quite understand how guardians of traditional values could so unsparingly condemn marijuana and other recreational drugs, especially when such persons often did their condemning with a cigarette in one hand and a glass of wine in the other! Many in every generation, it would seem, appear oblivious to the fact that neither two nor a multitude of wrongs make a right.
During my upbringing as a fifth-generation Adventist, it was common for peers of mine to vent their spleen at the various hypocrisies—authentic or merely alleged—within the church. Whether in a youth Sabbath School, an academy religion class, or another of those rare settings where the Adventist young of my circle actually experienced a self-generated religious conversation, this was definitely one topic—along with dating and sex and one or two others—which was bound to get a lively discussion started.
Those of us old enough to remember those exchanges can easily recall the familiar litany, much of which can still be heard today:
“You can’t buy your fiancée an engagement ring, but a diamond-studded watch is OK.”
“You can’t go to the theater, but if you stay home and watch the same moral trash on television, the church won’t condemn you for it.”
I remember a college newspaper editorial in the early 1980s, in the wake of the Davenport financial scandal in the church, talking of how “hands that would never touch a ham sandwich” had been caught in the till. A former campus chaplain from one of our universities would later write of an incident where “an extremely obese temperance director” from the local Union office lectured him and his friends on proper health practices.
While many of us might wish otherwise, honesty constrains us to admit the tragic accuracy of many if not most of these allegations of inconsistent, halfhearted piety.
When the Tables Turn
Whatever the persons noting these inconsistencies seek to accomplish by these observations, the logic thus generated—not always spoken—tends to flow along this line: “You have your problems, I have mine, so if you won’t walk about mine, I won’t talk about yours.” Or perhaps: “Those people criticizing me are just as bad as I am, so I’m perfectly justified in doing as I please.”
To the free-spirited young person with illusions of immortality, who doesn’t have the burden of keeping order in the world he or she inhabits, such reasoning can be absolutely delicious. But the tables get turned quite rapidly when those who once stretched their wings of independence by challenging authority, suddenly become authority figures themselves. And it’s as easy as getting married and having children.
In the words of a former hippie, interviewed some years ago by Time magazine for an issue commemorating the thirtieth anniversary of the so-called “Summer of Love,” which launched the hippie movement: “All those things about freedom and giving each other space go out the window at 3 a.m. when you don’t get a phone call” (3). This same man spoke in this article of how his mother had said to him when he was young, “I hope you have a child just like you” (4). From what the article reported, it seems her wish came true.
Things do have a way of coming around full circle.
The use of hypocrisy as a means of justifying spiritual compromise and departure from the inspired Word, has only accelerated in our postmodern climate, in contemporary Adventism as well as elsewhere. Nothing spurs the momentum of doctrinally indifferent, morally eclectic spirituality than the perceived shortcomings and inconsistent practices of those seeking to uphold standards of timeless truth.
In the current crusade by certain ones to facilitate acceptance within the church of homosexual practice, for example, the claim is commonly heard that “we’re all sinners” (a point no one disputes) and that sins equally egregious (e.g. greed, gossip, racism, together with numerous varieties of injustice and sexual immorality) continue to persist in the church while those in authority often turn a blind eye. (Often missed in these flourishes of outrage is the reality that while the above transgressions do indeed exist among us, to our shame, no lobby or campaign has yet been formed to demand overt acceptance within the church of those practicing these particular sins.)
But without question, the toxic nature of hypocrisy is greatest when it occurs among those claiming to be Christians. And I suggest it is greater still when it rears its ugly head among those professing to believe God’s truth for this time, as embodied in the theology, prophetic destiny, and lifestyle witness of the Seventh-day Adventist Church.
Most of us can recall our Lord’s denunciation of the hypocrisy of the scribes and Pharisees in the 23rd chapter of Matthew—perhaps the severest, hardest-hitting words recorded in Scripture as having been spoken by our Lord. But for the purposes of this essay, what may be most significant about Jesus’ statements in this chapter is the fact that He doesn’t describe the problem without offering a solution. This is perhaps the most disturbing feature of the many attacks we hear against hypocrisy in the contemporary church. It isn’t enough merely to describe a spiritual problem. One must offer a solution.
And Jesus does:
Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye pay tithe of mint and anise and cumin, and have omitted the weightier matters of the law, justice, mercy, and faith: these ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other undone. . . .
Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye make clean the outside of the cup and of the platter, but within there are full of extortion and excess.
Thou blind Pharisee, cleanse first that which is within the cup and platter, that the outside of them may be clean also (Matt. 23:23, 25-26).
Notice how Jesus doesn’t criticize without telling those He criticizes how to fix their problem. And notice also how He tells them to address their shortcomings so far as the law is concerned, without neglecting those aspects of obedience where their focus had hitherto been both superficial and at times excessive.
At the bottom line, moral consistency, not moral ambiguity or moral anarchy, is Jesus’ answer to the problem of pharisaic hypocrisy. Whether to the pious pretender in pharisaic robes or the profligate in pursuit of unfettered license, whether our problem is spiritual arrogance or fleshly indulgence, the Biblical answer is the same:
Having therefore these promises, dearly beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God (II Cor. 7:1).
Ellen White penned a very stirring, sobering testimony regarding one individual who cited the wrongs of others as an excuse for her own sins:
She has taken the errors of those who profess to be devoted to the truth, and made their lack of spirituality, their errors, and their sins, an excuse for her own world-loving disposition. . . .
This is not the only case where neglect to follow the light which the Lord has given, has been shielded behind the faults of others. It is to the shame of men and women of intelligence, that they have no higher standard than that of imperfect human beings. . . .
In the day of God you will not dare to plead as an excuse for your neglect to form a character for Heaven, that others did not manifest devotion and spirituality. The same lack which you discovered in others was in yourself. And the fact that others were sinners makes your sins none the less grievous. Both they and you, if you continue in your present state of unfitness, will be separated from Christ, and will with Satan and his angels be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power (5).
How many there are who have abandoned Bible truth, and at times the fellowship of the church, often unleashing without restraint the proclivities of the flesh and of open-ended doubt, because of the wrongs committed by others! I have marveled, through the course of my life, how such persons seem determined not to share a place in the church with hypocrites, but seem equally determined to share a place in hell with them!
For the Christian who fully surrenders to our Lord’s transforming grace, the obliteration of hypocrisy is accomplished through the complete, divinely-empowered purification of heart and life. The following words of the modern prophet disallow any excuse for sin, including the one considered in this essay:
The tempter’s agency is not to be accounted an excuse for one wrong act. Satan is jubilant when he hears the professed followers of Christ making excuses for their deformity of character. It is these excuses that lead to sin. There is no excuse for sinning. A holy temper, a Christlike life, is accessible to every repenting, believing child of God (6).
- 1. Wineapple, Brenda, Ecstatic Nation: Confidence, Crisis, and Compromise, 1848-1877 (New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 2013), pp. 149-157.
- Ibid, p. 157.
- Kunen, James S. , “It Ain’t Us, Babe,” Time, Sept. 1, 1997, p. 67.
- White, Ellen G. , Testimonies, vol. 2, pp. 394-396.
- ----The Desire of Ages, p. 311.