Reflections on Hypocrisy

It has been said that hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue.  More than likely, this is because even those not desiring to relinquish certain evil deeds—along with those who do thus desire but lack the power available through Biblical conversion to do so (Rom. 7:14-25)—nevertheless realize that a measure of outward goodness makes for greater success in traversing the grim interval between birth and eternity.

Years ago, while I was riding a mass transit bus in southern California, I sat next to a lady with whom I was discussing the problem of homelessness.  I mentioned that I belonged at the time to a church in Loma Linda that was building a shelter for the homeless.  The lady replied, “Then you must be a Seventh-day Adventist.”  I responded that I was.  She then said, “I should have known.  You Adventists are the only people around here who practice what they preach.”

Interestingly, that wasn’t the only time I heard observations like that from non-Adventists in that particular vicinity.  While such comments make any thoughtful Adventist feel good about the public witness of our people, deep in your heart you hope such persons don’t look too closely, for fear they might be disappointed.

Hypocrisy in the Church
Any survey that asks responders what they like the least about religious people in general and Christians in particular, would likely find hypocrisy to be the most common answer.  And for good reason.  Recent decades have found the world confronted by what has often been a never-ending stream of reports detailing bad behavior on the part of professed Christians.

It isn’t hard to make a list, both contemporary and historical.  Persecution of religious adversaries.  Slavery.  Racial segregation and other forms of injustice.  Industrial brutality.  Child sexual abuse, along with other forms of sexual immorality, often committed by clergy.  A divorce rate almost equal to that of those professing no faith at all.  Financial misconduct, even by figures prominent in the Christian community.  We could go on and on.

And unfortunately, despite what that lady on the bus said to me that lovely southern California morning, we have certainly struggled with our own share of hypocrisy in the Seventh-day Adventist Church.

When I was growing up in the denomination, those young people with whom I was raised and educated almost made a sport out of what we might call “hypocrite hunting.”  Whether in a youth Sabbath School, an academy religion class, or perhaps one of those few settings where peers of mine actually took part in a self-generated discussion of spiritual issues, this was definitely one topic—along with dating and sex and a few others—which was bound to get a lively conversation started!

And the chorus usually went something like this:  “All those rules we have in the church—how inconsistent they are!”  Those of us old enough to remember those discussions can quickly recall the familiar litany:

“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 TV, you can look at the same moral trash and not be condemned by the church for doing so.”

One Adventist university chaplain wrote some years ago about being present when a notably obese temperance director from a local Union Conference office lectured him and other young people about proper health habits (1)!  (You truly find yourself wondering how a nominating committee could choose someone like that to head that particular department.)

This problem is hardly original with Adventists, of course!  Young people during the decades of upheaval couldn’t quite understand how the older generation of that time could so roundly condemn marijuana and other recreational drugs, especially while those who did the condemning frequently held a cigarette in one hand and a glass of wine in the other!  And if we go further back in history, we can see similar problems.  In the days of antebellum America, prior to the Civil War, it was common for Southerners to insist that the slaves on their plantations were more decently treated than paid workers in the mills and factories of the North.

Larger Issues
The point here is not to affirm or dispute the rightness of the above reactions and observations, or many similar ones which could be cited.  Rather, the point of this essay is to draw our attention to the larger issues these reactions and observations raise.

One notes with interest the following statement by Ellen White, where she warns of the danger of using the misdeeds of others as a rationale for disobeying the counsel of God.  

Sister E has been far from God.  Her heart has not been subdued by grace.  Her love of the world, and of the things that are in the world, has closed her heart to the love of God. . . . 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 (2).

Aside from the problem of hypocrisy itself, this is perhaps the biggest problem hypocrisy creates in the church.  Rather than correcting hypocrisy with conversion and the consistent obedience to God’s Word true conversion brings, too many even in Christian circles confront cases of hypocrisy with reasoning like this: “You have your problems, I have mine, so if you won’t talk about mine, I won’t talk about yours.”

Such reasoning may at times be emotionally, even intellectually satisfying, but careful reflection forces us to admit that it only makes the problem worse.  Without question this line of thought is truly delicious for the free-spirited young person who lacks the burden of keeping order in the world he or she inhabits.  The assumption that those criticizing you are just as bad as you are can easily—at least while youth and minimal responsibility linger—convey the impression of perfect justification in doing what one pleases.

The problem is, the passage of time has a way of wreaking havoc on illusions of immortality.  The tables get turned awfully fast 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 for an article in Time magazine commemorating the thirtieth anniversary of the so-called “Summer of Love” in 1967, 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).

Interestingly, this man spoke in this particular article of how his mother had said to him when he was young, “I hope you have a child just like you” (4).  Life does have a way of making circumstances and dilemmas come full circle.

The Problem and the Solution
The Bible addresses the problem of hypocrisy in a number of places, in both Old and New Testaments.  One of the strongest rebukes to this problem is found in the first chapter of Isaiah:

Here the word of the Lord, ye rulers of Sodom; give ear unto the law of our God, ye people of Gomorrah.
To what purpose is the multitude of your sacrifices unto Me? saith the Lord.  I am full of the burnt offerings of rams, and the fat of fed beasts; and I delight not in the blood of bullocks, or of lambs, or of he-goats.
When ye come to appear before Me, who hath required this at your hand, to tread My courts?
Bring no more vain oblations; incense is an abomination unto Me; the new moons and sabbaths, the calling of assemblies, I cannot away with; it is iniquity, even the solemn meeting.
Your new moons and your appointed feasts My soul hateth; they are a trouble to Me; I am weary to hear them.
And when ye spread forth your hands, I will hide Mine eyes from you; yea, when ye make many prayers, I will not hear; your hands are full of blood.
Wash you, make you clean; put away the evil of your doings from before Mine eyes; cease to do evil;
Learn to do well; seek judgment, relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless, plead for the widow.
Come now, and let us reason together, saith the Lord; though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool.
If ye be willing and obedient, ye shall eat the good of the land (Isaiah 1:1-19).

John the Baptist gave a similar rebuke to the Jewish leaders of his day, who thought mere biological descent from Abraham was sufficient for divine acceptance:

But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees come to his baptism, he said unto them, O generation of vipers, who hath warned you to flee from the wrath to come?
Bring forth therefore fruits meet for repentance;
And think not to say within yourselves, We have Abraham as our father: for I say unto you, that God is able of these stones to raise up children unto Abraham (Matt. 3:7-9).

Perhaps the most famous rebuke to hypocrites in the Bible is found in Jesus’ later denunciation of the scribes and Pharisees:

Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye make clean the outside of the cup and of the platter, but within they are full of extortion and excess.
You blind Pharisee, cleanse first that which is within the cup and platter, that the outside of them may be clean also.
Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye are like unto whited sepulchers, which indeed appear beautiful outward, but are within full of dead men’s bones, and of all uncleanness.
Even so ye also outwardly appear righteous unto men, but within ye are full of hypocrisy and iniquity (Matt. 23:25-28). 

Then, of course, we have the apostle Paul’s lengthy rebuke to those Jews who considered themselves spiritually superior to the Gentiles:

Therefore thou art inexcusable, O man, whosoever thou art that judgest; for wherein thou judgest another, thou condemnest thyself: for thou that judgest doest the same things.
But we are sure that the judgment of God is according to truth against them which commit such things.
And thinkest thou this, O man, that judgest them which do such things, and doest the same, that thou shalt escape the judgment of God?
Or despisest thou the riches of His goodness and forbearance and longsuffering; not knowing that the goodness of God leadeth thee to repentance?
But after thy hardness and impenitent heart treasurest up unto thyself wrath against the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God;
Who will render to every man according to his deeds;
To them who by patient continuance in well doing seek for glory and honor and ortality, eternal life:
But unto them that are contentious, and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, indignation and wrath,
Tribulation and anguish, upon every soul of man that doeth evil, of the Jew first, and also of the Gentile;
But glory, honor, and peace, to every man that worketh good, to the Jew first, and also to the Gentile:
For there is no respect of persons with God.
For as many as have sinned without the law shall also perish without law; and as many as have sinned in the law shall be judged by the law:
For not the hearers of the law are just before God, but the doers of the law shall be justified.
For when the Gentiles, which have not the law, do by nature the things contained in the law, these, having not the law, are a law unto themselves.
Which show the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and their thoughts the mean while accusing or else excusing one another,
In the day when God shall judge the secrets of men by Jesus Christ according to my gospel.
Behold, thou art called a Jew, and restest in the law, and makest thy boast of God.
And knowest His will, and approvest the things that are more excellent, being instructed out of the law;
And art confident that thou thyself art a guide of the blind, a light of them which are in darkness,
An instructor of the foolish, a teacher of babes, which hast the form of knowledge and of the truth in the law.
Thou therefore which teachest another, teachest thou not thyself? thou that preachest a man should not steal, dost thou steal?
Thou that sayest a man should not commit adultery, dost thou commit adultery? thou that abhorest idols, dost thou commit sacrilege?
Thou that makest thy boast of the law, through breaking the law dishonorest thou God? (Rom. 2:1-23).

What I find most significant about the above descriptions of hypocrisy is how all of them present solutions to the problem—a refreshing contrast with the “hypocrite hunting” so popular in many Christian and other circles.  God, speaking through Isaiah, tells His ancient people how to remedy such conduct by instructing them to claim heaven’s power for heart-cleansing and right doing (Isa. 1:16-19).  John the Baptist admonished the Pharisees and Sadducees to bring forth the fruits of repentance (Matt. 3:8), and Jesus declared to the hypocrites He rebuked that inward purification would produce the outward rectitude on which they so rigorously focused (Matt. 23:26).  In similar fashion, the apostle Paul stated to the Jews he rebuked in the second chapter of Romans that what mattered to God was the work of the law written in the heart (Rom. 2:13-15), as distinct from the empty “boasts of the law” which their own lifestyle contradicted (verse 23).

This, at the bottom line, is the Biblical way.  God never identifies a problem without providing a solution.  And never should we address spiritual problems whether in or out of the church without presenting God’s answers to those problems as revealed in His written counsel.

He Can Keep You From Falling
I was pastoring in the New York City area in the spring of 2008, when New York Governor Eliot Spitzer was forced to resign after being caught in a prostitution scandal.  In his resignation speech the Governor declared, “The greatness of man is not in never falling, but in rising every time he falls.”

I don’t doubt Governor Spitzer’s sincerity, but the Bible offers a better way, in one of my favorite New Testament verses:

Now unto Him that is able to keep you from falling, and to present you faultless before the presence of His glory with exceeding joy (Jude 24).

Here is the hope Jesus offers as much to the pious hypocrite in pharisaic robes as to the profligate who openly disdains and disregards the divine requirements.  Whether our problem is fleshly indulgence or spiritual arrogance—or perhaps a blend of both—the only real answer is found in such verses as the following:

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).

A Two-Edged Sword
In reality, hypocrisy is a sword that cuts two ways.  Not only does it poison the spirituality of the one who wears righteousness as a mask while refusing to allow it into the heart; it does exactly the same to the one who delights in tearing off the masks of the self-righteous, while using the self-righteousness of such persons as an excuse for wholeheartedly embracing the world, instead of wholeheartedly embracing Jesus.  Because in the end, what the worldly-minded hypocrite hunter eventually learns is that he or she is also a hypocrite.

For indeed, such incoherent piety is the inevitable lot of every human being, apart from the conversion and restoration which only Jesus and His Word can offer.  Probably few realizations can be so devastating as the recognition of one’s own hypocrisy, particularly on the part of those who consider themselves so totally honest with themselves, and thus so completely immune to this problem!

Let us turn again to the testimony we cited earlier:

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).

Sobering words!  Indeed, the only lasting solution to hypocrisy is found in complete and unconditional surrender to the Word of the eternal God.  That’s the only way any of us can stop being hypocrites.  Let us consider, as we close this article, the following statements from the pen of God’s servant:

The righteousness which Christ taught is conformity of heart and life to the revealed will of God.  Sinful men can become righteous only as they have faith in God and maintain a vital connection with Him.  Then true godliness will elevate the thoughts and ennoble the life.  Then the external forms of religion accord with the Christian’s internal purity.  Then the ceremonies required in the service of God are not meaningless rites, like those of the hypocritical Pharisees (6).

Interestingly enough, it is on the very next page of The Desire of Ages where we find one of Ellen White’s signature statements on the perfecting of Christian character—the ultimate and final answer to the problem of Christian hypocrisy:

God’s ideal for His children is higher than the highest human thought can reach.  ‘Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.’  This command is a promise.  The plan of salvation contemplates our complete recovery from the power of Satan.  Christ always separates the contrite soul from sin.  He came to destroy the works of the devil, and He has made provision that the Holy Spirit shall be imparted to every repentant soul, to keep him from sinning.

The tempter’s agency is not to be accounted an excuse for one wrong act.  Satan is jubilant when he hears the 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 (7).

Here we find the enduring, unassailable, unanswerable reply of the consecrated Christian to the challenge of hypocrisy.  Those whose hearts and lives are surrendered without reserve to the control of God’s grace and power will reveal to men and angels an experience in which words and deeds mirror one another, and whose splendor will unleash the rays of the Sun of Righteousness “in words of truth and deeds of holiness” (8).

1.  Steven G. Daily, Adventism for a New Generation (Portland/Clackamas, OR: Better Living Publishers, 1993), p. 300.
2.  Ellen G. White, Testimonies, vol. 2, pp. 393-394.
3.  James S. Kunen, “It Ain’t Us, Babe,” Time, Sept. 1, 1997, p. 67.
4.  Ibid.
5.  White, Testimonies, vol. 2, p. 396.
6.   ----The Desire of Ages, p. 310.
7.  Ibid, p. 311.
8.  ----Christ’s Object Lessons, p. 416.

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Pastor Kevin Paulson holds a Bachelor’s degree in theology from Pacific Union College, a Master of Arts in systematic theology from Loma Linda University, and a Master of Divinity from the SDA Theological Seminary at Andrews University. He served the Greater New York Conference of Seventh-day Adventists for ten years as a Bible instructor, evangelist, and local pastor. He writes regularly for Liberty magazine and does script writing for various evangelistic ministries within the denomination. He continues to hold evangelistic and revival meetings throughout the North American Division and beyond, and is a sought-after seminar speaker relative to current issues in the Seventh-day Adventist Church. He presently resides in Berrien Springs, Michigan.