Perhaps no accusation causes more annoyance, and even anger, than that of “hypocrite.” Unfortunately, some feel justified in their view that all Christians are hypocrites. The term “hypocrite” enjoys a rich heritage in the English language. The term comes to us via the Latin hypocrisies meaning “play-acting, pretense.” Further back, the word occurs in both classical and New Testament Greek and has the very same idea—to play a part, pretend, to wear a mask.
This is the way the Lord Jesus employed the term. For example, when Christ taught the significance of prayer, fasting, and alms-giving for kingdom people, He discouraged us from following the examples of those who are hypocrites (Matthew 6:2, 5, 16). By making long public prayers, employing extreme measures to ensure others noticed their fasts, and parading their gifts to the Temple and the poor, they revealed only an outward attachment to the Lord. While the Pharisees performed well their dramatic role as public examples of religious virtue, they failed miserably in the inner world of the heart where true virtue should live (Matthew 23:13-33; Mark 7:20-23).
Jesus never called His disciples hypocrites. That name was given only to misguided religious zealots. Rather, He called His own “followers,” “babes,” “sheep,” and His “church.” In addition, there is a warning in the New Testament about the sin of hypocrisy (1 Peter 2:1), which Peter calls “insincerity.” Also, two blatant examples of hypocrisy are recorded in the church. In Acts 5:1-10, two disciples are exposed for pretending to be more generous than they were. The consequence was severe. And, of all people, Peter is charged with leading a group of hypocrites in their treatment of Gentile believers (Galatians 2:13).
From the New Testament teaching, then, we may draw at least two conclusions. First, hypocrites do exist among professing Christians. They were present in the beginning, and, according to Jesus’ parable of the tares and wheat, they will certainly exist until the end of the age (Matthew 13:18-30). In addition, if even an apostle may be guilty of hypocrisy, there is no reason to believe “ordinary” Christians will be free from it. We must always be on our guard that we do not fall into the very same temptations (1 Corinthians 10:12).
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Of course, not everyone who claims to be a Christian is truly a Christian. Perhaps all or most of the famous hypocrites among Christians were in fact pretenders and deceivers. To this day, prominent Christian leaders have fallen into terrible sins. Financial and sexual scandals sometimes seem to plague the Christian community. However, instead of taking the actions of a few and using them to denigrate the whole community of Christians, we need to ask whether all those who claim to be Christians really are. Numerous biblical passages confirm that those who truly belong to Christ will exhibit the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23). Jesus’ parable of the seed and the soils in Matthew 13 makes it clear that not all professions of faith in Him are genuine. Sadly, many who profess to belong to Him will be stunned one day to hear Him say to them, “I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!” (Matthew 7:23).
Second, while it should not surprise us that people who pretend to be more holy than they are claim to be Christians, we cannot conclude that the church is made up almost entirely of hypocrites. One surely may concede that all of us who name the name of Jesus Christ remain sinners even after our sin is forgiven. That is, even though we are saved from sins’ eternal penalty (Romans 5:1; 6:23), we are yet to be saved and delivered from the presence of sin in our lives (1 John 1:8-9), including the sin of hypocrisy. Through our living faith in the Lord Jesus, we continually overcome sin’s power until we are finally delivered (1 John 5:4-5).
All Christians fail to perfectly live up to the standard the Bible teaches. No Christian has ever been perfectly Christ-like. However, there are many Christians who are genuinely seeking to live the Christian life and are relying more and more on the Holy Spirit to convict, change, and empower them. There have been multitudes of Christians who have lived their lives free from scandal. No Christian is perfect, but making a mistake and failing to reach perfection in this life is not the same thing as being a hypocrite.