When an unbeliever is faced with the question of the identity of the person of Christ, one of the most common forms of resistance we find in objectors is the charge of hypocrisy among Christ's followers. Closely related to that is the charge that much oppression and violence has been done through history in the name of Christianity. Some major historical events cited to back up this charge might be the Crusades or the Inquisition. So how should we as Christians answer this charge? This short essay will hopefully equip you with a meaningful response.
Many shameful charges against individual Christians indeed are true, and even horrific. We should not pretend that Christians are morally superior in any way, because that is simply not the case, but we should, rather, openly acknowledge our personal and historical shortcomings. It does not help our argument to deny our sinfulness. However, one must, at the same time consider that when this is the response of unbelievers as to the identity of Christ, they are actually using a tactic of evasion. That is, they are really dodging any conclusion about the person of Christ by pointing to an important, but secondary issue that does not answer the question of who the person of Jesus Christ is.
In general, an accusation of hypocrisy tends to stop all debate about any issue, forcing one off-topic to defend against a tangential charge. We all know, but seem to forget that, a speaker's moral character, while not unimportant, is irrelevant to the validity of their argument. For this reason, the historical reality of the person and work of Christ is not invalidated by the hypocritical actions of individual Christians. While despicable acts by those claiming to be Christians should be discussed and indeed faced up to, it is intellectually dishonest to use this as an argument against the truth of the Deity of Christ. That's because it allows those who are faced with Christ to avoid the difficulty of making any conclusions regarding Him. It is a great deal easier to accuse others of hypocrisy, and not have deal with the most relevant questions. If there were an official debate, those persons making the hypocrisy charge would be guilty of a logical fallacy. This does not mean that their charge is trivial, for hypocrisy, violence and oppression are not trivial, but this is far removed from the question as to who Jesus Christ claimed to be. To show how this kind of argument fails, consider that Roman Catholic's embrace the erroneous unbiblical doctrine of Purgatory, but does this make their belief in the Trinity wrong? Or if a rock star were to be caught taking drugs, would this invalidate his claim that we need to take care of the world's poor? There is a bit of smoke and mirrors in these debating tactics, a shifting of the target of discussion.
Nonetheless, the question of hypocrisy still remains and so we should consider how we answer the charge itself. Again, we begin by admitting our moral failures. Hypocrisy only exists when we pretend we are blameless. When we advocate a standard, apply it to ourselves and fail to meet that standard, it is not hypocrisy if we openly admit our failure to live up to it. Hypocrisy exists only when Christians pretend to have reached a higher plateau. The hypocrisy charge sticks if we deny having made grievous mistakes. When we simply fail to meet our own standard, this alone is grievous sin, but not hypocritical. But when Christians compare their "goodness" to other's evil, being proud of our own self-produced morality, that is what makes us hypocritical.
As per responding to oppression and violence done in the name of Christianity consider that even though we can answer charges against the Crusades by explaining that this occurred in response to hundreds of years of Islamic Jihad which wiped out and forcefully converted North Africa.....and similarly the common charge of the Inquisition can be answered truthfully that it was actually Christians who were the ones being tortured (that is, against Protestants who read Bibles), a fact many people did not know.... yet the fact remains that there have been many other things indeed done in the name of Christ that were wrong and often hypocritical. We may be able to persuasively explain away some historical embarrassments but not all.
Inconsistent With Revelation
When a Muslim states that they are peace loving we can be thankful that they are being inconsistent with the Koran (and their other writings which teach Jihad (Holy War) as the sixth pillar of Islam). So we should not be surprised when Muslims are being consistent and forwarding their cause with violence. But when a Christian commits violence and oppression in the name of Christ, they are actually being inconsistent with the Revelation of God in Christ. It is important to point out this difference. Jesus opposed any attempt to advance the kingdom by force rather than persuasion. Furthermore, His purpose in coming was to set the oppressed free. When a Christian advances His cause through through political force, military might or anything other than heralding the gospel using persuasion and a godly life, he is being inconsistent with the core of his faith. While indeed people like this exist and use the name of Christianity in un-Christian ways, this has nothing to do with Christ so it is difficult to see how blame for this behavior can be shifted on Jesus. Some persons think it is religion itself that is to blame and so we should get rid of it altogether, but it is naive to think that there is neutrality in anyone. All men a naturally religious, that is, devote themselves to some cause they believe to be true. Even the express wish that there should be no religion, is itself a wish that is far from neutral. It is a desire to enforce nihilism or a society devoid of certainty. But they seem to be very certain of their uncertainty.
But getting back to hypocrisy, if the Christian denies we have ever oppressed people historically, we indeed come off as hypocrites; but if he acknowledges the shortcomings of Christians in history and his own failures, then it can no longer be called hypocrisy. This is because the very essence of Christianity is to glory in Christ Jesus and have no confidence in the flesh. Christianity is when we become less and Christ becomes ever more.
Christianity is about Christ and his sinlessness, not ours. All religion which boasts in its own morality is self-made and worthless in God's eyes. So being a Christian, by definition, shuns self-produced accomplishments and superiority to others, because none of us live unto Jesus the way we should. And frankly we are not superior in any way to others. Recall in Deuteronomy 9:4,5 where God warns the Israelites not to think his favor is on them because of their own goodness:
"Do not say in your heart, after the LORD your God has thrust them out before you, 'It is because of my righteousness that the LORD has brought me in to possess this land,' whereas it is because of the wickedness of these nations that the LORD is driving them out before you. Not because of your righteousness or the uprightness of your heart are you going in to possess their land, but because of the wickedness of these nations the LORD your God is driving them out from before you, and that he may confirm the word that the LORD swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob."
Whenever we forget the gospel, self-made hypocritical anti-Christian religion springs into action as the natural tendency of our hearts. And events like Crusades and Inquisitions are simply the natural manifestation of this. The more we deny our own sin, the further we get from Christ (1 John 1:10) and the sins just begin to pile up, on one another. To become a member of my local church (and hopefully any church) one is required to confess the following: "Do you acknowledge yourself to be a sinner in the sight of God, justly deserving His displeasure, and without hope save in His sovereign mercy?" So the first requirement of being a member of our local church is that we are unworthy of it ...that we, in fact, deserve the opposite of the blessings we have received in Christ. And this confession is not something we just say once and forget about it. The only thing we can and must do every day, every time we come before God is to remember that we are not getting what we justly deserve, but have instead, been given the status of a son, the very opposite of what we deserve.
Non-christians, in declaring hypocrisy, may often not completely understand what Christianity is about, thinking that it is simply a list of dos and don'ts and that those who are good enough will get to heaven. But we often reinforce this view when we are not careful to balance law and gospel in our own lives. Instead of boasting in our keeping the law , the law rather should keep us humble and reliant on Christ alone, and our lives should reflect this. For without Him every moment we would indeed perish. In fact, I believe, ironic as it may seem, that we would have a much greater impact in the world if we would simply admit and lead with our own weaknesses, sin and failure because it shows our solidarity with the rest of humanity in committing sin without excusing it, and points to the grace of Christ alone. This humility in evangelism would go a long way. When Christians give any false impression that they are somehow morally superior, then it gives the message that grace is not what makes us to differ from them, but something in ourselves which makes us better. Non-believers sense this in us and reject Christianity often on the basis of our moralistic message. We reinforce this whenever we divert others into legalistic notions of what it means to be a Christian.
We give the world a mixed message of what Christianity is when we major on our morality and give only a smiling acknowledgement of the gospel . But this is not what the gospel is all about . Our faith is about Christ and his redemptive accomplishment on our behalf, not about self-improvement or behavior modification. Christianity is about God descending to us, not us ascending to God. At the judgment, God will call us good and faithful servants only because of Christ, not because of what we have done, not even the works of the most virtuous among us. We must remember always that we never do something out of pure unmixed motives and even in our good works, we do not continually love God with all our hearts and minds. So we cannot claim moral superiority to any unbeliever. By the grace of God in Christ alone, we are what we are.
Sometimes we tend to give the message that a gay person or a drug addict simply need to change their outward behavior and God will be pleased. But this is simply not the case. We all have sinful tendencies that we are unable to naturally change so the message is not that we need to improve ourselves or become better, but rather Christ needs to make us totally new if we have any hope of change. Not only do we commit acts of sin, but we are disposed to sin by nature. (Jer. 17:9; Rom. 3:23; Eph. 2:3) The most difficult thing to comprehend, in our culture especially, is that we must come to realize that all of us have no hope whatsoever save in Jesus alone. No one wants to hear that because it strips man of all boasting and hope in his own accomplishments.
John MacArthur once said, "there are two religions in the world: human attainment and divine accomplishment." How true that is. As long as we think we can change ourselves for the better or tell others they merely need to change their behavior to be pleasing to God, apart from the Savior who enables them, are teaching something entirely foreign to the gospel. And since so many evangelical churches seem confused about this, many have put most of their greatest efforts, it seems, into political lobbying, as if laws would somehow give America the power to change hearts. It also tends to give the impression that we think we are better than those not so moral, as if God were more pleased with us because of our behavior. Instead, we need to come along side other sinners, like us, and engage in acts of kindness and compassion, two virtues that there is way too little of in this day and age.
The most compelling apologetic argument the believer can make is his godliness (alongside the humility to recognize that grace alone makes us what we are). It is our godliness that most clearly demonstrates Christ in our lives but unfortunately, apologetics, in recent years, often takes on a purely academic flavor. But we so easily forget that the Kingdom of God is not advanced by winning a debate, or having all our theological ducks in a row, but by losing your life. This is the foolishness of the cross. The apolologia of the hope that is within us (1 Pet 3:15) is a witness to the reality of the gospel-event. It is specifically our patience in suffering for the kingdom which bears witness to our hope as it also demonstrates our union with our Savior. Acts of mercy, kindness and generosity are often used by God more than the most profound and compelling apologetic argument.
These are some of the kind of things we can think about and do in order to lessen the hypocrisy charge brought against us when heralding the message of Christ. Unbelievers often speak the truth about us, so do not let yourself become defensive. Try being humble and patient instead - this will persuade them better than using intellectual arguments from a defensive posture. At the same time, however, the hypocrisy charge is often made by unbelievers to evade the real questions being forwarded. Most importantly, who is Jesus? It is a way of avoiding the often emotional crisis that faces someone when they meet the claims of the Lord. Instead of pummeling them with air-tight arguments, next time try humility and compassion. Try getting to know the person on a deeper level and build trust before launching into the arguments for Christianity. Yes, we must present our case, but do it with humility and love. Over many years of debating, I find patience and kindness to be a much more powerful weapon for truth than proof itself. Although I have often failed to keep my own rule in the process.
Blaise Pascal once said, "The heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing. It is the heart which perceives God and not the reason [alone]. That is what faith is: God perceived by the heart, not by the reason [alone]." Reasons of the heart, as Pascal says, means that an acceptance of God by the human intellect does not necessarily entail an embrace of him by the human heart. Reason alone is insufficient to bring a person to God or reverse hostility since it is only the Holy Spirit who illumines our way to the Cross where Christ makes us righteous, liberating the heart and mind to know Him. Later Pascal said:
"The Christian's God does not consist merely of a God who is the author of mathematical truths but the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob. The God of the Christians is a God of love and consolation: he is a God who fills the soul and heart of those whom he possesses: he is a God who makes them inwardly aware of their wretchedness and his infinite mercy: who united himself with them in the depths of their soul: who fills it with humility, joy, confidence and love: who makes them incapable of having any other end but him."
"And I brethren, when I came to you, did not come with excellence of speech or of wisdom declaring to you the testimony of God. For I determined not to know anything among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified...that your faith should not be in the wisdom of men but in the power of God."
(I Corinthians 2:1, 2, 5)