When inactive members of the church give their excuses as to why they don’t attend church, the most common one we hear is: “The church is full of hypocrites.” Why do they say this? Are they right? Or are these faulty perceptions? What do we make of hypocrites in our church?
Here’s why such a statement is absurd: If there aren’t any hypocrites at your church, then you’re at the wrong church. That might be unsettling to hear a pastor say, but allow me to explain.
What is a hypocrite? Simply put, a hypocrite is a person who does not practice what they say they believe, or someone who doesn’t do what they say they’ll do. “Hypocrite” comes from the Greek word ὑποκριτής (hupokritēs), which can mean “actor, pretender”; and “hypocrisy” comes from ὑπόκρισις (hupokrisis), which can mean “play-acting, pretense, outward show.” (Movie and TV actors are literally hypocrites, as they’re literally pretending to be somebody they’re not.) Taken together, these words appear 26 times in the New Testament. For the overwhelming majority of their usage (88%), Jesus uses these words as harsh rebukes toward hypocrites (e.g., Matthew 6:2, 5, 16; 7:5; Luke 13:15).
One can look at these verses and more and conclude that because of Jesus’ harsh rebuke of hypocrites, they don’t belong in the church. But we don’t see Jesus rejecting these people. He might be rejecting their poor and foolish behaviour, but He never rejects them. He calls them out to reform their behaviour, that they might repent and live holy lives.
This might sound like a defence for hypocrites and hypocritical living, but let me make it irrevocably clear: I do not condone hypocritical behaviour. Yet neither do I condemn nor reject hypocrites, just as Jesus did not condemn and reject them outright. Here’s my main point in all this: Insofar as hypocrisy is left unrepented, the hypocrite does not belong in the church; but insofar as the hypocrisy is repented, the hypocrite certainly belongs in the church.
Being simultaneously saint and sinner, we don’t always act according to what we say we believe and we don’t always live how we say we ought to live. As sinners, we become hypocrites. We know and believe we shouldn’t let our anger get the better of us, but we still lash out in anger sometimes, even at our own children. We know we shouldn’t condemn others for their sin, especially when we have sin of our own, yet we do it anyway. Yet as saints, we acknowledge our hypocrisy. Each and every Sunday, we come before our Lord, confess our hypocrisy before Him and one another (especially those whom we’ve personally offended), and we receive the free forgiveness of our sins through the means of grace in Christ’s Word and Sacraments.
The church is the place for sinners to gather—not to flaunt their sins, but to lay these burdens before the Lord with His promise to forgive them their sins. To be a sinner is to be a hypocrite. As sinners, we don’t always act according to what we believe or do what we say we should do. Church is for all hypocrites—sinners of all kinds. The true hypocrites are those who think they’re too good for church; for we come to church not because we think we’re good but because we know we’re bad and have fallen short and need forgiveness.
Are there people who think they’re good just the way they are in the midst of genuinely repentant hypocrites? Of course there are. And pastors and your brothers and sisters in Christ deal with them accordingly as they are disciplined in the Lord and brought to repentance. Imagine being at a church where every single person believed they were perfect just the way they are—no need for repentance, no desire for Christ’s forgiveness. This would be the worst kind of church. The genuine church is filled not just with hypocrites, but these people also know they’re hypocrites and receive forgiveness of their hypocrisy—their sins—every Sunday. The only person who is truly missing out on Sunday is that hypocrite who thinks he’s too good for the Body of Christ.