How many times have you heard it?
“The church is full of hypocrites.”
It’s almost become the great cultural dismissal. It has become the “one-liner” that can effectively quell any consideration of Jesus, much less the implications of faith in Him.
To be sure, disappointment with Christians is very real to those who are exploring spiritual things, and very confusing. When those who claim to follow Christ are immoral, unloving or hypocritical, it casts shadows on the faith itself.
But is it fair to reject the Christian faith because of Christians who are not, well, very Christian?
First, while somewhat trite, the phrase “Christians are not perfect, just forgiven" is important to remember. What is behind many -- not all, but many -- charges against the character of Christians is the demand for perfection in the life of anyone who claims to be a Christian and urges others to consider Christianity as well.
If that Christian slips up in any way, then the charge can instantly be: "Hypocrite! I thought you were supposed to be a Christian!"
This is unfair on two fronts: first, it is not the true meaning of a hypocrite, and second, it is not an accurate understanding of what it means to enter into the Christian life.
An authentic Christian is someone who has made the decision to believe in Jesus as their Forgiver and Leader. They are persons who have chosen to turn away from their willful disobedience and rebellion against God, accepting what Jesus did on the cross as the payment for their sins and the means of forgiveness from God. These people have then invited God's leadership into their life and have begun the journey of walking under God's management.
But nowhere in this series of events is either perfection or sinlessness. Rather, there is simply the intentional effort and sincere desire to have God as their God.
A hypocrite, on the other hand, is someone who consciously and purposefully wears a mask; someone who knowingly and intentionally talks one way and acts another.
They are counterfeit Christians.
You can, and should, reject this “faith” because it is not real faith at all. But such a person is not the same as a Christian who fails your expectations, or a Christian who you "catch" sinning one day.
If you were to come and spend a day with me, I can assure you that I would disappoint you.
I love my wife, but you would see how I fail daily in being the husband I'm supposed to be.
I love my four children, but you would witness the countless times I am insensitive and impatient.
These are just the easy ones to admit.
I love God, and urge others to do the same, but if you want to see someone who fails to consistently live in light of what he knows about how he ought to live, I would be an excellent candidate. But the truth runs even deeper. As a Christian, I remain a sinner who struggles with sin and often loses. All Christians do.
Alexander Whyte, a Christian leader in 19th-century Scotland, was once approached by a woman who showered praise on him and his life.
With appropriate honesty, Whyte said, "Madam, if you knew the man I really was, you would spit in my face."
Does such imperfection mean that all Christians are simply counterfeits? Only if you believe that authentic Christianity demands perfection, but this would be a gross misunderstanding of the Christian faith.
Christians are imperfect human beings trying to live a life in Christ, often failing at that task on a daily basis. Yet the longer they authentically try to journey with Christ in a spirit of obedience and submission, the more their lives reflect his life.
Let me borrow from an example first given by C.S. Lewis.
You may observe that a particular Christian woman you know -- let's call her Fran -- has a much more difficult time of keeping away from gossip than a non-Christian woman that you know, who we will call Betty.
But such observations have little to do with whether or not Christianity works, much less is true. The question is what Fran would be like if she were not in a relationship with Christ, and what Betty would be like if she was.
At this point some might say, "Well, I don't think they ought to be perfect, but they ought to have this area down!," and then they mentally cite the one area of life that they think that anyone who claims to be a Christian should maintain with perfection.
The problem is that everyone has a different expectation of what that area should be.
For one, it might be finances, another marriage, a third, consistent moderation in drinking, a fourth, parenting skills. You add them up, and the expectation of perfection is back in action.
What actually happens when you become a Christian is that you begin the process of being transformed more and more into the likeness of Christ. Christians are not cured of all sin and imperfection, but in becoming Christians, they have clearly entered the hospital for treatment.
As a result, most Christians have had their lives impacted in such a way that when you look at them, you find that their relationship with Christ has had a profound, positive influence on their life.
Again, following through with Lewis’ example, there are those who are further along the path of recovery than others, and some who are better at following the prescribed treatment than others, but make no mistake -- all are being treated for sin-sickness, and exhibit all of the symptoms.
Which brings us to the second point worth noting; namely, that Christians should not stand in the way of anyone’s relationship with Christ. The real issue is Jesus, not the weaknesses and imperfections or behavior of those who try and follow Jesus.
Imagine that one of the local elementary schools in your area decides that it wants its students to perform Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. You have never heard the work, but have often heard of it, so you buy a ticket and plan to attend.
Now when you go and hear that concert by that elementary school, would it be fair or even reasonable for you to assess the worth and brilliance of Beethoven's masterpiece based on that performance?
Most people familiar with the work would warn you, saying: "Don't be too quick to make up your mind about Beethoven based on that concert. They're just kids. They'll probably butcher it."
In essence, they would be saying that the elementary school performance of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony would have nothing to do with the actual brilliance of Beethoven's music.
And they would be right.
There are a lot of Christians walking around trying to live for Jesus, myself included, that are like elementary school kids attempting Beethoven's Fifth Symphony.
Don't judge the composer or the music by our performance.
As the great 19th-century Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy, who was a Christian, wrote in a personal letter,
"Attack me, I do this myself, but attack me rather than the path I follow and which I point out to anyone who asks me where I think it lies. If I know the way home and am walking along it drunkenly, is it any less the right way because I am staggering from side to side!"
There will be disappointment with Christians as long as there are imperfect people. Since all Christians are imperfect, there will always be disappointment.
You may know someone who has been deeply, deeply wounded by people who have claimed to be Christians, but who were only wearing a mask, or who was an authentic Christian who bore their sin in a way that was disillusioning.
You may even be that person.
Just remember: Christians may disappoint you, but Christ won't.
No matter who plays it, the Fifth Symphony is still a pretty good piece of music.
James Emery White
Adapted from James Emery White, A Search for the Spiritual (Baker).
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, N.C., and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, which he also served as their fourth president. His newly released book is A Traveler's Guide to the Kingdom: Journeying through the Christian Life (InterVarsity Press). To enjoy a free subscription to the Church and Culture blog, log on to www.churchandculture.org, where you can post your comments on this blog, view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on Twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.