If hypocrites aren’t welcome in churches, where else can they (we) go?
Tom Wright wrote a bit of a blinder in the Guardian last week on the media’s apparent hypocrisy about hypocrisy – and he made some fair points. It certainly chimed with me at a number of levels, and I could certainly feel a post brewing. Jennie Pollock, however, gave a very thoughtful riposte on her blog, simply pointing out that church and media are not on a level playing field – the Church has an obligation to the Spirit to produce His fruit. She’s onto something there; I’m pretty sure she’s right to challenge Wright.
However, I want to make a more general point. For while it is true that the Christian life is a battle for holiness, and it is a battle that we should never be defeatist about (for the reasons Jennie gives), we should also resist the old so-called Keswick holiness teaching (which I realise Jennie was NOT advocating). For the true victory life is never promised pre-eschaton. Which means the church is always going to be full of failures who will never fully practise what they preach.
Of course, Jesus of Nazareth was scathing about religious hypocrisy – the staggering indictment of the Pharisees in Matthew 23 is a case in point. But here’s the thing: the Pharisees’ problem was twofold (as I see it):
- they sought a works righteousness, whereby salvation could be attainable by keeping the law
- they never faced up to their moral inadequacies, and therefore their hypocrisy (which I think is a point Wright is seeking to challenge the media about)
Both led to an obnoxious moral superiority – and that is a pretty relevant phenomenon today. One of the most morally superior groups in our day is the secular liberal elite that issues judgments on all around them without restraint.
But one of the essential steps on the path to spiritual maturity is the acknowledgement of our own hypocrisy, the fact that we never even attain our own moral standards (let alone anyone else’s). This acknowledgement is too a fruit of the Spirit’s work. And if we go back to the OT covenant, the fact is that the Law anticipates Israelite failures by containing within it the means by which to cover these failures: performing the whole sacrificial system is an integral element of obedience to the law. So in short, what do you do when you disobey the law? You return by obeying another law which brings atonement for your failure to keep the law. It is in a way a hypocrites’ rescue plan – but only on condition to facing up to their own predicament.
The New Covenant works in the same way – but goes one better: the whole sacrificial system gets swallowed up in the cross, in the sacrifice performed by our Great High Priest. What do we do when we fail? Go back to the cross.
I would go so far as to say that everyone is a hypocrite. But the Christian community is (or rather should be – because all too often we treat hypocrites with an hypocritical moral superiority) the one place all are welcome. It is no wonder that the heart of much prayer should be that of the old orthodox Jesus Prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner.” It doesn’t mean that ‘sinner’ is the totality of what can be said about us. But it does relish the fact that if we would face him, mercy is precisely what we will find as an answer to that prayer. For hypocrites are welcome. And if not here, where else is there to go?