Jesus spoke frequently about the problems of hypocrisy – not least in the Sermon on the Mount. ‘Watch out’, he said, ‘for false prophets, they come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves’ (Matt 7:15). It’s a strident and sobering warning. But the question that’s been bothering me recently is this: what, exactly, are we to understand about the self-awareness of such wolves? Do they know that they are really wolves disguised in sheep’s clothing? Or can they sometimes be self-deceived, such that they believe they actually are sheep?
All of us know how easily we can misstep in ministry. A thoughtless remark, a clumsy criticism, a forgotten commitment – and all too easily we end up hurting the very people we are seeking to serve. When it happens, we should acknowledge our mistakes, seek forgiveness and aim to learn from the error so that we can do better next time.
But it is a different, and much more dangerous thing, if something about the very shape and style of our ministry begins to cause ongoing harm. More dangerous still if even those most closely involved in that ministry are blind to what is taking place.
Those who write about these things, note that you can be a hypocrite in several different ways. First, there are the conscious hypocrites – those who say one thing but know full well that they are doing quite another. This is conscious hypocrisy. It is deliberate and self-evident. And when someone points it out, the hypocrite is (at least in theory) immediately able to acknowledge their hypocrisy because they knew it all along.
In contrast to this, we might consider the hypocrite who is unaware of their own double standards. Even though it may be obvious to others, they themselves can be entirely oblivious to the way their life is at odds with the things they preach and expect from others. In this case when someone tries to point out the hypocrisy, there is likely to be resistance and it may take some time to persuade the hypocrite of their error.
Most sinister of all, however, is a third kind of hypocrisy. A hypocrisy that seems to be hidden, not only from the person themselves, but from everyone else as well. Here is a pattern of double standards that is so well established, and so carefully covered over, that everyone is failing to see it. And years can pass without anyone challenging the hypocrite at all and during that time the hypocrisy, and the spiritual damage that comes from it, continues unchecked. In this there is very great spiritual peril.
It’s not entirely clear which kind of hypocrites Jesus has in mind in his sermon. He describes the trumpet-announcing giver, the street-corner prayer and the face-painted-faster (Matt 6: 2,5,16). Do they realise what they are doing? Do they see the spiritual folly of their actions or are they in denial? And what of those Jesus describes later on? Those who say to Jesus ‘Lord, Lord,’ and yet who Jesus says will never enter the kingdom of heaven. (Matt 7:21). Here are people who had prophesied and driven out demons and even performed miracles – all in the name of Christ – and yet to whom Jesus announces with terrible finality: ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’ (v23).
Did they know? Could they see all along that their works were the works of false disciples? Or was it only at the last that the emptiness of their profession dawned upon them and they saw their hypocrisy for what it was? It is an unsettling question and worthy of careful reflection.
We are all vulnerable to the curse of hypocrisy. And we all need help if we are going to detect the kind of hypocrisy that can be hidden from us. We would do well to listen to a wide range of perspectives. And we would do well to listen especially carefully to those who have experience with those whose ministry has turned sour. To that end, the one-off conference Church as a Refuge on 15th May at All Soul’s Church, Langham Place deserves our attention. It features input from Diane Langberg who has counselled, written and taught extensively on the topic of ‘abuse’ in general and will provide valuable insights to some of the ways churches and church ministries can become abusive. Living and working in the USA, her perspective will reflect a somewhat different culture to our own, but there will be plenty that is directly applicable to our own context. Knowing the peril of hypocrisy and the urgent need to be on guard against it, this is an issue that is far too important (and far too little talked about publicly) for us to miss out on an opportunity to think more carefully about it.
This article first appeared in the March 2020 issue of Evangelicals Now.
More details of the Church as a Refuge conference on 15th May 2020, featuring Diane Langberg, can be found at www.churchasarefuge.com