About thirty years ago, my close friend and colleague, Archie Parrish, who at that time led the Evangelism Explosion (EE) program in Fort Lauderdale, came to me with a request. He indicated that on the thousands of evangelistic visits the EE teams made, they kept a record of responses people made to discussions of the gospel. They collated the most frequent questions and objections people raised about the Christian faith and grouped these inquiries or objections into the ten most frequently encountered. Dr. Parrish asked if I would write a book answering those objections for evangelists to use in their outreach. That effort resulted in my book Objections Answered, now called Reason to Believe. Among the top ten objections raised was the objection that the church is filled with hypocrites. At that point in time, Dr. D. James Kennedy responded to this objection by replying, "Well, there's always room for one more." He cautioned people that if they found a perfect church, they ought not to join it, since that would ruin it.
The term hypocrite came from the world of Greek drama. It was used to describe the masks that the players used to dramatize certain roles. Even today, the theatre is symbolized by the twin masks of comedy and tragedy. In antiquity, certain players played more than one role, and they indicated their role by holding a mask in front of their face. That's the origin of the concept of hypocrisy.
But the charge that the church is full of hypocrites is manifestly false. Though no Christian achieves the full measure of sanctification in this life, that we all struggle with ongoing sin does not justly yield the verdict of hypocrisy. A hypocrite is someone who does things he claims he does not do. Outside observers of the Christian church see people who profess to be Christians and observe that they sin. Since they see sin in the lives of Christians, they rush to the judgment that therefore these people are hypocrites. If a person claims to be without sin and then demonstrates sin, surely that person is a hypocrite. But for a Christian simply to demonstrate that he is a sinner does not convict him of hypocrisy.
The inverted logic goes something like this: All hypocrites are sinners. John is a sinner; therefore, John is a hypocrite. Anyone who knows the laws of logic knows that this syllogism is not valid. If we would simply change the charge from "the church is full of hypocrites" to "the church is full of sinners," we would be quick to plead guilty. The church is the only institution I know of that requires an admission of being a sinner in order to be a member. The church is filled with sinners because the church is the place where sinners who confess their sins come to find redemption from their sins. So in this sense, simply because the church is filled with sinners does not justify the conclusion that the church is filled with hypocrites. Again, all hypocrisy is sin, but not all sin is the sin of hypocrisy.
When we look at the problem of hypocrisy in the New Testament era, we see it most clearly displayed in the lives of those who claimed to be the most righteous. The Pharisees were a group of people who by definition saw themselves as separated from the normal sinfulness of the masses. They began well, seeking a life of devoted godliness and submission to the law of God. However, when their behavior failed to reach their ideals, they began to engage in pretense. They pretended they were more righteous than they were. They gave an outward facade of righteousness, which merely served to conceal a radical corruption in their lives.
Though the church is not filled with hypocrites, there is no denying that hypocrisy is a sin that is not limited or restricted to New Testament Pharisees. It is a sin with which Christians must grapple. A high standard of spiritual and righteous behavior has been set for the church. We often are embarrassed by our failures to reach these high goals and are inclined to pretend that we have reached a higher plateau of righteousness than we've actually attained. When we do that, we put on the mask of the hypocrite and come under the judgment of God for that particular sin. When we find ourselves enmeshed in this type of pretense, an alarm bell should go off in our brains that we need to rush back to the cross and to Christ and to understand where our true righteousness resides. We have to find in Christ, not a mask that conceals our face, but an entire wardrobe of clothing, which is His righteousness. Indeed, it is only under the guise of the righteousness of Christ, received by faith, that any of us can ever have a hope of standing before a holy God. To wear the garments of Christ in faith is not an act of hypocrisy. It is an act of redemption.
Dr. R.C. Sproul is founder and president of Ligonier Ministries, and he is author of many books including his classic: The Holiness of God (available for free here).