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“The church is full of hypocrites.”

I regularly see Gandhi’s famous Christ quote on a bumper sticker at my child’s school. “I like your Christ. I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.”

Fair enough. If you can’t find much of value in my tribe, I can appreciate that you find something powerful and beautiful in its leader. According to the Apostle Paul in Ephesians 4:1-16 what the Holy Spirit is doing is working a process to grow the church up, to mature her, into that head which is Christ.

Gandhi was of course not alone in his criticism. Lots of people, inside and outside the church profess to appreciate Jesus but have issues with his church.

I hear it from David Kinnaman, president of the Barna Group and author or the book Unchristian. According to his survey these were words that people outside the church used to describe present day Christianity:

  • antihomosexual 91%
  • judgmental 87%
  • hypocritical 85%
  • old-fashioned 78%
  • too political 75%
  • out of touch with reality 72%
  • insensitive to others 70%
  • boring 68%

I read it in countless blogs on the Internet like Rachel Held Evan’s piece "15 Reasons I Left the Church." There is of course Jefferson Bethke’s YouTube on why he hates religion but loves Jesus with over 21 million hits by this point. A refreshing counterpoint is the Amazing Atheist who hates religion and Jesus too. What’s helpful about a guy like this is that he’s at least honest and not skating on a religious veneer.

Jesus had the best definition of hypocrisy that I’ve ever heard. “You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.” Whatever you think of Jesus, he had a way with words.

This is, as I understand it, the basis for a lot of criticism of the church. The church somehow gets its sense of proportion wrong on a whole lot of things. Churches put money into buildings and programs when there are people starving. Churches are filled with self-centered, self-righteous, egotistical people who are bad to their children, bad to their spouses, bad to their neighbors, but because they go to church somehow God will reward them with heaven while sending other good people to hell to fry forever.

Only Choosers can Judge
Behind every judgment is a chooser, someone who is seeing the world and evaluating it against their own idealized frame of reference. You can’t charge someone with hypocrisy without first asserting that you know what “the right” is and that “the right” should be available to those who are choosing poorly.

I know that part of our cultural matrix today is an allergy about judgment. We don’t like people who judge because we don’t like being judged. It isn’t hard to see that you can’t make that statement and not be selfreferentially inconsistent. You can’t judge judgers without judging yourself of course.

We might as well simply enter the game and acknowledge that we judge and own up to our own status as choosers and our own behavior as judgers. You can’t live as a real human agent in this world and not judge. All we should ask is that we own our judgments.

When Jesus Ditches Zen
Jesus’ great definition of hypocrisy is found in Matthew 23 where Jesus is most un-zen-like. Jesus is denouncing the scribes and the Pharisees for what they have done to the religion based on Moses’ law. Matthew 23:1–4 Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, “The experts in the law and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat. Therefore pay attention to what they tell you and do it. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they teach. They tie up heavy loads, hard to carry, and put them on the shoulders of others, but they themselves are not willing even to lift a finger to move them.

Jesus will then proceed to get into name calling, “hypocrites” “blind fools” “whitewashed tombs."  I think the folks who like Jesus but don’t pay much attention to him like this part too. We like a guy who can get angry and call someone out.

The difficulty is, of course, that Jesus chooses too. Jesus does a lot of negative teaching. Don’t do this, don’t do that, avoid this, etc. He says dramatic, hyperbolic things like “pluck your eye out, cut off your hand, let the dead bury their dead…” There really isn’t a lot of zen in Jesus, no matter how much you like zen. It’s just not in the book.

Choosers choose and if you are a public chooser and you choose some really high values you will likely be open to the charge of hypocrisy.

If you live next door to a guy who does nothing but drink all day, you may not think him a hypocrite, unless you visit him and he starts to talk. He’ll probably start telling you about how his ex wife did him wrong, his children don’t treat him right, the city isn’t running things well, and his family hasn’t given him a fair shake. Suddenly you realize that even a guy who does little else than drink himself into the grave holds all kinds of lofty notions about how the world should work and dares to attempt to hold everyone else accountable to his ideals. We are choosers by nature.

Bounded set vs. Center set
One way to deal with the idea of hypocrisy as failure to fulfill a high calling, or a failure to keep things rightly proportionate in life, is to recognize the difference between a group that has a bounded set identity and a group that has a center set identity.

Every group that has an identity has things that define that identity. I recently saw a friend’s post on Facebook explaining what polyamory is. Now we might think that a polyamorous person or relationship is one where “anything goes,” but that’s not true. In this person’s definition what was clear was that consent was the key feature of the relationship. One person could not go out and do things with someone else without the consent of the current partner. Consent and disclosure create the identity of the relationship.

A group that has a bounded set identity usually has a list of rules, or boundary markers that define the group or the nature of the relationship. One perspective on the Mosaic law with its over 600 laws is that of a bounded set. Our legal system in the United States works in a similar way. These laws are boundary markers about what defines a good citizen of the community.

The strength of a bounded set is its clarity and specificity. If you wonder whether a behavior is inside or outside the identity of the group or relationship just check the list. 

As in many things the strength is also the weakness. If you disagree with an item on the list your place in that community may be threatened or you may be subject to sanction. All group identities and relationships are subject to one form or sanction or another. In the polyamorous one the sanction is the severing of the relationship with the current partner.

The other theory of community identity is that of a center set. This idea is that there is one value, one person (a chooser), or a small list of items that define the community. Participation in the community is relative to one’s relationship with the center. The myriad of things that life throws at you are evaluated through the filter created by the center.

As with the bounded set identity the strength and the weakness of the system work together. The system can be strong with flexibility, but difficult and strained through lack of clarity.

What usually happens in a community like this is that there are evaluative moments within the organic community that further define the community. It is usually in those moments that the center set community flirts with bounded set behavior, and bounded set communities self-evaluate according to a center set type ethos.

In Matthew 23 and in other places in the Gospel of Matthew (the Sermon on the Mount is a great example) Jesus challenges the bounded set approach with some center set principles.

Acts 15 as a Defining Moment for the Church
Acts 15 records one of the most important moments in the history of the development of the church. 

In the 20 or so years since Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection the community of Jesus followers has changed dramatically. No longer are there only 120 personal friends of Jesus who believe he rose from the dead, most of whom were Jewish and from the Galilee region; there are now groups of people who are meeting daily or weekly in the eastern Roman empire to share meals, give to the poor, and worship in Jesus’ name. Many of these people have Jewish ancestry and ingrained traditions but others do not. Many have had experience with miraculous events that they have understood as the gift of the Holy Spirit that Jesus had promised them. Some of those who have experienced this are not ethnically Jewish, nor had they become Jewish converts which for the men would have meant circumcision. Circumcision since the time of Abraham and Moses had been a critical boundary marker for identifying who was inside the group and who was not.

Two leaders from the diverse church in the important city of Antioch in the Roman province of Syria, Paul and Barnabas, had traveled through Cyprus and into the province of Galatia. Paul and Barnabas found in the cities of that province a dramatic response (positive and negative) to their message that Jesus rose from the dead and is the messiah of God sent to save not only Jews but also Gentiles from the age of decay.

This new found success raised a problem though. Upon what terms was this new community to be identified? Were the traditional Jewish boundary markers plus the additional understanding of the resurrection and Jesus’ messiahship  sufficient for the new community? If so, what about the painful and key boundary marker of circumcision? If not, what would define this new community?

It seems by reading between the lines of the book of Acts and the book of Galatians Paul and Barnabas were not the only people undertaking missionaries journeys. A group of Jesus followers who were from the sect of the Pharisees traveled to not only Syrian Antioch, Barnabas and Paul’s home church, but also the cities on Galatia that Paul had visited. They asserted that followers of Jesus must also observe the Jewish boundary markers including diet and circumcision regulations. The book of Acts observes that there was “no small debate” between Barnabas, Paul and this group of Pharisees. This is likely an understatement. The book of Galatians is probably a pretty good summary of Paul’s arguments with this group. In that book Paul wishes these “judaizers” would take the knife and go all the way on themselves with their genital surgery.

How would this new community of Jesus followers be defined?

Community as Revelation
A reader of the book of Acts would by chapter 15 have been presented with many claims of divine revelations and miraculous interventions. People in this new Jesus community are known as prophets and they are predicting future events and giving messages attributed to be new direct revelations from God. Peter has been sprung from prison by an angel even though James the Apostle was allowed to be executed by Herod. Phillip, Paul and Barnabas, men who were not among the original 120 followers of Jesus have done public miracles in Jesus’ name.

Given all of this Holy Spirit intervention how might we expect this to be resolved? I’m sure everyone would have been able to agree on “well we want God to choose for us. Let God reveal the answer to this debate in an incontrovertible way and it will be resolved. If God would just say it, we would believe it, and that would settle it." Nice idea, but God doesn’t go along. Why not? Isn’t it important? Sure, but God is still silent.

Let’s imagine God did cop to the sincere wishes of his conflicted church. In the Old Testament we find God giving various direct orders for a lot of things. David regularly consults the priest to hear from God what he is supposed to do. Gideon has his fleece and his drinking soldiers. Prophets get sent with specific messages like Jeremiah’s “seek the peace of your new city…”

It seems right, but where would it stop? In some ways it could become a never ending bounded set community with God continually having to tinker with the rules. “Pork and lobster are OK for this group, but that groups should avoid them…” We might find this attractive, but something critical would be lost.

It seems the Holy Spirit is given to a historical church within the stream of history and that church is to be the revelation of Jesus to this world. Jesus said “and you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes and you will be my witnesses.”

This revelation to the world is to come through hypocrites and failures. This revelation will often be a group that fails their center set evaluation, has a mess of misplaced bounded set markers, but in the process becomes a place where failures and hypocrites will find community and hope. By this fact alone, God is revealing something in his church and about his church.

Community Process is Established
To the degree that the avoidance of a bounded set revelation achieved, Luke seems to wish to reveal a process that will become normative throughout the life of the church.

The procedure followed in decision making as portrayed here involved: (1) a process of discernment and recognition of God’s activity; (2) the interpretation of Scripture in such a way as to make sense of what has happened; (3) a view that debate and dispute are a part, necessary part, of the process of discernment —“such disagreement serves to reveal the true bases for fellowship, and elicit the fundamental principles of community identity”; and (4) finally, the consent or agreement of the ekklesia to the ruling offered by the church leader, in this case James.

Witherington III, B. (1998). The Acts of the Apostles : A socio-rhetorical commentary (451). Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.

Such a process will be recognized in an amazing diversity of transcultural situations. There is enough flexibility in the process to afford different cultural applications, but enough cohesion in the process to be evident and identifiable. It is in fact one of the most crucial revelatory pieces in the book of Acts, something more practical, identifiable, duplicable and achievable than the signs and wonders we crave. It is also just as frustrating.

The Decision Itself
The decision that is reached by consensus (I wish that were always the case) is that the new Gentile believers need not be circumcised, but they are admonished to stay away from food sacrificed to idols, meat from strangled animals, meat with blood in it, and sexual immorality. 

At first glance this admonition seems like a familiar set of bounded community markers. Religious boundary markers commonly revolve around food and sex. Ben Witherington in his commentary makes a cogent argument that what this list is really pointing to participation in common Roman empire pagan temple practice. In the empire these temples were regular parts of common civic life and what went on at these temples commonly involved veneration and worship of a variety of deities, feasting and “revelry” to put it nicely. Sacred prostitution was common not just in the Roman empire but also around the world and actually for a community to avoid involvement in this might involve economic, political and social sacrifice. The new Christians from the Gentile world would not be held to the Jewish boundary markers of separation from “the nations” but would in fact maintain a center set separation through different means. It could in fact be very much like the approach that Jesus seemed to take in the gospels regarding the bounded set regulations he was criticized for violating.

A Holy Hypocrisy
Hypocrisy is all about violating one’s own standards. One of the best defenses against the charge is to be very specific about your standards and comply with them consistently.

It’s ironic that this is precisely the situation in which Jesus attacks. His complaint is against the bounded set system that the scribes and Pharisees have rigged in order to violate the center set center-of-mass of the Mosaic law which is love of God and love of neighbor. The bounded set is critiqued by the center set.

The difficulty of the center set ironically is one’s openness to the charge of hypocrisy from all of the other choosers in the world. “How can you say you love these people when you treat them like that!” 

One of the difficulties of Jesus’ center set value system of loving God and your neighbor (which includes everyone up to and including your enemies) is that the debt to love never ends. Who of us won’t be found guilty of hypocrisy by embracing such a system?

To make matters worse, it seems the Holy Spirit prescribed adjudicator of the necessary boundary set applications of this system is a bunch of us talking, meeting, praying and working together. If watching legislation is like watching sausage making, then watching the church attempt to make real life application to Jesus’ center set mandate is bound to yield a feast of hypocritical sausage.

The CRC’s Synod, its binational governing body, is just about getting underway and for some of us this kind of thing may invite anxiety, despair, cynicism and even unbelief. This is the Synod time of year and in the month of June lots of church assemblies will be talking, praying, decreeing, and the response to most of this will be anything but consensus. It will be easier for people to agree on charges of hypocrisy than it will for them to agree on the decisions made. What was God thinking when he made a world full of choosers?!

It seems the only way through would in fact be to embrace our hypocrisy, to fess up that our sausage is filled with the kinds of things we fear butchers may hide in it. We know from the rest of the New Testament that there would be plenty more questions to resolve beyond the circumcision question. What about meat sacrificed to idols? What about sexual norms? How does Jesus change our idea of God? How does the resurrection change how we approach all of the minutiae of everyday life? It doesn’t end.

In a world of choosers the safest bet is really to not profess anything worth anything. To hold nothing sacred, to refuse to name a standard, to call the polyamorous legalists for requiring consent and disclosure. To hold judgment on no one and nothing, especially not ourselves. In this way we can avoid the terrible judgment of hypocrisy. In this way too, however, we will not be human.

I prefer the road of holy hypocrisy and to be subject to Jesus’ standard. According to my own tradition, it is only by acknowledging your obvious hypocrisy and owning it, that you can understand the value of the rest of what Jesus says and begin to love the rest of the hypocrites in the world too.


Once again, another inciteful, well-written blog by Paul VanderKlay.

Seriously Paul.  I really appreciate your contributions to the Network and hope you keep doing this for a very long time. :-)

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