Mahatma Gandhi famously said of the church, ‘I like your Christ. I don’t like your Christians.’ Many others think the same. A friend of mine once said to me, ‘I don’t want anything to do with the church – it’s full of self-righteous hypocrites.’
An easy way to respond to this accusation would be to encourage people to forget about the church and just think about Christ. After all, we do speak of ‘Christianity’, not ‘Churchianity’. Our faith is ultimately all about Jesus. However, it is not quite that simple. The Bible says that Jesus and the church are linked together. One of the metaphors used to describe the church is that it is a body of which Jesus is the head. Therefore to say that we like Jesus but don’t like the church would be like a guy saying to his girlfriend that he liked her face, but he didn’t much like the rest of her! It wouldn’t go down well.
What is a hypocrite?
The English word comes from the Greek word for an actor — hupokritēs — and it means to wear a mask. Greek actors would put on a mask to become their part in a play. Therefore, to be a hypocrite means to put on an act — to pretend to be someone you are not. So, when Christians are accused of being hypocrites, the accusation is that they are claiming to be something they are not. We assume that Christians are claiming that they are somehow more moral or righteous than others and that is why they believe God accepts them. We are therefore shocked when we see that Christians are in fact no better than the rest of us – or perhaps even worse.
The problem here is that this basic assumption is in fact wrong. Christianity is not about claiming to be better than anyone else but rather recognising that we are not. The centre of the Christian faith is not a system of rule-keeping and religious practice to make ourselves better but rather the offer of free forgiveness. That is why the cross stands as the symbol of the Christian faith. In the death of Jesus, we can find free forgiveness, for God himself took what we deserve.
Therefore we shouldn’t be surprised that Christians get things wrong. Jesus said that just as a doctor isn’t for healthy people but the sick, he has come not for people who think they are righteous but those that know that they are not (Luke 5:31-32). In fact, the people that were originally most attracted to Jesus were those who were only too aware of their own failings. The same is true today. We wouldn’t reject a hospital because it is full of sick people – that is what it’s for. In the same way, the church is a community where broken people find forgiveness.
The first step to becoming a Christian is not, therefore, to think you are better than others but to realise that you are not. This means that the one thing a Christian shouldn’t be is self-righteous, proud or arrogant. A person who has understood their need for forgiveness and found it in Jesus should be both humble but joyful — humble because they know who they are; joyful because in spite of this they know that they are loved, accepted and forgiven.
I began by mentioning my friend who rejected the church for being so full of self-righteous hypocrites. I responded by asking if he thought I was like this, since I was part of the church. He denied it — though I guess he had to — I was buying lunch! I mentioned some other Christians whom he also knew. Again he admitted that they weren’t either. I asked him if he could name one actual Christian who was a hypocrite and he couldn’t. He had rejected Christianity because of a preconception that had nothing to do with his experience. Could it be that we might make the same mistake?
Why not check out a lively, Bible-believing church, meet some of the Christians there and find out what they are really like? It may be different from what you would expect. A church full of people that have really understood why Jesus came and what he has done should be an attractive place to be.