What About Hypocrisy in the Church?

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It’s one of the most popular objections to Christianity.

I’ve heard it; Christian students I’ve spoken with around the world have heard it, and there’s a good chance you’ve heard it too:

There’s just so much hypocrisy in the church!

Hypocrisy, of course, is when someone says one thing but does another. And according to research documented in the book Already Gone, which examined why two-thirds of Christian-raised American youth are leaving the church, hypocrisy of church leaders was the third top reason ex-churchgoing young adults gave for vacating the pews.1 Clearly, the question of hypocrisy is a major issue—one worth a little extra critical thinking.

Logically Evaluating the Objection

At its core, the hypocrisy objection implies that Christianity isn’t worth believing . . .

At its core, the hypocrisy objection implies that Christianity isn’t worth believing because people who call themselves Christians can be hypocrites. This argument can sound persuasive, but is it logical?

Let’s think about it.

Like I explained in my last article, an easy way to catch flawed logic is to ask, “Is this message true or false, because . . .” In this case, we’d ask, “Is the Bible’s message false because people who claim to believe it may be hypocrites?” Worded this way, it’s evident the answer is no. After all, if truth exists, then the truth is still the truth regardless of what kind of people believe it—or whether anyone believes it at all. That’s “true” for messages that hypocrites believe as well.

As an example I often use while speaking to youth,2 imagine I were smoking a cigarette while telling someone, “You should never smoke—it’s dangerous for your health.” That person could point out my hypocrisy, saying, “But Patricia, you’re smoking!”

Fair. But would the fact that I’m being a hypocrite make smoking any less harmful? No. Smoking is unhealthy, regardless of whether I’m being hypocritical. So, saying that a message is false because the people who express it are hypocrites is a type of logical fallacy called Tu Quoque, which means, “you too.” In the same way, dismissing Scripture’s claims because of hypocrisy in the church uses the Tu Quoque fallacy.

Jesus: The Standard for True Christianity

Hypocrisy is not a logically valid reason for dismissing the Bible’s claims.

To be sure, the presence of this fallacy does not diminish the sadness or wrongness of hypocrisy within the church. It just means that hypocrisy is not a logically valid reason for dismissing the Bible’s claims. However, when people who claim to believe the Bible don’t live like they believe it, even though that hypocrisy can’t change the Bible’s truth, it can make the Bible’s truth look like something which isn’t worth taking seriously. Hypocrisy therefore presents an easy, if illogical, excuse for ignoring what the Bible says. So, it’s no wonder that Jesus Himself hated religious hypocrisy.

If you read Matthew 23, you’ll find that Jesus had some incredibly strong words for the hypocritical religious leaders of his day. In other words, people who object to professing Christians’ hypocrisy are affirming the statements and stance of Jesus.3 And it’s Jesus who by definition sets the standard for what true Christianity looks like. Examine the life and teachings of Jesus, and you’ll see that he was not a hypocrite. In fact, he detested hypocrisy.4

Moral Objections Demand a Moral Lawgiver

To criticize someone for hypocrisy is to make a moral judgement.

Speaking of Jesus being the One who sets moral standards, let’s take a step back and look at the moral assumptions required to raise objections about hypocrisy in the first place. To criticize someone for hypocrisy is to make a moral judgement: hypocrisy is wrong. And for a moral judgement to mean anything, morals must exist. Otherwise, without absolute standards for deciding right and wrong, we have no consistent moral foundation from which to criticize someone for being hypocritical. We might say hypocrisy is wrong in our opinion, but maybe for someone else, hypocrisy is right. Who can absolutely say which of these conflicting opinions about right and wrong is the best one?

Ultimately, like numerous Christian and secular scholars5 have shown, absolute moral laws require a Moral Lawgiver. Our Creator’s character is the source of moral standards, which he reveals to us through his word, the Bible. So, dismissing the Bible because some professing Christians disobey Christ’s example requires not only committing a logical fallacy, but also borrowing absolute moral standards from the very book being dismissed: God’s Word. And at the end of the day, it is God’s Word that ordains, “Let love be without hypocrisy.” (Romans 12:9 NKJV.) Grounded on the bedrock of Scripture, we have every reason to live out this command.

For more on how to think critically about any faith-challenging message, stay tuned for future blog articles and my new video series, CT (Critial Thinking) Scan, available now on the AiG Canada YouTube channel and the AiG Canada Facebook page.

Footnotes

  1. Ken Ham and Britt Beemer, Already Gone: Why your kids will quit church and what you can do to stop it (Green Forest, AR: New Leaf Publishing Group, 2009).
  2. Example based out of the book by Hans Bluedorn and Nathaniel Bluedorn, The Fallacy Detective: Thirty-eight Lessons on How to Recognize Bad Reasoning (Christian Logic, 2009).
  3. In this way, the objection of hypocrisy can become an opportunity to introduce people to the true Gospel, for instance by asking, “Did you know Jesus felt the same way about hypocrisy that you do?” The hypocritical religious leaders believed they could enter heaven on their own external “righteousness,” though all humans have sinned (Romans 3:23) and failed to meet God’s moral standards. That’s why only Jesus, who alone is truly righteous, can reconcile us to God by becoming ‘sin for us, that we might become his righteousness (2 Corinthians 5:21).
  4. E.g., Matthew 6:1-18, 7:1–5, 22:18, 23:1–30, 24:51; Luke 6:46, 12:1; Mark 7:6.
  5. E.g., Dr. Arthur Leff, agnostic and former Yale Law School professor, described the logistical impossibility of consistently defining objective moral standards without God in the classic 1979 paper, “Unspeakable ethics, unnatural law” in Duke LJ, p. 1229. https://digitalcommons.law.yale.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?referer=https://scholar.google.com/&httpsredir=1&article=3810&context=fss_papers.

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