Thursday, 31 January 2008

Christians: judgemental hypocrites - why listen?

Text of a talk I'm giving today at Lancaster University. Any thoughts most welcome.

In a speech in 2006, Tony Blair called on the West not to give up on its moral responsibilities to the subjugated peoples of the world at Georgetown University in Washington. He received a distinctly frosty reception. One of the journalists that was reporting the speech in The Independent, Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, described that Tony Blair’s speech ‘was an idealist message immediately contaminated by the messenger.’ She went on: ‘His words sounded fraudulent, because he had lied over Iraq and was in contempt of the UN.’ And I guess that, whatever our view of the intervention in Iraq and its aftermath, we know what Yasmin Alibhai-Brown is describing. Blair’s speech was an idealistic message contaminated by the messenger and the broader context of the decisions that he had made. When we hear such speeches, we get cynical. We stop listening. And not only do we get cynical about the messenger, but also the message itself.

And I think that this is the kind of issue that today’s lunch-bar addresses with regard to Christianity. So often the mates I have seem to think that Christians say one thing and do precisely another. The East Enders character Dot Cotton is a good case in point. So often she’s keen to quote Scripture at others, so often she denounces the sin of others and casts judgement on others, yet seems oblivious to her own moral shortcomings – particularly her gossipy nature and craving to be at the centre of all news about others dirty washing (figuratively I mean in this case, and not just the dirty washing at the laundrette!). And so although Christians speak about things like truth and about living with authenticity and integrity, it seems like these things don’t even match up in their own lives. It seems that they are just being spiritual equivalents of Tony Blair’s Georgetown speech. I recently heard it put like this: ‘If Christianity is about a transforming relationship with God, why are Christians so hypocritical?’

When asked what one question about the Christian faith he finds most difficult to answer, a Christian friend of mine answered, “If Christ transforms us why do we see so little evidence of this in some of his followers?” And in saying this, he wasn’t saying that there aren’t many wonderful individual Christians and communities of Christians out there. Rather that a widespread objection to the Christian faith is the quality of life displayed by many Christians.

I remember hearing of a famous British Christian leader in the late 1990s, who had been held in high esteem in a well-attended church. Yet for many years he’d been having extra-marital affairs and eventually left his family. The devastation felt by his wife and children at this senseless betrayal was made all the more awful by the pain and disappointment felt by the many hundreds of members of the thriving church he had led. Naturally, the newspaper headlines followed, screaming ‘hypocrite’, and I guess many critics were reassured in the opinion that Christianity was impotent and empty, a useless religion for a bygone age, demanding moral standards which even its leaders were unable to live up to.

See, what this example shows is that the charge that Christians are hypocrites assumes one of two things: firstly, that a Christian has no right to judge another for their behaviour when they are themselves morally flawed; or secondly, that an encounter with Christ should morally transform a flawed person, but that this simply doesn’t seem to happen. Either way, it shows that the Christian worldview should be rejected.

I guess it’s also worth saying that people bring this objection for a number of reasons. For some this issue is simply an excuse to hide behind. If I can prove the statement “Christians are hypocrites”, then I don’t have to take the claims of Christ or the evidence for the truthfulness of Christianity seriously. For others, this question is personal and real. The victims of sexual abuse at the hands of a priest, the congregation of a pastor who turned out to have his hands in the coffers, or those who’ve rubbed shoulders with self righteous and selfish churchgoers all paint a similar picture of disappointment with Christians causing them to close their hearts to Christ.

There may even be people here that have been hurt by Christians. Perhaps even coming to a lunch-bar like this is hard because of the bad memories. For that, I can only say sorry.
Jesus himself had a lot to say about hypocrisy, and particularly about religious hypocrisy.

Matthew 23 records one of the most devastating parts of Jesus’ teaching. Here Jesus addresses some of the religious people of his day. At one point he says to these religious hypocrites, “Everything that you do is done for others to see.” And Jesus particularly singles out the flowing religious robes that they sauntered around in; clothing that they wore to imply that they were obedient to God in every other respect. At another point Jesus says this: “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices – mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law – justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.” Do you see what Jesus is saying here? The religious people of his day are hypocrites because they are obedient externally, to minute detail, and to the degree where they feel that they can pass judgement on others – yet internally, in the heart, where it matters, they are utterly corrupt and unchanged. So Jesus makes it very clear that he is completely against any form of religion – including any form of Christianity – founded upon hypocrisy where religious activity is not based upon integrity. If you resonate with wanting to distance yourself from religious hypocrisy for any reason, then you resonate with Christ.

However, I think I’d also want to say that people often charge Christians with religious hypocrisy because they have fundamentally misunderstood what it means to be Christian.

As Christians, we should be the first to admit that we haven’t got it all together. When, as Christians, we fail to live out our faith, we must recognise that this is a serious matter. However, I’d want to argue that this should not discourage those looking into Christianity from looking first and foremost at Christ himself. In other words, I may not be the best example of a Christian but please don’t let that stop you from seeing Christ for yourself. Gandhi once said, “I like your Christ, but I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.” It’s a grave charge, but the admission that even the followers of Jesus don’t match up to his example points to the very heart of the Christian faith. A person is not a Christian because they are good, but a Christian is a person that has received forgiveness and grace from God in Christ and are being transformed by knowing him.

Many of you will know that the central part of the Christian message is the death of Christ. According to the Bible, Jesus’ death wasn’t a horrific mistake where events span out of control, but the very reason why he came. As God in human form, and as the only one who genuinely and legitimately could pass judgement on others, being morally perfect, Jesus willingly went to the cross and took the punishment we deserve for ruling out God and hurting ourselves and others in the process.

At one point, Jesus described his message like this, “For even I, the Son of Man, did not come to be served but to serve, and to give my life as a ransom for many.” In other words, Jesus came for imperfect people. On another occasion, Jesus said this: “I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” Put differently, Jesus’ only criterion for accepting a person as his follower is the admission that they are not righteous; that they have not lived up to God’s standards, and that they need to be forgiven. The Christian message is a message of grace: that we are accepted not on the basis on what we’ve done, but on the basis of what Jesus has done, through which we receive something for nothing when we don’t deserve anything. And so, it should not be surprising to us that Christians are not perfect since the heart of Jesus’ message is our very need for forgiveness.

Let me say, for me, this is one of the most beautiful things about the Christian gospel; that we can come to Jesus in all of our ugliness and impurity and brokenness, just as we are. Many people think that being a Christian means being a good person who tries hard and considers themselves morally superior, but in fact nothing could be further from the truth. Some people think: there’s no way I could be a Christian, not now, not after what I’ve done. But, can you see, at the heart of Christianity is the offer of forgiveness? We only have to recognise our own moral bankruptcy and our need for this forgiveness in order to access it.

And let me say, this doesn’t only happen at the beginning of a relationship with God. The continuing journey of faith involves a constant process of confessing our sins to God. 1 John 1:8,9 says this: “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.”

This ongoing reliance on Jesus’ death for our forgiveness means several things. Firstly, it means that Christians cannot be judgemental of others. Sometimes, when Christians tell other people that they need to be forgiven by God, we are heard to be saying that, “You need to be forgiven by God because you are a bad person, much worse than me.” I hope now that when I tell you that you are sinful, that you have rebelled against God, that you realise I am not making a character judgement on you. I am not saying that you are a particularly evil person. I am not saying that you are worse than me. I am saying that, like me, you need to be forgiven for having rebelled against God and broken his standards.

Additionally, if Christianity is at its centre the offer of forgiveness by Jesus, then it should not be surprising that broken people take this up and during the ongoing process of transformation by Jesus hardly shine as examples of “good” people. God’s transformation of a person takes time as he cleans them up from the inside. It’s this cleaning up that, slowly and over time, shows itself in outside transformation of behaviour and attitude. And so perhaps a helpful question to ask might be this: What would the individual in question’s life have been like without their faith in Christ? If they are not yet an amazing saint, has their life changed direction since encountering Christ?

A few years ago, I had the privilege of seeing a guy called Matt come to faith as a Christian and place his trust in Jesus for his forgiveness. Matt had come from an extremely sad background. He’d lived very promiscuously, treated women awfully in his life, been a local drug dealer and had lots of other problems. Yet he came to Christ as he was. Now, if you’d met Matt a few months into being a Christian, you’d probably have still been quite shocked by him. His old habits died hard. His language, particularly, was still rough. His addictions took a while to overcome, and led to occasional outbursts of violent behaviour. Now, if all Christians were judged on the basis on meeting someone like Matt, who professed to be a Christian, then you might write Christianity off as violent and hypocritical. But as the work of God in Matt’s life, cleaning him up from the inside out, was only beginning, the very evident changes in Matt’s life, despite his faults, were major steps of discipleship for him. He genuinely was forgiven all this time, because he had recognised his need for forgiveness, but his relationship with Christ was only starting to bear fruit in his life. Now Matt has become a passionate followers of Jesus Christ.

Now, the Bible says that if becoming a Christian has made no difference at all then we must question the genuineness of the individual’s faith. The Bible certainly says this: “The man who says, “I know him” but does not do what he commands is a liar, and the truth is not in him. But if anyone obeys his word God’s love is truly made complete in him” (1 John 2:4). As we’ve seen, Jesus was very harsh about people claiming to be religious whose hearts and lives didn’t match up to their outward projections and he certainly taught that not everyone who claimed to be his follower actually was.

When you see a Christian who appears to be a hypocrite, who is causing you to reject the gospel because of their life there are a number of possibilities. The first is that they have come into a relationship with God but are only at the beginning of the process of transformation. Changes are happening but the brokenness is still all too evident. The second is that the person is a Christian who has been following Jesus and experiencing his life transforming power on the journey but then has a spectacular slip up. They have let a lot of people down, including themselves. This happens in the Bible and does not completely nullify the individual if they come to repentance and seek restoration. A man called David committed adultery and even murder in the Old Testament. Peter denied Jesus in the New Testament. Both of them suffered serious consequences, but were able to be forgiven and restored.

A third possibility is that the person is not a true follower of Jesus at all and that their actions, attitudes, desires and words reveal what is in their heart. They consistently live in a way which is contrary to Jesus’ teaching and there is no evidence whatsoever of his work in their life. And just as you wouldn’t reject sex as a good thing because it can sometimes be used in an evil manner in rape, so a misuse of Christianity can’t be used to reject Christianity.

And so, as I close, and before we take some questions, let me finish with a challenge: will you come clean? That’s what Christians are, people who have come clean about themselves and their need for forgiveness. I remember an elderly Christian who was once asked, “Isn’t the church full of evil people?” And he replied, “No, there’s still plenty of room for you.” Will you admit your need for forgiveness and come to Christ for forgiveness and transformation?

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