Thursday, October 23, 2008

The Problem of Christian Hypocrisy

A common and relatively powerful argument against the validity of Christianity is that its adherents are not noticeably more moral, ethical or good than an average atheist, agnostic or adherent to another faith.[1] Tim Keller[2] frames this objection as follows: “If Christianity is all it claims to be, shouldn’t Christians on the whole be much better people than everyone else?” In the little, rural, Pentecostal community where I came to faith, there was one man in town who was the prototypical example of this problem…my dad. While my father did not claim any kind of formal belief in God, my pastor freely admitted that he was probably the most morally admirable man he knew. This posed the question for me very early, if my father, who rejected his faith in college, could become a better man than my pastor without the aide of Christian resources, had I picked the wrong path?

Some may be tempted to argue that Christians are not as bad as asserted[3] or that others are not as good as claimed.[4] But both of these tacts fall apart. In my opinion, a much more successful approach is to claim that, given the claims and practices of Christianity one would not expect Christians to be morally superior. Keller actually made the provocative claim during his address to Google that, ‘Christianity is the only religion in which the believers do not claim or expect moral superiority to unbelievers.’ I actually believe that a correct understanding of Jesus and the Church would lead one to expect that, if Christianity is true and efficacious, that we might expect Christians to be more annoying, hypocritical and have more moral difficulty than the general population. Paradoxically, I assert that this is a good thing and encapsulates precisely what is beautiful about Christianity. Consider the argument as a series of three assertions.

Assertion 1: We do not all start out on a level playing field morally. Because of our genetics and upbringing, being kind, pure, loving and self controlled will come easier to some of us than others. Goodness does not come as easily to some as it does to others. There is a sense in which goodness acquired through genetics or good parenting is not to one’s credit since it was not through their efforts. This is where Keller’s thinking is particularly clear:

“Good Character is largely attributable to a loving, safe, and stable family environment-conditions for which we were not responsible. Many have had instead an unstable family background and poor role models, and a history of tragedy and disappointment. As a result, they are burdened with deep insecurities, hypersensitivity, and a lack of self-confidence. They may struggle with uncontrolled anger, shyness, addictions, and other difficult results.”[5]

Assertion 2: The gospel does not claim to produce moral perfection or automatically advance everyone to an equivalent moral state. The grace of God and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit should result in moral improvement…but someone’s current or final moral state is a function, not only of the improvement, but also of the starting point. Therefore, it is true that gratitude for the saving work of Christ should make each Christian more humble, gentle, just, kind, loving, sacrificial etc than they were before, but it does not necessarily mean that on the whole we would be above average because…

Assertion 3: The gospel is more attractive to those of us with more dubious moral starting points. This is the point of much of what Jesus has to say including ‘Blessed are the poor in Spirit’ and ‘It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.’[6] Therefore, the church is full of particularly wicked people[7]. So while the church should be (and is) a place of healing and growth, this progress is painted on a dark ambient canvas. If those most likely to accept the gospel are those most aware of moral failure it would seem to follow that the moral starting point of the standard church member would be well below average. And though we spend our lives trying to live commensurate with the forgiveness already granted us, we continue to fight against biology and patterns set while we were descending into our place of need. Simply put, if the church is full of bad people[8], slowly improving, it should not be shocking that it is not a morally exemplary institution.

This is why Augustine’s favorite metaphor for the church was a hospital. The Church is a place where broken people come to slowly heal. But we are still broken people, disproportionately so. So we say stupid things on Fox news…and we say hurtful things to the homosexual community…and we forget that we are broken and end up pretending that we are better than our non-Christian friends…and we get seduced by political machines…and act indifferent towards the poor and the environment…and we do a wide variety of other things that hurt people and embarrass our Lord. For these things we are deeply sorry and desperately trying to fix. But it does not invalidate the Christian message. It is the precise state of affairs one would expect if Jesus was who he said he was and did what he said he did.

[1] A friend recently subtitled a talk I am doing on this topic: “Why Christians suck.”
[2] My overall argument in this post is strongly influenced by the ‘evangelical yoda.’
[3] Usually this takes the form of differentiating between ‘real Christians’ and posers.
[4] But this ends up with you dissing Gandhi and just sounding silly.
[5] “The Reason For God” p54
[6] Luke 5:31-32 – Incidentally, Jesus wasn’t letting the ‘well’ off the hook. He is subversively challenging the religious people to re-evaluate their own moral sufficiency.
[7] Like me.
[8] Incidentally, these are the only kind of people in the church. The only prerequisite for Christian salvation is relinquishing the claim to being ‘a good person’ and trusting the sacrificial work of Christ to make up for the lack. So, by definition, the Church is full of self-identified bad people.

For a free Mp3 of a talk Keller gave on this topic see: Injustice: Hasn't Christianity been an instrument for oppression? on the "Reason for God" website.


JMBower said...

This is perhaps the most concise and sincere version of tackling this issue I have read in a long time. Well "said".

You with us said...

Just finished "Reason for God" and my respect and admiration for Tim Keller puts me in danger of breaking the second commandment.

I like your exposition. I've really been working on this area with my brothers and sisters (they can be so embarrassing!), but they need grace and humility from me just as much as non-Christians.

ScottW said...

I loved your presentation in Lifebuilders and this shorter presentation captures it succinctly. But I found myself wanting to hear how you have reconciled your opening comments about your father. I guess its obvious but I found myself wanting to hear more. Good stuff.