I don’t mean to give offense to those who employ the claim found in the title when I say that I’m starting off with this one because it is light way to start things off. I do realize that for some people the hypocrisy (whether real or imagined) of some, if not all Christians, functions as a powerful reason for them against the truth of Christianity. Nevertheless, I do regard this objection, such as it is, not to tell against the reasonableness or truth of Christianity, whatever else it tells against. Moreover, this objection does not feature in sophisticated criticisms of Christianity in the published literature. But, it does have some staying power, and it clearly resonates with “the masses.” Even as respected a religious figure as the Dali Lama surely had this objection in mind when he quipped, “I like your Christ, but I do not like your Christians.” While something deeper than hypocrisy could be meant by this, surely hypocrisy was included. Not as subtle, the American shock-anchor, personality Bill Maher, waxed comedic and indignant about Christian hypocrisy on his HBO show:
Not to sound overly curmudgeonly, because I did laugh out loud a few times during Maher’s bit, but thoughtful listeners may be nonplussed by Maher’s statements. For example, he says all cases of Christians fighting and warring are contradicted by Jesus’ teaching to love your enemies. But this is a curious—and spurious—objection. Suppose a psychotic individual is attempting to murder some children playing at the park and the only way to stop him is to put him in critical condition. Is Maher saying the Christian should not do this? Does loving our enemies mean we let our enemies kill innocent people? But what about the love we are commanded to show innocent people too? Shouldn’t we protect them? Protect those who can’t protect themselves? If we should, then sometimes the loving thing to do is fight our (or others’) enemies. So Maher’s criticisms are not very well-thought-out. I suppose if he were pressed, the qualifications he would be forced to make would make the objection anti-climactic and uninteresting. Now, while Maher’s specific examples are otiose, they still represent some of the standard, popular thinking on the matter. Somehow, at first blush, the objection is that Christian hypocrisy tells against the truth of Christianity. So how might a Christian respond?
The immediate reaction might be to say this reason against Christianity is an ad hominem fallacy, and thus we may wash our hands and be done with it. Surely, no fallacious reason can be a good reason to reject something. While there’s truth in this point, it’s probably overly rationalist and fails to take into account the subtlety of the objection. Moreover, respected thinkers on informal fallacies have pointed out that not all ad-hominem argumentation is necessarily fallacious (cf. the works of Douglas N. Walton).
At all events, we can still probably dispense fairly quickly with idea that the hypocrisy objection tells against the truth of Christianity. For it to do that, some highly questionable assumptions would have to be made. Here’s one: If Christianity is true, no Christian will be a hypocrite.
That assumption is plainly false, or so I say. First, we must assume that no ostensible hypocrite is a Christian. But let us grant that at least some ostensible hypocrite is a Christian. We must also assume that the ostensible hypocrisies are actual cases of hypocrisy (which means the Christian must believe what she is doing is wrong; for it is insufficient to make charge of hypocrisy stick if the alleged hypocrite doesn’t say X but does not-X—that is, not all cases of inconsistent behavior are cases of hypocrisy, even if all cases of hypocrisy are cases of inconsistency). But again, let’s grant that at least some ostensible hypocrisy is actual hypocrisy (and also that in these cases Christians are the perpetrators). Still, where would one get the idea that no Christian will ever be a hypocrite? Certainly not from the Bible, for the Bible tells us that we are sinners, even after conversion (e.g., Rom. 7:15-20; 1 John 1:8; James 5:16). Indeed, even another popular reason against Christianity presupposes that Christians sin. In fact, this objection is often inconsistently made by the very same people who make the hypocrisy charge. That objection goes something like this:
Christians are always wringing their hands about how sinful and depraved they are. They’re like women in an abusive relationship, who love their heavenly father even though he tells them how imperfect they are and in need of his forgiveness on a daily basis. Pop-psychology has even taught us that major cause of psychological malfunction stems from Christian views of sin and guilt. Christians are always worried about sinning; they live life in a straitjacket.
So, if an essential tenet of the Christian faith—a tenet even Christianity’s detractors are all to ready to point out—is that Christians sin, how can pointing out that Christians sin be an argument against Christianity? If anything, it’s confirmatioƒn of their claims!
But, perhaps the thought is more subtle than this. Instead of functioning as an argument against the truth of Christianity, it’s more an argument against the genuineness of some Christians. But what does this amount to? Not that they aren’t really Christians (though that could be true) because they sin—that was covered above. So maybe it’s something more like this: “You Christians aren’t really living according to the teachings of Jesus as you say you are.” But what’s the upshot here? Not simply that, “See, you Christians sin,” for we already knew that. Moreover, in the abstract, the point is rather trivial. I know of no one who always lives in accord with their ideal moral life. (And we can now ask why that is and what should be done about it. We know Christianity’s answer: man is a sinner and needs to be saved by a perfect, sinless savior.) So, everyone (at least, every properly functioning human moral agent) is, at some time or another, a hypocrite. Either that, or atheists, Muslims, Hindus, etc., are morally perfect. But one doubts that even someone as smug as, say, Bill Maher, would be willing to claim for himself moral perfection—though I must honestly admit—and not to be snarky either—that I am not confident in this charitable assessment of Maher.
Finally though, and most important after the above analysis, is that if one is going to claim that Christians don’t live according to the commands and ideals of Jesus Christ, and have in mind here specifics rather than the uninteresting abstract claim that people don’t live up to their moral ideals, then we can ask for specific examples. But as we saw with Maher, this claim is often more bark than bite. The specific claims are often based on a poor and naive understanding of theology and the Bible. In fact, the charges are usually more autobiographical than anything. They tell us more about the ignorance or perhaps religious upbringing of the objector. That’s why these charges are often ironic in that the intelligent objector (they never tire of pointing this out), who often mocks fundamentalism, simply give voice to their inner fundamentalist child. Thus, the charge that, “Christians are hypocrites!” often means something like, “Christians aren’t supposed to drink, dance, chew, or go out with girls who do; but then I saw Reverend Smith drinking a beer and then cutting a rug with a hot chick, and Christians aren’t supposed to have fun!” The upshot is that it’s much harder to document specific cases of rampant and obvious hypocrisy ubiquitous in the Christian community than most people think.
On a more serious note, there are good and proper specific examples of real Christian hypocrisy. If one can point out legitimate cases of hypocrisy, Christians ought to admit it, repent, and seek to change their behavior by the grace of God. And all Christians would admit as much. So there’s no unsavory “dirt” here, no “gotcha” for the Christian. Ultimately, Christianity is about admitting we have failings and pointing people to the only unfailing one. Christianity confesses, “There is no one good, save God.” This objection, then, considered as a reason against being a Christian, or considered as pointing out some obvious moral failing unique to Christianity, leaves a lot to be desired.