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Hypocrisy is often discussed in the Bible but rarely mentioned in polite company. Originally denoting an actor performing with a mask, the word took on the negative connotation of an inconsistency between what one believes and how one acts. This inconsistency can be understood in two ways. Some inconsistencies are pretensions of self-righteousness, acting as if one is righteous and virtuous outwardly while lacking inward conviction. There are many examples of this in the Gospels. Jesus pointedly criticized many who were more interested in public praise for their religious acts of praying, fasting, and giving alms (Matt. 6:2, 5, 16), those who condemned the sins of others while ignoring their own (7:5), and those who worship with lips and outward appearance without sincerity (15:8–9). Jesus famously called out the hypocrisy of many religious leaders of His time by comparing them to cups and plates that are clean on the outside while remaining dirty on the inside and to “whitewashed tombs,” external beauty covering up the death inside (23:25–28). This inconsistency—outward spiritual pretense or false spirituality—is the most common depiction of hypocrisy.
But hypocrisy can also refer to an inconsistency of another kind, pretending not to have inward convictions when exercising them is inconvenient or difficult. In Galatians 2, Paul recounts an important interaction he had with Peter and Barnabas (vv. 11–14). When Peter joined Paul in Antioch, he initially enjoyed the company and fellowship of gentile Christians without hesitation or doubts. This is wholly consistent with Peter’s growing understanding of the message of the gospel that breaks down the traditions and distinctions that separated Jews from gentiles (see Acts 10–11). Yet, when others called “the circumcision party” arrived who maintained traditional distinctions between Jews and gentiles, Peter “drew back and separated himself” (Gal. 2:12). Why? Because of his fear of men. When Barnabas and many other Jews began to follow Peter, Paul confronted Peter and called out his hypocrisy (v. 13). Peter should have known better. Though he truly believed in the power of the gospel to break down human barriers, Peter followed the ways of men because of his fear of man’s judgment. His outward actions were inconsistent with his inner convictions.
If we are honest, we struggle with both forms of inconsistency. In the church, we often seek the acceptance and recognition of other believers by speaking, acting, and serving in ways that make us look more faithful, more knowledgeable, and more mature than we actually are. Moreover, in our daily lives, we often seek the acceptance and recognition of the world by muting our convictions and hiding our commitments in the ways we speak, act, and serve. Neither is acceptable.
The Scriptures exhort us to be consistent Christians, with a life of faith informed and motivated by the gospel. Clearly, this is easier said than done. Perhaps the church in Colossae is instructive. When Paul wrote his letter to that congregation, the Colossian church was small and new, and many of its believers were struggling to live out their faith in a world that was confusing and hostile. On all sides were philosophies, wisdom, and religions that encouraged these believers to mute, mix, and at times abandon their faith. To these Christians who were struggling to live out their faith, what did Paul say? He emphatically and repeatedly reminded the Colossians that Christ is supreme over all things and that all believers belong to Him (Col. 1:15–20). As the Heidelberg Catechism beautifully states, “I am not my own, but belong—body and soul in life and in death—to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ” (Q&A 1). Moreover, if we belong to Him, then we as believers ought “to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord” (Col 1:10; see 2:6).
Paul considered the idea of living “in a manner worthy of the Lord” important enough to repeat elsewhere with slight variations, as he urged believers to live in a manner worthy of “the gospel of Christ” (Phil. 1:27), “of the calling to which you have been called” (Eph. 4:1), and “of God” (1 Thess. 2:12). This is a life so transformed by Christ that it no longer seeks identity and status by pretending to be bigger or better, anything other than being sinners saved by grace. This is a life so conformed to Christ that to follow the will of God in Christ no longer is a sacrifice but a persistent joy even when following Him faithfully entails persecution and suffering. This is a life so focused on Christ that pleasing Him is the first and only purpose in life, so that we are no longer tempted to please others by pretending to be more or less than we actually are. As John Calvin helpfully stated:
Hence if it is asked, what kind of life is worthy of God, let us always keep in view this definition of Paul—that it is such a life as, leaving the opinions of men, and leaving, in short, all carnal inclination, is regulated so as to be in subjection to God alone.
This means whether in private or public, in the church or in the world, before friend or foe, or in person or online, we live consistently in a manner worthy of someone who is loved by Christ, is saved by Christ, and belongs to Christ.
Consistent Christianity is what the Word teaches and what the world needs. Our churches do not need Christians with inflated egos but believers who daily realize that Christ “must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30). Our communities and society do not need Christians who fade into the background of the present culture and life; instead, it needs those who by faithfulness and consistency in the ordinary testify to life and reality that is not of this world. This is not something we can do on our own, but, thankfully, “Christ, having redeemed us by his blood, is also renewing us by his Spirit into his image, so that with our whole lives we may show that we are thankful to God for his benefits, and that he may be praised through us” (HC 86).