American evangelicals’ most besetting — and most damning — sin is hypocrisy.
“Evangelical” has taken on a political connotation, of course. But at their core, modern-day evangelicals are Christians who actively pursue the conversion of sinners, believe the Bible is inerrant or errorless, and claim their faith guides all their actions.
Their theology runs the gamut, from neo-Calvinism to historic fundamentalism, with plenty of iterations in-between. Their attitude spans from aggressive preachers, politicians and internet posers to benign/benighted pew-sitters. But what they have in common is a dumbed down view of salvation, as well as a sold-out idolatry of political power.
Even a casual observer could list a litany of evangelical hypocrisies. Always take two Baptists fishing; if you take only one, he’ll drink all your beer. You can recall plenty of others, all more sober. Here’s a starter list of topics: Sex. Money. Power. Race. More sex.
But evangelicals’ most heretically heinous hypocrisy burrows into and corrodes faith. It undermines both their name and their identity, driving people away from any association with Christ and Christianity. Many evangelicals — who claim to care most about the salvation of souls, who tout evangelism as their No. 1 priority — really don’t care if other people go to hell. How hypocritical.
For example, adherents of prominent evangelical communions and congregations regularly and loudly lecture everyone else on sexual morality, even as some of their leaders protect sexual abusers among their clergy. This hypocrisy, which grows more public in proportion to how frantically they try to cover it up, pushes people away from God.
So, you don’t need to get out much to know friends, neighbors and even family who want to stay as far as possible from God, Jesus and church. Ask them why. Even if they don’t know the word “evangelical,” they’ll describe evangelical behavior.
“They hear the word ‘love’ on evangelicals’ lips, but evangelicals they know are unloving and downright mean.”
They hear the word “love” on evangelicals’ lips, but evangelicals they know are unloving and downright mean. They find Jesus’ teaching compelling, but neighbors who tout their Christian bona fides contradict that teaching every day. They look at the world around them and see evangelical Christians supporting endeavor after endeavor designed to hurt people.
Religious hypocrisy isn’t new, of course. Read the Scriptures. From the earliest pages of history and the prophets, right through the Gospels and into the epistles, hypocrisy mars page after page. God told Israel, “I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies” because their hypocrisy stunk worse than the bull excrement in the pen where they kept the fatted sacrifices. Similarly, cozy cliques in the Corinthian congregation made a mockery of the Lord’s Supper.
Christian hypocrisy flourished through the centuries. Remember the Puritans, who journeyed to America in pursuit of religious liberty — but only liberty for themselves, not for anyone who understood God differently. Don’t forget Southern Christians who engaged in passionate worship and showy revival meetings while first owning other people and then later while denying basic rights to people they wished they still owned.
More recently, however, contemporary evangelicals have ratcheted Christian hypocrisy to unprecedented levels. No doubt, many evangelicals believe they’re upholding the true and inerrant faith. But their actions increasingly exhibit disrespect and disdain for the greater good. They marginalize and take advantage of the weak and vulnerable. They directly defy the teachings of Jesus, who said his followers would be judged by how they treat “the least of these.” They thwart Jesus’ priorities — bring good news to the poor, proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, and free the oppressed.
“They have dumbed down and distorted the meaning of salvation. And they have embraced old-fashioned idolatry.”
Unfortunately, evangelicals’ hypocrisy grows from two deep roots: They have dumbed down and distorted the meaning of salvation, reducing a lifelong relationship with Christ to a mere transaction. And they have embraced old-fashioned idolatry, bowing to hollow-but-consuming God of power politics.
The Apostle Paul insisted Christians engage in three phases of salvation. First is regeneration, “new life,” when people repent of their sins and accept a humble relationship with God in Christ. Throughout their mortal lifetimes, they follow the process of sanctification, seeking to become more and more like Jesus in both thought and action. Finally, when human life ends, they receive glorification, their heavenly, eternal presence with God.
Evangelicals tend to market the first phase, skip the second and dream about the third. So, they reduce salvation to “fire insurance,” guaranteeing deliverance from hell and a place in heaven.
Evangelicals’ truncated understanding of salvation deals two deadly blows.
First, by focusing on punching their ticket to heaven, they’re free to live like hell. This is the source of evangelicals’ hypocrisy. They’re “saved,” so they’re going to heaven. What they do in the meantime really doesn’t matter. This frees them to proclaim God loves people while doing or supporting almost every kind of self-serving hateful action.
“By focusing on punching their ticket to heaven, they’re free to live like hell.”
And this incongruity doesn’t affect them, because — according to their view of salvation — their only responsibility to others is to preach the gospel. They don’t have to care whether the hearers accept that gospel, because what sinners do at the end of the sermon or testimony is up to them. And they certainly don’t have to care about the quality of others’ lives, because sinners only get what they deserve.
According to evangelical logic, a person can feel strong attachment to and concern for a sinner in the moment of witnessing or preaching but totally disregard what happens apart from that moment.
Thinking about salvation is not a binary process. It’s both/and, not either/or. Yes, Jesus taught regeneration and glorification. He invited people to “follow me” and promised heaven. But his teaching, preaching and miracles focused on sanctification, the “kingdom come” practice of healing and blessing and lifting up lives here on earth. Salvation is not complete — not what God intended — without all three parts.
Failure to follow Jesus completely leads to goading people toward heaven while giving them hell on earth. What could be more hypocritical than that?
People are not stupid, and they see through the malarky of evangelicals’ professed love. That’s why if you show you care for people who are far from God and give them a safe space to talk, they’ll most likely tell you they don’t want anything to do with Christ because of Christians.
To be sure, many kind-intentioned people sit in the pews of evangelical churches. But alongside the aggressive hypocrisy of big-name preachers, social network influencers and the occasional denominational kingpin, benign hypocrisy lurks in ordinary congregations.
These churches practice benevolence ministries. Their members actively feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the prisoners and encourage the bereaved. But given the consequences of their other actions, those deeds of kindness amount to putting bandages on snakebite victims while turning more snakes loose in their neighborhoods.
These benevolent evangelicals may project a kind front. Indeed, they may feel kindly toward others. But they are no less dangerous, because they are deceptive — to themselves as much as to others. They are the same as the “white moderate” Martin Luther King Jr. wrote about in Letter from Birmingham Jail. He called them the “great stumbling block” in the way of progress. “Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will,” he wrote. “Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”
For decades, mean and kind evangelicals alike have practiced old-fashioned idolatry on an escalating scale. They have bowed to the altar of power. They have placed their trust in politicians and legislation and judges and courts that consolidate power into the hands of people who look just like them — white, middle-class Americans to whom God has promised “exceptional” status.
“It’s small wonder others think God is as mean and venal and punitive and unjust as the Christian flag-waving people who are persecuting them.”
And since evangelicals comprise the most cohesive voting bloc of Americans, their collective hypocrisy has unleashed untold misery upon people they profess to love. Looking up from that misery, it’s small wonder others think God is as mean and venal and punitive and unjust as the Christian flag-waving people who are persecuting them.
Since evangelicals’ theology says all they owe another person is an invitation to heaven, they don’t even concern themselves with wondering whether their public lives consign fellow human beings to living hell. Inexplicably, they never seem to understand — or, sadder still, maybe they do understand but don’t care — how the actions they take in a voting booth completely undermine every kind deed or noble expression they make the rest of their lives.
That’s why evangelicals have become known as the group that props up politicians who hate women, particularly girls and poor women of color; who have no qualms about tearing children from their parents’ arms; who want to block and/or take away rights of all kinds of minorities; who want to make voting as hard as possible; who tear the fabric of public education; who think shooting guns designed to eviscerate human flesh is more important than protecting human beings; who want to ban books that help people understand what others think; who don’t care what happens to our climate as long as they feel comfortable today.
This power exerted by evangelicals drives people away from God. That’s the consequence of hypocrisy. People believe actions more than they trust words. Folks know better when evangelicals profess to love them but vote to punish them. They don’t believe it when evangelicals say God loves them.
Evangelicals haven’t given them reason to believe. And that’s pure hell.
Marv Knox founded Fellowship Southwest after editing the Baptist Standard almost 20 years. Now retired, he lives with his wife, Joanna, in Durham, N.C., where he tries to do something useful almost every day.
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