I Am A Hypocrite – November 18, 2006

Once upon a time, a church I attended, Chapel Hill United Methodist Church in Rome, GA, started a Saturday-evening gathering that theoretically was directed at a younger crowd than your standard Sunday morning service, and I did something that probably was closer to “preaching” but I tried to be relatable like any 30-something who was trying to teach to college-age folk should be.

It didn’t last. But the messages got blogged, and are saved here for posterity, along with my notes on them.

As part of this whole Saturday night worship thing that I’m leading, I thought something of a cool experiment would be to type out the text that I would be going through, to organize my thoughts better, to give myself something to fall back on should I get nervous, and to get a feel for the timing.

For that reason, I didn’t even come close to saying the amount of stuff I’d typed after the jump. I wanted to limit myself to 20 minutes’ worth of jabbering. It came closer to 22. If I’d have gone through all of the below, I would have hit 30 minutes easily.

This is a very good thing to know. For future reference: go for two pages on the OpenOffice document, not three and a half.

I still think this is probably the best start I could have hoped for, in terms of having a message, for the circumstances we’re trying to build under right now. Next shot: December 2nd.


Many of you have heard the news about the now-former president of the National Association of Evangelicals, Ted Haggard. For those of you who don’t know the name, Haggard was a pastor who built a megachurch named New Life in Denver, and whose progressive evangelical preaching brought him to the forefront of his movement. He was the classic pastor-who-had-it-all – his church hit a peak membership clear of 10,000, he had the tight relationship with the other Colorado elites of the Christian right, he had the weekly teleconference with President Bush, he had the beautiful wife and the five kids, including an eldest son who was starting ministry in his own church, and he had the bully pulpit to get his ideas in front of people.

He has also been, for the past three years, keeping the company of a male escort.

On the morning of November 1, the guy in question said that he had maintained a sexual business relationship with an unnamed national religious leader. Haggard, on Thursday, while maintaining that “he was steady with his wife”, resigned the NAE and placed himself on administrative leave. By Friday, he was confessing that he knew the guy, but saying only some of the allegations were true. By Saturday, he had resigned everything. On Sunday morning, a letter was read to the congregation at New Life where Haggard said “I am a deceiver and a liar.”

Clearly, the guy was having a little bit of trouble dealing with the fact that he was a hypocrite.

One of my best friends said it far better than I could: “If you’re going to fight against gay marriage day in and day out, y’know…Please try to avoid the hot man lovin’.” The idea that a guy could so dramatically say one thing and do another simply is galling to our sensibilities. And it’s even more galling when that guy is an influential pastor and Christian leader.

In my day, the guy in question was Jim Bakker. He was the televangelist who built the PTL Network pretty much from scratch, and constructed a massive Christian theme park in Charlotte. Televangelist ministries in those days were very heavily dependent on the investment of their viewers, and as the 1980’s went forward, the ministries went increasingly seedy in how they made their pitches. Bakker’s ultimate pitch was the “lifetime memberships” that he wanted to sell – for a donation clear of $1,000 to PTL, you could get a three-night stay at a luxury hotel that would soon be built at Heritage USA. These pitches were more than a bit popular – PTL had more than 20,000 “lifetime members”. But Heritage USA only completed one 500-room hotel before the ministry collapsed in 1987, and the allegations of financial impropriety flew fast and furious – all the more so when the opulence in which the Bakkers lived came to light. (And the fact that Bakker resigned from PTL for a dalliance with one Jessica Hahn didn’t help matters one bit.) Jim Bakker went to prison for fraud, racketeeing, and tax evasion in 1989.

Well, it’s easier for televangelists to preach a prosperity gospel when they’re lining their own pockets.

I read a very interesting take on the Haggard affair this week. I really wasn’t sure what I thought about it when I first read it. It was written in the blog of the religion and culture journal “First Things” by a Villanova law professor, Robert Miller. He made the argument that what Haggard did fell along the lines of the wrongdoing that Bill Clinton engaged in with Monica Lewinsky, and his argument can be summarized by: “Wrongdoing like that … is not hypocrisy because it flows from weakness, not malice. Contrary to our sincere intentions and wishes, we sometimes do things we know to be wrong. Immediately after doing them, we acknowledge, at least to ourselves, that we have done wrong…Hypocrisy is a much worse form of moral wrongdoing.” In other words, if you know what you’re doing is wrong, and you struggle to avoid doing wrong, but you do it anyway, that’s not as bad as it is if you “consciously and intentionally” lie about what you’re doing and why, with the hopes of gaining from your lie – the way that we might think that Jim Bakker lied.

I put a lot of thought into that argument; I was even asking the guys I share Bible study with yesterday morning about that argument. And the more that I stewed on that, the more I came to my highly nuanced theological conclusion about it, which boiled down to “Thinking that one type of lying is worse than another is stupid.” Why in the world define hypocrisy as anything else as “to say one thing but do another”? We can be far too clever in how we talk about this kind of wrong, or that kind of wrong – but we miss the point that it’s still wrong. When we say one thing and do another, for whatever reason, we do wrong.

The single best theological argument in the Bible is found in Paul’s letter to the Romans. When Paul wrote this letter, his aim was to convince its hearers and readers of their need – all men’s need – for a Savior, in the person of Jesus Christ. He started his argument in the very first chapter, by pounding on (in Romans 1:18) “the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness.” Paul preaches, and he preaches pretty hard, on how the world is going to pot. Yes, he beats on the “shameful lusts” of men. He also complains about the idolatry of the world. He also complains about the depravity of the human condition in his time, and he rattles off sin after sin (verses 29-31): “They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; they are senseless, faithless, heartless, ruthless.”

Now, I don’t know about you, but I can imagine the pious believer hearing all of this and knowing exactly the guys he didn’t want to be like. He hears this preaching, he hears this pounding, he hears all of the “they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death” (verse 32), and he thinks to himself “yeah, Paul, tell ’em! Preach it! All those guys are full of sin! All those guys need to get right with God! All those guys are goin’ to hell if they don’t stop right now!”

And that’s the point where Paul gets us. Turn the page to the second chapter, and you read:

You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge the other, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things. Now we know that God’s judgment against those who do such things is based on truth. So when you, a mere man, pass judgment on them and yet do the same things, do you think you will escape God’s judgment? Or do you show contempt for the riches of his kindness, tolerance and patience, not realizing that God’s kindness leads you toward repentance?

In other words: You point the finger everywhere else. Eventually, you find the finger pointing back at you.

Look, I teach college for a living, at a Baptist school, in the heart of Bible-belt culture. When, in those conversations I have in my office, I come across students who don’t want to have anything to do with God, nine times out of ten, it’s because of damage that’s been done in the church. It could be something as treacherous as sexual abuse. It could be something as simple as a hateful word said by someone in a single moment of weakness. More often than not, it’s something like gossip, or cliquishness. It’s a bunch of people in a church proclaiming that they truly love everybody, and then not thinking about those proclamations when they deal with people that ask the wrong questions, or listen to the wrong kind of music, or when they dress the wrong way, or when they simply don’t act the way that a “church person” is supposed to act.

And maybe there’s malice behind that – maybe someone truly does want to run a person who isn’t the right sort out of a church. Or maybe that damage has been done by someone who really doesn’t know how to deal with people not like them. I’m sure that I’ve done that sort of damage myself.

My point is this: I will stand up before you and tell you I’m a hypocrite. I will preach about being welcoming. I will tell you how important that it is to love one another. And then I will completely blow you off in conversation, or I’ll talk to somebody else about you behind your back, or I’ll do something else to verbally damage you. I simply can’t be trusted to treat another person the right way. Those of you who know me might think that I’m better than that, and I might have been better than that to you, but I’m not better than that all the time.

And I’m not the only one.

Let me go one other place in Romans – when we put together the flyers for tonight, this is the scripture I referenced on them. Remember, this was written by Paul. Paul was the single most important missionary of the early church – the number of adherents to Christianity multiplied manyfold simply because of Paul’s influence. Nobody is going to question that Paul did right, as God wanted him to do. And so what does Paul say about himself? Romans 7:15-25:

I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.So I find this law at work: When I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God—through Jesus Christ our Lord!

I don’t cite this scripture to encourage self-loathing, OK? I don’t bring this out to make you hate yourself. I bring this out to make this point: Even the greatest Christian missionary of all time, the so-called “superapostle”, felt he was a hypocrite. If Paul was a hypocrite, then being a hypocrite is a fundamental part of the Christian experience. It’s a fundamental part of the human experience.The bad news is, we’re all hypocrites. But the good news is, we’re all hypocrites. If you say one thing and do another, it doesn’t mean you’re some horrible kind of sinner. It means you’re sitting in the same boat as every other of us.

The church is full of hypocrites? Absolutely. So is the rest of the world. “Come on in; there’s room for one more.”

Now, those of us who sit in this place who take the name of Jesus Christ, we have an obligation. It is critical for us that we eliminate our hypocrisy, as much as we are able to do so. We have to find ways to end this struggle and to actually do the things that we preach about, so that we are above reproach. This is the way we make the power of Christ evident to the world; in fact, we cannot be above reproach without the power of Jesus Christ, and we can’t pretend otherwise. Paul asks, “Who will rescue me from this body of death?” He doesn’t say himself. He doesn’t say the church. He doesn’t pinpoint any of the other leaders of the church at the time. He points solely to God, through Jesus Christ. If Paul could not be saved, and could not be made whole, without the power of Christ, who are we to think we can make ourselves right by ourselves?

But we also need to make sure it’s clear to the rest of the world that they are welcome here, warts and all. And if you are here tonight and this has never been made clear to you before, it needs to be made clear to you now: You are surrounded by people like you. We are all on the same ground, with the same neediness. We need all need God to rescue us just as badly.

As you see men and women struggle and fail around us, as you see hypocrites exposed and shamed, understand this about them. Pray for them, even. In this world, at this time, they need God to rescue them just as badly.