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The "church hypocrite": What's the problem?

By Daniel M. Ryan
web posted May 26, 2008

The phrase "church hypocrite" tends to stick in the mind. Many people, after all, have bumped into an unpleasant Christian, of whatever denomination, and "church hypocrite" seems to do when bigotry won't suffice. The modern age does tend to put the ban on stereotyping, and "church hypocrite" is ‘inclusive' enough to cover any denomination, so it can't be fingered as a term that specifically singles out one variety of Christian. Although it's associated in popular culture with the rawer variants of Christianity, it can be applied to any denomination of Christian.

Since I was born and raised a Roman Catholic, although I'm formally lapsed, I can appreciate the ecumenicalism inherent in the term. Amongst certain Protestants, the church into which I was born, baptized and raised has a notorious sub-history as the "Church of hypocrites." Yes, even the Anglican can cast the "Church of Rome" as such, because the Roman Catholic way of keeping the High and Low laity intact strikes the good Anglican as Church-sanctioned braggartry.

In America, though, the term has a certain slant. Had there not been an ineradicable hostility between the more fundamentalist-oriented varieties of Christianity and the rainbow-coalition circuit, there would be complaints about the term having a disparate impact and a classist tinge. This standoffishness, if not aversion, towards secularism is an important point to remember, as it explains a special cross that has to be borne by those politically active Christians of the Baptist type.

Considered logically, a "church hypocrite" in the broadest sense is someone whose practice of his or her faith makes for a mockery of the words of God. Obviously, someone who cannot live up to all of the words of Christ (let alone all the words of sacred scripture) cannot be called that, as it's nonsensical. Christ being the Son of God, and the second member of the Holy Trinity, implies that every Christian is less than Christ Himself. Castigating someone as a "church hypocrite" for being less Christian than Christ Himself implies (as do all normative aspersions) that the target can, and should, be Christ's equal in terms of conduct. Putting aside the question of blaspheming, expecting a mere human to be the equal of the Son of God implies that the Son of God is a mere human. This implication rips apart Christianity.

A more logical use of the term centers around Christ's role in Christianity as the fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets. Since full knowledge of all the prophets is (for all but a few) too unreasonable a burden, and the Laws embedded in Leviticus are too much out of step with the modern polity, a reasonable interpretation is based on the Ten Commandments. Put simply, anyone who thinks that one (or more) of the Ten Commandments doesn't apply to him or her, but nevertheless insists that he or she is a durn good Christian, seems a reasonable match for the term "church hypocrite."

Except for one important qualification. What about the prophet Ecclesiastes?

Ecclesiastes details life in what a staunch Christian would call a Godless world, where the impious, brain-dead and opportunistic always seem to have the upper hand. Hence the pessimism and hint of misanthropy in the book. It ends with his vow to obey the Ten Commandments as best he can, not with the vow to obey them with full rigor. It's a subtle but important difference: given Ecclesiastes' standing as a full prophet, and his Book as part of sacred scripture, it implies that there are Godless times when it's impossible to obey the Ten Commandments fully. So, a faithful Christian who does not obey all the Ten Commandments cannot accurately be called a church hypocrite. He or she may simply be living in the shadows of an Ecclesiastean world.

Libertinism or antinomianism with respect to each of the Ten Commandments is a more plausible choice. The belief that (say) regular attendance in church, Christian activism, or monetary generosity gives one the right to jolly well flout one or more of the Ten Commandments, does match the term (if only roughly.) Using this definition of the term, and the standard Orthodox/Protestant version of the Ten Commandments, we get ten possible varieties of church hypocrite:

  1. The belief that being a better sort of Christian gives one the right to treat something unChristian as sacred also.
  2. The belief that being a better sort of Christian gives one the right to dabble in a little idolatry.
  3. The belief that a being a better sort of Christian gives one the right to invoke the name of God to get one's way.
  4. The belief that a being a better sort of Christian gives one the right to duck out of church or parallel religious exercise.
  5. The belief that a being a better sort of Christian gives one the right to run roughshod over one's parents. (This one is a little ambiguous, given Matthew 10: 21.)
  6. The belief that a being a better sort of Christian gives one the right to kill heathens and infidels for being themselves.
  7. The belief that a being a better sort of Christian gives one the right to fool around outside of one's marriage commitment.
  8. The belief that a being a better sort of Christian gives one the right to "reappropriate" the property of someone one doesn't like very much.
  9. The belief that a being a better sort of Christian gives one the right to tell a "holy untruth," particularly to the authorities.
  10. The belief that a being a better sort of Christian gives one the right to fume over the fellow who's having a better time in the world than oneself.

To repeat, I'm not hypothesizing that anyone who breaks, or even flouts, one or more of the Ten Commandments is ipso facto a church hypocrite. I specifically mean someone who thinks that (s)he has earned the right to do so, in exchange for behaving in a "Christian" way.

Note that this list does not include politicking. Given the way the political arena works, the term "church hypocrite" is likely to be flung at certain conservatives with the indiscriminacy that's often found in the political arena. When politicized, it does become a little unfair, particularly on those Protestants who emphasize self-conversion as a means of coming closer to God – the "born-again" circuit. The primacy of spiritual rebirth, as a passkey to a (more) truly Christian self, does oblige the good Christian to welcome in anyone who goes through the rebaptism, including the confession ritual, regardless of whether or not that person is otherwise all that likable. It also includes being tolerant towards the dysfunctional if they're born again. This obligation means that the born-again Christian who goes into politics is particularly vulnerable to mudslinging, of the "birds of a feather associate together" kind. In this sense, the old Christian maxim, "politics is not for gentlemen," is a disguised warning.

Regarding the Roman Catholic Church, I've noticed that schism tends to follow Church worldliness. The history of schism gives an added caution for those who venture into the political arena primarily as Christians. ESR

Daniel M. Ryan is a regular columnist for LewRockwell.com, and has an undamaged mail address here.

 


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