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17 January 2014

The two-faced Church?

The two-faced Church?

So it seems everybody is pointing the finger, endlessly speculating or downright guffawing, over the alleged indiscretions of French president Francois Hollande.

We seem to have a thirst for the juicier morsels of scandal of those involved in public life, from which even the Church is not immune.

In fact the biggest critique of Christians today is that they're just a big bunch of hypocrites. They don't practise what they preach; they say one thing but live in a totally different way.

Who are we to judge Monsieur Hollande?

When you flick through the annals of history, read of the monstrosities of the Crusades, the heavy-handed domination of empires or the bigoted social and ethnic divides that are often accredited to the Church, doesn't it basically indicate that Christianity is a defective product? It claims to change your life, but in reality stinks of rank hypocrisy.

Well, I think it's important to underline that every belief system will attract people who don't meet its standards. In fact I noticed that the first schism has already appeared within the recently formed atheist 'church', with the New York faction concerned the group's message and tone isn't 'atheist' enough, whatever that might mean.

Hypocrisy is everywhere.

At the 1993 annual meeting of the American Heart Association in Atlanta, Stephen Nordbye wrote that 300,000 doctors, nurses and researchers came together to discuss, among other things, the importance a low-fat diet plays in keeping hearts healthy. Yet during mealtimes they consumed fat-filled fast food like bacon cheeseburgers at the same rate as people from other conventions. The presence of hypocrisy within any movement should demand further investigation, sure, but it doesn't have a direct bearing on whether or not the message of that movement is true. That is a totally different question.

The very idea of hypocrisy has some intriguing origins. The Greek word hupokrites 'was better attributed to actors on a stage, brilliant at conveying one persona on it, and another in real life. In the classical works of Plato and Aristotle, you could even say it had complimentary tones. The best hupokritai would have made superb performers.

In all probability a carpenter called Joseph, and his protégé, Jesus, would have found work in and around one of the greatest theatres of the first century in a town called Sepphoris, less than an hour's walk from Nazareth. Jesus would have been exposed to the stage, the theatre, in some form, almost certainly.

The word 'hypocrite' is used 17 times in the New Testament. Each and every time it is spoken by Jesus. It is he that gave hypocrisy the stinging meaning that we ascribe to it today.

The late (and great) Harvard philosophy professor, Dallas Willard, puts it like this:"It is clear from the literary records that it was Jesus alone who brought this term 'hypocrisy'and the corresponding character into the moral record of the Western world. It is ironic that even when, precisely when, we criticise the Church for producing hypocrites, we pay tribute to this man Jesus whose teaching gave us the picture of hypocrisy that shapes our moral understanding 2,000 years later."

So is there hypocrisy in the Church? Yes.

Is this hypocrisy bad? Undoubtedly.

Does it detract from the message of Jesus. Pas du tout.

But it should cause us to live with a greater degree of humility, read salacious headlines with a little less zeal, and certainly think twice before we comment on or judge the failings of others.

More than that, an acknowledgement of our own duplicity should be the foundation of our relationship with God. When Jesus teaches on prayer, the very firstthing that comes out of his mouth is not "Pray lots" or "Pray every day" but instead: "When you pray, do not be like the hypocrites" (Matthew 6:5).

Admitting our own two-facedness is what ironically makes us not hypocritical and it's exactly the kind of message the Church should be better at conveying.

Sir Arthur Adams, an English colonial official in the 1800s, whose image hangs in the National Portrait Gallery, once said this: "Don't stay away from church because there are so many hypocrites. There's always room for one more."

I couldn't agree with him more, and Monsieur Hollande, for one, would be more than welcome at mine.