02 December 2020

Hypocrisy versus inconsistency.

HYPOCRISY hə'pɑk.rə.si noun Pretense: Practice of claiming beliefs or moral standards which one doesn’t truly have.
2. Inconsistency: Practice of claiming beliefs or moral standards, but one’s own behavior demonstrates otherwise.
[Hypocrite 'hɪp.ə.krɪt noun, hypocritical hɪp.ə'krɪd.ə.kəl adjective.]

I reposted the definition from my original article on hypocrisy because I need to remind you there are two popular definitions of the word: Pretense and inconsistency. When Christians talk about hypocrisy, we usually mean pretense: Someone’s pretending to be what they’re not. When everybody else talks about it (and many Christians are included in this group), they mean inconsistency: A person says one thing, but does another.

And yeah, some of this idea is found in the gospels. Right before Jesus went on a rant about Pharisee misbehavior, he pointed out how inconsistent they were.

Matthew 23.1-4 NLT
1 Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, 2 “The teachers of religious law and the Pharisees are the official interpreters of the law of Moses. 3 So practice and obey whatever they tell you, but don’t follow their example. For they don’t practice what they teach. 4 They crush people with unbearable religious demands and never lift a finger to ease the burden.”

Yet as they’re inflicting Pharisee customs on the population, and enforcing it as if God himself commanded it, everything they do is for show. Mt 23.5 They pretend to be holy, yet sin just as much as anyone.

So yeah, this behavior is galling. Notice how often kids are quick to make a fuss about it. At one time or another every little kid has objected, “How come you get to stay up till midnight, but I have to go to bed at 8:30?” And since we’re never gonna tell them, “So I can get three hours of uninterrupted peace for once,” usually our excuse will be some rubbish about how they need more sleep than adults do. (Yeah they do, but not that much. Adults need way more sleep than we get!) But the bottom line is thIs: There’s an inconsistency in the rules, which favor the ones who make the rules. That’s not right.

And not just because the LORD said so—

Leviticus 19.15 NLT
“Do not twist justice in legal matters by favoring the poor or being partial to the rich and powerful. Always judge people fairly.”

—but because it violates the human tendency towards reciprocity and karma. What’s good for the goose should be good for the gander. Equal justice under law. The idea’s pretty widely taught, and well-embedded in our institutions… although let’s be honest: Tons of Pharisee-style loopholes for the rich and powerful are also well-embedded in our institutions.

These inconsistencies are wrong. People are right to say so. People are pretend they’re not there, or they’re no longer there, or they’re not as bad as all that, or who blind themselves to how they benefit from these inconsistencies: Some of them are willfully evil, and some are naïvely so. But it’s unjust, and we Christians need to fight it.

Now, is it hypocrisy? Not if we’re using Jesus’s definition, no. Hypocrisy means pretending to be what you’re not. True, people frequently use hypocrisy to defend inconsistency (“What do you mean, that law’s unjust? I haven’t suffered from it”) but they’re still really two different things. Both wrong, but still.

Inconsistency and preaching.

As usual, back to Jesus. Yes the Pharisees were all kinds of inconsistent. But notice what he told his students despite their inconsistency:

Matthew 23.3 NLT
“So practice and obey whatever they tell you, but don’t follow their example. For they don’t practice what they teach.”

In first-century synagogue the teachers would stand up at a lectern, open the bible and read a passage, then go sit down on a throne in the front of the room, and engage their students. Usually it’d be a Socratic-style discussion: “When the prophet says such-and-so, what does he mean?” and the students would answer, and the teacher would pick apart their answers, and they’d really get into it. At the end of the lesson the teacher would come to a conclusion: “This is what it means,” and the well-grilled students would agree, ’cause he helped lead ’em to that conclusion too.

But did the teachers live by these conclusions? Not always.

Should they have? Absolutely. That’s the whole point of studying bible! It’s supposed to change our lives. But whether it’s because we lack discipline, or because—let’s be honest—we don’t like the conclusions we’ve come to, so we’re gonna press pause for a bit and search for an alternative answer or a loophole: We don’t always let the scriptures, particularly Jesus’s teachings, change our lives. We might know Jesus told us to turn the other cheek, Mt 5.39 but we might still insist, as popular Christianist author John Eldredge does, that Jesus can’t have meant to give in to bullies, for real men punch bullies back.

Eldredge straight-up dismisses and undermines Jesus, but your average devout Christian knows better than to do any such thing. We’re gonna at least try to follow Jesus. But we’re weak, and our Lord knows we’re weak. Sometimes we’re gonna hit back, even though we totally know better. We’re gonna fail; we’re gonna be inconsistent; we’re gonna have to apologize to Jesus, and to our fellow Christians who were watching our example, for failing them. Jesus is gracious about it, and some of our fellow Christians are too.

But some of ’em aren’t. Some pagans aren’t. Antichrists definitely aren’t. People who wanna bash Christianity and Christians are hoping for any reason to do so, and our regular inconsistencies give ’em lots of useful ammunition: “See? You preach one thing, but do another. You hypocrites.”

They say hypocrisy, but it’s not always proper hypocrisy. Yeah, sometimes we’re dealing with TV preachers who publicly denounce greed and covetousness, but in private they spend crazy amounts of money on stupid things, and never give to charity. They’re pretending to be what they’re not; that’s the hypocrisy. But if they’re not hiding anything—if they denounce conspicuous materialism, yet everybody knows they have a mansion and a private plane, it’s not good… but it’s not actually hypocrisy. It’s inconsistency. It’s definitely immaturity. It ruins your message with a lot of people, which is another reminder why we should only put mature Christians in leadership. But nobody’s lying; nobody’s play-acting; nobody’s pretending; nobody’s an actual hypocrite.

If it feels like I’m nitpicking: I’m a teacher. It’s what we do.

But popular definitions, though incorrect—and in this case doesn’t reflect what Jesus is teaching—is how the word gets used, and what the word means to a lot of people. So we Christians oughta strive to not just avoid hypocrisy, but inconsistency as well. Aim for integrity in all things. Practice what we preach. Not just because we never know who’s watching… and waiting to pounce.