Paul’s Pious Phonies

Paul’s critique of religious hypocrisy has a contemporary bite.

Venice_Carnival_-_Masked_Lovers_(2010)
The word hypocrisy derives from the masks that actors once wore in drama.

You don’t get very far into the apostle Paul’s Letter to the Romans before you encounter his sharp critique of hypocritical Jews in chapter 2. Paul is severe on his fellow Jews who seem to elevate their noses as they assess the many failures and flaws of the Gentiles. We might call them Paul’s pious phonies.

These Jews take great pride that God’s Torah has been given to them. They therefore know God’s will. This gives them a sense that they hold a superior responsibility for instructing others in that truth. We hear that attitude coming through in this question posed by Paul:

…if you call yourself a Jew and rely on the law [Torah] and boast of your relation to God and know his will and determine what is best because you are instructed in the law, and if you are sure that you are a guide to the blind, a light to those who are in darkness, a corrector of the foolish, a teacher of children, having in the law the embodiment of knowledge and truth, you, then, that teach others, will you not teach yourself?

Who do you think you are when you judge and condemn others, asks Paul, when you yourselves commit the very same sins? All you are doing, he contends, is storing up God’s judgment on yourselves.

A Pointed Message for Christians, Too

It’s a pretty devastating critique. Christians, however, have no reason to feel self-satisfied. If Paul were to visit most churches today, he might level the same charge against a good many Christians. We Christians have no grounds for feeling superior over our Jewish cousins, let alone unbelievers.

Many of us, like the Jews Paul critiques, hold this idea that we are in possession of the Truth, with a capital T. Therefore we have no hesitancy in telling others how to live. I know this because I grew up in just such a church environment. I was constantly being told what I should believe and how I should behave. Church members harbored no doubts about the truth because they were self-proclaimed Bible believers.

But many did not live by the standards they proclaimed, especially the very stringent standards they proclaimed about our sexual lives. Just witness the many TV evangelists over the last 40 years who have been caught up in sexual scandals. The same could be said about financial scandals or irresponsible fundraising.

It gets worse as we broaden our vision beyond the evangelical world in which I grew up. Just take the continuing revelations of sexual abuse that are rocking the Roman Catholic Church. Nor is it just ethical breaches we must note. We can also cite the extreme bitterness shown in local church and denominational fights over power to control church administration and to define doctrine. The picture is not pretty.

The consequence of this Jewish behavior, says Paul, is that the name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles. They violate the third commandment by making wrongful use of the name of the Lord. They bring a blemish on the good reputation of God.

The same can be said for Christian hypocrisy. Many atheists and agnostics cite the hypocrisy and judgmentalism of Christians as the primary reason they have no time for religion. It also underlies the attitudes of many today who claim to be spiritual, but not religious. Trust in religious institutions and religious leaders is low. It is not hard to find some of the compelling reasons why.

This should be a serious concern as Christians assess their own behavior as well as hold church authorities accountable.

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Photo credit: Frank Kovalchek.  Reproduced by Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 license.