Hypocrisy: The Malpractice of Spiritual Leaders

There is no clear and distinct concept of hypocrisy in the Old Testament, though Isaiah 29:13 described this sinful condition quite precisely: “These people . . . honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are but rules taught by men” (marginal reading). The Hebrew word sometimes translated this way, chaneph, had a broader sphere of meaning better captured by “godlessness” or “profaneness,” as more recent translations attest (e.g., see Job 34:30; 36:13; Isaiah 32:6). During the intertestamental period, the pejorative sense of the common, classical Greek term appeared in the writings of God’s people. Thus, the hypocrite (hupocrites), the perpetrator of hypocrisy (hupocrisis), was guilty of reducing life to stage-playing. Like a wicked and deceptive actor, he played the part; he feigned the role; he pretended an identity (see Sirach 1:29; 32:15; 33:2; 2 Maccabees 5:25; 6:21, 25). Then, in the Synoptic Gospels, it is, without exception, the severest condemnation Jesus levels at the Pharisees and scribes, the devout keepers and teachers of the law. But on His lips the charge constituted a more weighty and varied indictment than its core meaning suggested.

A brief survey of the New Testament occurrences of this concept is in order before we get to Jesus’ meaning. It is no surprise, perhaps, that the burden of reporting this charge is borne primarily by Matthew, the Gospel to the Hebrews (6:2, 5, 16; 7:5; 15:7; 16:3; 22:18; 23:13-15, 23, 25, 27-29; 24:51). By comparison, the combined occurrences in Mark (7:6; 12:15) and Luke (6:42; 11:44; 12:1,56; 13:15; 20:20) amount to only half as many. John never mentions the accusation in any of his writings. Paul once accuses Peter of it (Galatians 2:13) and once false teachers (1 Timothy 4:2). The remaining references warn believers to eschew this sin (1 Peter 2:1) and to keep it from infecting the sincerity of their Christian virtues of wisdom (James 5:12), faith (1 Timothy 1:5; 2 Timothy 1:5), and love (Romans 12:9; 2 Corinthians 6:6; 1 Peter 1:22). Clearly, given the variety and distribution of these passages, the teaching of Jesus must be finally determinative and the violations of the Pharisees ultimately descriptive of this great vice.

The shortcomings of the Pharisees, scribes and teachers of the law that Jesus characterized as hypocritical can be categorized as deviations from the responsibilities of their high offices (to put the classification positively). It is safe to say that the composite of these departures from the divine expectation of perfect conformity defines the biblical concept of “hypocrisy.”

True Piety

They so practiced the great spiritual disciplines of piety, prayer, fasting and almsgiving, as to be honored by men (Matthew 6). Moreover, they decked their garments with ostentatious religious accessories; they loved the places of honor at religious services and social gatherings; they reveled in the public acclamation of “Rabbi” (Matthew 23:5-12). In short, their pious acts and signals were less aimed at expressing a full measure of devotion to God than at currying the recognition, approbation, favor and renown of men. It is a principle of true religion that men-pleasers cannot simultaneously be pleasing to God, the Judge and Rewarder of mankind (Ephesians 6:6-8; Galatians 1:10; 1 Thessalonians 2:4-6;). Therefore, Jesus thrice warned, “They have their reward in full” (Matthew 6:2,5,16), for while the religious leaders ostensibly were modeling the acts and the demeanor of true piety, they were in fact leading people away from the way of true devotion to God.

1. Proper Righteousness
Like their onetime comrade Paul (Philippians 3:6), the Pharisees thought that, by the expectation of God’s law, they were faultless. Evidence the zeal with which they pursued even the minutiae of the law (Matthew 23:23), the care with which they hedged about the divine commands with protective traditions (Matthew 12:1-14), the scrupulousness with which they observed ceremonial cleanness (Mark 7:1-23; Luke 7:39). Was this not proof enough of their full conformity? Jesus answered: “Unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:20). Witness the manifold opportunity for hypocrisy here:

a. Jesus charged them with selective obedience because they did not always practice what they preached (Matthew 23:1-4). For example, though passages like Micah 6:8 would be preached as the burden of the prophets, mercy, compassion and social justice for sinners, widows and the downtrodden were notably lacking (Matthew 23:4, 14, 23; Luke 7:39; 10:31-32; 15:1-2), since greed and self-indulgence prevailed (Luke 16:10-15; Matthew 23:25).

b. They majored on minors and minored on majors. They took the utmost care to tithe down to the individual leaves of the smallest garden herb, but neglected the most obvious demands of love, justice and mercy (Matthew 23:23-24). They approved of helping an animal out of a pit on the Sabbath, but rejected healing afflicted human beings (Matthew 12:11-12). This amounted to “straining out a gnat but swallowing a camel” (Matthew 23:24).

c. They omitted repentance because they had no need for it. The parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector is especially telling. The proud, confident, self-justified Pharisee is looking only for God’s confirmation of his self-sufficiency (Luke 18:10-14). The Baptist’s harsh warning to them to repent (God’s way of righteousness), as preparation for participation in the coming kingdom, went unheeded (Matthew 3:5-10; 21:23-32). And where there is no repentance, there is no saving faith in the all-sufficient God who justifies the ungodly.

d. They disregarded the righteousness that is from God, which alone can justify a man (Romans 10:1-4). This “Christ righteousness” is separate from our human efforts at legal obedience and is graciously imputed freely to everyone who believes (Romans 1:17; 3:21-24).

e. They conspired to have Jesus executed, so they were not above abusing the law to get at their supposed adversary (Matthew 12:14; 26:59-63; John 7:45-52).

Jesus’ excoriation of their legalistic righteousness labels their claim and evidence hypocritical: “You are the ones who justify yourselves in the eyes of men, but God knows your hearts. What is highly valued among men is detestable in God’s sight” (Luke 16:15).

2. Sincere Motives
They concentrated their efforts on presenting a good public front with little regard for the transgressions of the heart (Matthew 23:25-28), as if mere outward conformity could satisfy the expectation of God. But it is from the heart that a man’s condition before God is determined (Mark 7:20-23): “Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7). So they fooled men by their insincerity, but not God, and not Jesus: “On the outside you appear to people as righteous, but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness” (Matthew 23:28). So He likened them to “whitewashed tombs.”

More willful deception is seen in their effort to entrap Jesus in the matter of paying taxes to Caesar. Their action was hypocritical not only because they pretended to be seekers of the truth, but also because they themselves readily complied with the required taxes (Matthew 22:15-22).

3. Sound Doctrine
The Pharisees, scribes and teachers of the law “sat in Moses’ seat” as the religious teachers of Israel, so the people followed their instruction (Matthew 23:2-3). But their hypocrisy here is seen in that “their teachings are but rules taught by men”; that is, they have “let go of the commands of God . . . to hold on to the traditions of men” (Mark 7:1-13). This destructive tendency is seen in their doctrines of corban (Mark 7), Sabbath-keeping (Luke 13:10-16), oaths (Matthew 23:16-22), and in Jesus’ many corrections of their teachings in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7). How far they skewed altogether the true knowledge of God may be gathered from Jesus’ verdict that they had effectively “shut the kingdom of heaven in men’s faces” and would make any disciple of theirs “twice as much a son of hell as [they] are” (Matthew 23:13, 15).

No wonder Jesus warned his disciples to “beware of the leaven of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy” (Luke 12:1; Matthew 16:12 NASB). Blind guides they were in the way of sound doctrine (Matthew 23:13-24).

4. Reliable Judgment
Here their hypocrisy is detected in that they were willing to critically judge another but not themselves (Matthew 7:5). It was monumental misjudgment that led them to conclude that John the Baptist was demonic and Jesus a drunkard (Matthew 11:18-19); that Jesus cast out demons by the power of Beelzebub (Matthew 12:24); that Jesus was guilty of blasphemy (Matthew 26:63-67).

Their persistence after a sign from Jesus (Matthew 12:38) indicated how bankrupt their spiritual discernment really was. “Hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of the earth and the sky. How is it that you do not know how to interpret this present time?” (Luke 12:56). “Stop judging by mere appearances, and make a right judgment,” Jesus chided (John 7:24).

So then, what is hypocrisy? It appears from the evidence that it is a category of sin applicable primarily to religious leaders, to the public representatives of God’s cause. Only in the derived sense that we are all ambassadors, kings and priests does it pertain to all believers. It is a misrepresentation of the way of the Lord (whether in piety, righteousness, motives, doctrine or judgment) that leads people away from spiritual truth, heartfelt sincerity and wholesome integrity. The severity of its damage attaches to the proper role of a spiritual leader in God’s ordinance: They are expected to know, judge, teach and live the way in which they lead. The flock is dependent upon them for nurture and protection. Whether it is due to ignorance, carelessness, callousness or wickedness, we should hate hypocrisy with the same passion that Jesus did.

When a surgeon slips and cripples his patient, he may be charged in a lawsuit on the grounds that he was expected to be a true practitioner of his craft. When a lawyer misrepresents his client, his carelessness may merit disbarment. How about when a spiritual teacher, minister, elder, priest or administrator misleads, misrepresents or deceives in the cause of God? Such hypocrisy is the equivalent to spiritual malpractice. Because even the best-intentioned men may not always be able to accord it the same degree of concern that Jesus did, it is profitable for us to hear again the Master’s intensity:

Be on your guard against the leaven of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy. There is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed, or hidden that will not be made known. What you have said in the dark will be heard in the daylight, and what you have whispered in the ear in the inner rooms will be proclaimed from the roofs. (Luke 12:1-3)

Editorial: Hypocrisy- The Malpractice of Religious Leaders

The Laws of Clean and Unclean and Their Relationship with the Concept of Sacred Space, Joe M. Sprinkle

Does a Soul Have Wrinkles? Evangelism and Mature Adults, James A. Davies

The DNA Factor of Church Growth, Peter Hay

Constructing Contextual Theology in a Postmodern Asian Society, Paul Y. Siu

A Critique of Charles Nienkirchen's Book, A.B. Simpson and the Pentecostal Movement, Paul L. King

From Eden to the Christian Counselor's Couch: Humanity's Loss and Recovery of Wholeness, Craig W. Ellison

Nonverbal Communication and Spiritual Discernment, K. Neill Foster

Elio Cuccaro, Ph. D., Editor

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©2006 by K. Neill Foster