The Log in Our Eye: Is the Church Filled with Hypocrites?

You’ve heard it before.

One reason people give for not being a Christian is that the “church is full of hypocrites.” Why believe the message about Jesus Christ, the argument goes, when that message has no obvious power in the lives of his followers? If Jesus’ professed followers don’t really seem to believe his message, why should we?

Hypocrite in the New Testament

The Greek word translated hypocrite in the New Testament was used in the first century to refer to actors who used masks in their different roles on stage. Who they  were in their true personhood was disguised by a mask that could be exchanged for another mask when the script called for it. Hypocrites, spiritually speaking, are those whose outward life does not match their inward life—who they really are.

More specifically, a hypocrite is one who actively seeks to appear righteous to others–with words, deeds, and religious activity–for the sake of man’s praise (Matt 6:1ff). Hypocrites are characterized by this incongruence between their inward and outward life (Matt. 23:25), between their affections and their actions (Matt. 15:7-9), and they are dominated by their desire for man’s praise (Matt. 23:1-7; John 5:44). In other words, a hypocrite is a person who is walking in unregenerate, self-righteous religiosity.

A Distinction between Hypocrite and Hypocrisy

Born-again Christians, by definition, are not hypocrites. Yes, true believers will wrestle with glory-seeking motives and find that their inward lives do not always match their outward actions. Yet, this is called hypocrisy, a sin Christians are called to “put away” in the language of 1 Peter 2:1. Nevertheless, Christians are no longer characterized by these inconsistencies or dominated by them.

It was common among the Puritans, for example, to speak of hypocrites who, despite their religious connection with Christianity, were deluded about their inward spiritual condition, having never really tasted of true godliness. Such people possessed the form, but not the power of religion (see 1 Tim. 3:1-8). Biblically and historically, the use of the word hypocrite is used to classify someone who is outwardly religious but inwardly dead in sin.

To put it as plainly as possible: according to the New Testament, if you are a hypocrite, then you are not a Christian. Again, this is not meant to imply that Christians will never be found guilty of hypocrisy. Even the apostle Peter garnered a rebuke from Paul for acting contrary to the truth he professed (Gal. 2:13). But this hypocrisy was not characteristic for Peter, and neither will it be for any true believer.

What Was Jesus Saying in Matthew 7:1-5 and Luke 6:37-42?

Two texts that a person could point to—really the only two in the New Testament—to argue that Christians can be classified as hypocrites are Matthew 7:1-5 and Luke 6:37-42. In both texts, Jesus, speaking to his disciples, appears at first glance to imply that a disciple who does not deal with his own sin before helping another disciple with their sin is not merely guilty of hypocrisy, but is, in fact, a hypocrite (Matt. 7:4; Luke 6:42).

These passages are often used as proof texts for how Christians should conduct their ministry of confrontation and restoration. The pattern should be this: before you deal with the little sins in other brothers and sisters, first deal with the big sins in your life. Well and good. As a principle, this approach is certainly valid.

But a closer look at these texts shows us that Jesus’ use of the word hypocrite in Matthew 7:1-5 and Luke 6:37-42 is consistent with how he uses it elsewhere. In other words, Jesus isn’t assuming the person with a log in his or her eye is a genuine believer who simply needs instruction on how to humbly interact with other believers. 

The Log in the Eye Is Characterized by Self-Righteousness

To what is Jesus referring, then? In both texts, but perhaps even more clearly in Luke 6:37-42, the log to which Jesus is referring is self-righteousness. And not just self-righteousness as a sin, but self-righteousness as a foundational character quality. Jesus is telling the disciples that before they can help others with their sin, they must first be delivered from their self-righteousness in a fundamental way. In other words, they must be born-again. You could say, then, that the log in this person’s eye is “un-conversion.”

Luke’s gospel clearly brings this out.

“Judge not, and you will not be judged; condemn not, and you will not be condemned; forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you. Good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap. For with the measure you use it will be measured back to you.” (Luke 6:37-38)

He also told them a parable: “Can a blind man lead a blind man? Will they not both fall into a pit? A disciple is not above his teacher, but everyone when he is fully trained will be like his teacher. Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Brother, let me take out the speck that is in your eye,’ when you yourself do not see the log that is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take out the speck that is in your brother’s eye.” (Luke 6:39-42)

Like Matthew’s account, Jesus’ warning about judging others (v. 37) precedes his rebuke of the “hypocrite” who is told to first remove the log from his own eye before he offers aid to the brother with the speck (v. 42; see Matt. 7:1-5). These two verses in Luke are tied together by a common theme: Jesus’ disciples are not to be characterized by self-righteous judgments among one another. In between these verses, however, we are given in Luke’s account some vital insight regarding to whom Jesus is referring when he levels the classification of “hypocrite” in verse 42.

Jesus first asks, in verse 39, “‘Can a blind man lead a blind man? Will they not both fall into a pit?’” Similarly, spiritually inept teachers will produce spiritually inept students: “‘A disciple is not above his teacher, but everyone when he is fully trained will be like his teacher.’” The key issue throughout verses 39-42 is spiritual sight. Blind men cannot lead blind men, and those with logs in their eyes cannot see well enough to help others remove specks from their eyes.

Spiritual Blindness and Religious Hypocrisy

When Jesus refers here to the blind leading the blind, it is likely that he has the spiritual state of the religious leaders in mind. Jesus calls the Pharisees “blind” five times and uses the phrase “blind guide” twice in his long rebuke of these religious leaders in Matthew 23 (vv. 16, 17, 23, 24). These accusations of blindness in Matthew are set alongside the classification of hypocrite. In other words, to be a blind guide is to be a religious hypocrite (see also Romans 2:19). And to be a religious hypocrite is to be, as we’ve already noted, someone who is walking in unregenerate religiosity.

In other words, we must follow the New Testament by making a careful distinction between hypocrite as a theological-anthropological category, and hypocrisy as a sin. The former refers to a person who is walking in unregenerate religiosity for the praise of men and who is characterized by inconsistencies between his inward life and outward behavior; the latter is a sin of which believers can be guilty, but from which Christians are able to repent (1 Pet. 2:1; cf. Gal. 2:13).

Christians Are New Creatures—Really

Despite the slowness of our growth, our struggle with motives and authenticity, and the dullness we sometimes feel toward spiritual things, Christians are no longer characterized by hypocrisy. Why? Because salvation entails a genuine inward change so that a person’s outward religious life matches, to a significant degree, what is happening on the inside. We are no longer dominated by a bent to appear righteous to others while we are “full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness” on the inside (see Matt. 23:27). Deliverance from pervasive religious hypocrisy is a benefit of the new birth. Praise God for his power to transform us and truly make us new creatures, not just those who pretend to be.

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Derek J. Brown currently serves as professor of theology at Cornerstone Seminary in Vallejo, California, and associate pastor at Grace Bible Fellowship of Silicon Valley where he oversees the college and young adult ministry, online presence, and publishing ministry, GBF Press. Derek blogs at fromthestudy.com.

This article is adapted from "Is the Church Full of Hypocrites? Part 1" and "Is the Church Full of Hypocrites? Part 2: What about the Log in Our Eye?" at fromthestudy.com.

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