When Christians Get It Wrong

How to repair the damage done by Christians acting unChristianly.

When I ask non-Christians what they think Jesus stood for, most say, "Love." And they are correct; this is one of the defining elements of Jesus' teaching. He told His followers that God's will for humanity could be summarized with two commands: love God and love your neighbor. He went to on to say that our neighbor is anyone who needs our help. The love we are to show is not a feeling but a way of acting—a love of kindness and compassion and a desire to bless and seek good for others. Jesus told His disciples they were to love not only their neighbors and friends but their enemies as well. He told them the world would know that they are His disciples by their love. Non-Christians know that Jesus stood for love. Which is why, when those who claim to follow Jesus act in unloving ways, it feels particularly unpleasant. This disparity between the love Christians are meant to display and what people often experience is most pronounced when Christians speak with judgment or in disparaging ways toward others.

No doubt you can think of examples of Christians you have known who were judgmental, hypocritical and unloving. Some of the most insensitive, critical, judgmental and mean-spirited people I've known were persons who claimed to be committed Christians.

I was officiating at the graveside funeral for a young man who had taken his own life. The parents were still in shock and experiencing intense grief. In the eulogy and message I sought to help them and all who had gathered to make sense of this terrible tragedy while finding comfort and hope in God. And we remembered the unique and special qualities of their son. Following the service, a husband and wife—sister and brother-in-law of one of the boy's parents—came to me and asked, "Why didn't you tell them that their son is in hell today?!"

I was taken aback and asked: "How do you know the boy is in hell today? Do you know what was in the boy's heart? Are you so certain you know the mind of God?" They looked at me and walked away. What kind of person is so certain of another's eternal fate that they can stand before grieving parents and callously tell them their son is in hell?

Jesus and the Pharisees

Of course Jesus confronted the same kinds of things in His day. If you read the Gospels carefully, Jesus never got angry with prostitutes, adulterers or ordinary "sinners." Nor did His actions turn such people away. In fact, Jesus drew "sinners" to Himself by the thousands. He made such people feel at ease. The only people Jesus had words of judgment for in the Gospels were the religious folks. What angered Him the most about these people, particularly the religious leaders, was their judgmentalism, their hypocrisy and their failure to love. They believed God was primarily interested in people following the rules. Jesus taught that God's primary rule was love, and that God's interest wasn't in condemning "sinners" but in drawing them to God.

Though Jesus was opposed by various people in the Gospels, His primary opposition was from a group of religious people called Pharisees (the word likely comes from a Hebrew word that means "set apart" or "separated"). They believed holiness and a life pleasing to God came from separating yourself from sin and in obeying the commands of God. This all makes sense but, like many modern-day Christians, they had missed the point. They failed to see that God's primary concern is not rules, but people. They should have been celebrating the fact that thousands of people who had turned away from organized religion were drawn to hear Jesus teach about the kingdom of God. Instead they were repulsed by Jesus' willingness to associate with people "like that." In response, Jesus spoke some pretty harsh words to the Pharisees and the other religious leaders of his time. The word He used most frequently to describe them is rendered in the Gospels as the Greek word hupokrisis from which we have the word hypocrisy. The Greek word was used to refer to an actor in a play—a pretender.

The truth is, we are all in danger of being "pretenders" when it comes to our highest values and aspirations. This is particularly true for religious people, which is why Jesus often warned His disciples about hypocrisy, warnings that covered four different expressions of hypocrisy: wrong motives, judging others, "majoring in the minors" (that is, fighting over the tiniest, least consequential of things and beliefs) and being two-faced.

We are all recovering Pharisees

If Pharisees are religious people who struggle with wrong motives, with being critical and judgmental of others, with missing the point and with being two-faced, then I've got to confess, I am a recovering Pharisee who often falls off the wagon. Everyone I know, religious people and atheists alike, struggle with these four tendencies.

It is so easy to do the right things for all the wrong reasons. It is so easy to point out the sins of others while ignoring our own. Most of us are experts at "majoring in the minors" while failing to do the really important things God demands of us. And which of us has never put on a face and pretended to be something we're not? It is only in recognizing our tendency to be Pharisees that we have any hope of remaining in recovery. My experience with non-religious people is that they do not expect Christians to be perfect. In fact, one young adult said: "I don't mind that you Christians don't live up to your ideals. I don't live up to all of my ideals either. In the end, I guess we're all hypocrites. It's just that I and my friends recognize that we're hypocrites. It seems that many Christians haven't figured this out yet." Again, the hypocrisy of Christians is most troubling to non-Christians when we point out the sins of others.

Getting it right

Every Christian gets it wrong sometimes. But when Christians are judgmental, hypocritical, insensitive and mean-spirited, they are acting in ways that are unchristian. When the Apostle Paul described what Christians should strive for, he used these words: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, generosity, faithfulness and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23). Unchristian Christians stand out because even non-Christians know these people are living in a way that is inconsistent with Jesus' teaching. Jesus commanded His followers not to judge. He warned them against hypocrisy. Again and again He called them to love all, both their neighbors and those with whom they did not see eye to eye.

For all the Christians who get it wrong, I believe there are many who get it right. They are not as vocal as their pharisaic counterparts. And they are not perfect. But there really are countless Christians who daily seek to live authentic lives of faith. They go out of their way to care for others. They are compassionate. They live and give sacrificially toward others. They volunteer their time to serve the poor, or visit the sick, or take the time to encourage the discouraged. They work for justice. They genuinely love people.

When Christians get it right, they love and give, they work for justice and demonstrate kindness. When Christians get it right, they, like Jesus, befriend those who are outside the Church rather than condemning them. And when Christians get it right, people are drawn to, rather than repelled by, their faith.

This article is adapted from the upcoming book When Christians Get It Wrong (Abingdon Press, 2010) by Adam Hamilton, who is the founding pastor of the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection. Used by permission; all rights reserved.

39 Comments

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Wiccan commented…

As a non-Christian it's nice to see someone owning up to this in major media. And I'm not being hypocritical or judgmental, I screw up my fair share of times, and I know a lot of Christians who are like this- this article is par for the course at the liberal Christian seminary I'm at. It's nice to see someone admitting their humanity instead of acting morally superior because of their religion.
And I have to say to those that have commented about telling people that they're doing wrong, by saying anything directly you are making a judgement. First off you're making assumptions that set up a one up one down dynamic where you are in the higher position. Put simply you're assuming that you are better than them because they're acting different. Second is that you're assuming that both of you are or should follow the same moral code, that is playing god, deciding who should believe what & removing free will in the process. And third you're assuming that you know enough about them to make a judgement call on their actions. The caveat is that this doesn't apply to things like murder or theft, the kinds of stuff where people or property gets hurt. But for everything else to judge is to make a great many assumptions and a fool of yourself in the process. By loving you do none of this, you simply embrace and find the good in people. Hopefully more Christians will get it right, I'd rather not see a repeat of the unChristian note left on my car last week- a nasty anonymous piece judging me for being nonChristian.

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Yasseford commented…

Gay people unanimously agree that their attraction to the same sex was not their choice. Both Christian and non-Christian gays. Do you believe that all gay people are lying to you?

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Sdtouchton commented…

Its Impossible to preach the truth of the gospel of Christ without condemning evil or exposing falsehood is an indisputable fact. . He criticized the Pharisees and Sadducees for their false claims and exposed their evil practices. When he crossed swords with the Sadducees on the question of resurrection, he told them bluntly: "Ye do err, not knowing the scriptures, nor the power of God." - Matthew 22:29.
On a certain occasion when Jesus censured the Pharisees and they took offence, his disciples asked him: "Knowest thou that the Pharisees were offended, after they heard this saying?" Christ answered at once: "Every plant, which my heavenly Father hath not planted, shall be rooted up, Let them alone: they be blind leading of the blind. And if the blind lead the blind, both shall fall into the ditch."- Matthew 15:12-14. The preaching of the gospel involves the pronouncing of the written judgments of God in the Bible in condemnation of all that answer to unrighteousness. Criticisms aimed at correcting errors and reproving evils are necessary for progress. God says, no one who continues to sin knows God. If a any person loves God dearly they will stop. God does condemn all sin. He condemns it utterly, and will not allow the least apology or excuse for it. No sinner under the light of the Gospel lives a single hour in sin without some excuse, either tacit or avowed, by which he justifies himself. It seems to be a law of man's intelligent nature that when accused of wrong, either by his conscience or by any other agent, he must either confess or justify.

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bigjoesaddle commented…

The gays I know (I only know 5)4 were touched and/or molested as children, and the 5th was a girl that was somewhat unnattractive and never had a boyfriend (and she DID like boys) and, when she decided to be gay, had a girlfriend a week later. Sothe girl"decided" to be gay, but I believe you are right, the other 4 (all boys) did not "decide" to be gay.

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Joylynnokoye commented…

yes!!!

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