Douglas Todd, the Religion Reporter for the Vancouver Sun, recently wrote an article entitled, Liberal Christianity – 10 things to know about this ‘middle way.’ In the article he claims that Liberal Christianity is the faith practiced by most mainline Protestant and even many Roman Catholic Christians in North America. He outlines 10 points of Liberal Christian belief on topics ranging as widely as Jesus, sex, social justice and death. This current series, Classical Christianity – 10 things to know about this ‘ancient way,’ is our response to his article. Although there are some things that Classical Christianity can affirm in each of Todd’s 10 points, there is also much that must be added to, or rejected completely.
Today, we will continue with the seventh point of Liberal Christianity: Jesus’ Psychological Insight into Hypocrisy:
Jesus was a great psychologist. He had antennae for hypocrisy, especially among self-satisfied religious leaders. He challenged people who had a sense of moral superiority with admonitions about not “casting stones” and looking at the “log in one’s own eye.” Liberal Christians appreciate Jesus’ insight into the power of psychological projection, which leads judgmental people to fantasize others carry the bad traits they are denying in themselves. Jesus’ wisdom about hypocrisy relates today to self-righteous people who are quick to label others as “racist,” “competitive” or “greedy.”
We have been spending a lot of time in these blogs fleshing out the Classical Christian position using historical teachings of the church. In this point, however, Todd goes straight to Jesus so that is what I will do as well.
Let’s begin first with what can be affirmed in this point. Liberal Christianity is exactly right that Jesus had brilliant “antennae for hypocrisy, especially among self-satisfied religious leaders.” While he seemed to have endless time for those who would be regarded as outsiders — the tax-collectors, poor, sinners, demon-possessed and diseased — he had very little regard for Israel’s religious elite. He regularly challenged those who thought they were especially favored by God because of their personal righteousness and pointed out their hypocrisy.
One of the most famous examples of Jesus teaching on this topic is the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector who went into the temple to pray. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed,” God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get” (Luke 18:12). But the tax collector stood far off and would not even lift his eyes to heaven but beat his breast saying: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” Jesus said it was the tax collector, not the Pharisee who went away justified.
The question is though, in what way was the Pharisee a hypocrite? After all, he really did do what he said he did – fasting, tithing and praying. The hypocrisy is found in the fact that he compares himself to extortioners, the unjust, adulterers and tax-collectors. He thanks God that he is not like them, when in reality, he is exactly like them, only the frame of reference is different.
The Pharisee’s point of reference is those around him. As long as he is more righteous and does more religious-y things than those around him, he thinks he is justified before God. With reference to people he may not be an extortioner, an adulterer or a tax-collector. But Jesus’ various encounters with Pharisee’s and Sadducees throughout the gospels paint a strikingly different picture with reference to God. With reference to God, the religious elite were precisely that which they said they were not: extortioners, unjust, adulterers and tax-collectors. They were extortioners in the sense that that they used their official positions of power to try to obtain righteousness before God. They were unjust because they were the gatekeepers of Israel and prevented those who most needed God from inclusion in the covenant community. They were adulterers because they had Jesus, the Bridegroom, in their midst yet instead they went after the gods of power, self-righteousness and personal holiness. And they were tax-collectors in the sense that they conspired with the Roman Empire to take from Israel her true treasure: the Messiah, Jesus Christ.
While Jesus may have had incredible antennae for hypocrisy, the real problem was not the religious leaders’ hypocritical behavior with reference to those around them, but with reference to God. They believed that their ability to be saved lay in their perfect adherence to the law and thus their membership in the covenant community. This kind of hypocrisy is not a psychological issue, but rather a heart issue. They had failed to love God with their whole heart, soul, mind and strength. While we have all at time seen in others that which we try to deny in ourselves, that is not fundamentally what Jesus is getting at here. He is getting at the issue of our profoundly sinful and unfaithful hearts. Our tendency to seek salvation through our own strength, through our own religious efforts and not through Christ.
Liberal Christianity is exactly right that we ought not to point out the speck in brothers eye without first dealing with the log in our own. Self-examination has always been one of the hallmarks of Classical Christianity. But not with the goal of psychological freedom; with the goal of confessing this to the Lord. Because only a crucified and risen Jesus can properly deal with the depth and ugliness of human sin.
There is one final point I will make about the issue of hypocrisy. When referencing Jesus’s illustration of the speck and the log Liberal Christianity often neglects the final line: “You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck our of your brother’s eye.” Just because we have a log in our own eye doesn’t mean that we will never be in a position to point out the speck in our bothers. The goal of self-examination, reflection and confession is to be able, with clear vision, to lead others to that same sort of self-examination and confession of sin. Jesus was so concerned about hypocrisy not because he wanted a judgment free community, but because it prevented people from acknowledging their own brokenness and their own need for God.
In our next post, Alastair will respond to the eighth point of Liberal Christianity: Governments as a potential force for good.