One of the objections to Christianity that I hear quite often doesn't really come as a challenge to the traditional arguments for God's existence or Jesus' resurrection. It, instead, makes an observation about the followers of Christ and draws a conclusion about the truth of their beliefs based on how well they follow what they say they believe.
This is the problem of hypocrisy in the Church. Many unbelievers look at Christians and see that we all are not perfect and that we sin, quite often, in fact. What gets people is that if someone believes something, then they should be acting like they believe it. They think that if someone's actions are not perfectly in line with what they say they believe, then they don't really believe it. "If someone who says they believe something doesn't actually believe it, then why should I believe it?"
I like how Ravi Zacharias describes this in his book, The Grand Weaver. Zacharias points out that such hypocrisy creates a contradiction in the life of the Christian (Chapter 4). The unbeliever sees this contradiction, and knowing that contradictions are not a part of reality, they may then reject the worldview of the Christian.
As an apologist, this particular challenge really hits a nerve with me, unlike other challenges to Christianity. Over the past week, I've forced myself to take a step back and really look at my annoyance with this challenge to see what may be the root of my reaction. I found a few things that were expected and others that force me into a position of humility. And not surprisingly, the apologist showed up to demonstrate how the hypocrisy of the Church is actually a powerful argument for the truth of Christianity.
In many cases when I'm presenting arguments for the truth of Christianity, the person will pull out his Ace and say, "Well, what about all the hypocrites, smart guy?" My first reaction to the charge of hypocrisy in the Church is no surprise to apologists or philosophers: The challenge actually avoids the issue. It makes no difference whether or not someone is a hypocrite, if what they believe is true, then its true. Their hypocrisy has no bearing on the truth of their beliefs. Just because I don't follow a rule does not mean that the rule does not exist (how else would someone know that I'm not following it?). Of course, pointing out that this avoids the issue does really sway the challenger. They tend to understand my challenge to the validity of the observation as a red-herring of its own and assume that I have no answer, because I have avoided answering it.
My next reaction is to see that the person is attacking the character of the Church. Since I am a member of the Church, they are attacking my character. Again, this one is no surprise to the apologist or philosopher. If I point out that this challenge to my personal character or the character of any other Christian has no effect on the truth of our claims, I can again be seen as offering a red-herring, with the same result as above. I could also take the path of explaining that its a logical fallacy, and offering it is a dishonest move...but then the accusation of character-bashing is likely to (legitimately, mind you) come back onto me for questioning the character of the person raising the challenge of hypocrites in the Church.
Even though both of those are logical fallacies, they both seem to be poking the other person in the eye if I point either of them out. So, I figured those were not good answers or reactions, but that didn't remove my annoyance. I decided to take a deeper look at the challenge.
A True Ad-Hominem
I noticed that I am very quick to point out both of the logical fallacies. And I have to wonder if its because I, myself, am trying to protect something. Normally, I am very calm when challenges to other arguments come up, so I don't think that what I'm protecting is the truth of Christianity when I react that way. I think that the second fallacy above holds the key: I'm trying to protect my character; perhaps my pride is bruised by the fact that the person I am speaking with sees that I'm not perfect, that my character is not to the level that I believe it should be. Even though this challenge is an ad-hominem attack, it is very true. It is hard enough to admit and confront this truth face-to-face in private, or in Christian public; in non-Christian public it is a whole different level of difficulty.
The Advantages of Being Called a Hypocrite
A Proper Anthropology
When someone offers the challenge of hypocrisy in the Church, it is a reminder that we, ourselves, are, in fact, sinners. This is a direct hit to our ego, and that is exactly what it is supposed to be. It keeps us not only defending a correct view of humanity, but makes sure that we don't try to make it appear that we are above humanity. The first advantage to being challenged with the hypocrisy of the Church is remembering our own relationship to God, as sinner, in need of a Savior.
An Emotional Issue Highlighted
Last week I wrote about faith involving both logic and emotion. I pointed out that bad experiences with the Church leave powerfully emotional memories with a person that are extremely difficult to change. I believe that when someone brings up the challenge of hypocrisy in the Church, they are speaking from a deeply emotional experience in their past. The fact that this challenge is a logical fallacy on, at least, two levels indicates that its an emotional challenge, and it must be address in that way.
The other advantage of the challenge of hypocrisy in the Church being brought out is that the challenger is handing the Christian one of their emotional experiences, that makes them believe that Christ is not trustworthy, to the Christian on a silver platter. It is rare that people will reveal the experiences that have founded their rejection of Christianity so explicitly. And since the emotions have power to trump reason, we should be ecstatic to address this "red-herring".
Addressing the Red-Herring...
Obviously, we need to recognize that hypocrisy does exist in the Church. But we need to be explicit that we are not excluding ourselves and our friends from that category of Christians. When we acknowledge that hypocrites exist in the Church, it comes off that we are saying that the "hypocrites" are "over there", separated from us, not one of "us". The person is not concerned about "them, over there"; they are concerned about the person talking to them right now..."I have been hurt by Christians in the past. Will this Christian hurt me too? Can I trust this Christian?"
This realization has caused me to pray that when this challenge comes to me in the middle of a logical defense of Christianity, that I will have enough sense to thank the person for the reminder. If, by the grace of God, I am successful, at that point I have a dual-edged sword. I can show that Christianity teaches that even though people are saved and trust Christ, they will not be perfect...ironically, the hypocrisy of the Church is expected by our worldview, and conveniently demonstrated in reality.
I must rise to the whole different level of difficulty to be able to be an effective witness for Christ in this type of encounter. Humility is necessary. Not just saying that I am humble, but actually being humble. And being humble in the presence of the person I am saying has the wrong worldview- being willing to bow my knee before God as an unbeliever witnesses my surrender.
...Because It Isn't A Red-Herring Afterall
When a person brings up this challenge, they reveal an injured part of their heart. They have poured out the real reason they are rejecting Christianity. All those intellectual challenges and logical arguments against God were buffers: the true red herrings. The hypocrisy of the Church was the real issue to begin with. They were looking for faith in something other than the God of Christianity because they believe that He had failed them.
Proper reasoning combined with the protection of pride is a dangerous combination. For the sake of proper reasoning, apologists "correctly" call out fallacies, unknowingly dodge the real issue, and unwittingly create another emotional reason for the unbeliever to believe that the God of Christianity is untrustworthy. We, as apologists, have the opportunity to establish positive emotional experiences for those who have been hurt by hypocrites in the Church. We can begin to reverse the negative emotions that have dominated the decision of who or what to trust and not to trust. If we insist that hypocrisy in the Church avoids the real issue, we give up the advantages and hand the opportunity right over to The Enemy.
We must be wise in our defense of the faith. But wisdom does not come in the absence of humility. And humility does not come in the absence of proper understanding, acceptance, and willingness to publicly confess who we are as sinful human beings, fallen short of God's perfect standard, yet made righteous by Jesus' physical death and bodily resurrection.
Post-Script (widening and limiting)
Two final "side notes" to this: Anytime that someone brings up an emotional objection to Christianity in the middle of a logical conversation, we need to consider that the logical problems may be the true red herrings. Someone's real reason for rejecting Christianity may also be the emotional problem of evil or the hiddenness of God. Those may need to be the actual issues that need to be addressed. It all depends on the person we are speaking with. Further, just because someone brings up an emotional issue does not necessarily mean that it is the actual issue. It may just be another bullet in a machine-gun approach to rejecting Christianity. So, even addressing the emotional issue provides no certainty that we are hitting on their foundational issue. A lot of the time, we may not know what is the real issue and what is the red herring. This is where, once again, we must allow the Spirit to lead us in the decisions that we make in our conversations.