I think the atheists are right. Actually I agree with the agnostics and unchurched too and all those who think the church is full of hypocrisy. Before you start responding with the typical “the church is full of people, and people are sinners so of course we aren’t perfect,” hear me out. I suspect that the hypocritical feel of the church has less to do with sinners who make mistakes and more to do with the beliefs we profess. Let’s give those outside of the church a little credit for some brains, after all. They know people make mistakes. They know people don’t always live up to their own values. Certainly sexual abuse committed by church leaders and other scandals don’t improve the image of the church but I think the heart of that tarnished image has more to do with what we say. Often what we profess to believe is inconsistent, self-contradictory and paints a picture of a god who is unworthy of worship.
Sometimes this inconsistency is most obvious when it comes to controversial topics. For example, the issue of homosexuality. Often the belief that homosexuality is a sin is said to be based on words of scripture. Yet folks who quote these “clear words of scripture” in regards to homosexuality take a more interpretive stance on words of scripture that urge giving all our money to the poor. I am not advocating a particular view of homosexuality at this point (I’ll leave that for other posts). One could hold the opposite view of homosexuality and be inconsistent as well. This is about avoiding hypocrisy.
Then there are the more everyday proclamations to which we likely don’t even give much thought. We thank God that we were spared from some calamity when others were not spared. Do we then think those who were not spared are being punished by God? Do we think they are bad people? Do we think they forgot to pray? If we don’t believe it is somehow the victims fault than do we believe that God chose not to intervene on their behalf? Then should they be cursing God while we are praising God? If we don’t believe any of those things than it seems inconsistent to proclaim that God spared us. Of course, we could always just praise God for the good and proclaim the bad as just chance or “things we don’t understand.” But if we don’t understand why bad things happen then how can we claim to know why good things happen?
I recently read “Becoming a Thinking Christian” by John B. Cobb, Jr. in which he calls Christians to think about just such matters. He urges people to think theologically and root out the true basis of their beliefs, searching for inconsistencies. I believe such deep thought is of tremendous value. When we speak of God and live out our faith without such thought we are in danger of contributing to the image of the church as hypocritical. We are in danger of painting a picture of a god who is fickle, and is sometimes all-powerful and other times horribly powerless. We are in danger of teaching our kids our beliefs only to have them grow up and recognize our inconsistencies and so reject our faith altogether.
This is not about being intellectual or going to seminary or being an expert on any topic. This is simply about thinking about the things you already believe. Do these things make sense? Are they consistent? What do these beliefs say about God? At school, at work, at home, in many areas of our lives we are forced to think about what we do or say. We wouldn’t keep a job very long if we didn’t. Our faith requires thought too.
Otherwise the church doesn’t just look hypocritical, it looks plain old silly sometimes.
As you may have read in Lynn’s blog earlier, our community was struck by tornadoes a few days ago. Though this served to bring forward some of what was already on my mind, what I have written is not about something anyone said or did regarding the tornadoes. From all that I have heard and seen the community’s response has been wonderful. But thinking of the tornadoes does make me want to express something about what I do believe can be said on this occasion. I do believe all that we have, all that we are, and our very lives are gifts from God. Those affected by the tornados, from those I count as friends, to the children who make me smile, to those I barely know or don’t know at all, all are precious. All of these are precious to our community, to our world, and most especially precious to God. I am tremendously glad that these precious lives are still amongst us. There is much I hesitate to say (as outlined above) but this I proclaim with confidence.
Furthermore, since all we have is gift from God it is only right that we share our gifts with others when they go through difficult times. So to those whose homes and farms lay in tatters I proclaim this also: we, your friends, neighbors, and community will be here lending a helping hand in the days and months and years to come.