Hypocrisy and Wholeness: 
A Dialectical Puzzle and Paradox


Dept. of Social & Cultural Sciences 
Marquette University 
Milwaukee, WI 53233

Religious hypocrisy is a major source of negative criticism in Christendom, but it has not been the subject of systematic research. Examples of pretending to be what one in fact is not are found throughout history. Hypocrisy has numerous social and psychological sources, many detrimental consequences, and some constructively functional results as well. Its solution lies not in lowering moral standards to fit the facts but in dealing wholesomely with the biblical reality that there are no sinners emeritus. Sound theoretical and empirical research in numerous fields of the sciences and humanities will improve both our understanding and our Christian behavior.

From: PSCF 42 (December 1990): 227-238.

Hypocrisy seems to be omnipresent in Christianity. It can be traced to events recorded in the New Testament and throughout history ever since. The scandals associated with Jim and Tammy Bakker, Jimmy Swaggart, Catholic priests who apparently contracted AIDS through homosexual behavior, and other Christians who have succumbed to the ubiquitous temptations of American society are merely recent exemplars of similar experiences as old as the history of humanity.

Christianity suffers as a result. The charge that "The church is not for me; it's too full of hypocrites" is so common that Meadow and Kahoe (1984:350) labeled it "the classic heretic's excuse." It still lies at the heart of much of the criticism that has made the church as a social institution "Protestantism's whipping-boy, on whom all resentments over the failures of private religion tend to be visited, even when the essential significance of the Church in the realm of religion has been denied" (Douglass, 1938:214). Critics of religious agencies and assailants of the Christian faith often imply that but one instance of hypocrisy outweighs thousands of acts of fidelity.

The concept of "hypocrisy" has a negative connotation in everyday discourse. Normatively, both the Old and New Testament clearly condemn the kinds of behavior typically included under its descriptions. Assuming, therefore, that it generally is undesirable, several questions emerge: Will it ever be possible to eliminate hypocrisy from Christianity? Is it desirable to try? Does good ever result from hypocritical behavior? Let us examine some of the definitions, examples, sources, consequences, and potential resolutions to this problem.

Definitions of Hypocrisy 

The word hypocrisy is based upon play acting or impersonating someone else-pretending to be what one in fact is not. It is "The act of simulating qualities of personality, moral character, religious convictions or other beliefs which are not actually present in the person or persons assuming that false appearance" (Johnson, 1959:354; see Ellison, 1962). "The predominant usage is moralistic; thus the hypocrite is one who pretends to be good or upright when one really is not so" (Price, 1986). Hypocrisy also can be defined as "That attitude by which one pretends to be holy or virtuous. It is a species of lying" (Nevins, 1965:280; Gilby, 1979), so hypocrites are "people of the lie" (Peck 1983). The New Testament useage includes "godlessness," supporting the Old Testament view "that hypocrisy is not so much duplicity or insincerity as impiety and disregard of God's law" (Hubbard, 1984). From a pastoral psychology perspective, hypocrisy is different from such other sins as theft, murder, and adultery, for "it is a method of dealing with sin which prevents a solution. In this sense it is the opposite of repentance and confession, and like other psychological defense mechanisms, it prevents one from facing reality objectively" (Belgum, 1967:312).

Redekop (1970:168) has labeled "the Christian who can pledge allegiance to Christ and totally disregard His teachings and His life" as "the curse of Christianity." That person is hypocritical for two reasons: The failure to recognize one's hypocrisy and the lack of sanctions in the religious group to prevent getting by with it (p. 169). Examples of Hypocrisy Hypocrisy is all around us in politics, business, industry, education, international affairs, sports, and every other area of human concern, not just in religion. It is a frequent theme of literature, the movies, and investigative reporting in the mass media. Washington, D. C., has been described as "a city lying in the gutter, wallowing in hypocrisy. It has become a bizarre sinkhole of character assassination and smirking self-righteousness. It will eagerly cast not only the first stone, but any other rocks it can lay its hands on" (Wall Street Journal, 1987). Psychiatrists devote much effort to uncovering hypocrisy in their patients' lives, although they strangely tend to deny the reality of sin. Faculty members reveal a "liberal hypocrisy" when they defend traditional values of academic freedom and tenure within the university but criticize the status quo outside it (Basu and Leighninger, 1978). Dissemblance and deceit are major problems in scientific research ethics (Broad and Wade, 1982; Emerson, 1983:253-311; Peck, 1983:208-209).

"Misrepresentation by affiliation" is present in every free nation. Whenever representatives of a denomination or congregation imply that all of its members adhere to its doctrines or sociopolitical resolutions, they misrepresent the facts. Sweden, for example, is supposedly a "Christian nation," for 98 percent of the population is affiliated with the Church of Sweden. Yet at least 13 percent consider themselves to be atheists or agnostics (Barrett, 1982:650), and many of the others are merely namnkristna, Christians in name only (Tomasson, 1970:85). A survey in a Stockholm suburb found that only 14 percent believed in the doctrines of God as Creator, Jesus as Savior, and the resurrection of the dead; 43 percent were agnostics and l7 percent atheists (Austin, 1968:169-170).

The founders of sectarian splinter groups often try to differentiate themselves from "heretical and hypocritical" parent bodies. Many avoid being labeled as a "church" for fear of guilt by association (Moberg, 1985:75, 273). For example, Black Jehovah's Witnesses criticize:

.... the seeming greed for money, the round of social activities with little real religion being taught, the promises of a heaven after death without any help for the "here and now," the emotionalism of the "shake and shout" sects, and the hypocrisy of many church-goers. Preachers in particular are singled out for their worldly materialism and manipulation of their congregations.... Many of them are seen as hustlers who have a good religious racket going for them. ... Witnesses offer an alternative. There is no paid, local clergy. <193> The Witnesses never take a collection at any of their meetings. ... There are no hypocrites in their ranks: anyone who breaks one of Society's divine laws is quickly purged ... by probation or "disfellowshipping" ... (Cooper, 1974: 716-717).

Yet hypocrisy is present even in sects that react against it. Once established, a new religion itself tends to become "hypocritical" as recruitment efforts bring in more people and the leadership copes with organizational demands and dilemmas, so the group may in turn become a source of sect members elsewhere (Moberg, 1985:118-122; O'Dea and Aviad, 1983:56-64). Although many of its adherents claim otherwise, secular humanism was declared by the Supreme Court to be a religion in its 1961 Torcaso v. Watkins case (see Kilpatrick, 1986), and many New Age groups advertise that they are "not a religion." Some sect leaders have privately admitted going into "the God racket" because it is the easiest way to make money (Berton, 1965:7). Sermons, glossolalia, and testimonies have been used by Pentecostal religious leaders to make and refute charges against each other (Martin, 1967:134). 

Some sect leaders have privately admitted going into "the God racket" because it is the easiest way to make money. Hamilton (1973:226) believes the Christian pastor "can hardly do anything that will not tarnish the image of being a `genuine' Christian." Commenting on Jesus' observation that it is impossible to escape a derogatory personal image (Luke 7:31-35), he indicates that even if every minister in the world were transformed into a perfect Christian, the negative images of inadequacy and hypocrisy would almost certainly continue (p. 227).

One of the most striking descriptions of hypocrisy is the novel, Holy Masquerade (Hartman, 1963), about a Swedish clergyman's "theatrical religiosity," "professional superciliousness," and pharisaism as seen by his wife. It vividly portrays the nuances by which right seems wrong and wrong right, as well as the linkage of mental illness and projection in accusations against others. "All a man's ways seem right to him, but the Lord weighs the heart" (Proverbs 21:1, NIV).

The harshest accusations of hypocrisy often flow out of internal self-criticism, for those inside a group's leadership structures are likely to know the most about questionable details of activity, belief, and personal behavior of others. Yet even observers with standards of a pagan society may expose faults that a church does not see in itself, as in I Corinthians 5:1-5.

Numerous charges of hypocrisy are made by various Christians against each other. Some examples of their targets are these:

 -"the seductiveness of effectiveness" in the church growth movement by which "making disciples" takes priority over perfecting them (Evans, 1979:301-306); 

-the tendency of many people to go through merely the motions of worship, kidding ¨themselves that God demands only attending services, singing hymns, and busy involvement in "God's work" (Keith-Lucas, 1972:204); 

-evangelistic outreach that offers words of God's love to individuals in need without any deeds to solve the structural problems of society that are a source of their problems; 

-the tendency of social activists to salve their consciences by giving attention only to institutional evil and long-range collective goals, ignoring both the immediate needs and the eternal salvation of specific persons. "A supposed social conscience, then, becomes in reality an excuse for personal complacency" (Quebedeaux, 1974:94; see also Moberg, 1977:208, and Lewis, 1967:272); 

-the reaction of radical Christians against cheap grace that eventually replaces God's grace with an idolatrous search for justification through a simple lifestyle, public protests, identity with the poor that makes capital out of their suffering, the nonviolence principle with its manipulative will to power, a radical prophetic identity that rests upon prooftexting no better than that of fundamentalists, and a tendency to protest oppression and persecution by imperialists but not by communists (Wallis, 1979; see also Skillen, 1986:30 on H. Richard Niebuhr's criticism of brother Reinhold's liberalism as "a first-aid to hypocrisy"); 

-attention to tangible human needs of others only when it is bait for evangelism (see Moberg, 1985:97-116). 

..."Making disciples" takes priority over perfecting them. 

Jesus condemned religious leaders for wearing masks of piety while greedily exploiting and misleading people, indulging themselves and using ceremonial purity to hide their sins (see especially Matthew 23). This is often linked to criticisms of the religious establishments of our day. Berton (1965:10-11, 100-101) calls attention to "the lukewarm pulpit" that makes hypocrites of its occupants and to "enlightened priests" who say that the words in the Anglican baptismal service that "all men are conceived and born in sin" do not really mean what they seem to mean.

But ... if that was what the Church really believed; if the passage ... meant something other than what it seemed to mean, why... was not all this stated in the clearest possible English? If the priests of the Church themselves did not believe the literal truth of what they were saying, why were they required to say it? (pp. 10-11).

TV actor Michael Moriarty (reported by Marty, 1985) has described his Catholic Church as having "layers of contradictions. ... The Church is an image of humanity in its ugliness as well as beauty." Similarly, "The Church is something like Noah's ark. If it weren't for the storm outside, you couldn't stand the smell inside" (Allin, 1970:159). Yet people continue to enter and remain in that ark because it is better by far inside than outside. 

"The Church is something like Noah's ark. 
If it weren't for the storm outside, you couldn't stand the smell inside."

 Much of the anti-Christian bias among Marxists and other critics can be traced historically to hypocrisies in the linkages between church and state, to syncretistic and folk religions that make society rather than persons the locus of "faith," to goal displacement by the bureaucratic staffs of religious institutions, to the assumption that Christian identity is conferred simply through the "cheap grace" of sacramental rituals rather than by personal commitment to Jesus Christ, and to the accompanying extrinsic religiosity that battles an intrinsic Christian faith. Extrinsic religiousness has often contributed to abuses of "Christianity," including pogroms of unbelievers, enslavement or colonization of pagans, exploitation of the poor, devastating wars, and other evil deeds of rulers, exploiters, and nations wearing a "Christian" label.

But sharper historians have observed that most of these so-called religious wars have resulted more from the greed of rulers, the egoism of fanaticists, the forces of economics, power politics and age-old hatreds. In many of them, religion has been a smokescreen and an excuse, rather than the root cause (Johnston, 1986).

Other examples of hypocritical behavior in churches are the public relations announcements about "a great victory" when two or three dying congregations are merged into one that still is marginal; the "selective Catholicism" that characterizes many staff members of Catholic agencies (Kelly, 1985); and the selectivity when demythologizing Scripture that makes many of the laity label religious leaders as "hypocrites."

Root Sources of Hypocrisy

 Hypocrisy is a value-laden concept. It reflects tensions in a society which promises personal freedom and concern for well-being along with social welfare for the common good (Conover, 1967:33). An inevitable "hypocrisy" thus stems from society's moral code as regulative pressures for the collective good impinge upon the civil liberties of individuals. American society also makes possible more religious hypocrisy than most other countries; because it is easier to be religious, there is more spiritual mediocrity and many more apathetic members with little or no interest in important religious issues (Greeley, 1972:233).

"Hypocrisy" is a label we assign to others, seldom to ourselves. If we do notice our own foibles, failures, and faults, we find excuses and rationalizations for them. Yet they often are reflected in the projection by which we blame others for their sins. Many Christian groups tolerate internal sins of arrogance, gossip, envy, division into factions, selfishly materialistic lifestyles, and rejection of social deviants, even while they condemn similar failings of others as "dirty sins." Slippery conceptualizations manipulate our implicit operational definitions, with indignation at the conduct of others and justification for our own. "Hypocrisy" is a label we assign to others, seldom to ourselves. It is very difficult to analyze the motivations behind human conduct, for they are very complex, multifarious, and almost invariably not fully understood by even the acting person. Ulterior motives are especially hard to identify, for we are more moral in words than in deeds (Scott, 1971:117, 162). Everyone "marshalls more `good' reasons for his sins than he does for his virtues!" (Rushdoony, 1986:2). Accusing others of hypocrisy often reflects the sin of pride, as if the accuser is blameless. Hypocritical actions often are defense mechanisms that conceal feelings, thoughts, and behavior that are inconsistent with one's idealizations and accompanied by the dishonesty of attempting to obscure them (Duncombe, 1969:98). 

Hypocritical actions often are defense mechanisms that conceal feelings, 
thoughts, and behavior that are inconsistent with one's idealizations...

 When hypocritical defense mechanisms are in danger of being exposed, a person becomes "cautious about all possible controversial utterances"; in contrast, the mature Christian has both "openness" and "ultimate honesty" (Duncombe, 1969:99-100). The immature tend to cling to an outmoded view of reality which is a basis for much mental illness, inappropriately transferring childish ways of perceiving and responding to the world into their adulthood. They are quick to identify others as hypocrites, liars, and cheats, reinforcing distrust and alienation from others in the interactive processes of social relationships (Peck, 1978:46-50). Hence diagnosis, the first step toward a cure, is itself afflicted. Hypocrisy may be an iatrogenic disease of religious institutions, therapy for it sometimes causing even more illness and disability than was present before treatment began.

Many adults condemn the inconsistencies of youth, but youth are even more ready to identify the parental generation's failures to practice what they preach (see Lederach, 1971:51-52). The newly acquired capacity of adolescents to express ideals, alongside of their inability to recognize the practical difficulties in trying to apply all ideals to concrete behavior (Elkind, 1978; see Deutscher, 1973), may be part of the reason why adolescence is the preadult stage most filled with hypocrisy (Mitchell, 1980). The conviction that religion is "all a big pretense and they're all a bunch of hypocrites" is so common among college age youth that LaBarre (1969:131) considers it to be normal. It is one of the overt reasons for revolting against established churches by joining groups like the Hare Krishna (Judah, 1974:464, 475).

The discrepancies between competing ideals and the impossibility to apply all of them equally and simultaneously may be part of the reason for the stereotyped "bad guy" image of PKs (preachers' kids). When added to the criticisms that flow from the public nature of life in most pastors' families, this can be very disturbing to sensitive youths. Children of active lay members similarly tend to rebel and fall away from their parents' faith. "They can see the hypocrisy, the inconsistency, and the prejudice in their parents' lives. Unhappily, they then tend to equate these with the church, and in rejecting their parents' faith they also reject Christ in their own lives" (Hyder,1971:96).

A widespread cause of unbelief in American society is the cultural conformity of the church and its consequent ethical paralysis and hypocrisy. Civil religion becomes a religious cover for destructive impulses of the nation (Wallis, 1976:41,44).

Public opinion surveys demonstrate that substantial proportions of Catholics and Protestants deviate from the views of their church on such issues as abortion, contraception, marriage of priests, women as clergy, and topics related to social policy. Major reasons for the discrepancy between the "official religion" and their "operant faith" include how the person has been socialized into the official model, incorrect or incomplete knowledge of the official belief, inadequate internalization, overlayment of the official model with other religious themes, variations in expectations of consistency, deviation in priorities, outright disagreement, and allowable levels of nonconformity (McGuire, 1981:78-80).

The pick-and-choose mentality of "cafeteria Christians" who decide for themselves which of the doctrines and behavior guidelines of their church to accept and which to reject may be interpreted as either hypocrisy or as courageous implementation of soul liberty and religious freedom. This "selective Catholicism" has been documented among staff members of Catholic Charities agencies, as well as among American Catholics at large (Kelly, 1985). 

The pick-and-choose mentality of "cafeteria Christians"
 ... may be interpreted as either hypocrisy or as courageous 
mplementation of soul liberty and religious freedom. 

The naivete of believing there are simple unidimensional solutions to complex social issues is one of the sources of contradictory social policy positions which other Christians condemn as heretical. So also is the tendency to adopt a political position first, only later seeking its religious justification, in contrast to being solidly grounded first in relevant ethical values that genuinely flow from the faith. Exposed selectively to those portions of the mass media that are biased by a socioeconomic ideology that they agree with, and given relatively little explicitly Christian input on most social issues, the selective information process enables Christians to find allegedly "biblical" support for any predetermined stance and then, like other citizens, to ignore all contrary perspectives. Then in political campaigning they view their side as purely "Christian" and their opponents' as hypocritical or heretical. They also may become hypocrites through compartmentalization, living as if religion is separate from other areas of life (Dunn et al., 1981:117). The question of who is a "genuine Christian" is compounded by the wide diversity of definitions. Barrett (1982:70-72, 850-852) has classified the types of Christians worldwide into more than twenty-five broad categories, within each of which are numerous churches, sects, and denominations. Each of these, in turn, has many informal subdivisions with their own values, each finding it easy to describe others as "hypocrites" or "not really Christians at all." This in turn is closely related to diverse conceptualizations of the church and its relationship to the world, a topic addressed by Shippey (1963) and reflected in Troeltsch's expositions of the history of Christianity as one of compromises with its context (Shippey, 1971:41). 

The question of who is a "genuine Christian" 
is compounded by the wide diversity of definitions. 

Pragmatic operational definitions of hypocrisy are likewise linked with basic theological issues. The manner and extent to which the Bible is accepted as normative, questions about its interpretation, and preferred ways of dealing with clashes of such values as love and justice in complex pragmatic issues lie behind many charges of hypocrisy. Hence it is easy for Christians trying to apply ethical values to social issues to disagree with one another and for church members to hold positions at variance with official declarations of their denominations (Hero, 1970).

In addition, efforts oriented toward any one social issue tend to preclude action on dozens of others because resources of personnel, time, and finances are scarce. When every morning "a thousand human needs beckon within walking distance of your own home; millions more beyond your immediate neighborhood, throughout the nation and the world," one can address but a fraction of them (Christenson, 1974:21-22). Contrasts between "social activists" and "evangelicals" often can be seen best as those of different priorities and methodologies, rather than of social involvement versus non-involvement. "The essential difference <193> is not over whether we should become involved in society, but over where  and how we should become involved" (p. 23). We have no choice other than to be selective, letting many options pass in order to work on a few. Both liberals and conservatives need to learn that it is hypocritical to draw up a narrow list of social issues and proclaim that it alone is the valid set of current concerns for all Christians. 

Both liberals and conservatives need to learn that 
it is hypocritical to draw up a narrow list of social issues 
and proclaim that it alone is the valid set of current concerns for all Christians. 

To discern when allegations of hypocrisy have valid grounds is not easy. The Bible reminds us of its root causes in the deceitfulness of sin (Romans 7:11; Hebrews 3:13), which includes the deceptions of wealth (Matthew 13:22), the love of money (I Timothy 6:10), false witnesses (Proverbs 14:25), charm and beauty (Proverbs 31:30), lying lips and deceitful tongues (Psalm 120:2-3), people who masquerade as apostles of Christ or angels of light (II Corinthians 11:13-15), false prophets and false christs (Matthew 24:5, 11, 24), evil men and impostors (II Timothy 3:13), wine and beer (Proverbs 20:1), human desires (Ephesians 4:22), flattery (Romans 16:18), and empty words (Ephesians 5:6), to mention only some of the sources of delusion. These obviously can be related to the materialism, individualism, moral relativism, hedonism, and narcissism of contemporary society, as well as to the traditional "seven deadly sins" (see Lyman, 1978; Moberg, 1985). Not least among the sources is the human tendency to delude ourselves regarding moral and spiritual issues (I Corinthians 3:18; James 1:22; I John 1:8), for "The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?" (Jeremiah 17:9, NIV). Improved discernment and understanding of the complex issues related to hypocrisy pose a significant challenge for sociologists of Christianity as well as for psychologists, ethicists, and theologians. 

Detrimental Consequences of Hypocrisy 

Most of the observed results of hypocrisy are negative. We have already alluded to its contributions to the reasons and rationalizations for disaffiliation and refusal to participate in church life, the formation and growth of sects and cults, inappropriate methods for dealing with sin, uncomplimentary images of Christianity and its clergy, internal church conflicts, the cultural entrapment and misuse of religious institutions, unChristian acts by "Christians," and the distortion of church goals and objectives.

Many of the differences among Christians are a product of paradoxical, dialectically contrasting values that emerge from diverse hermeneutical and exegetical approaches to the Bible. Others flow from disagreements over matters of fact, their policy implications, and priorities for action. The struggles get so intense that many Christians throw up their hands in a do-nothing posture, fearing that no matter what action they take, some fellow Christians will criticize them for being heretical, hypocritical, or self-seeking opportunists (see Moberg, 1985). Their negligence takes the form of silence and inaction in the face of evil, injustice, and the worship of such false gods as the status quo or the golden calf of the hallowed economic motive (Fox, 1971:417). 

 The struggles get so intense that many Christians 
throw up their hands in a do-nothing posture, 
fearing that no matter what action they take, 
some fellow Christians will criticize them for being hypocritical... 

People's ideals usually exceed their performance. We expect less discrepancy among those with strong than those with weak Christian commitment and among those who have been committed for longer periods of time. Paradoxically, if depth and length of commitment lead to higher aspirations and ideals, the subjectively perceived discrepancies may become greater as commitment increases in intensity and duration, making people feel more "hypocritical" as they in fact become more mature.

Neuroses can result from contrasting one's private with one's public appearances and from emotive shocks to children who are sensitive to what seem to be hypocritical contradictions of parents trying to satisfy the public demands of religious, moral, or social formalism under the fear of "what people will say" (Tournier, 1966:61-65). "Every discord between form and substance, between what others see and the reality of the heart, is a denial of the Gospel and can only be a source of psychological trouble" (p. 65). 

What some Christians regard as virtues may 
actually poison spiritual growth. The worst of  
behavior can spring from noble motives. 

Sometimes a person may feel ashamed of a well-intentioned honest act because the context conveys false impressions. The resulting defensive maneuvers then may be identical to those of one who is genuinely guilty, resulting in alienation from oneself and increased wariness and suspicion of other people (Goffman, 1959:236-237). Guilt feelings, false guilt, and shame are interwoven with the "normal" processes of everyday life as well as with hypocrisy (see Belgum, l963, and Lynd, l958).

What some Christians regard as virtues may actually poison spiritual growth. The worst of ¨behavior can spring from noble motives. Censoriousness, permissiveness, childishness, exhibitionism, and other flaws sometimes masquerade beneath hypocritical piety (Mann, 1979).

Wholesome Consequences of Hypocrisy 

Surprisingly, many of the results of hypocrisy and closely related phenomena are constructive. A major conclusion of the perceptive analyses of deceit collected by Mitchell and Thompson (1986) is that "deception is ubiquitous in human interaction" (p. 267). It is evident in children's games, feints and ruses in sports, bearing up under losses, camouflage and deception in warfare, placebos in medical research, play-acting, magic tricks, and many other activities. It is probable that social life as we know it would be impossible without various approved forms of deceptiveness and coverups. Constructive deceit depends considerably upon the predictability of the victims' responses, so it "works within the context of honesty" (p. 358). Hence Freudians view hypocrisy as "a precious thing .... Like reticience, it may help build up those habits of avoidance that swerve us from honest, but head-on, collisions with one another" (Rieff, 1966:57).

Goffman (1967), for example, has called attention to the "face-work" by which a person defends a self-image delineated in terms of social attributes that are approved by significant others. Some are willing to put on an act in a desire to achieve something that follows, but no society could persist very long if its members did not approve and foster integrity (p. 219). In masterful discussions of the presentation of self in everyday life, Goffman (1959) deals with many processes directly relevant to hypocrisy, although he does not use that word. Among these are the information game with its "infinite cycle" of concealment, discovery, false revelation, and rediscovery (pp. 8-9); the significance of the word person in its first meaning as a mask people wear for their roles in "careers of faith" that move back and forth between sincerity and cynicism on the stage of life (pp. 19-20); idealizations offered observers through impression management (pp. 34-51); the misrepresentation of using signs to attest to the presence of something not really there, including the "white lies" of doctors or of guests and the concealing of practices incompatible with publicly fostered impressions in every vocation (pp. 58-66); secrets kept from its audience by a team of actors (pp. 141-144); and the roles of informer, shill, protective agent, professional shopper, and mediator that bring in a person with a false guise (pp. 145-151). His skillful examples of taken-for-granted realities in everyday life reveal the pervasiveness of behavior many people would label as "hypocritical," much of which contributes to the smooth functioning of society. 

Because various forms of deception are essential "lubricants" of social life, 
society has been described a bit too harshly as "a network of lies and deception.

" These little hypocrisies often facilitate social relationships through rules of etiquette and conventions of politeness. Because various forms of deception are essential "lubricants" of social life, society has been described a bit too harshly as "a network of lies and deception" (Alexander, 1975:96; see Anderson, 1986:335, and Goleman, 1985). A basic trust, truthfulness, and sincerity is the criterion for identifying lies, and it is also essential to social order (Lewis and Weigert, 1985). In a sense there is true deception only when a message sender believes the message to be false (Vasek, 1986:272.) 

Solutions and Responses to Hypocrisy

The temptation to reduce hypocrisy by lowering moral standards in order to make ideals fit reality is an option often chosen by our society. In effect that makes actual behavior the ultimate criterion of right and wrong. Is it not "far better to profess the truth and fail to live it than not to profess it at all" (Hitchcock, 1983:32; see Greeley, 1972:173)? 

Because hypocrisy has both destructive and constructive consequences, 
thinking people continually face dilemmas, either horn of 
which contains its own evil but also its own good. 

Because hypocrisy has both destructive and constructive consequences, thinking people continually face dilemmas, either horn of which contains its own evil but also its own good. The dialectical interplay between seeing all human beings as sinners and yet all as created in the image of God is linked with the issue of hypocrisy. Even committed Christians-the apostolically designated saints-are still sinners, as the bumper sticker reminds us: CHRISTIANS AREN'T PERFECT, JUST FORGIVEN.

Significantly, "A hypocrite is someone who says he believes one thing but lives another. By that standard, ... there is no one who claims to be a Christian who is not in one sense a hypocrite" (Yancey and Stafford, 1979:152). A major source of accusations of hypocrisy against many fundamentalist Christians is their use of the past tense with respect to sinfulness, as if their status of "righteousness in Christ" means that they no longer sin. The Bible's message to them and all others is clear: "If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us" (I John 1:8, NIV).

There are no "sinners emeritus" (Larson, 1984). Christians must more openly acknowledge that we are still on a pilgrimage toward perfection; none among us finally arrives during this life on earth. Nobody conforms completely to all the ideals of Christianity, even when we consistently strive toward that goal.

The cleansing of the inner motives of religious teaching and practice is a spiritual exercise continually demanded by the prophets, the apostles, and Jesus himself. ../ Jesus' mind was passionately in love with reality and abhorred the circuitous deceptiveness characteristic of much religious behavior. He knew the unlimited capacity of the human mind for self-deception as well as its capacity for reality (Oates, 1955:viii, 32).

Remember that it was "the nice people who stood high in the community" (Sheen, 1967:235) who crucified Jesus. They could not tolerate his reproaches of their hypocritical inconsistencies and his demands for their change of heart. "The gravest error of the nice people in all ages is denial of sin.  Nice people must see themselves as nasty people before they can find peace" (pp. 236, 239). Only by being open to oneself and to someone else can one's hypocritical mask or facade be stripped away (see Lindquist, 1983:69-82, and Farnsworth, 1985:103).

As we observe Christians who appear to be hypocrites, we can follow the example of the Apostle Paul and rejoice even in our sadness whenever they nevertheless proclaim Jesus Christ (Philippians 1:15-18). The admonition of Jesus is very pertinent, "Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged" (Matthew 7:1-2, NIV). 

Remember that it was "the nice people 
who stood high in the community" who crucified Jesus.

 Unfortunate and misguided as much judgment of other people and groups is, its baneful effects are aggravated when subcultural or sectarian criteria relevant to one social environment, role, or set of circumstances are applied willy-nilly to all others. Contextualization of biblical principles is a significant issue within our own culture just as much as it is across the boundaries between nations and people groups.

In his analysis of what liberals and fundamentalists have in common, Inbody (1984) cautions his fellow liberals to repent as sinners needing forgiveness for their self-deceptions and false pride in order to transcend their situation and live up to their ideals. Of course, that need goes in both directions. Both should genuinely listen to each other, for thereby flaws found in each camp can be corrected.

Whether it is possible to transform extrinsic Christian hypocrites into genuinely intrinsic Christians by any method short of spiritual conversion is an open question. Wallis (1981:29) "once thought that the gulf between what the Scriptures say and how Christians live was simply the result of self-interest and hypocrisy." More recently he concluded that contradictions in the church's life result from the lack of faith, which is the source of both spiritual lukewarmness and political conformity to destructive social arrangements. Many "hypocrites in the church" are sincere in their faith but have personal and social inadequacies not easily solved by superficial religious activities (Moberg, 1984:365; see Demerath, 1965:28). 

"The mask we wear decides the possibilities we seek for ourselves, 
and determines what we will attempt to do or become. 
We actually become the mask, or grow toward becoming it." 

The role playing of daily life requires constant changing of our masks in order to adapt to different situations, each of which has its own expectations, demands, rules, and sanctions (see Johnston, 1985:105-119). We can and do choose many of the masks we wear, as well as their qualities. Besides, "The mask we wear decides the possibilities we seek for ourselves, and determines what we will attempt to do or become. We actually become the mask, or grow toward becoming it" (Elliot, 1987:1-2).

Sometimes "little hypocrisies" are necessary not only to simplify and expedite our daily patterns of social interaction by socially sanctioned etiquette, but even to do God's work more effectively. The example of the Apostle Paul includes being "all things to all men," i. e., putting on various masks and taking diverse roles, in order to win as many as possible to faith in Jesus Christ and to advance the gospel (I Corinthians 9:19-23). Yet such activities ought never to harm others, for evil deeds are not justified by good results (Romans 3:7-8).

The ultimate Christian solution to the negative aspects of hypocrisy is the imitation of Jesus Christ. He alone lived a sinless life (Hebrews 4:15), even though he was surrounded by temptations and deceitful institutional practices, just as we are. It is he, not ourselves nor any other person or agency, that must be exalted as the wholly perfect, completely upright model to emulate and person to follow.

The label of "Christian" implies "miniature Christ." Wearing that mask means living as if we love everyone, even the "unlovable," then in the process growing actually to love them. Clothing ourselves in the new garments of His righteousness, we become ever more like Him in mind and deed. 


 Defined most simply as pretending to be holy or virtuous when one really is not, hypocrisy and selective indignation against it are widespread in human society. In spite of its importance as a continually appearing phenomenon in religious institutions and as a charge brought against churches by their critics, it has received little attention in the sociology of Christianity. We need a clearer conceptual, empirical, theoretical, and pragmatic understanding of the subject and how to deal with it. This demands the triangulation of research from numerous disciplines, including history, literature, journalism, philosophy, economics, psychology, medicine, anthropology, political science, sociology, theology, and religious studies. (For an introduction to some aspects of this subject see Moberg, 1987.)

Those whose hypocrisies are exposed tend to attack the exposers, so such work inevitably faces opposition and criticism far more severe than is typical of research on most topics. Much of the ammunition for their attacks will be provided by our own abundant flaws, but they will be harmless if we have already openly confessed our sins and dealt with our hypocrisies in the context of a community of faith.

To observe a phenomenon is to change it. Although the church may always remain a "whipping-boy" to its critics, a sound research approach to hypocrisy will help to strip off many of the harmful masks of "holy masquerades." It will correct many mistakes, test alternative solutions, and replace stereotyped biases with more balanced understandings of the dialectical interplay between the destructive and constructive aspects of hypocritical behavior. It also will contribute to the humility of recognizing our own inconsistencies, make us less indignant and more empathetic toward other Christians, and thus help us to move toward the total well-being or shalom of a genuinely wholistic Christianity (see Moberg, 1985, and especially the Bible).



This is a slightly modified version of the first of two inaugural Frederick Alexander Shippey Lectures in the Sociology of Christianity on "Spiritual Well-Being and Wholistic Christianity" at the Theological School, Drew University, Madison, New Jersey, October 26, 1988. Portions are adapted from an H. Paul Douglass Lecture (Moberg, 1987) and from a presentation on "Religious Hypocrisy: A Bone of Contention in the Christian Family, or Conflict in Christendom," at the annual meeting of the American Scientific Affiliation, Pepperdine University, Malibu, California, August 8, 1988. The other Shippey Lecture, "Spiritual Well-Being and Shalom," will be published in a forthcoming issue of Science and Christian Belief.


Alexander, R.D. 1975. "The search for a general theory of behavior." Behavioral Sciences, 20:77-100.

Allin, Ronald T. 1970. Review of J. Hadden, The Gathering Storm in the Churches. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 9:159-161. 

Anderson, Myrdene. 1986. "Cultural Concatenation of Deceit and Secrecy." Pp. 323-348 in Robert W. Mitchell and Nicholas S. Thompson (eds.), Deception. Albany: State University of New York Press. 

Austin, Paul Britten. 1968. On Being Swedish. Coral Gables, FL: University of Miami Press. 

Barrett, David B. (ed.). 1982. World Christian Encyclopedia. Nairobi: Oxford University Press. 

Basu, Asoke, and Robert Leighninger. 1978. "Politics of Academics-A Comparative Review." Paper presented at the Ninth World Congress on Sociology, International Sociological Association, Uppsala, Sweden. 

Belgum, David. 1967 (1963). "Hypocrisy and Mental Health." Pp. 312-316 in O. Hobart Mowrer (ed.), Morality and Mental Health. Chicago: Rand McNally. 

Berton, Pierre. 1965. The Comfortable Pew. Philadelphia: Lippincott. 

Broad, William, and Nicholas Wade. 1982. Betrayers of the Truth: Fraud and Deceit in the Halls of Science. New York: Simon & Schuster. 

Christenson, Larry. 1974. A Charismatic Approach to Social Action.  Minneapolis: Bethany Fellowship. 

Conover, C. Eugene. 1967. Personal Ethics in an Impersonal World. Philadelphia: Westminster Press. 

Cooper, Lee R.. 1974. "`Publish' or Perish: Negro Jehovah's Witness Adaptation in the Ghetto." Pp. 700-721 in Irving I. Zaretsky and Mark P. Leone (eds.), Religious Movements in Contemporary America. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. 

Demerath, N. J., III. 1965. Social Class in American Protestantism. Chicago: Rand McNally. 

Deutscher, Irwin. 1973. What We Say/What We Do: Sentiments and Acts. Glenview, IL: Scott, Foresman and Co. 

Douglass, H. Paul. 1938. "Church and Community in the United States." Pp. 191-259 in Kenneth S. Latourette et al., Church and Community. London: George Allen & Unwin. 

Duncombe, David C. 1969. The Shape of the Christian Life. Nashville: Abingdon. 

Dunn, Samuel L., G. Ray Reglin, Joseph Nielson, and Alex R. G. Deasley. 1981. Opportunity Unlimited: The Church of the Nazarene in the Year 2000. Kansas City, MO: Beacon Hill Press. 

Elkind, David. 1978. "Understanding the Young Adolescent." Adolescence, 13(49): 127-134. 

Elliott, Norman K. 1987. "Good `Make Believe.'" Release, Inc., Letter No. 130, May. 

Ellison, H. L. 1962. "Hypocrite." Pp. 549-550 in J. D. Douglas (ed.), The New Bible Dictionary. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans. 

Emerson, Robert M. (ed.). 1983. Contemporary Field Research: A Collection of Readings. Boston: Little, Brown and Co. 

Evans, Robert A. 1979. "Recovering the Church's Transforming Middle: Theological Reflections on the Balance Between Faithfulness and Effectiveness." Pp. 288-314 in Dean R. Hoge and David A. Roozen (eds.), Understanding Church Growth and Decline 1950-1978. New York: Pilgrim Press. 

Farnsworth, Kirk E. 1985. Wholehearted Integration: Harmonizing Psychology and Christianity Through Word and Deed. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House. Fox, Matthew. 1971. Religion USA: An Inquiry into Religion and Culture by Way of TIME Magazine. Dubuque, IA: Listening Press. 

Gilby, T. 1979. "Hypocrisy." P. 1752 in Paul Kevin Meagher, Thomas C. O'Brien, and Sister Consuelo Maria Aherne (eds.), Encyclopedic Dictionary of Religion. Washington, DC: Corpus Publications. 

Goffman, Erving. 1959. The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. Garden City, NY: Doubleday Anchor Books. 

_____, 1967. Interaction Ritual: Essays on Face-to-Face Behavior. Garden City, NY: Doubleday Anchor Books. 

Goleman, Daniel. 1985. Vital Lies, Simple Truth: The Psychology of Self-Deception. New York: Simon and Schuster. 

Greeley, Andrew M. 1972. The Denominational Society. Glenview, IL: Scott, Foresman and Co. 

Hamilton, Kenneth. 1973. To Turn from Idols. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans. 

Hartman, Olov (Karl A. Olsson, translator). 1963. Holy Masquerade. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans. 

Hero, Alfred O., Jr. 1970. "Christian Ethics and World Affairs in American Churches: A Bibliographical Review of Non-communication." Religious Education, 65(5):436-446. 

Hitchcock, James. 1983. "On Scaling Down Christian Ideals." Pastoral Renewal, 8(3):32,30, Oct. 

Hubbard, David A. 1984. "Hypocrisy." P. 539 in Walter A. Elwell (ed.), Evangelical Dictionary of Theology. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker.

Hyder, O. Quentin. 1971. The Christian's Handbook of Psychiatry. Old Tappan, NJ: Fleming H. Revell Co. 

Inbody, Tyron Lee. 1984. "What Liberals and Fundamentalists Have in Common." Pp. 85-89 in Marla J. Selvidge (ed.), Fundamentalism Today: What Makes It So Attractive? Elgin, IL: Brethren Press. Johnson, 

Hjalmar W. 1959. "Hypocrisy." P. 354 in Vergilius Ferm (ed.), Encyclopedia of Religion. Paterson, NJ: Littlefield, Adams and Co. Johnston, Jon. 1985. Christian Excellence: Alternative to Success. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House. 

Judah, J. Stillson. 1974. "The Hare Krishna Movement." Pp. 463-478 in Irving I. Zaretsky and Mark P. Leone (eds.), Religious Movements in Contemporary America. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press Keith-Lucas, Alan. 1972. Giving and Taking Help. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press. 

Kelly, John G. 1985. "Reflections on Identity in a Catholic Human Services Agency." Charities USA, 12(7):27-29, Sept./Oct. Kilpatrick, James J. 1986. "Is Teaching Humanism Also Forbidden by Law?" Milwaukee Journal, part 1, p. 11, Feb. 18. 

LaBarre, Weston. 1969. They Shall Take Up Serpents: Psychology of the Southern Snake-Handling Cult. New York: Schocken Books. 

Larson, Bruce. 1984. "None of Us Are Sinners Emeritus: Interview with Dean Merrill." Leadership, 5(4):12-23, Fall. Lederach, Paul M. 1971. Mennonite Youth: Report of Mennonite Youth Research. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press. 

Lewis, C. S. 1967 (1940). "Human Wickedness." Pp. 270-275 in O. Hobart Mowrer (ed.), Morality and Mental Health. Chicago: Rand McNally. 

Lewis, J. David, and Andrew J. Weigert. 1985. "Social Atomism, Holism, and Trust." Sociological Quarterly, 26(4):455-471. 

Lindquist, Stanley E. 1983. Reach Out-Become an Encourager. Wheaton, IL: Creation House. 

Lyman, Stanford M. 1978. The Seven Deadly Sins: Society and Evil. New York: St. Martin's Press. 

Lynd, Helen Merrell. 1958. On Shame and the Search for Identity. New York: John Wiley and Sons. Mann, Gerald. 1979. The Seven Deadly Virtues. Waco, TX: Word Books. 

Martin, David. 1967. A Sociology of English Religion. New York: Basic Books. 

Marty, Martin E. 1985. "Taken Out of Context." Context, 17(6):5, Mar.15. 

McGuire, Meredith B. 1981. Religion: The Social Context. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth. Mitchell, John. 1980. "Adolescent Hypocrisy." Adolescence,  15(59):731-736. 

Mitchell, Robert W., and Nicholas S. Thompson. 1986. "Epilogue." Pp. 357-361 in Robert W. Mitchell and Nicholas S. Thompson (eds.), Deception. Albany: State University of New York Press. 

Moberg, David O. 1977. The Great Reversal: Evangelism and Social Concern, revised edition. Philadelphia: Lippincott. 
_____, 1984. The Church as a Social Institution, second edition. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House. 
_____, 1985. Wholistic Christianity. Elgin, IL: Brethren Press. 
_____, 1987. "Holy Masquerade: Hypocrisy in Religion." Review of Religious Research, 29(1):3-24. Nevins, Albert J. (compiler and ed.). 1965. "Hypocrisy." P.280 in The Maryknoll Catholic Dictionary. New York: Grosset & Dunlap. 

Oates, Wayne E. 1955. Religious Factors in Mental Illness. New York: Association Press. 

O'Dea, Thomas F., and Janet O'Dea Aviad. 1983. The Sociology of Religion, second edition. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

 Peck, M. Scott. 1978. The Road Less Traveled. New York: Simon & Schuster. 
_____, 1983. People of the Lie: The Hope for Healing Human Evil. New York: Simon & Schuster. 

Price, James L. 1986. "Hypocrisy." P. 474 in William H. Gentz (general ed.), The Dictionary of Bible and Religion. Nashville: Abingdon. 

Quebedeaux, Richard. 1974. The Young Evangelicals: Revolution in Orthodoxy. New York: Harper & Row. 

Redekop, Calvin. 1970. The Free Church and Seductive Culture. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press. 

Rieff, Philip. 1966. The Triumph of the Therapeutic. New York: Harper & Row. 

Rushdoony, Rousas John. 1986. "Titanism." Vallecito, CA: Chalcedon Position Paper No. 75. 

Scott, John Finley. 1971. Internalization of Norms: A Sociological Theory of Moral Commitment. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall. 

Sheen, Fulton J. 1967 (1949). "Morbidity and the Denial of Guilt." Pp. 232-240 in O. Hobart Mowrer (ed.), Morality and Mental Health. Chicago: Rand McNally & Co. 

Shippey, Frederick A. 1963. "Institution and Church in the North American Situation." Pp. 59-76 in Nils Ehrenstrom and Walter G. Muelder (eds.), Institutionalism and Church Unity. New York: Association Press. 
______, 1971. "Troeltsch and His Critics." The Drew Gateway, 42:24-42.

 Skillen, James W. 1986. "Activist, Preacher, Journalist" (review of Richard Wightman Fox, Reinhold Niebuhr: A Biography). Christianity Today, 30(9):29-31, June 13. 

Tomasson, Richard F. 1970. Sweden: Prototype of Modern Society. New York: Random House. 

Tournier, Paul (Edwin Hudson, translator). 1966. The Person Reborn. New York: Harper & Row. 

Vasek, Marie E. 1986. "Lying as a Skill: The Development of Deception in Children." Pp. 271-292 in Robert W. Mitchell and Nicholas S. Thompson (eds.), Deception. Albany: State University of New York Press. Wall Street Journal. 1987. "On Hypocrisy." Quoted in NAE Washington Insight, 9(12):3 Dec. 

Wallis, Jim. 1976. Agenda for Biblical People. New York: Harper & Row.

 _____, 1979. "Idols Closer to Home." Sojourners, 8(5):10-14, May.

______, 1981. The Call to Conversion. New York: Harper & Row. 

Yancey, Philip, and Tim Stafford. 1979. Unhappy Secrets of the Christian Life. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House.